Amadou and Mariam, the blind couple of Mali, talk to John Lewis about Led Zeppelin, Damon Albarn and feeling shy.
“PEOPLE ARE OFTEN surprised when we explain how much we were influenced by western pop music,” laughs Amadou Bagayoko. “I grew up listening to records by Rod Stewart, Led Zeppelin, James Brown, Crosby Stills & Nash, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Pink Floyd, Stevie Wonder… That’s because they were the only records we had in Mali!”
If Amadou and Mariam, the blind couple from the Malian capital of Bamako, are slowly becoming the biggest international pop stars to come from the African continent, it’s partly because they challenge so many preconceptions we might have of African music. In their hands, the bajourou rhythms and the storytelling songs of the jeli griots come refracted through a distinctly familiar western pop prism.
It’s African pop music that’s funkier than the funkiest American R&B, more hypnotic than any techno track and catchier than any manufactured pop band. Record companies have thus been able to market them as a pop group rather than a specialist “world music” product – as a result they’ve played in front of enormous crowds at Glastonbury and Lolapalooza; they’ve toured the UK with the Scissor Sisters, they recorded the official theme for the 2006 World Cup, and they’ve collaborated closely with global superstars Manu Chao and Damon Albarn.
Success has come late to Amadou Bagayoko (55) and Mariam Doumbia (50). They met in 1977 at Mali’s Institute For The Blind and married three years later. Amadou played in a blues rock band called Les Ambassadeurs Du Motel, and Mariam would occasionally sing backing vocals. By the early 1980s, they had started writing, touring and recording together.
In 1994, a talent scout for Universal Records called Marc-Antoine Moreau found a tape of theirs in a marketplace in Mali (labelled The Blind Couple Of Mali) and fell in love with their music. After several years of contact, he finally recorded an album with them in 1997, becoming their producer and manager.
“Maybe it’s because they are blind,” says Moreau, “but they certainly listen to the radio a lot, and seem to soak up so many musical and artistic influences. They’re both incredibly open-minded and knowledgeable about many, many things. Most importantly, they’re not afraid of fusion.”
Under Moreau (who describes himself as the duo’s “third eye”) they recorded three albums for Universal – 1998’s Sou Ni Tilé, 1999’s Tje Ni Mousso and 2003’s Wati – with Amadou’s gnarly, distorted guitar establishing them as a kind of Africanised Booker T. and the MGs. The breakthrough came in 2005 with the poppier Dimanche A Bamako, produced by French rebel rocker Manu Chao. Now its follow up Welcome To Mali – featuring guest slots from Nigerian guitarist Keziah Jones, Somali rapper K’Naan and French pop stars “M” and Julian Rozoff – has made them global stars.
Welcome To Mali not only reached the UK and French album charts, but it has been a huge critical success. On the US website Metacritic, which works out the average critical rating from every US and UK review, Amadou & Mariam received an unprecedented 92 per cent rating. Much of its appeal comes from the effortless blending of styles. Apart from the Africanised Booker T. and the MGs-style that is Amadou and Mariam’s default setting, the album sees them flirting with Jamaican dancehall (‘Djama’), Motown-inspired hip hop (‘Africa’, which features Somali rapper K’Naan), Nigerian Afrobeat (‘Unissons Nous’) and even Bollywood disco (‘Sabali’).
“That’s one of the key things about Amadou and Mariam’s appeal,” says Moreau. “Neither of them is hung up about definitions of traditional music. You’ll see them happily borrowing from American R&B, English rock, French pop, hip hop, reggae, as well as traditional music from all around Africa and beyond.” Two tracks on the album sessions were even recorded in New Delhi with traditional Indian musicians – they ended up being cut from the finished album but Moreau promises they will show up somewhere soon.
Much of the attention in Britain for Welcome To Mali have been devoted to the oriental-edged synth pop of the album’s two opening tracks, which have been co-written and co-produced with the seemingly omnipresent Damon Albarn.
“Sharing music and ideas with other musicians and finding new ways to express yourself is the most exciting thing you can do as a musician,” says Amadou. “We met Damon Albarn several times – in Mali, Congo and London – and we also joined his Africa Express project, where Damon helped African music and African musicians by putting a focus on them in Britain. He is a very interesting and constructive person to work with. He is the kind of guy who is always trying to find solutions, to find out the reasons behind things.”
Whereas previous Amadou and Mariam releases have been predominantly sung in French, this album features tracks like the pan-African hip hop track ‘Africa’ and the string-drenched ballad ‘I Follow You’ which are in English.
“It does feel weird singing in English,” says Amadou. “But it also felt weird the first time we started to sing in French, rather than [Malian language] Bambara. We just want to communicate with as many people as possible, and English is the language of the pop music I grew up with. The only thing is that singing in English makes me feel very shy, very vulnerable. Maybe with a bit of time maybe I’ll sound like James Brown!”
© John Lewis, Hotline, February 2009