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The Magic Couple
Artist: Amadou & Mariam
Label: Wrasse records
Time: 15 Tracks / 76 mins
There are three waves of this couple’s recorded music. The current third phase started when they worked with Manu Chao on 2005’s Nonesuch release Dimanche à Bamako. By 2007 they were noticeably in many critics’ Top Ten of the Year lists with Welcome to Mali. Since then, they have supported Coldplay and regularly mix with the stars.
Phase one started back in the early ‘90s with their sparse cassette-only recordings made in the Ivory Coast, after two decades of music-making together, since they met at the Institute for the Blind in Bamako in their youth. The Magic Couple is a smart collection that is all about the time in between, when they had gathered a band around them and ignited the spark of the success that was eventually to catch fire and blaze. It covers the three discs Sou Ni Tile, Tje Ni Mousso, and Wati, each of which they recorded in Paris between 1997 and 2001, and released a couple of years afterwards.
Mariam Doumbia and Amadou Bagayoko sing very well together, but are not necessarily the best musicians to come out of Mali. They are, however, probably the ones who have most easily latched on to European pop sensibilities and connected with the masses.
This disc jumbles up the songs, so it takes a bit of fiddling if you want to explore their development in chronological order, but the tracks all flow together well here. The seven pieces plucked from their 1997 recording Sou Ni Tile (‘Day and Night’) all share Amadou Bagayoko’s rippling, rhythmic guitar work, and often have distinctive vocal hooks, instrumental colour, or both. The first track “Je Pense à Toi” is one of their most distinctive and popular sings, made special by the eastern-styled violin that flows through it. “Toubala Kono” is another track with a strong hook line, and the closer “C’est La Vie” also makes an impact with its tune and some standout trumpet from Columbian Barbaro Teunter. Harmonica and transverse flute also colour a couple of these songs.
The 1999 recording Tje In Mousso (‘Man and Wife’) brings a subtle, but definite sophistication of the sound and certainly adds more of a dance edge. “C’est Comme Ça” has a reggae-like quality, with organ higher in the mix, and the standout “Djangnèba” has a gorgeous almost Japanese-sounding vocal from Mariam Doumbia set off by Andres Viafara’s vibrant, Latin-tinted trombone. The chorus of “Chantez-chantez” picks you out of your seat (if you’re still sitting in one) and drags you onto the dance-floor with its invitation to “chantez chantez, jouez jouez, dansez dansez...” as it drives along on the back of a ‘60s organ riff. As if the couple have discovered a bunch of old western tracks, the flute and wah-wah guitar lines on “Beki Miri” make it feel like the lively backing track has been imported from an early Jethro Tull album. The groove gets even funkier on “Be’smi Lah,” with a superb clavinet sound either from the keyboards (or the quanoun).
There are only two pieces from the later Wati (‘Time’) disc.”Sarama” is one of surprisingly few to pick up the Malian stylings that you can hear in Ali Farke Touré’s music. The highly western jazz piano that punctuates it shows just how widely they include sounds from other nations. The fast-paced “Poulo (Les Peuls)” sees Amadou pull a polished growl from his guitar between verses.
The Magic Couple shows that Amadou and Mariam were making great music long before the world picked up on them. Those who have come to them via their recent discs should still love this more organic album, which has less electronic coloring, making more of Amadou’s guitar and featuring a diverse range of guest instruments from trombone to hurdy-gurdy. This generous compilation has at most one or two weak tracks among fifteen and gives great value for money.