Reviews September 25, 2017
La Confusion

In 1992, the first time I went to Mali, I was pawing through cassettes at a market stall, piling up my first cache of awesome tapes from Bamako. Some of the names were familiar, many not. The seller helped me sort out what was Wassoulou, Bambara, griot, northern and so on. Then he held up a cassette by an act I’d never heard of, Couple Aveugle du Mali, “the blind couple from Mali.” The duo had four cassette volumes out at that point: the seller had only two of them and I bought them both. I asked him what the genre was. He hesitated, saying that it was kind of Bambara music, but not exactly. He probably gave me the gist of Amadou Bagayoko and Mariam Doumbia’s remarkable story, how Amadou had played guitar alongside Salif Keita in Les Ambassadeurs and then met Mariam at Bamako’s Institute for the Young Blind, how they fell in love over music, married in 1980, and set out to make their own brand of music. Whenever I recall this moment, it strikes me that Amadou and Mariam were then specifically marketing themselves as “blind,” and yet, as the years have shown, they actually saw more clearly than most how Malian music could captivate mass audiences all around the world.

La Confusion is Amadou and Mariam’s eighth international release and it finds them updating their sonic palette, but not fundamentally altering the formula that’s carried them this far: strong, foursquare grooves; anthemic sing-along vocal melodies; simple declarative lyrics in a mix of French and Bambara, expressing primary emotions such as love, longing, moral disapproval; and sometimes, despair. This formula stands apart from the flashy flourishes, squirrely rhythms, instrumental virtuosity, and elliptically seductive melodies found in other Malian genres—all powerful in their own ways. But the A&M formula has always proved easily inviting for collaborators coming out of rock, blues, funk, techno-pop and hip-hop. Within the sturdy structures of their songs, there is room for all this and more. Amadou and Mariam’s award-winning 2004 collaboration with Manu Chao, Dimanche à Bamako, is but one prominent example.

This set was produced in France by Adrien Durand, who plays all the keyboard parts and laces some tracks with drum machine programming, which gives the album a spare, polished sheen with rolling, rounded grooves full of synth bass pop, chiming ambience, and plenty of punch and drive, making a friendly, contemporary setting for the duo’s trademark song craft. Amadou tears into bluesy, sometimes roaring guitar breaks; the singers often alternate lead vocals song to song, then come together irresistibly on forthright refrains. And in the end, these are the things that stick with you.

Lyrically, the album is a bit of a departure, directly addressing the political crisis that has beset Mali since the rebellion and coup of 2012. The song “La Confusion” is a gut cry of frustration from a people who deserve better. The song’s chugging groove and electric guitar fury recall protest rock of an earlier time, but the unmistakable A&M vocal stamp personalizes it. “Femmes du Monde” calls for gender equality over a tripping 12/8 pop groove. “C’est Chaud,” with its simmering, bluesy slow funk swagger, bemoans the fates of African refugees who risk all on the sea to reach Europe—a ubiquitous theme in West African pop in recent years.

The album’s lead track, “Borou Safou,” veers close to disco, even as Mariam’s vocal melody channels Bambara folklore. Once again, the formula carries the day. A standout here is “Diarra,” which unfolds funky, Stevie Wonder-meets-reggae with croaking clavinet and thumping bass, an effective offset for the ascending angst of Amadou’s vocal. My personal favorite is the most simply produced track on the album, “Mokou Mokou,” which builds around a forceful, melancholy acoustic guitar vamp and features a particularly plaintive vocal from Mariam.

Amadou and Mariam create music with an obvious openness to new ideas, so each album takes on the aesthetics of its collaborators and producers. Yet their musical sensibilities are so clear and strong, and their ideas so open to adornment and modification that they can open their arms to the world without ever losing themselves. That unshakable artistic vision is propelling the blind, but happy, couple from Mali forcefully into the 21st century.