The beats of their hearts

Boston Globe, July 14, 2006

There’s a little-known law in the music business that says that every few years, an anointed world music act seeps into the mainstream, where it becomes soundtrack material for coffee shop speed-dating events or grad-student dinner parties. Quality and shelf-life vary. The Cape Verdean doyenne Cesaria Evora, for much of the 1990s the world music artist most commonly found on tasteful CD spindles, never let fame dilute her output or intensity. The Gipsy Kings, by contrast, quickly devolved into hopeless cliche.

Today’s crossover champions are Amadou and Mariam, the singer- guitarist couple from Mali whose album “Dimanche a Bamako,” released last year, has been a huge global hit. It’s a little pop gem in which blues, reggae, rock, and African sounds nestle into producer Manu Chao’s shimmering backdrop of street noises and conversation snippets. This evening, the pair headline the French Library’s annual Bastille Day concert in the Back Bay. Joining them on the bill are the exciting Senegalese hip-hop band Daara J and Mauri tanian singer Daby Toure. It’s a lavish lineup that refreshingly presents the globalized, mash-up side of African music instead of hewing to orthodox “roots.”

The sound of Amadou and Mariam portrays an Africa marked by emigration and return, cable and satellite television, and the hustle and bustle that, no matter the social or economic differences, marks daily life in busy cities everywhere. It makes as much sense in Paris, where they are now primarily based, as back home in Bamako.

“We’ve been on the road a lot this year, but we do get echoes from Mali,” says Amadou, whose full name is Amadou Bagayoko, in a phone interview. “People there appreciated the album a lot, because it talks about things that happen there, in Bamako. The sounds on the album, such as the ringing phones, are from there. We try to talk about things as they happen there: the sounds, the culture, the landscapes.”

There’s no reason that the strange brew of musical styles that makes up the album should be considered any less authentic than roots music. After all, African listeners and musicians are as eclectic and curious as listeners anywhere.

“In our countries in Africa,” says Bagayoko, “people listen to reggae, they enjoy rap, they identify with musicians from all over and all different influences. We’re also very much influenced by blues and rock.” He cites Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, and folk music.

“We weren’t trying to mix styles just for the sake of mixing them. We want to marry things that go well together, using our experience as composers. To get the dosage right, you need a certain amount of knowledge. We draw on having studied music theory, on having played everything from variety tunes to traditional music. We know that Mandingue music connects with the blues, with salsa and Afro-Cuban music.”

The resulting pop product may unsettle the world music orthodoxy, but that isn’t the target audience, says Tad Hendrickson, the editor in chief of Global Rhythm magazine. “It’s not world music for purists,” says Hendrickson. “It’s music for people engaged in cultures around the world, not necessarily to preserve them but to capture the excitement of what is really going on.”

They found a suitable partner in Chao, an artist and producer who lives for genre-crossing and thrives on sonic collage. The Franco- Spanish maverick is a standard-bearer of what is sometimes called the “anti-globalization” movement, but which the French call “altermondialisation,” or a different kind of globalization. As clumsy in the original as in translation, the term still does a better job capturing Chao’s and Amadou and Mariam’s ethos, which is optimistic, a little romantic, and definitely borderless.

The relentless positivity also pervades Amadou and Mariam’s now well-known personal story. Both are sightless. They met in the late 1970s at a Bamako institute for the blind, fell in love, married, and have made music together happily ever since. Their songs brim with their mutual love, sometimes verging on treacly. They are famously inseparable both onstage and off. But in their work collaboration, Bagayoko says, they draw on each other’s individuality.

“In effect we are two different singers, each of us in his or her corner,” he says. “We try to compose pieces, write songs, and present them to each other. The other one responds, adds some elements, and vice versa.”

Fittingly enough, “Dimanche a Bamako” refers to Sundays, when as the lyrics on the title track explain, weddings are traditionally held in Mali. Talk of brides and grooms, devoted lovers and community members, shares space on the album with immich. “In my fields I grow maize, millet, and rice.”

She promises, on the occasion of a village celebration: “I will be the most beautiful one, for you my love.” It’s winning material, propelled by an unpretentious charm that dismisses cheesiness or contrived rusticity. And, says Bagayoko, it’s an opportunity to celebrate culture. “It’s when the whole village holds a big party,” he says. “Even though people have problems, work problems, money problems, there’s mutual support and joie de vivre.

“And besides,” he says, “it’s the time when lovers get together.”