One sees clearly only with the heart. What is essential is invisible to the eye.
- Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince


Amadou & Mariam: Dimanche a Bamako

By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Sep 29, 2016
Category: World

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We don’t talk politics here, so I can’t say why many of my friends tell me they wake at 3 AM and pace the floor or have mini-anxiety attacks during the day or are self-medicating, but clearly something is upsetting in our land. My job here is to seduce you away from all that, if only for a moment, and, if I can, point you to a new idea or great art or joy. Well, this is joy….

Do you like music that makes you happy?

I don’t mean moderately happy, 7.5 on a scale of 10, isn’t it a great day happy, kind of sort of happy.

I mean ecstatic, get up and dance happy, throw caution to the winds and kiss a stranger happy, pump up the volume and wake your neighbors happy, see yourself realizing all your dreams happy.

That happiness is commercially available. It’s even legal. You can get a preview of it by jumping on the video of "La Realite" (below). You can just trust me that this is a CD you absolutely cannot go on living without; you’ll want to click and have these sounds for your very own in a matter of days. Or, if you are weary of hype, you can resist until I Make the Case.

Okay, here’s the case:

Amadou Bagayoko and Mariam Doumbia are from Mali. They met in the 1970s, married in 1980 and started performing together. Like their fellow musicians from Mali — I’m thinking of Ali Farka Toure and Boubacar Traore — they started with their country’s version of the blues. Along the way, they went international and borrowed from cultures as diverse as Cuba and France. And they became very popular indeed.

Small fact: They’re blind. Both of them. And possessed of the unusual joy that is the special province of some of the unsighted.

In 2003, Amadou and Mariam hooked up with Manu Chao. This is major, for Chao is a world music god everywhere but in America. The reason for that is somewhat predictable: Chao is unabashedly political. Many of his lyrics are about poverty and oppression, his music is based on local folk music, and underneath it is usually a bouncy punk beat. (In 1994, he bought a train in Colombia, assembled a traveling circus and traveled the country, stopping in villages to perform. "People coming to the show, they all had a gun," he has recalled. "But we went through with no problem. That was our little victory.")

Chao not only produced "Dimanche a Bamako," he co-authored some of the songs, and sang and played guitar as well. But it’s as a producer that he shines brightest. Almost every song has a killer beat, and on top of that he layers street sounds, harmonies from anywhere (this CD starts with a cross between 1960s hootenany and 1950s doo-wop), and on top of all that are Amadou and Mariam, who would be offended if they were ever described as less than "hypnotic." [To buy the CD from Amazon, click here. For the MP3 download, click here.]

"Dimanche à Bamako" was a huge hit in France, where it won a Les Victoires de la Musique award (the French Grammy). Just from "La Realite" — the song I’m playing over and over — I can understand why.

The music has police whistles, xylophone, sirens, cheering crowds, a Tex-Mex organ and a beat that pounds disco right through the wall into reggae’s yard. And the lyrics (in French) have a brilliantly calibrated mix of rebel politics, weary philosophy and, finally, a command to get out of the chair:

Ups and downs
It is life in this world
Sad reality
While some are being born
Others are dying
And while some are laughing others are crying

Ups and downs
It is life in this world
Sad reality
Some have work while others are out of work
Then it must be that while some are sleeping
Others are keeping the watch
It is the sad reality

But…let us dance together

Exciting? Thrilling! As the distinguished English critic Charlie Gillett has written, "There are going to be many people who will find they have three copies of this album by the end of this year: one that they bought themselves, the other two given by people who’ll say, ‘I heard this and thought this is the kind of thing you like.’ And there will be people who will themselves have bought three or four copies to give to friends, saying, ‘I know you’ve sworn you’ll never like an album not in English, but this is the one to win you over.’"

I’ll say it more bluntly: This is pure joy, suitable for every occasion. To turn away from "Dimanche a Bamako" is to choose to live a diminished life. I beg you: Don’t miss this one.


Short takes

The antidote to house porn: “The New Small House”

At the height of the real estate bubble, the average American house was 2,268 square feet. After the crash, it shrunk to 2,100. Now the median single family house is getting bigger. But what if you don’t need or want 4 bedrooms, 3 baths and a Great Room? Then you’ll be interested in “The New Small House,” by Katie Hutchison, a New England architect. She takes you inside 24 small houses, ranging in size from 500 square feet to 1640 square feet. She suggests 10 design strategies. She adds 5 delicious small retreats. And there are 75 photos and 30 illustrations. [To buy the book from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle dedition, click here.]

December 2: Join me to hear a king of African music.

I haven’t proposed a Head Butler Field Trip in years, but an artist as remarkable and generally distant as Boubacar Traore doesn’t come to New York often. He’ll be peforming at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Friday, December 2, at 7 PM. Tickets are $65, and include museum admission. For information and tickets, click here. If you’re going, let me know.

For sale: Hawaiian retreat

If you love Hawaii and all things Hawaiian — like the rainforest and the Grateful Dead — we are selling our 550 sq. ft. home on one verdant acre for $125,000. Multiple fruit trees, sugar cane, exotic tropical flowers, palms, fairy trail and art studio. Contact: Grace Iurilli at