Amadou & Mariam Rock Out in Central Park
To see Amadou & Mariam in concert for the first time – at Central Park Summerstage, early Saturday evening – was eye-opening, especially considering how low-key their early work in the 90s was. For anyone who might think that the celebrated Malian couple would come across live as a folk or pop act, guess again: backed by drums, bongos, keyboards and an extrovert bassist, they’re a robust rock band. Amadou’s repartee with the crowd was pretty much limited to “Are you feeling allriiiiiiiight? Let’s go!” – in French. Interestingly, Mariam looked regal but stayed pretty much in the background musically, only taking over lead vocals on a couple of songs, one of them a ballad that sounded like a halfspeed version of La Bamba with French lyrics. Amadou is a fast, fluid lead guitarist and seemed to relish the opportunity to take a handful of intense, smartly crescendoing solos, playing through a flange effect for a watery tone similar to the one used by another first-rate Malian guitarist, Vieux Farka Toure.
Almost everything they played was in minor keys. There were a lot of hypnotic two-chord vamps, but unlike desert blues, those songs swayed and bounced briskly, sometimes with a funk edge: this band left no doubt that what they were playing was first and foremost dance music. As expected, there was a lot of call-and-response between Amadou and the band, and on a couple of occasions, with the crowd (which seemed to be missing the African expat contingent that usually shows up in droves for stars from that continent). The keyboardist alternated between pinging, upper-register electric piano and dramatic organ swells, adding a playfully cheesy portamento synth solo on one number, over what sounded like a thinly disguised clave beat – or an original version of the clave rhythm, before the Cubans adopted it. One of the songs with Mariam on lead vocals started out with a circular feel akin to the Grateful Dead’s The Eleven before smoothing out with more of a reggae vibe, and a long, suspenseful guitar solo that Amadou began spare and staccato and eventually picked up with a hammering intensity. Another song reminded of Bob Marley’s Exodus, right down to the disco bass allusions. After a couple of long, anthemic, vampy songs to keep the dancers swaying, they ended the set with a straight-up garage rock song. Although the crowd wanted an encore, and there was plenty of time before the usual 7 PM shut-down time at this space, they didn’t get one. What an enjoyable surprise, to show up expecting pleasant and hypnotic, and getting fiery and propulsive instead.