Packed to the gills with guest stars and collaborators, Amadou & Mariam’s Folila should rightly be viewed with the kind of suspicion reserved for albums designed to pluck niche artists out of obscurity and position them on a larger stage. And while the album does act as an introduction to the group for beginners and a primer on the complicated rhythms of African pop, it does so mostly by engraining familiar artists and concepts within their style, a process which foments an expansion of their sound rather than watering it down.
Folila, which takes its title from the Bambara word for music, is the reported result of the synthesis of two separate recording sessions—one in New York that skewed toward the modern and another in Bamako that was steeped in traditional methods. The blending of the two makes for a busy album, and the collaborative nature serves as a statement on the globalized connectivity that’s been an increasing concern in the duo’s work.
It certainly helps that the guests, ranging from members of TV on the Radio and Scissor Sisters to U.K. singer Ebony Bones, were chosen wisely, with more of an eye for musical parity than snaring big names. Despite recent stints opening for U2 and Coldplay, Amadou & Mariam seem more interested in scoring niche American cool. So while tracks like opener “Dougou Badia” (featuring Santigold) and “Nebe Miri” (a collaboration with Theophilus London) aren’t the most interesting work they’ve done, the songs stand out as relatively viable alliances and fusions of differing styles.
These vocal contributions are often the least useful elements on display, seemingly here to tag the tracks with attractive names, overlay English words, and distract from unfamiliar African vocal patterns. Instrumental help, like the work done by Nick Zinner of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, is subtler, supplementing Amadou’s solo guitar to achieve a fuller sound. Free from big-name voices, the aptly named “Sans Toi” proves one of the best tracks on the album, featuring a searing blues riff joined with blown-out harmonica squalls.
Following albums produced by Damon Albarn and Manu Chao, Amadou & Mariam seem to be establishing a new aesthetic, progressing from Malian stars to a worldlier type of musical force. In this sense, the album—a mélange of American pop stars, French crooners, and Algerian musicians that feels both hectic and warm—makes gestures toward a method that could actually be called world music. At times, Folila feels like Paul Simon’s Graceland in reverse, a global gathering around a singular pair of voices, a project that speaks both to the increasing currency of African pop and the shrinking size of the world.