Amadou and Mariam

Dimanche a Bamako

(Nonesuch; 2005)

By Peter Hepburn | 14 September 2007

Right off the bat it’s worth noting that Dimanche a Bamako should be credited to Amadou & Mariam & Manu. From its first perfectly-produced notes through the carefully layered backing vocals and the sampled conversations and traffic noises, Dimanche a Bamako is as much a Manu Chao record as it is that of blind couple Amadou & Mariam. This is, it should also be noted, by no means a bad thing.

Over the course of two proper albums, Chao has successfully evolved from French punk rocker to genre-bending, Latin American-adventuring hippie par excellence. Last year on the limited-release Sibérie M'était Contée he seemed to be finding a more comfortable ground — steering more toward French and away from the sampling, while still maintaining the sense of humor and politics. In many ways Dimanche a Bamako is the distillation of many of the themes Chao was developing with Sibérie; hell, the second track here is an instrumental he used four times on that record.

This, of course, sells Amadou & Mariam massively short. Chao has always been a bit young to come off with the enormous sincerity and depth of emotion that these two breeze through with not so much as a second thought. Even with a not-so-great voice, Mariam manages to get across more love and weariness (in a language that I admittedly can’t understand a word of) than Chao has managed in much of his career. The other singers on the albums more than make up for it. Amadou, Chao, and a few others light up tracks like “La Réalité,” “La Fête Au Village,” and “Beaux Dimanches” with a great level of vocal harmony and carefully worked production. The almost hypnotic delivery of the lead vocals on that first track is spectacular.

Still, for those of us who don’t get the French, the real draw comes down to the music, and there’s nothing lacking there. Amadou’s something of a demon on six strings, ripping apart the surf guitar intro to “Coulibaly” and giving “La Paix” with a nasty swagger. Chao has opened up the full palette for this one, bouncing from the reggae he so loves to complex west-African rhythm approaches. To their credit, Amadou & Mariam make all of it stick, working just as well in the classic-Chao sound of “Sénégal Fast Food” as with the gorgeous chant of “GniDJougouya.”

It’s not all smooth sailing, with the back half of the album dragging at points. “Politic Amagni” is the only track that feels like a bit of a stretch, the vocals doing alright over a pretty stale instrumental (Chao’s lyrics don’t help anything). “Taxi Bamako” never much moves, but then again, coming off the beautiful and lively “Djanfa (La Trahison)” it hardly needs to.

World music is a dangerous genre to find yourself caught in, but Chao seems to be out to embrace the full possibilities of the music. Amadou & Mariam, for their part, seem capable of most anything here, and by letting loose and giving it all a shot, they’ve managed a pretty cool little record with Dimanche.