It's the atmospheric use of ambient 'found sounds' and occasional novel instruments...
Jon Lusk 2005
Together as a musical entity since 1980, three years after they met at the Institute for the Young Blind in Bamako, Amadou & Mariam have slowly gained an audience outside West Africa since achieving major label status in 1998. I have to admit to finding their work up to this point a little monochrome, but suddenly they're in Technicolor courtesy of Manu Chao, who here takes on the role of producer.
At first listen and especially on the instrumental "M'Bife Balafon" this could almost be Chao's long awaited third solo album. Certainly, the way the French public have lapped it up adds to that impression. But despite a generous sprinkling of his trademarks (frequent backing and lead vocals, the cop car siren on "La Réalité", a vibrant skanking strum on "Camions Sauvages" and the general sense of momentum created by judicious segueing throughout, to name a few), it's very much an Amadou & Mariam record.
Amadou still writes much of the material, but his noodling guitar grooves jump out of the speakers as never before on tracks like "Coulibaly" and "Artistiya". And Mariam still struggles with the high notes in her endearingly naïve way. She's hardly Bamako's finest singer, but finds form on the likes of "La Paix". It's the atmospheric use of ambient 'found sounds' and occasional novel (for Malian music) instruments like trumpet, tabla and keyboards (imitating everything from Theremins to xylophones) that really spice things up.
You don't have to be a fan of African music to enjoy this. It's a fantastic album to drive to, with a recurring 'going places' theme, humorously underlined by the lyrics of "Taxi Bamako" and other tracks. You'll soon get it. The only niggling question it begs is: what on earth will Amadou and Mariam do next?