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Nonesuch

Simultaneously engaging and irksome, Amadou & Mariam’s latest is a type of album rarely encountered these days: one on which the performers are upstaged by their producer. The first U.S. major-label release of the Malian husband-and-wife duo’s 17-year career, Dimanche à Bamako (“Sunday in Bamako”) was “produced by and with Manu Chao,” and that itinerant worldbeat virtuoso also wrote or co-wrote eight of the 15 songs, often leaving his clients with little to do. Chao used to front Mano Negra, which was the Franco-Iberian equivalent of the Clash, Madness, and the Pogues, all at once. As a solo artist, he’s cooled down and partially unplugged, constructing a stylish but easygoing mix of briskly strummed acoustic guitar, lite-reggae electrobeats, and run-on vocal melodies that meld hiphop, flamenco, and “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” That’s the formula he employs on such album standouts as the chattering “Sénégal Fast Food” and “Camions Sauvages” and the sauntering “Taxi Bamako.” Chao’s strolling, densely layered chants are as seductive as ever, but where are Amadou & Mariam? The couple, who met at Bamako’s Institute for the Young Blind, seem to have been reduced to backup singers for these numbers. Amadou Bagayoko once played guitar with the Ambassadeurs du Motel de Bamako, a group later joined by Salif Keita, an exponent of big-band Afropop. But with Mariam Doumbia, he’s favored a quieter, more traditional sound akin to the music of such fellow Malians as Ali Farka Touré and Boubacar Traoré. Not that there’s anything especially rustic about Dimanche à Bamako, despite the acoustic guitar, djembe, and occasional balafon. The album finds its ostensible stars delivering Francophone lyrics about subways, ghettos, and such un-Malian places as Manhattan and Tokyo. For his part, Chao takes a less overpowering role on some of the compositions, notably “Gnidjougouya” and “La Fête au Village,” gentle charmers that give first-time Amadou & Mariam listeners a sense of what previous albums sound like. Bagayoko and Doumbia aren’t entirely absent from the other tunes, of course, but most of these insinuating yet conceptually off-key songs sound as if they should have been recorded for something titled Manu à Bamako. —Mark Jenkins