Passport is a new series on Other Sounds that scours far-away places for records of note. We start off with Amadou and Mariam’s Dimanche à Bamako from landlocked Mali, a former French colony in West Africa that since 2012 has once more been embroiled in conflict.
Malian music, like many of its African counterparts, is deeply political. Given the country’s long tradition of oral history passed down through griots, it is not hard to see why music is both a source of aesthetic pleasure and a tool of mass communication for Malians. Nowhere is this more evident than in the nationalistic desert blues of the Tuareg group Tinariwen and the charged lyrics of Mali’s hip hop scene.
Where do the soulful husband-and-wife duo of Amadou Bagayoko and Mariam Doumbia fit in this milieu, then? Many of the tracks they have recorded on earlier albums have often explored the love that they share (‘Je Pense à Toi’ and ‘Mon Amour, Ma Chérie’ are classic examples) and they have only occasionally delved into commentary on socio-economic issues (‘Pauvre Type’). The territory that this blind couple from Mali seems to be most comfortable in is mostly defined by the light-hearted and danceable.
On Dimanche à Bamako, however, Amadou and Mariam’s honest blues-inspired tunes meet the activist fusions of Franco-Iberian singer Manu Chao. Chao, who produced and performed on the album, has lent much to the energetic vibe it possesses in comparison to Amadou and Mariam’s older work. You will hear lyrics about immigration and identity, African street soundscapes and a whole variety of synth touches from sirens to simulated audience roars – these are elements Chao is well-known for.
Chao’s fingerprints thankfully complement rather than drown out Amadou and Mariam’s soul on this record. The opener ‘M’bifé’ recaps the duo’s established form with delicate strumming backed by male harmonies, while its instrumental counterpart ‘M’bifé (Balafon)’ is a frenetic track by Chao that lays the groundwork for the jumpier ‘La Réalité’ and ‘Sénégal Fast Food’. This memorable pair of tracks is steeped in a sense of duality that spans both time and place, bridging Amadou and Mariam’s music directly to the francophone African diaspora.
Dimanche does not deliver body-blows with the politics it deals with, but ‘La Paix’ and ‘Politic Amagni’ are much more direct in their messages than past attempts. Where the album really shines in making a statement comes directly from its title, translated as Sunday in Bamako, which makes for the most satisfying reading of the entire record – a cross-section of urban life in Mali’s capital, a city torn between the modern and traditional. Bamako has much to be proud of in this portrayal, and in the starkness of its present troubles, Dimanche would undoubtedly serve as a comfort.
Listen to: ‘M’bifé’, ‘La Réalité’, ‘Sénégal Fast Food’
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