Amadou & Mariam are at this point firmly established international stars.
They don't need people to explain their back story for half a review anymore, and they've become truly intertwined with a huge network of African and Western artists whom they've toured and recorded with, a list that ranges all over the place from Manu Chao to David Gilmour, K'naan, Damon Albarn, Bassekou Kouyaté and Santigold. With that fame comes a potential snag, though: it's much, much harder for them to surprise us now that they've defined themselves around a seamless synthesis of the music of their homeland and the music of the rest of the world.
They're trying to work around that.
For "Folila" (which means "music" in Bambara), they took an unusual approach to making a record, essentially making the same album three times. They recorded it once in New York with a host of indie rock musicians helping out, and again in Mali with a group of musicians from Mali's popular and traditional music communities. And then they took it to Paris, where they took the two recordings, which were made with matched keys and tempos, and mixed them together into a very literal genre hybrid.
Honestly, you would've loved to hear them use their newfound fame to strip things back a little and reveal the sounds of their homeland to a newly invested audience, but the hybrid works pretty well for the most part, and we are not going to hold it against them that they're doubling down on their established fusion.
That fusion pays off beautifully on several tracks.
The opener and lead single "Dougou Badia", featuring a guest vocal from Santigold and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' Nick Zinner mixing it up on guitar with Amadou, is about as good a result as you could hope for from the oblique recording process.
Zinner and Amadou in particular have great chemistry, Amadou's staccato, tangled rhythm playing playing foil to Zinner's long, sustained tones.
The chemistry is similarly strong with British singer Ebony Bones, whose vocal turn on "C'est Pas Facile Pour Les Aigles" injects a huge burst of energy right into the heart of the album.
Scissor Sisters' Jake Shears and TV on the Radio's Kyp Malone and Tunde Adebimpe also contribute vocals, but stay in the background for the most part.
Malone and Adebimpe fit so organically into the slinking funk of "Wily Kataso" that it makes us wonder what a full album collaboration between the two bands might sound like, and Shears' addition of just a hint of disco camp to "Metemya" is about perfect.
The most prominent collaborator is French singer-songwriter Bertrand Cantat, who contributes vocals, harmonica and guitar on a few songs.
Cantat was the longtime leader of Noir Désir, one of France's most prominent rock bands, and his contributions are fine here (well, he's definitely outshone vocally by the headliners, but he's not bad), but we can't help feeling a little weirded out by his presence.
This isn't well-known in the States, but in 2003, Cantat beat his girlfriend, actress Marie Trintignant, in a jealous, drunken rage and put her in a coma-- she died days later.
If he'd served all of his eight-year prison sentence, he wouldn't even have been available to record his parts for this record (he was part of the sessions that took place in Mali).
As said previously, his musical contributions are fine, but given that he's frankly someone the album could been made without, we may rather wish they'd brought in someone else.
As off-putting as Cantat's personal history is, though, Folila is still a highly successful merger of the Malian duo's vision with the input of collaborators. There's nothing as immediately stunning as Welcome To Mali's "Sabali" or Dimanche à Bamako's "Coulibaly", but hearing Kouyaté's ngoni bubbling up through the guitars and Amadou's roiling guitar lines bump up against Zinner's textures is definitely enjoyable.
Likewise, Mariam's vocal duets with Ebony Bones and Santigold are spirited-- they really feed off each other's energy.
And when they do strip things back to favor the sparser Mali recordings on "Sans Toi", it becomes very clear very quickly just how strong the identity of Amadou & Mariam remains even amidst all the high-powered guests.
Even if "Folila" is less surprising than the two albums that came before it, it still makes us look forward to seeing where they'll take this fusion next. J. Tangari