Amadou and Mariam: Every day is like Sunday

Robin Denselow meets Amadou and Mariam, the new stars of African pop
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

According to all the normal rules of pop, the fashion for Malian music ought to be dead and buried by now. It is, after all, 18 years since Salif Keita and Ali Farka Toure introduced Western audiences to the extraordinarily varied music of this desperately poor, landlocked state on the fringes of the Sahara. Since then, Malian styles have flourished, thanks to the kora virtuosity of Toumani Diabate, the stirring vocals of Oumou Sangare, the experimental work of Rokia Traore, or the slinky Saharan R&B of Tinariwen. Now comes yet another Malian style that, in Europe at least, has proved to be the most commercially successful yet - African R&B mixed with progressive Europop.

According to all the normal rules of pop, the fashion for Malian music ought to be dead and buried by now. It is, after all, 18 years since Salif Keita and Ali Farka Toure introduced Western audiences to the extraordinarily varied music of this desperately poor, landlocked state on the fringes of the Sahara. Since then, Malian styles have flourished, thanks to the kora virtuosity of Toumani Diabate, the stirring vocals of Oumou Sangare, the experimental work of Rokia Traore, or the slinky Saharan R&B of Tinariwen. Now comes yet another Malian style that, in Europe at least, has proved to be the most commercially successful yet - African R&B mixed with progressive Europop.

The unlikely exponents of it are middle-aged, married and blind. Amadou Bagayoko and Mariam Doumbia have known each other for 30 years, and have been playing and singing together for most of that time, but only this year notched up their first massive hit in France, where their album Dimanche à Bamako ("Sunday in Bamako", the Malian capital) broke into the Top 20. They were also the winners of the Reggae/World category in this year's Victoires de la Musique, the French-language equivalent of the Grammies. As they celebrated at the Zenith, in Paris, an army of colourfully-dressed Malian women dancers invaded the stage. It was, said Mariam: "very great, and we were very happy."

There is another key player in all this. Their biggest fan in recent months has been the brilliant, enigmatic and mercurial pop star Manu Chao, who has become, arguably, the most influential figure in contemporary European pop (and the wider World Music scene) thanks to albums like Clandestino, with their mixes of Caribbean, Latin and African rhythms.

Chao was driving through Paris when he heard a song from Amadou and Mariam and decided that he wanted to work with them. He completely transformed their Dimanche à Bamako album by acting as producer, co-songwriter and performer. The result has transformed their careers.

Amadou and Mariam are now stars in Europe as well as in Mali, and spend their time moving between Paris and Bamako ("our real home"). Their French base is a sparsely-decorated flat at the top of a long staircase in the quiet Parisian suburb of Montreuil, where they sat together to explain their change of fortune.

"We read that he [Chao] liked our style of music, and we wanted to meet him," said Mariam. "So when we met, we brought some songs, and he brought some songs, and then we went off to Mali together to record some other songs. Nobody knows him in Mali, but we had heard Clandestino in France. We did some recording in France, then we went to Mali so that he could discover the ambience and the sounds of Mali, and we played together at the Festival of the Desert (the Touareg festival in the Sahara that established the reputation of the desert-blues band Tinariwen)."

So what did the veteran Malians and the Europop star have in common? "The similarity," said Amadou, "is the simplicity. It's easy to assimilate. And the rhythms. That was not difficult for us because we are used to listening to Cuban music and salsa."

The result is a very clever album that, at times, echoes the earlier styles of Amadou and Mariam - who for years have mixed Malian influences with rousing Western blues and funk - and then adds in Chao's light, rhythmic touch.

It is an intriguingly varied and highly accessible set for Western listeners. Songs like "Coulibaly" echo the couple's earlier work, thanks to Amadou's rousing blues-rock guitar. Then there are quieter songs like the atmospheric "Beaux Dimanches" and "La Fête Au Village", describing the everyday charm of Malian life, from Sunday weddings through to village festivities ("just to show how life and parties are celebrated," according to Amadou). Then there are songs like "Politique Amagni", in which they are joined by the rapper Tiken Jah Fakoly, from the Ivory Coast, to tackle bleaker African themes like corruption.

"Songs like that," said Amadou "are directed at politicians, so we can say what we don't like about them, and a system that is not working - not just in Mali but in the rest of Africa."

On top, there are tracks that sound more like songs from Chao's albums, though now backed by Amadou and Mariam's African R&B, along with some carefully added use of brass or harmonica and sound-effects recorded in Mali. "Sénégal Fast Food " and "Taxi Bamako" show Chao at his jaunty best, while "Camions Sauvages", in which Chao and Mariam trade often half-spoken vocals, is a rousing reflection on the destruction taking place within the continent.

The album was released in France in November, promoted by a series of Sunday afternoon shows at La Boule Noire, beneath the famed La Cigale, in Montmartre. Chao appeared at some concerts and gradually the album edged towards the best-sellers. It is now a gold album in France (with sales of more than 100,000), and Amadou and Mariam have been in constant demand across Europe and in Mali.

Success on this scale has taken a long time, but the duo seemed remarkably relaxed. They met at the Institute for the Blind in Bamako in 1975, when Amadou was 21 and Mariam 17, and have been together ever since. Amadou lost his sight at 13 through cataracts; Mariam was just six when she was blinded after being taken ill with measles. Both then turned to music. Amadou learned guitar, and found that he was not only influenced by the great Malian blues players like Ali Farka Toure, but by a whole variety of Western stars "like Eric Clapton, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and Alvin Lee. We could hear music like that on the radio and friends went to Europe and brought back tapes and albums. Not everyone in Bamako liked it".

Amadou began to play with a variety of other musicians, including the guitarist Idrissa Soumaoro (who is playing in the UK in June) and they both found employment with one of the legendary Malian bands of the Seventies, Les Ambassadeurs, which included Salif Keita and Kante Manfila.

In 1978, Les Ambassadeurs moved from Mali to the Ivory Coast in search of the recording studios and wider fame. Amadou, along with Idrissa, remained behind. "They didn't tell us," he said. "We weren't told they were leaving. It was in August during the holidays and they just disappeared."

Amadou was already spending much of his time at the Institute for the Blind, where he learned Braille and musical theory. Later he became a music teacher, and was joined by his sighted friend from Les Ambassadeurs, Idrissa Soumaoro. Amadou, Mariam and Soumaoro played together in the Institute "orchestra", L'Eclipse, and developed a reputation for "playing a mixture of traditional styles and more modern rock styles - not just in Bamako but right around Mali".

Mariam had been singing since she was six, "performing at weddings and parties and always listening to Malian songs on the radio", and she started writing songs for the band at the Institute, where she learned Braille and taught singing and dancing. Amadou was a songwriter as well as guitarist, and they started writing together and working out arrangements, sharing lead vocals. A new band, Mirya, was formed, this time consisting entirely of non-sighted players. By now their fame had spread far beyond the Institute.

Today there are recording studios in Bamako but to find wider success Amadou and Mariam had to follow the same path as Les Ambassadeurs and move to Abidjan. In the Ivory Coast they built up a cult reputation "recording cassettes, and then playing in clubs and restaurants and cinemas so that people would know about them". Promoted somewhat gracelessly as "The Blind Couple From Mali", they found support among the large West African community in Paris. "Malians like us for our lyrics," said Mariam. "And Western styles mix well with Malian music. Both are respected."

Signed to Universal, Amadou and Mariam made a series of albums that established their reputation. They were remarkable mostly for their easy-going, uncomplicated songs, with sturdy riffs matched against a gently driving, rock-steady and hypnotic rhythmic style that made them sound at times like some unlikely African answer to JJ Cale. They had the added attraction of featuring two strong singers, along with bursts of wailing electric guitar from Amadou, and even a dash of jazz-funk keyboards.

All they needed for mass commercial success was the added ingredient of Chao, and an enthusiastic record label to promote them. Their new album is the first release by the French label Because Music, run by Emmanuel de Buretel, the former boss of Virgin and EMI in Europe, which has energetically promoted the duo in France, and is now trying hard to achieve the same success in Britain.

It won't be quite so easy, despite Chao's popularity here. Songs with mostly French lyrics don't normally get played on Radio 2, which is where an album like this naturally belongs, and it may be considered a bit too "pop" for some of the specialist World Music shows. Amadou and Mariam have played in London in the past, but only at realtively small-scale events. They appeared once at Momo's, off Regent Street, once at the sadly-missed Union Chapel, and once at the Barbican - in the foyer outside, as a free attraction, on the night when Damon Albarn hosted his Mali Music show.

They are now lined up for a London club show in June, with an appearance at the WOMAD festival later in the summer. If, or when, they return to the Barbican, they can expect a billing on the main stage. So did they expect a reaction like this when they teamed up with Chao? Mariam was as thoughtful as ever.

"We wanted to do something different because maybe people didn't know that we could do different music. But the response has been faster than we thought. We didn't expect that."

Amadou and Mariam's 'Dimanche à Bamako' is released on 6 June. They play the Marquee Club, London WC2, on 9 June

Comments