This is not intended in any way to be a slight against Amadou & Mariam. But a review of their audience might be even more interesting than a review of the band.
The large crowd at the Capitol Theater on Monday night included over 100 people who packed the dance floor in front of the stage to hear the husband-and-wife duo from Mali. And it was fascinating to watch how the same rhythms emanating from the stage translated into a hundred different ways of dancing, every person enjoying and expressing the music in their own way.
And the six-piece band certainly gave the crowd plenty to work with, with an amazing 90-minute set of accomplished Afro-pop and funk. Perhaps the most fascinating souls in the crowd were the few who stood there and resisted the urge to dance. How could they stand it?
The show was a first collaboration between the Overture Center and the Marquette Neighborhood Association, who brings many world music artists to town to its east side festivals. The crowd cheered at news that the Sierra Leone Refugee All-Stars would be headlining the Orton Park Festival later this month.
For anyone who has attended one of those festivals, the vibe inside the Capitol Theater was instantly recognizable. The evening started off with a terrific set from Madison’s own Tani Diakite and his Afro-funk All-Stars. Diakite plays the kamelon ngoni, a traditional Malian stringed instrument, and with two percussionists and a bass player, the All Stars built enrapturing rhythms together that grew slowly in force. The level of unspoken communication between the four must be incredible, as they all knew how and when to slowly grow a song bit by bit.
Amadou Bagayoko and Mariam Doumbia are both blind, and were led to center stage. Both wore maroon and gold robes and matching gold sunglasses, and Amadou sported a gold Telecaster guitar that glinted in the stage lights.
They started every song with “Are you ready? Let’s go!” and ended each song by asking the crowd “Is everybody all right? Are you okay?” The songs, from the easy groove of “Oh Amadou” to the high-energy romp of “C’est Pas Facile,” were built on foundations of rhythm, with the band’s two percussionists and bass player creating a hypnotic wave that Amadou & Mariam’s vocals could ride.
Amadou’s guitar was largely involved in adding to the rhythm too, but every once in a while, he would cut loose with a sizzling guitar solo, some lasting several minutes. It was amazing, life-affirming music, drawing in elements of the Western music that Malian blues inspired (was that a disco beat I heard at one point?)
As respectful as the duo are of Malian heritage, they push that tradition into new places; the new album “Folila” features collaborations with Santigold and members of TV on the Radio. The result is music that feels fresh and alive, never standing still. No wonder that, in addition to playing world music festivals, they have such crossover appeal that the duo played a late-afternoon set Sunday at Lollapalooza in Chicago.
The encore included the only slow song of the night, a love song in which Mariam caressed the shoulders of Amadou as she sang. Then it was back to the dancing for an extended finale, in which the bass player and hand drummer bounded around the stage, and several locals got on stage to move to the beat. Perhaps Amadou & Mariam couldn’t see the positive energy they were creating in the Capitol Theater, but you know they could feel it.