Few words strike as much fear into the hearts of music fans as ‘feat’. Unfortunately, it’s a word that appears all too often in the tracklisting for Folila, the new album by Amadou & Mariam, which is another example of exactly why it’s such a dreaded word.
It’s not even a proper word really, just short for ‘featuring’, meaning that a song features a special guest artist. Along with ‘skit’, it’s one of those words that gets overused in hip-hop circles and generally (though not exclusively) means that the artist has run out of ideas, so has roped in some friends to try and make up for it.
It’s especially disappointing in the case of Africa’s favourite couple, who have become global stars off the back of collaborations with the likes of Manu Chao and Damon Albarn, but whose charm and musicality comes from themselves, not their associates.
Sure, Chao’s fingerprints (and vocals) were all over breakthrough album Dimanche a Bamako, while the Albarn-produced Sabali sounded like little else they had recorded before, but Folila comes across like a missed opportunity for Amadou & Mariam to reassert their own identities.
Instead, there’s only two tracks on it that don’t have ‘feat’ in the titles, and guests as varied as Santigold , Amp Fiddler (whatever happened to him?) and Jake Shears (what ever happened to Scissor Sisters?) pop up, with mixed results. The main thing they have in common is watering down the Amadou & Mariam ‘sound’.
As someone lucky enough to have sat in the dark last year listening to Eclipse at Manchester International Festival, it’s particularly sad to hear this mish-mash of two projects (a collaborations album and a ‘back to basics’ album) that doesn’t really work as either of those things. And then there’s the major problem, Bertrand Cantat.
How someone who spent time in prison for his part in the death of his girlfriend ended up singing on the album is baffling enough, but he features on four of the tracks, with his gruff vocals sounding totally at odds with the music. Probably even more so than Shears’ disco wail on Metemya, and that does sound particularly out of place.
Most of the tracks are ok, though. The guests may intrude and some may not work at all, but opener Dougou Badia and C’est Pas Facile Pour Les Aigles are both great fun, and Amadou’s guitar playing is as rhythmically hypnotic as ever, while their vocals still draw you in even when you’ve no idea what they are singing about.
The problem is that there’s two tracks that don’t have the ‘feat’ in their names and they are so much better than the rest. Sans Toi is a plaintive African Blues song, the very essence of Amadou & Mariam’s magic, while Chérie’s children’s choir make for a delightful closing track. More songs like that, and Folila could have been truly great. Instead, it’s a bit of a mess, and hopefully Amadou & Mariam will ditch the guest stars next time. They don’t need them.
The genius of having your album funded by your own fans directly before you've even made it is that while you are making it, you know exactly who you're making it for. Not for record company execs who have given you money to make it and want to have their say, but for the people who care enough about what you do to pay you to do it. Disc Two of Ginger's 555%, funded by his fans through PledgeMusic, shows exactly what that kind of music can sound like.