At the lovefest that was Amadou & Mariam’s concert at the Music Box at Fonda October 2, even the bespectacled, might-be rockcrit (though I was the one with the notepad), GBG (girl-band geek)-looking guy next to me let his guard down and his hips loosen. Amadou Bagayoko and Mariam Doumbia, aka the blind couple, are world-music stars, and this was a dance event. Halfway through the generous set (about 90 minutes), I felt like I was having an Ecstasy rave flashback, so beatific and all-embracing was the groove.
The story goes that Amadou and Mariam met at an institute for blind youth in Mali. They began making beautiful music together, plus they got married. Country by country, adding one timbre after another to their native Afro-beat proto-blues, they became globally renowned. Manu Chao, Damon Albarn, Coldplay, and the Scissor Sisters have all helped spread the lore of Amadou & Mariam to Western lands. On Welcome to Mali, released this spring in the U.S., the couple sings in English and French. With its percolating club beats, Amadou’s psych-blues electric guitars, and the couple’s sweet unison — but not exactly harmonic — singing, it’s one of the best albums of the year.
Friday’s show featured many songs from Welcome, but not the lead track, “Babali,” which features Albarn, to the consternation of many in the audience. Still, it was a euphoric event. The couple were backed by a four-piece band. A percussionist in the front line is always a good sign, and Boubacar Dembele is the group’s not-so-secret weapon. He prowled the stage in a way the band’s leaders physically could not, the dynamic spark of the show. Working off the backbeat of drummer Yvo Abadi, Dembele showed why hand-delivered beats will always trump mechanized ones. Amadou & Mariam mix rhythms, incorporating salsa, reggae, and even some trancey house into their historic African beats.
Both singers have a bit of that high African whine in their tone, which makes their call and response sound a bit melancholy, never strident. Bagayoko was a skilled guitarist even before he began performing with Mariam. Because he’s not flashy, he probably doesn’t get enough kudos for his inventive playing.
I don’t speak French or Bambara well enough to know what most of Amadou & Mariam’s songs are about. But I will tell you there wasn’t an unhappy face at the Henry Fonda Friday night. This is modern world-beat music, electric and acoustic, spanning beats and borders.