Darlings of the world music scene, Amadou & Mariam are greatly loved for their willingness to experiment, and for the musical craftwork that has hallmarked their take on West African blues. The tale of how this celebrated husband-and-wife duo met at a school for blind youth in their native Mali is now common knowledge, their championship concretely emerging since their 2004 collaboration with Manu Chao, Dimanche à Bamako. Their inspirational live performances later made them part of Damon Albarn’s Africa Express project, and the collaborative Welcome to Mali album of 2008 was highly acclaimed.
The pair’s new LP has been greatly anticipated, yet Folila is a curious beast, a three-in-one project whose peculiar history has almost left it overburdened by a diverse array of guest collaborators. According to producer/manager Marc-Antoine Moreau, the singers originally planned two albums: the first a crossover disc, recorded in New York with friends gained on the festival circuit, the second a back-to-basics unplugged set, recorded in Mali. Instead, we have ended up with the New York guest sessions reworked in Mali, along with some ill-fitting numbers voiced there by controversial singer Bertrand Cantat.
The disc starts on a high note with Dougou Badia, featuring a pleasant vocal interlude from Santigold while the rock guitar of Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Nick Zinner nicely contrasts with Amadou’s bluesy riffs. Then, Wily Kataso is a radio-friendly ode whose vocal contributions by Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone of Brooklyn’s TV on the Radio are fittingly atmospheric, despite the negativity of their lyrics. Later, Theophilus London turns Nebe Miri into poppy musing on a lover’s longing, but a big disappointment is Amp Fiddler’s contribution to Wari – couldn’t he come up with anything better than "I need money"? The disco-diva chorus Jake Shears brings to Metemya does little for this writer, and Ebony Bones’ rollicking lines seem a bit at odds with the core of C’est Pas Facile Pour Les Aigles.
Although his presence on Mogo adds an element of intriguing menace, Cantat’s contribution feels less successful elsewhere: his lyrics are a bit heavy-handed on Africa Mon Afrique, he somehow obstructs the flow of Oh Amadou, and sounds corny in English on Another Way; though the dubwise form of that track’s mix fares better. Better are the tracks Bagnale, with its blistering desert guitar courtesy of Abdallah ag Oumbadougou, while the unadorned Sans Toi and Chérie remind how great Amadou & Mariam sound on their own.
If your tastes are eclectic enough, and if you can get past the factor of contriving, you are bound to love this entire album. But more selective souls may find themselves reaching for the fast-forward button, as perhaps the original plan would have yielded a more cohesive whole.
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