Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Amadou & Mariam

  • Se Te Djon Ye [Tinder, 1999] **
  • Tje ni Mousso [Polydor/Universal, 2000] A-
  • Dimanche à Bamako [Nonesuch, 2005] A-
  • Je Pense à Toi: The Best of Amadou et Mariam [Circular Moves/Universal Music Jazz, 2005] A-
  • 1990-1995: Le Meilleur des Années Maliennes [Because, 2005] ***
  • Welcome to Mali [Nonesuch, 2009] A
  • Folila [Nonesuch, 2012] A-

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Se Te Djon Ye [Tinder, 1999]
"Blind couple of Mali"--reassuring melodies, two voices, one acoustic guitar ("Se Te Djon Ye," "Kelen la Seben"). **

Tje ni Mousso [Polydor/Universal, 2000]
Riding out on the bedriff of Stevie Wonder's "Higher Ground," this "blind couple of Mali"--their chosen billing, and you should see their sunglasses, since they can't--"déconcertent et séduisent en recyclent avec un fausse naiveté musiques africaines, américaines et européenes," says one Alsatian critic. Got that? "Disconcert and seduce while recycling African, American, and European musics with a false naïveté," only in French it sounds better. Just like the accompanying lyric, whose minitrot reads, "Here we come singing for freedom, happiness and love all over the world." And that's not even to mention the Bambara one summarized as "Welcome to women who respect their husbands." Cheap and charming, they play and sing with the multicultural comfort Malians who emigrate to Abidjan and then Paris rarely find the fit for. A-

Dimanche à Bamako [Nonesuch, 2005]
No Malians more eagerly downplay their nation's sun-slowed intensity than this Parisian couple, so it was a good idea to introduce them to Manu Chao, whose breakthrough concept gentled up international sounds into reggae lite with brains. Though the pair's warp and weave are softened as a result, the beat remains theirs, and though they're less brainy than Chao, there's bite in their ineluctable Malian-ness. For social content, they take on the danger truck drivers pose to giraffes, hippopotamuses, elephants, chickens, and children. A-

Je Pense à Toi: The Best of Amadou et Mariam [Circular Moves/Universal Music Jazz, 2005]
Although their French hits-plus are solider than the songs on their new Manu Chao album, on both records these Malians' pop ambition trumps their soul training, pop-by-ambition trumps soulful-by-training. Here their European label performs the old trick of stitching a pretty good CD out of three lesser ones. Translations would probably be beside the point, though I'm intrigued by one snippet quoted in the liner notes: "The world is no eternal dwelling place, it's a parlor for chatting." A-

1990-1995: Le Meilleur des Années Maliennes [Because, 2005]
Starting just guitar-and-voices, they gain beats, blues, and a belief that they can impact the world ("Kokolon," "Fantani"). ***

Welcome to Mali [Nonesuch, 2009]
For a decade before the now-departed Manu Chao took them on in 2005, these sincerely opportunistic pros, a couple since the mid '70s and an act for almost as long, were extending their musical outreach with manager Marc Antoine Moreau, who oversaw this follow-up CD as he did all those before Dimanche à Bamako. Right, Damon Albarn is on a few tracks--the guy who was in that group Mali Music, you remember, though the "Sabali" weirdness that has Alternia all atwitter isn't their kind of thing. Recorded mostly in Paris, with details from synth partner Laurent Jaïs, this is Moreau's record, which only Amadou Bagayoko and Mariam Doumbia could have made. Though rarely duplicated, their secret is easy enough to put into words. Unlike Brenda Fassie, Angélique Kidjo, middle-period Baaba Maal, Ray Lema, anyone remember Touré Kunda, whoever, Amadou & Mariam sop up Western music without turning to mush. For them, it's not about stylistic aspiration. They want the sounds, not the music per se or its cultural accoutrements. If those sounds are a hodgepodge by Euro-American standards--harmonica and syndrums, rock guitar and soul horns--that just makes them more Malian. Politically these folks are not sophisticated but they're also not unconscious--you can't be apolitical in a nation forever at risk of tyranny, and their blindness taught them transcendence. Splitting the difference between shamelessly guileless, openhearted melodically and spirited rhythmically, this is their celebration of their ability to celebrate. A

Folila [Nonesuch, 2012]
As if their charming calculation has become routine--maybe for them, maybe for us--this never takes off the way Welcome to Mali did. But it does hang in there, and rewards attention, especially as regards its many cameos: less big names Santigold and TV on the Radio than Tuareg guitarist Abdallah Oumbadougou shredding louder than Nick Zinner or Scissor Sister Jake Shears disco and proud. Not so welcome is perpetual guest Bertrand Cantat, a lapsed French rocker-activist who did a mere four years for beating his girlfriend to death in 2003. True, Cantat's harmonica tenses nicely against Ahmed Fofana's ngoni in "Sans Toi." But mostly he sings, and he's no Tunde Adebimpe or Kyp Malone. There's such a thing as taking tolerance too far. A-

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