Amadou & Mariam - Welcome to Mali

Joe Clark 26/11/2008

Rating: 4/5

It was with my heart in my mouth that I gave this a spin after hearing that pan-global polymath Damon Albarn had got his dirty hands on Amadou and Mariam's sinuous grooves. They are a fantastic live act with a great back catalogue but a poor recent history of choosing collaborators, in musical terms at least. Manu Chao doused their last outing (Dimanche a Bamako) in his annoying novelty synth noises, helping it to global success but reducing their desiccated blues to a swamp at times.

Opener and first single 'Sabali' is actually the sole track produced by Dr Albarn and sounds like an outtake from his Mali Music project - all vocodered vocals and Chinese style keyboards. Interesting - could still go either way. Second track 'Ce n'est pas bon' is where the chiming Amadou rhythm guitar and sinuous bassline start to kick in - and I start to relax.

For the most part, the songs consist of the fantastic rolling, building, looping desert blues that has become A&M's trademark, with additional touches of hammond, kora, strings and horns adding subtle changes. There are occasional electronic flourishes but these are exciting and sparse, rather than overpowering.

Where the album falls short on occasion is in the collaborations. Juan Rozoff and -M- do a good job of showing why no-one's heard of them outside France with poor vocal turns and rapper Knaan spends the duration of 'Africa' telling us that we're listening to Amadou and Mariam - handy if you hadn't realised what that noise was coming from your stereo. Keziah Jones fares better with his wah-wah adding an afrobeat rawness to 'Unissons Nous' and the title track. Then he goes and balls it up by opening his gob as well.

After this wobble either side of half time, the home stretch is all killer. Three quarters of the way through comes 'I follow you' - their first song in English. It's the sort of simple and affecting love song that can seemingly only be written by someone not operating in their own language. The album ends with the storming 'Sebeke' - all cascading drums and urgent brass ordering you to the dancefloor.

Another fantastic A&M album - the guest vocalists mean it's only one of the albums of the year. If you've never, you really should KOKO on Feb 25th to check out the epic, sweaty live version. With any luck it'll be just them, too.

Release date: 17/11/08