It’s possible you’ve never heard of Amadou and Mariam, but this was a Summerfest show I circled as soon as it was announced.
I first heard of the blind musical duo from Africa when their 2008 record "Welcome to Mali" was profiled on NPR. They piqued my interest when I found out that Manu Chao produced that album, and I bought it right away when I heard a few snippets of their Afro-blues, world beat, guitar-inspired music. A few songs have even made it onto my running mix.
Visiting Summerfest Thursday night, you could tell that some of the people in the very small crowd at the Johnson Controls World Sound Stage knew that this talented couple has ties to Stevie Wonder, U2, Santigold and the Scissor Sisters. Maybe some of the crowd didn’t, and the music just won them over.
Either way, what a smokin’ show on a hot and humid second night of Summerfest. Because Amadou and Mariam sing primarily in Bambara (the official language of Mali), French, plus a bit of English and Spanish thrown in, I won’t even try to provide you with a set list. While "Welcome To Mali" is extremely catchy, I have no idea what they’re singing about, so I just mouthed along phonetically to the songs I knew and danced to the songs I didn’t.
What matters to me is how this group sounded. The answer? Amazing. Clad in orange and white dashikis, just six people on stage made great modern African music. Funky, beautiful and sometimes downright rocking, we ate it up.
With Amadou Bagayoko on guitar and vocals, and Mariam Doumbia singing beautiful, high-pitched melodies, this husband and wife team made infectious, funky, unique and sometimes stripped down jams that just didn’t require any translation.
And Amadou effortlessly cooked on guitar. "Are you feeling all right?" he asked us when he came out. Yes! For 90 minutes!
Layered but simultaneously sparse, the group's vocals aren't so much harmonized but sung at the same pitch. It sounds, well, African. But the funky clavinette and disco octaves on the bass (and musicians in matching colorful pantsuits) sometimes sounded like '70s American funk. It’s a little hard to explain if you haven’t heard it before.
Extended guitar solos and jams, costume changes for Mariam and a super-enthused intimate dancing crowd, this show will stick in my memory for a long time. Unfortunately, there was no encore, and they didn't play my favorite song from "Welcome To Mali." But c'est la vie.
I always thought I liked African music, but seeing it live – whether it’s Paul Simon’s band or Amadou and Mariam – proved it. And this duo is a unique, brightly-colored, super-good group. If you haven’t heard of them by now, believe me, you will soon enough.
Andy is the president, publisher and founder of OnMilwaukee. He returned to Milwaukee in 1996 after living on the East Coast for nine years, where he wrote for The Dallas Morning News Washington Bureau and worked in the White House Office of Communications. He was also Associate Editor of The GW Hatchet, his college newspaper at The George Washington University.
Before launching OnMilwaukee.com in 1998 at age 23, he worked in public relations for two Milwaukee firms, most of the time daydreaming about starting his own publication.
Hobbies include running when he finds the time, fixing the rust on his '75 MGB, mowing the lawn at his cottage in the Northwoods, and making an annual pilgrimage to Phoenix for Brewers Spring Training.