Six Degrees of Amadou & Mariam’s Dimanche a Bamako

Richard Gehr

By Richard Gehr

on 04.18.12 in Six Degrees

It used to be easier to pretend that an album was its own perfectly self-contained artifact. The great records certainly feel that way. But albums are more permeable than solid, their motivations, executions and inspirations informed by, and often stolen from, their peers and forbearers. It all sounds awfully formal, but it’s not. It’s the very nature of music — of art, even. The Six Degrees features examine the relationships between classic records and five other albums we’ve deemed related in some way. In some cases these connections are obvious, in others they are tenuous. But, most important to you, all of the records are highly, highly recommended.

The Album

Amadou Bagayoko and Mariam Doumbia had been recording for 15 years prior to 2005's Dimanche à Bamako. The blind Mali couple's first cassettes, recorded in Côte d'Ivoire and collected as 1990-1995: L'Intégrale des Années Maliennes, focused on the hypnotically repetitive two-chord vamps heard in southwest Mali's Wassoulou region, although by his second release Amadou had switched from acoustic to electric guitar and begun to display the influence of John Lee Hooker and Eric Clapton. Although the duo had settled into their easygoing Afro-pop over the course of four earlier CDs, Dimanche à Bamako marked a leap further in their ongoing synthesis of Africa and Euro-America. Recorded in Paris and Bamako with the Basque-French rocker Manu Chao — who wrote, sings on, programmed and/or produced every track — Dimanche turned out to be the duo's richest bi-continental mashup of past and present to date.

Evoking the deep tradition in which he was raised, Amadou salutes the Bamara empire's founder in "Coulibaly" and waxes nostalgic for the Mali countryside in "La Fête du Village" and "Beaux Dimanches." It's also a profoundly personal statement insofar as the couple's co-dependent intimacy shapes Mariam's melodically assertive version of French female pop music, "Mbifé Blue." Chao manages somehow to both get inside the couple's head while hewing strongly to his own agenda. He wrote Dimanche's gorgeous opening track, "M'bifé" (Love), as well as its tasty instrumental followup, "M'bifé Balafon." Later he indulges his quasi-radical sensibility in songs like "Senegal Fast Food," "La Réalité" and "Camions Sauvages" (Brutal Highways), which deplores the deforestation that puts wild animals at the mercy of Africa's long-haul truckers. Throughout, Chao also layers in the low-key Motorik percussion, chugging acoustic guitars, tense sirens, and ambient crowd noises that characterize his own records. Their cross-cultural synthesis works like a charm.

The Tradition

Amadou & Mariam have mentioned Fanta Damba Koroba (b. 1938) as one of their earliest influences. And just as you can hear echoes of the Mali legend's stark, powerful attack in Mariam Doumbia's vocals, you can also hear the lucid repartee of Damba's longtime kora accompanist, Batourou Sekou Kouyaté, in Amadou's guitar vamps. While most griots are Malinkés from the western part of the country, Damba is a jalimuso, i.e., a Bambara griot from Mali's southern Segou region. Already a star at 16, Damba in 1975 became the first jalimuso to tour Europe and retired at the top of her game a decade later. On this collection, Damba praises her patrons, dispenses advice, and, on its arguably most potent track, relates the history of Fulani empire founder Sékou Amadou in hypnotic, circling stanzas alongside Kouyaté's equally profound, articulate and timeless kora lines.

The Big Band

Les Ambassadeurs feat. Salif Keita - Classic Titles

Les Ambassadeurs

That's Amadou Bagayoko sitting beside Salif Keita on the cover of Les Ambassadeurs du Motel de Bamako's two 1977 albums. Although he wasn't the Ambassadeurs' lead guitarist — that would be the dazzling Manfila Kante — Amadou played in the highly influential group from 1974-80. Les Ambassadeurs were Bamako's musically adventurous alternative to the more folklorically oriented Rail Band, from whom Salif Keita was poached. Les Ambassadeurs added jazz ("Djougouya"), reggae ("Bara Walile"), and Cuban horns and percussion ("Wara") to electrified traditionals. The compilation's highlight is "Kibaru" (News), a side-long track from their 1976 debut. Composed as Les Ambassadeurs' original entry in an epic battle of the bands with their Rail rivals that reportedly ended in a draw, the song promoted a government literacy campaign and, midway through, kicks into the most swinging spelling lesson this side of "Schoolhouse Rock!"

Living the Blues

Although he sometimes claims Jimi Hendrix and David Gilmour as greater inspirations, Amadou Bagayoko's guitar playing is most often compared to Mississippi-born John Lee Hooker's iconic blues style. Hooker, a sharecropper's son, translated boogie-woogie piano to guitar, specializing in a relentless one-chord vamp that launched a billion guitar solos throughout the late sixties and seventies. Like Bagayoko, Hooker is less dazzling soloist than irrepressible force of human nature. It's surprisingly easy to forgive him, even when he comes off as a creepy sexual predator in "Boom Boom" (a 1965 hit for the Animals) and "Crawlin' Kingsnake" (covered by Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy, and countless others); Hooker's also the hapless victim of his landlady in "House Rent Boogie" and of the titular "Unfriendly Woman." Throw at him what you will, Hooker will boogie right through it.

The Pop Factor

40 Succes En Or


Born into Cairo's Italian-Egyptian community in 1933, Dalida (né Iolanda Cristina Gigliotti) lived most of her relatively short and tragic life in France, where she received 55 gold records for recordings in 10 languages before committing suicide in 1987. It's easy to see how Dalida fans Amadou & Mariam might discern a sympathetic career model in the former Miss Egypt's multilingual appeal and clear, strong presentation. Her best-known tunes include the cougar anthem "Il Venait d'Avoir Dix-Huit Ans" (He Turned Eighteen), songs based on Egyptian folk music ("Salma Ya Salama"), borrowed American fluff ("Itsi Bitsi Petit Bikini"), France's first disco hit ("J'Attendrai"), hip nods like "Il Faut Danser Reggae," and, finally, numerous songs reflecting her Judy Garland-like descent. In other words: something for everybody!

The International Feel

Manu Chao may be the secret punky-reggae love child of Bob Marley and the Clash, but he also offers another valuable model for synthesists like Amadou & Mariam. A cultural scavenger, Chao unearths and recycles constantly and, in fact, cannibalized parts of his 2001 album Próximo Estación for Dimanche à Bamako. Released in 2007, La Radiolina also recycles some half-dozen arrangements throughout its 16 tracks and four "bonus" cuts. This makes it sound less like a discrete work and more like the latest chapter in an ongoing series reflecting a world in a Zizekian state of permanent political and economic crisis represented by hectoring police sirens, anxious ascending guitar lines, and urgent beats. Chao blends reggae, rock, rumba and rockabilly into an unmistakable signature sound Amadou & Mariam slipped into like a comfortable pair of shoes.