Poised to stand as the year's biggest album by a pair of blind musicians from Mali, Dimanche A Bamako sounds a joyous call for the kind of musical and cultural polyphony that can translate on any number of fronts. In West Africa, the album represents an adventurous effort by a duo, Amadou & Mariam, whose roots grow back to the '70s. Here in the U.S., it marks the latest album to spill over from world-music racks that aren't always easy to navigate.
Part of the appeal comes from producer Manu Chao, the pan-cultural hand behind some of the more dexterous and intoxicating "world music" of the past few years. (Chao's excellent 2001 album Proxima Estacion: Esperanza can still be heard in bookstores and bruncheries far and wide.) It's easy to feast on Chao's contributions: playful song-shifts, impeccably mixed instrumental interludes, and stylistic cross-currents that clutch more than clash. He's right there at the start of Dimanche, when a sparse, earthy ballad switches in a flash to a spacey spell of acoustic disco.
Lest they go underrepresented, Amadou & Mariam sing and play with striking range while the album bends around them. Amadou Bagayoko's lead guitar snakes like a fly-fishing line, slow and patient from a distance, but tightly torqued up close. Mariam Doumbia handles vocals, either amid group harmonies or isolated in ethereal light as in "Artistiya." The duo sounds touchingly intertwined in several quiet back-and-forth duets, which give grounding to an album that flits through many grooves and styles. One moment Amadou & Mariam are singing sad in the open air, only to shove off the next to dream of Motown in a Parisian after-hours club. It's the kind of musical travel that trips up a compass needle and points its own way.