If hard-pressed to name my favorite song ever recorded, one of the contenders would be Amadou & Mariam's "Je Pense a Toi" (Sample/Purchase MP3), released in 1998 on their album Sou Ni Tile. It was the first of their songs that I ever heard, and it's stunning. There's something about its simple, pentatonic sparseness and achingly beautiful lyrics that just melt me, every time, despite having listened to it probably hundreds of times by now. It's proven to be quite the dragon to chase, though, at least for this listener.
That's not to say that the couple hasn't released astounding, beautiful music in the meantime; music that's far above and beyond what just about anyone from Africa or anywhere else is making. 2004's Manu Chao-produced Dimanche a Bamako is bold, colorful, and brilliant; 2009's Welcome to Mali is nothing short of a masterpiece. But there hasn't been any one song that has embedded itself into my soul quite the same way as that first great one that I heard. It's a high that I'm just not sure I'll ever quite reach again.
This holds true on Folila, as well. Originally conceived as two separate records: one sparser, more traditional record made for distribution in Africa and one "crossover" album for distribution in North America and Europe. Both albums were, indeed, recorded, but reflecting on the recordings after the fact, Amadou and Mariam themselves requested that their producer Marc-Antoine Moreau go ahead and combine them into one.
The result is really special, and surprisingly seamless. Featuring guests such as Santigold, Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone from TV on the Radio, Jake Shears of Scissor Sisters, Malian kora player Toumani Diabate, and, controversially, French rocker Bertrand Cantat, who was recently released from prison after a markedly short sentence for beating his girlfriend to death in 2003. These guests add richness and texture, and manage to add Western modernity without forgoing clean, classic African rhythms, or even overshadowing Amadou and Mariam themselves. Still, I can't help but wonder if the guest tracks were stripped back, would we find another "Je Pense a Toi," or something even more beautiful, underneath?
I don't for a second begrudge the pair's desire to cross over and gain North American and European success. But I can't help but wonder if they'll ever record something that's just them again. In the meantime, though, I'll be happy with what I can get. And Folila certainly makes me happy.
Highlights include the striking harmonica-laced "Oh Amadou," featuring vocals by the aforementioned Bernard Cantat (aside: I hate to like Cantat's contributions so much, honestly, but there you have it), which is the album's first single, and has a well-produced (but slightly unnerving, given the circumstances) video that you can watch on YouTube. I also adore "Sans Toi," probably the sparsest and cleanest track on the record, and the best example of Mariam's singing, and the haunting opening track, "Dougou Badia," which features Santigold.'Folila' was released in April of 2012 on Nonesuch Records. Total playing time is 43.3 minutes.