Blind Malian duo Amadou and Mariam began their global march a few years ago when Manu Chao put a spark to their West African sound on the effervescent Dimanche A Bamako. Then 2008′s Welcome to Mali kicked the intensity up a notch. But with Folila they’ve made a true African rock ‘n’ roll album. In fact, it’s two albums in one — the first recorded inNew York with a slew of guests, then the same tracks cut again in a much rootsier style their hometown ofBamako. What’s released is a very artfully mixed blend of them, and it works.
The rich, electric blues sound that’s always been Amadou and Mariam’s trademark is still the foundation upon which everything’s built, but the beauty on Folila comes with the little additions. Santigold lends some vocal glamour to the opener, “Dougou Badia,” weaving neatly around Mariam, while elsewhere Nick Zinner from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs contributes some stinging guitar lines. It’s the most forthrightly “rock” the duo have ever been — never more so on “Wari,” which, with its stadium strut, could almost be Bad Company refracted through an sub-Saharan prism. “Bagnale” offers fresh, sophisticated gloss to a tune that’s otherwise pure thrash. And there are some surprises, like the juxtaposition of Bassakou Kouyate’s ngoni with clarinet on the delightfully eerie “Sans Toi,” or the gliding groove of “Wily Katoso,” eased along by an appearance from TV on the Radio, which manages a heartfelt nod to both Sly Stone and Gil Scott-Heron. The joyful, buoyant melody of “Nebe Miri” harks back to their days with Chao. Yet in all these collaborations, the duo never forgets their origins: the closer, “ChÃ©rie,” is a beautifully unaffected, celebratory Malian song, with Amadou’s almost childlike voice to the fore, surround by the liquid ripple of the kora harp. It’s an album that gets the balance just right, heading into the future while keeping its integrity intact.