If the term world music gives you hives--and its condescension to musicians (lumping all non-Westerners into a single undifferentiated category) and consumers (writing off anyone who doesn't listen to it as implicitly narrow-minded) is really quite impressive--then grab an EpiPen before reading any further. For we are about to discuss Amadou and Mariam, the world-music stars who are not just a married, middle-aged couple from Mali but a blind, married, middle-aged couple from Mali. By description, they're worthier than the Grameen Bank.
The blind thing is certainly played for effect--just not the effect you might anticipate. Almost since their first meeting, in 1976 as students at Bamako's Institute for Young Blind People, Amadou and Mariam have billed themselves as the Blind Couple of Mali, and if the lack of an exclamation point reads as restraint, factor in that they often perform in diamond-studded sunglasses. Faced with a world that tends to view blindness and African-ness in tragic terms, Amadou Bagayoko (he plays a killer guitar) and Mariam Doumbia (she sings like an adoring aunt) go out of their way to assert that things are pretty great with them, thanks.
To understand just how great, listen to the pair's fifth album, Welcome to Mali, out March 24. Following up on their 2005 breakthrough, Dimanche à Bamako, which was produced by France-raised Spaniard Manu Chao and topped critics' lists worldwide, Amadou and Mariam recruited another international rock star, Brit Damon Albarn, for a cameo. What Albarn brings is an opener, "Sabali," so light and giddy that no translation is required to get that Mariam is whisper-singing about love. The swirling keyboards and gradually rising dance beat are pure '80s pop, sweeter than cheap champagne--but with soul; it's like a Cyndi Lauper tune sung by Vera Hall.
From there, Welcome to Mali becomes a more standard Amadou and Mariam affair, which is to say it's a joyous, hook-filled guitar album with impressive range. Amadou grew up as the biggest Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple fan in Bamako, and while he knows how to mimic the sounds of a kora and slip into high-stepping township jive, he's most at home using African styles to flavor rock melodies. "Ce N'Est Pas Bon" is stomping garage rock, while "Bozos" could be a particularly happy Neil Young song. Everything has a familiar pop structure, but there's just enough African instrumentation to provide a thrilling sense of dislocation.
Amadou and Mariam's lyrics tend toward uncontroversial declarations like "Hypocrisy in politics, it's not good/ We don't want any." (It's possible the lyric sheet was simplified in the translation from Bambara and French; it's also possible they're just casual lyricists.) The exception, linguistically, is "I Follow You," sung by Amadou to his wife in tender, halting English: "Under the sun, baby, I follow you/ Under the ground, baby, I follow you." As Amadou told a British music magazine, "We would like English-speaking people to understand us. It's not a large vocabulary, but our heart is in it."