Album Review: Amadou & Mariam – Folila (Nonesuch)

High on Fire

From the time they began playing, Amadou and Mariam, the adorable blind couple from Mali, waited more than two decades to experience a breakthrough in the United States.

This despite having garnered a following in Europe and their native Africa much sooner. But later is better than never. Both 2005’s Dimanche a Bamako and 2009’s Welcome to Mali, co-produced by Blur’s Damon Albarn, remain delightfully cosmopolitan affairs that fully embrace the “world music” moniker.

Albarn isn’t involved with Foila. His absence may relate to the set’s overall problem wherein promising material is victimized by an overabundance of guests and one of the oddest mixing decisions in memory. Originally, the duo set out to make two LPs. The first was conceived as a crossover effort shaped in New York City. The other, a traditionally minded affair captured in Bamako with African colleagues and vintage percussion. Everything went to plan, with the husband-and-wife team laying down the same songs in both locations, albeit with different personnel and arrangements. However, upon further contemplation, the pair elected to fuse the distinct outcomes via the aid of various mixing engineers.

While it’s hard to fault ambition, Folila isn’t the intended-for best-of-both worlds as much as an obvious amalgamation in which organic and electronic, retro and modern devices often sound artificial—or worse, blatantly commercialized. Rather than seamlessly intersect and mesh, tracks fit akin to misshapen puzzle pieces that line up only after they are forced together. The slightly cluttered, overly polished process is a step back from the true synthesis of the futuristic samples, hip-hop rhythms, and Westernized rock grooves dotting its two previous efforts.

And it’s not like Amadou and Mariam lack for compelling details or addictive fare found amidst the post-edit constructions. A desert-blues guitar line traces the melodic edges of the opening “Dougou Badia,” one of the few times the musical guest (Santigold) doesn’t overstay their welcome. An upbeat, sunny tropicalia vibe forces “C’est Pas Facile Pour Les Aigles” to dance, yet Ebony Bones’ layered-on English-language vocals come across as unnecessary and distracting. “Metemya” begins well enough, its dusty roots planted in ancient soil. But when Scissor Sisters member Jake Shears enters, he turns it into a glossy pop tune that wouldn’t be out of place in Lion King. Apart from being marketable names, TV on the Radio cohorts Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone contribute nothing more of lasting value to the slender funk “Wily Kataso” then they do on Tinariwen’s recent Tassili.

Yeah Yeah Yeahs guitarist Nick Zinner and French singer/guitarist/harmonica player Bertrand Cantat are the two prominently billed helpers that add rather than subtract or simply just exist. Zinner drops flavor-filled riffs throughout, and the latter’s francais yields a genuine match with the horn-driven “Africa Mon Afrique” and rustic trance “Mogo.”

Ironically, however, the headliners require little help; their blended voices and textured songwriting go down fine on their own. Someone needs to locate and individually issue the separate sessions, particularly the traditional African recordings. Exchanging purity, grit, and vibrancy for fabricated composites and pop-skewed catchiness on Folila does not make for a wise trade. —Bob Gendron

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