Amadou & Mariam break ground with new 'music' (39593)

It’s not hyperbole to declare that “Folila,” the seventh album from Amadou & Mariam, sounds like nothing you’ve heard before. “The Blind Couple from Mali,” as they are known, have been rising world music superstars since their 2005 international breakthrough, the Manu Chao-produced “Diamanche Bamako.” The slick new Folila, released this week on Because Music/Nonesuch Records, should help continue their ascent from African musical ambassadors to major international artists.

The title, “Folila,” means “music” in the Bambara language, and that broad categorization seems fit to describe this difficult-to-classify set. It’s a one-of-a-kind project: “Folila” was first recorded over three weeks in New York City with a parade of special guests; then, the exact same set of songs were re-recorded in Mali capital city Bamako using traditional instruments like koras and djembes. Originally intended to be released as two separate documents, the two sessions were meticulously mixed together for the final album, creating a fully integrated mashup of styles.

“Folila” is, by design, a deeply textured recording, lush with exotic instrumentation and layers of vocals and percussion. Unlike many crossover attempts and genre experiments, “Folila” repeatedly hits its mark. The duo’s longtime manager-producer Marc-Antoine Moreau, along with a team of top mix engineers, made the often dense productions cohere nicely. The best example is “Wily Kataso,” a funky, driving, shape-shifting monster of a track that simultaneously evokes American blues, Afrobeat and early-’90s British house music. Featuring guest vocals by Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone of TV On the Radio, it’s the album’s most infectious track.

Album opener “Dougou Badia” offers more of a point-counterpoint approach to genre-melding, with Amadou’s articulated electric guitar notes swathed by waves of harmonious feedback (courtesy of Yeah Yeah Yeahs guitarist Nick Zinner) while Santigold adds a toast-like chorus to answer Mariam’s distinctive, melodious wail. The album’s only faltering point is “C’est Pas Facile pour les Aigles,” which genuinely sounds like two different songs playing on top of each other.

The guest appearances are strong: Jake Shears of Scissor Sisters brings his smooth falsetto harmonies and a hint of neo-disco swagger to “Metemya”; the album’s one rap cameo, on the lively “Nebe Miri,” is more substantial than gratuitous thanks to the magnetic presence of Brooklyn’s Theophilus London. French singer-songwriter Bertrand Cantat lends his voice (and sometimes a ghostly harmonica) to four songs, and fellow Malian crossover star Bassekou Kouyate plays the distinctive ngoni on several.

However, the most wonderful thing about the album is that, despite all the personalities and sounds elbowing for space, at no point are Amadou & Mariam overshadowed by their company–no one part is more important than another. The joys of singing, playing and creating are the true focal points. Fitting, then, that “Folila” should close on the playful sound of a children’s chorus.