By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
The genre title "world music" is a limp, sad stab at unknown sonic terrain. It's just plain bogus that what we generally call pop (stuff made primarily by and for the United States and U.K.) is rigorously sub-classified (i.e. rock, hip-hop, country, R&B, punk), while sounds recorded elsewhere are often tossed into the foggy, non-descript "world" bin. Granted, some contemporary global fusion contains so many disparate ingredients that "world" is the only logical shorthand, but the issue remains: The label is too loose; its vagaries jeopardize open ears.
It is possible, however, for non-Brits/Yankees to transcend categorical nowheresville (think of Bob Marley, for example, the reason reggae isn't rotting in "world" purgatory right now). Though we Americans don't exactly brim with global curiosity, we are capable of international romance. Once we know you, we want to know more about you; once we love you, we celebrate your music as wonderfully distinct. Unlike anything else in the world.
Malian duo Amadou and Mariam's American popularity is ballooning, and thus, the pair is likely to transcend the pesky "world" handle. The blind West African husband-and-wife group offers up eclectic African pop capable of transforming unsuspecting English-speaking audiences into dancing throngs of joy. A&M integrate glossy-sweet, ear-tickling electric blues guitar, African folk rhythms played on instruments both ancient and modern, Western pop, Cuban rumbas and exuberant harmonies (sung primarily in French and their native Bambara).
The pair met 30 years ago at The Institute for Young Blind People in Bamako, the capital of Mali, and they've been making music together since. Though they've been pop stars in France and West Africa for more than a decade, their first North American break came in 2005 with the Manu Chao-produced LP Dimanche á Mamoko, a hypnotic African travelogue that hoisted them aboard U.S. fests such as Lollapalooza and Coachella. This year's sleeker, more culturally kaleidoscopic Welcome to Mali features guest production by Blur/Gorillaz's Damon Albarn, an appearance from Somali rapper K'naan, as well as legendary kora (a West African lute-harp) player Toumani Diabaté.
Amadou's guitar playing is the group's engine. Like his late countryman Ali Farke Touré, Amadou's style is as informed by the blues of the American South as his indigenous palate. And while he has the chops to unload solos ad nauseam, he has enough 21st-century pop sense to serve the songs, sprinkling his licks where they fit.
Though modern Malian musical touchstones ground the record—call-and-response vocals and loping, trance-inducing desert rhythms that sway side to side—there's also surprising left turns into swirling electro-pop (see the trippy opening track "Sabali," or the caffeinated, horn-driven final cut, on which Mariam's earthy vocals are brushed with Auto-Tune), hip-hop (see "Africa," where K'naan rap-sings in between Amadou's verses), and serious garage-rock and blues-inflected riffage.
While Amadou and Mariam have recently sold out headlining shows in East Coast theaters (they also played Late Night With Jimmy Fallon with the Roots' Black Thought), their supporting gig with Brit-pop heavies Coldplay will put them in front of their largest American audience yet.
African music, specifically West African music, is gaining an unprecedented foothold in the States; the cultural give-and-take is on the up and up. Numerous American Afrobeat bands have sprung up in the wake of Nigerian icon Fela Kuti's death in the late '90s, while experimental indies such as Animal Collective cite more obscure African sources from the Congo and Sierra Leone (if you liked Merriweather Post Pavilion, check out the Congotronics comp series). If enough of us perk inquisitive ears, the joyful, Technicolor sounds of A&M might just help put West Africa—and slowly, other places around Africa and the world—more permanently on our musical map. Someday soon, such musically rich regions might finally get lodged in our noggins the way Jamaica did in the '80s. These sonic hotspots could cease to be hazily understood purveyors of world music and become specific, go-to locales for killer sounds.