28 February 2009

Review: Amadou & Mariam, Bristol Academy, 26.02.09

As a grinning bongo player slaps out a hummingbird rhythm with oceanic force, the Jean Réno-lookalike bassist (who’s oozes French cool from his wide meerkat eyes and jazzy head jerking) seduces a puissant groove from his bass, and the girls on backing vocals shimmy with ululating physicality, Mariam stands peacefully still at the heart of it all in a sight that’s almost sad to behold. Amadou and Mariam met in 1974 at an institute for blind young people in Bamako, Mali, married in 1980, and have been making infinitely joyous music ever since, blending traditional African sounds with electric blues, les chansons françaises, and poignantly simple messages about unity and trust in human kind. For them to not be able to behold the carefree celebration and unabashed dancing of people of all ages that their music provokes seems almost an injustice, despite the fact that there would be none of this jubilation had they been able to see. However, where their disadvantage lies in sight, the majority of the audience’s lies in language - “the blind couple from Mali” sing mainly in French, but the power of their message, and cheesy as it sounds, of their love, bursts through communicative barriers with glittering, kaleidoscopic aplomb as the stage becomes a truly synaesthetic experience – the sense-assaulting storm of their sound marries with the vivid pink of their robes, reflecting off Amadou’s gold telecaster to translate into whoops of joy from the crowd, and back into wide smiles from the couple. “Est-ce que ça va?” booms Amadou. “Do you feel alri-ight?” And as shivers rattle down spines across the room, there’s no doubt about that we do.

There’s something about the natural cool and sweet tactile interaction of Amadou and Mariam that means they can get away with songs such as ‘I Follow You’, an English-language track from their latest album, ‘Welcome to Mali’ whose lyrics are disarmingly simple, and all the more affecting for it– “I think of you, every time, everywhere,” he faultlessly sings to his wife, as she strokes his head, swaying her hips, poised as the proud matriarch of the stage. Amadou falls to his knees for a tongue-in-cheek guitar solo that’s so impressive for a 54 year-old man even he seems surprised, bending its sound between jaunty regularity and a skittering jam so euphoric that even the roadies are high-fiving. He’s led off to deservedly rest by the side of the stage as Mariam performs an astonishing version of ‘Sabali’ (named by Pitchfork as one of their 100 Best Tracks of 2008), whose introductory notes are so high-pitched that I’d assumed they were processed on the record, but she sings unaided, like an equatorial sunrise, before ‘Ce n’est pas bon’ plink-plonks in like dew drops on a glass xylophone, and Amadou returns to sing, “Bonheur, bonheur pour le people” (wellbeing for the people) in earthy, rallying tones. After an ecstatic, carnival-spirit version of ‘La Realité’ from the album, ‘Dimanche à Bamako’, the duo return alone for the encore to sing ‘Je pense à toi’, a touching tribute from each to the other that sums up the message of the evening – their music seems to destroy silly cares and trivialities, and unite crowds spiritually. The musicianship this evening rings as if choreographed by some divine being, magical and glittering, with Amadou and Mariam at the centre of it all, gold-rimmed sunglasses glinting with pride as simple messages from Mali soar into consciousnesses the world over. 

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