When you've recorded a classic album that has won awards and dominated the charts, there's usually plenty of agonised soul-searching about how to follow it up. Not for Amadou & Mariam, whose new album 'Welcome To Mali' builds expansively and freely on the opportunities presented by the phenomenal success of ‘Dimanche à Bamako’ (‘Sunday in Bamako’) to reach thrilling new heights of musical creativity.
Produced by and featuring Manu Chao, 'Dimanche à Bamako' propelled the Malian duo high into the French charts and won them both a prestigious Les Victoires de la Musique award (the French equivalent of the Grammys) and two BBC Radio 3 Awards for World Music. Significantly, it also gave Amadou & Mariam the opportunity to tour the globe. They went from playing WOMAD to appearing at Glastonbury and from performing in small clubs to selling-out the world's major concert venues and appearing at American festivals such as Coachella and Lollapalooza. They even performed at the opening ceremony of the World Cup in Germany 2006.
Along the way, it introduced them to a diverse cast of other musicians, several of whom, including Damon Albarn and the Somalian rapper K'Naan, make telling contributions to ‘Welcome To Mali’.
The result is an album that expands their horizons and yet remains true to their core sound, putting the spotlight firmly back on their unique mix of sweet melodies and funky rhythms, driven by Amadou's bluesy guitar and the duo's compelling voices. 'Welcome To Mali' is a record that may have its roots deeply planted in Africa. Yet this is music for the world, rather than 'world music', a distinction that was recognised by the Scissor Sisters when they fell in love with ‘Dimanche à Bamako’ and asked Amadou & Maram to support them on tour last year.
Yet the story begins more than a quarter of a century before ‘Dimanche à Bamako’ when, in 1977, Amadou Bagayoko and Mariam Doumbia met whilst attending the Institute for Young Blind in Bamako (where to this day they play and invite artists to the annual ‘Paris Bamako’ benefit festival).
By then, Amadou had already cut his teeth as a teenage guitarist in the Ambassadeurs du Motel de Bamako, one of West Africa’s hottest bands of the Seventies. Mariam had, since a young age, sung at weddings and other traditional Malian festivals. They played their first concert as a duo in 1980 and in the late-Eighties moved to Abidjan, the capital of neighbouring Côte d'Ivoire, where they began their recording career. The original cassette releases they recorded there have subsequently been remastered and reissued by Because Music on the box set ‘1990-1995: The Best of the African Years’.
By the late 1990s, the couple were moving regularly between Bamako and Paris, where they signed to Universal and released the albums 'Sou Ni Ti' (1998), 'Tje ni Mousso' (1999) and 'Wati' (2002). Enter Manu Chao, who fell in love with their music and agreed to join them on 2005's ‘Dimanche à Bamako’ (All Other/Because), both as producer and an irrepressible force as an all-round collaborator.
But while Manu's presence undoubtedly helped to raise the duo's profile, it was Amadou & Mariam's own unique artistry that made ‘Dimanche à Bamako’ one of the best-selling albums ever to come out of Africa. Confirmation can be heard on 'Welcome To Mali'. Produced by their
long-time manager and artistic director Marc-Antoine Moreau, the album was recorded over the past twelve months in Bamako, Dakar, Paris and London. There's no Manu Chao, but the vibrant magic of Amadou and Mariam's music is stronger than ever.
‘Welcome To Mali’ is an album that probably couldn’t have been made without the success of ‘Dimanche à Bamako’. That record expanded their horizons dramatically, allowing them to meet and work with other musicians via such projects as Damon Albarn's Africa Express. As Amadou puts it: ''Sharing music and ideas with other musicians and finding new ways to express yourself is the most exciting thing you can do as a musician. This album is the result of those meetings and opportunities. It continues what we've been doing for a long time, but it's a development too. On ‘Welcome To Mali’, where we've come from and where we want to go meet.''
Nowhere are these different, but complementary directions better illustrated than on the two tracks featuring Damon Albarn. The rocking ‘Ce Nést Pas Bon’ sounds like classic Amadou & Mariam. But the album's opening track, and first single, ‘Sabali’ is the couple as you've never heard them before, an extraordinary mix of Albarn's ethereal keyboards, Mariam's haunting voice and a timeless Africa-goes-global vibe.
The voices of Amadou and the Somalian rapper K'Naan combine to striking effect for ''the original West Coast-East Coast collaboration'' on Africa, while other guests include Keziah Jones and the French star Mathieu Chedid, who performs mysteriously as 'M'.
Yet despite such distinguished collaborators, it's the musical vision of Amadou & Mariam that commands centre stage, whether on the churning funk of ‘Batoma’, the haunting desert blues of ‘Magosa’, the irresistible Afro-reggae of ‘Djama’ or the charm of Amadou's English-language love song, ‘I Follow You’.
Your ambassadors Amadou & Mariam welcome you to Mali and hope you enjoy the trip.