It seems like the only things we hear about Mali these days have to do with coup attempts (failed or successful) and the imaginary-sounding-but-actually-real place called Timbuktu. But the best thing to come out of Mali in our lifetime is the music-making husband-wife team known as Amadou & Mariam. Amadou Bagayoko and Mariam Doumbia (a.k.a. “The Blind Couple of Mali”) first met at the Institute of the Young Blind in Mali several decades ago. Their love of music drew them together, and they have been making amazing blues-tinged African pop together since 1983. They’ve recently gained notoriety on the world stage as some of the most important artists in African music, and their visibility has only increased with a plethora of high-profile appearances, including stints as the opening band for Coldplay, Blur, U2, and the Scissor Sisters.

As a world music dilettante with a penchant for African pop, I was thrilled to discover Amadou & Mariam (A&M) years ago and have always enjoyed their sound. Never ones to shy away from unusual artistic collaborations, A&M have befriended and worked with a variety of musicians from different genres. They’ve played Lollapalooza, Coachella, and Glastonbury. Obviously they’re no strangers to our part of the world. But never before have I heard them make such a bold statement about the virtues of cross-pollination with Western musical sensibilities as they do here on their 7th full-length studio album, “Folila.”

Released on April 10, 2012, on the Because Music imprint of Nonesuch Records, “Folila” started out as two separate albums: one album of traditional Malian music recorded in Bamako with African musicians, and another album of NYC-based collaborations with other musicians, including some of the indie artists we all know and love. Instead of keeping the two efforts separate, they decided to combine them into a single-album fusion of genre-bending grooves. On previous albums, A&M have worked with producers like Manu Chao (“Dimanche a Bamako” (2005)) and Gorillaz frontman Damon Albarn (“Welcome to Mali” (2008)), but it seems that their longtime producer/manager Marc-Antoine Moreau is at the helm again on this release. And boy, did he have his work cut out for him!

Aside from the myriad feats of modern sound production that must have been pulled off to make this album happen, the sheer star power here is simply dazzling. Just look at this who’s who of the album’s many cameos and guest appearances:

  • Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone from TV On The Radio
  • Ethno-indie goddess Santigold
  • Jake Shears from the Scissor Sisters (WTF?!?)
  • Nick Zinner from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs
  • French singer-songwriter and former frontman for Noir Désir, Bertrand Cantat
  • London singer-songwriter and the opener for Cee Lo Green’s 2011 U.K. tour, Ebony Bones
  • Niger-born Tuareg guitarist/bluesman, Abdallah Oumbadougou
  • Trinidad-born Brooklynite hipster rapper, Theophilus London
  • World music star, master ngoni player, and fellow Malian, Bassekou Kouyaté

The album on the whole stays mostly true to Amadou & Mariam’s cultivated “bluesy African pop” sound, but the indie contributions definitely make their presence known. Things don’t feel quite as organic as past A&M releases, but some of that’s to be expected given the recording process and production acrobatics that had to be executed to make it all come together. Sometimes the collaborations work, and sometimes they don’t. The more successful crossover efforts are brilliant and flawless; other songs quickly become so awkward and forced that it’s easy to lose sight of the spirit of the project. Still, this is compelling undertaking that’s definitely worth multiple listens.

Track notes follow; songs are rated 1-5 stars (* = didn’t care for it, ***** = total standout).

  1. Dougou Badia (feat. Santigold) — This is the clear hit single off the album. The song’s progression is pulled along by loping guitar picking and a steady percussive clang laid atop groaning, slicing electric guitar licks from Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Nick Zinner. Santigold makes for a perfectly matched addition, and amazingly, she actually manages to sound like she belongs in the song (which is more than I can say for most of the other collaborations on the album). But alas, her awesome voice is still overshadowed by Mariam’s rich Bambara vocals. But Zinner’s guitarwork complements Amadou’s determined picking nicely. The juxtaposition of traditional African scales and rhythms with modern urban and indie influences is disorienting (in a good way) and very addictive.  *****
  2. Wily Kataso (feat. Tunde & Kyp of TV On The Radio) — This unusual experiment comes off like a hipster soul gospel choir gone on safari. The sauntering shake of the gita fuses with funky wacka-wacka guitar licks that verge on porn-tastic. The soulful choruses from TOTR tie it all together brilliantly, but their chanted portions tend to sound like they’re reading from a script. Still, their intentions are pure, so we’ll give them a pass there. And what this collaboration lacks in agility in fluidity, it more than makes up for with its hipster cachet.  ***
  3. Oh Amadou (feat. Bertrand Cantat) — Sounds much more like standard A&M, with the requisite bluesy guitar picking and haunting melodies. Cantat’s badass harmonica weaves in and out of traditional instrumentation and Amadou’s steady guitarwork. In this single song, you can actually hear the crossroads where American blues originated! A spellbinding, lilting rhythm hypnotizes like a snake charmer. Cantat’s guest vocals aren’t as intrusive as elsewhere on the album. This is slated to be the second single, and I think they’ve made a wise choice.  ****
  4. Metemya (feat. Jake Shears of Scissor Sisters) — This one starts off very promising. Amadou’s bluesy guitar and soulful vocals come together with a mid-tempo rhythm and….wait–what is that I hear in the background? That distinctive campy falsetto can only come from one source: Jake Shears of the Scissor Sisters! What the WHAT?!? Once this odd-couple pairing arrives at the chorus, I laugh aloud at the sheer bizarreness of it all. Imagine a mortifyingly terrible mashup of Malian pop with a Bee Gees backing track. Yep, that’s what it’s like. It’s so embarrassing to listen to that I kinda can’t wait for it to end. Not sure this combo is working for me.  *
  5. Baro (feat. Bertrand Cantat) — I’m grooving immediately from the opening bars of this song. Sweeping rhythms, bombastic percussion, and layered looped guitars and stringed instruments all converge in a big pile of awesome, only to be prettied up intermittently with mellow, melodic balafon jams. Amadou’s rough-around-the-edges Bambara vocals are punctuated with periodic incantations en Francais courtesy of Monsieur Cantat. This pairing really works.  ****
  6. Africa Mon Afrique (feat. Bertrand Cantat) — Vaguely Latin horn-heavy odyssey is dominated by the Cantat’s French vocalizing. Other than a few aural glimpses of Amadou’s usual guitar plucking (and some downplayed vocals that might be his), this nonsense doesn’t sound remotely like anything that would normally appear on an Amadou & Mariam album.  *
  7. C’est Pas Facile Pour Les Aigles (feat. Ebony Bones) — OH yeah! Sassy bongos set the tone while cheerful guitar hooks loop over one another in a festive swirl topped with sweet female vocals, courtsey of Mama Mariam and guest vocalist Ebony Bones, who impresses with her nimble tongue. As an army of ebullient guitars marches in, Amadou quickly absconds with the initial hook, only to reprise it briefly at the conclusion before the song ends abruptly. This is a real crowd-pleaser, and its rhythm and melody possess vague South(ern) African undercurrents.  ****
  8. Sans Toi —  Another successful fusion of traditional Malian instrumentation with its natural complement–and offspring, if one must be honest–the blues. Steady guitar picking and the fiddle-like strains of the soku meet up with a wailing blues harmonica and embark on a haunting pentatonic journey together. This is probably the most blues-infused and the most “African”-sounding song on the album–although ironically, the vocals are in French.  *****
  9. Mogo (feat. Bertrand Cantat) — A guitar groove gets things off to a good start, and things pick up as it is joined by traditional Malian instruments, including the lyre-like kora and an avalanche of hand drums and quirky percussion. Then things are interrupted with the appearance of some woodwinds (clarinet? bassoon? I can’t quite tell.). Like an unexpected guest, they are an unwelcome intrusion at first, but they eventually settle into their surroundings and become part of the party. Cantat’s verse en Francais sounds like a clumsy afterthought, as though it was dubbed in later (it probably was).  ***
  10. Bagnale (feat. Abdallah Oumbadougou) — Twangy guitar intro hooks the listener before the metallic shrieks of guest player Abdallah Oumbadougou’s guitar join in to accompany it. Oumbadougou’s sidewinding nomadic guitar fittingly sounds as if it simultaneously does and doesn’t belong. There’s something intriguingly incongruous about this song, and I can’t stop listening. The overall effect? The Black Keys headlining in Timbuktu, with a band of local marabouts on backing vocals. Definitely a standout. *****
  11. Nebe Miri (feat. Theophilus London) — A bluesy riff awkwardly transitions into into a jaunty upbeat-focused toe-tapper, making it sound vaguely Asian in rhythm and tone. (Listen and you’ll see what I mean.) The steady rhythm verges on monotonous at times, but occasionally crescendoes into a flurry of hand-drumming, which is pretty cool. The chorus sounds a bit forced, like it had to strongarm its way into the spotlight in the hopes that Western listeners will have something to grab onto and sing along with. Though initially jarring, London’s distinctly Western guest vocals are reason to keep listening, if nothing else. I can’t decide if this combo works or not, but the song is unique and compelling enough. ***
  12. Cherie — This twee little romp across the Sahel ends the album on a pleasant note. Mariam’s mellow vocals lead the procession, with a soft chorus of childlike voices traipsing behind. This feelgood rhapsody is layered over melodic guitar picking and a lot of dreamlike noodling on the kora, and occasional punctuations from the gita and other traditional percussion instruments keep the whole thing grounded. Delightful, enjoyable Afri-fluff. ****