TVD Live: Amadou & Mariam at the Birchmere, 6/7

PHOTO: JULIO BANDIT | One might think that the whole of the Washington, DC/ Maryland/ Virginia metro area were clad in red and glued to what would be the winning game in the Stanley Cup Finals last Thursday. But in Alexandria, a couple wore lime green tunics on stage and conjured up hypnotic, danceable music from their Mali homeland. Amadou & Mariam may have been playing to a smaller audience than usual with their band, but their energy didn’t lack in putting out their sound.

Amadou Bagayoko and Mariam Doumbia met at Mali’s Institute for the Young Blind when they were still teenagers. Both had lost their sight—his at 16, her’s at 5—and were interested in music. He played some of that sparkling, intricate guitar associated with Afro-pop; she lent a smooth singing voice.

They got married in 1980 and recorded the first of their cassette albums of Malian blues in 1986. Bolstering the band with percussion, keyboards, and a bigger sound, they recorded in the world music hotbed of Paris a decade later but weren’t really discovered by a wider audience until 2004.

Since then they’ve snared a Grammy nomination and released four albums to international acclaim, the latest of which continued their observations about the world situation, La Confusion. That they sing largely in French means their message is not always direct to the English-speaking audience, but its beat and feel never fail to communicate directly.

They are a remarkable couple to witness on stage, even apart from the matching tunics. He has a reserve unusual for a guitarist of such finesse and fire; she often has a glum look when she’s not singing, bordering on scowl. So for both, they present an honest front instead of showbiz fakery. And both have cool, gold framed shades.

The lack of eye contact with the audience wasn’t the detriment it could have been; they felt the reaction they were getting from the crowd, with much of the famously sedentary Birchmere crowd out of its seats and moving for a lot of the show.

“They’re not much on banter,” a fan warned before the show. And indeed, Amadou would repeat “How you feeling!” and “Let’s go!” and not much else before they were off to their next song. Six of the 15 songs were from La Confusion, though not the title song. One selection, “Yiki Yassa” was meant to be a travelogue to Burkina Faso.

Backed by two percussionists, a keyboard, bass player, and singer (who was more indispensable in the dance department), their approach shifted as the night continued. “Enaramina” had a dreamy approach; “Sabali” had a falsetto like ’50s Western pop. “Mokou Mokou” began with a blues riff that wouldn’t have been far removed from the Delta.

The two gave each song had a chance to really open up, particularly to Amadou’s guitar playing which switched from bright, intricate picking to proto-psychedelic wah-wah. They saved some of their oldest crowd-pleasers to the end including “La Réalité,” with which they ended the main set, to “Beaux Dimanches,” which closed the encores.

The whole show proved a splendid, invigorating, international gift of uplift.

SETLIST
Ta Promesse
Batoma
C’est Chaud
Filaou Bessame
Masiteladi
Dogon
Wily Kataso
Yiki Yassa
Enaramina
Boufou Safu
Africa
La Réalité

Sabali
Mokou Mokou

Beaux Dimanches

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