Sunday, June 7, 2009

A Sonic Swing Through West Africa

Saturday night the wife and I took a trip to West Africa via the Paradise Rock Club in Boston. OK, so it was only a metaphorical journey, but it was ably led by tour guides Amadou & Mariam. For those not familiar with these Malian music phenoms, the middle-aged, blind, husband-and-wife duo have, after a decades-long distinguished career, finally broken through big time in America this past year.

I’m no expert on West African or Malian music, but I have listened to a smattering of the genre over the years, and even beyond the obvious evolutionary connections to America’s southern blues roots, I have liked quite a bit of it: Ali Farka Touré, Tartit and Touareg musicians Tinariwen, as well as King Sunny Adé and others.

I’ve also read In Griot Time, former Boston writer Banning Eyre’s fascinating memoir of his six months studying guitar in Mali and getting to know most of the country’s leading musicians. Though Amadou & Mariam are only cited in the book’s appendix, In Griot Time is an enlightening and recommended read. It certainly gave me a better understanding of the context of Amadou & Mariam’s music. Nonetheless, you needn’t have read the book to enjoy this music.

Though I know there are significant differences between the music of Mali and other African music, such as the juju music of Nigeria popularized in the West by King Sunny Adé and the African Beats 20+ years ago (I was fortunate to have seen King Sunny play live back in the late 1980s), it does provide a foundational reference point to my ears. The rapid-fire, highly rhythmic guitar lines that Amadou Bagayoko lays down are occasionally reminiscent of King Sunny Adé. And, like Sunny, Amadou plays a Telecaster-style guitar, though his is seriously tricked out – at least cosmetically.

As with many African bands, there are quite a few people on stage with Amadou & Mariam: eight in this case. I was a little surprised by the racial mix of the backing musicians: a white drummer, bass player and keyboardist, with an African percussionist and background singers. The band was top notch – with everyone contributing notably to the overall sound and also being part of the constant motion machine (especially the two background singers who, if I heard – or rather interpreted – correctly, were sisters). They stick to the familiar instruments of rock fare – with the addition only of a funky cong-like drum or two – there’s no esoteric African stringed instruments like a kora or a ngoni.

The songs are sung primarily in Malian and French (still a principal language there, harkening back to the Colonial days), with just occasional snippets of English. Mariam Doumbia handles much of the singing, though Amadou also contributes a fair amount of vocals in addition to his distinctive guitar that works with the keyboards, drums and bass guitar to propel the music forward.

At the sold out Paradise show on Saturday. the music was energetic, joyously upbeat and fairly varied. It’s often referred to as Afro-blues, and while there were trace elements of blues and even rock, it drew from a broader palette than that term might suggest. The Parisian/Continental house flavorings lurked just beneath the surface and combined with the African rhythms to ensure the audience kept moving throughout.

At times, various tunes suggested shades of both trance and jam-band vibes and improvisation. I could also readily hear some passages suggestive of the Page/Plant projects of the mid 1990’s (probably more because those two have a long-held appreciation for the music of Morocco and Sub-Saharan West Africa than for their former band’s influence on the musicians of Mali, as had been recently suggested in some circles regarding Amadou & Mariam’s sound).

Perhaps more surprising, though, were the few points when I heard what struck me (again, in my frame of reference ) as mid-’80s-ish Simple Minds-like rhythms. This was probably due to the keyboard effects and standout drumming – both of which were notable characteristics of the Minds’ very European sound at their most original and inspired (i.e., not “Don’t You Forget About Me”).

Most of Saturday’s set list concentrated on the songs from Amadou & Mariam’s recent breakthrough CD Welcome to Mali. And, despite the language barrier (for some of us), the show featured several instances in which the lyrical content was clearly reflective of the love shared between the two leaders (most notably on “I Follow You,” one of the few English language tunes from the recent CD in which Amadou professes his unending love for Mariam). In a touching (literally) show of affection, Mariam gently caressed Amadou’s head while he was playing several times during the course of the evening. It was an endearing and genuine gesture.

If you like West African pop and you’re not familiar with these artists, check them out, I’m confident you’ll like them. Better yet, try to catch one of their performances, which take the sound from their well-produced and highly listenable CDs and cranks it up a few notches. If you’re not familiar with this genre of music, do yourself a favor, track some down. There’s something in it for everyone; whether you enjoy danceable popping rhythms, trance grooves, buoyant guitar playing or contemporary Afro-pop group singing with just enough Western connection to not sound off-puttingly foreign.

A Final Thought: It seems that over the last 20 years or so, every Caribbean island, cruise ship or summer-themed bar or restaurant in the Western hemisphere is compelled to play Bob Marley and other reggae (if they’ve even moved beyond Jimmy Buffet) to create a certain irie, island vibe. But DJ’s and entertainment programmers in these establishments could effectively spice up the sonic ambiance by incorporating the likes of Amadou & Mariam (as well as other Afro-pop standouts). It would fit the easy-going mood, while adding a little new energy and variety – and, in the process, perhaps even enlightening the curious few among the Spring Breakers and vacation set.

• One indication of their notable rising in popularity stateside in the past year was the duo’s being featured in Time magazine this past March.
Welcome to Mali, Amadou & Mariam, Nonesuch Records, 2009.
In Griot Time, by Banning Eyre, Temple University Press, 2000.

1 comment:

  1. Amadou & Mariam are great!
    I think you might like Orchestra Baobab, a Senegalese band that's been around for about 30 years. They incorporate a lot of slinky, Cuban rhythms, so they're vert palatable to Western ears. I would recommend the albums Pirates Choice or Specialist in all Styles.