Damon and the gold rush: Meet the new heroes of world music

What do you get when a Britpop legend strikes it lucky with a couple of blind Malian rock geniuses?
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The Independent Culture

The night before I met Amadou Bagayoko and Mariam Doumbia – aka Amadou & Mariam – they played a small, private concert at the Musée du quai Branly in Paris, a shiny, modern edifice dedicated to the indigenous cultures of the world. Resplendent in canary-yellow robes and sunglasses, the golden couple of Malian music stuck to each other like glue on stage – Mariam with her shimmering, melancholy voice, Amadou with his virtuosic, Led Zeppelin-in-Africa guitar playing. They won over the crowd of young, hip Parisians, who clapped until their hands were tingling – which they did with good reason: the couple have both been blind since childhood, so hearing the audience is of the utmost importance. The louder the clapping, the better they play.

In the west, African music is often seen as a specialist predilection, as exotic as the artefacts held within the Musée du quai Branly – ripe for stealing or borrowing (see Paul Simon and more latterly Vampire Weekend). But when it’s not sugar-coated, it remains too foreign, too “third world” for most western music fans. Remember how 2005’s Live 8 concert in London – held to raise money for Africa – did not include a single African musician?

Times, hopefully, are changing. A month after Live 8, Amadou & Mariam released Dimanche à Bamako, an album of soulful Afro-pop, produced by globetrotting superstar Manu Chao, and it promptly hurtled to the top of the French charts. Last autumn, at the ripe old ages of 54 (him) and 50 (her), they bettered it with Welcome to Mali – a psychedelic-tinged wonder with the seal of approval from Britain’s most famous champion of African music, Damon Albarn, who produced three of its tracks. The acclaim poured in from across the music press; finally, Amadou & Mariam had the attention of the British public.

At the offices of their record label the day after the gig, they are still firmly stuck together, sitting snug side by side on a sofa. While Amadou’s robes have given way to a more casual suit, his wife is as regal as ever in a colourful headscarf. When I tell the couple their audience was unusually boisterous, Amadou laughs and answers in French. (They sing mostly in French and Bambara – the lingua franca of Mali.) Their manager Marc translates: “That’s exactly what we like, but it could have been much louder. Much more.”

As my GCSE French has been lost to the mists of time, making a connection with the pair is tricky. While Amadou does his best to lean in, Mariam looks – understandably – rather bored, leaning back on the sofa, sometimes interjecting to clarify a point.

I start to wonder how they were able to collaborate with Albarn, but my questions about the British musician draw only vague, polite answers. (Perhaps, like so many other musicians, they express themselves better in song.) The Blur frontman previously worked with Amadou & Mariam on his riposte to Live 8, Africa Express – a live tour that brought together western and African musicians and saw the Malians jamming with Hard-Fi and Johnny Marr. “We really liked working with Damon Albarn,” says Amadou. “He played on our songs ‘C’est ne pas bon’ and ‘Magosa’ and after that he wanted to create something new with us. So he decided to come to Mali and come up with ideas for a new song.” The result was the haunting “Sabali” – a half-spoken, half-sung gem that sits between African blues and British electro-pop. Surprisingly, Pitchfork.com – the famously haughty American indie website – chose it as its 15th greatest track of 2008, alongside pieces by Lil Wayne and Santogold.

The couple met in the mid-1970s at the Institute for the Young Blind, a special school in Bamako, the capital of Mali. By then Mariam already knew Amadou in a sense, having heard him on the radio with his band Les Ambassadeurs.

Both had played music and sung from an early age. “My mother was always singing,” says Amadou. “My mother too,” adds Mariam. “But we don’t come from families with musical backgrounds,” continues her husband. “Music is part of everyday life in Africa. The women are especially very good at singing. It is all around, it’s normal for us.”

Not just African music, either – while they grew up admiring home-grown singers such as Bazoumana Sissoko (who was also blind), Amadou had a fondness for the western psychedelic rock he picked up on his radio – Pink Floyd, Led Zep and Jimi Hendrix.

When I ask how important music is to blind people, the couple explode into a torrent of French. “Music is very important for the blind, especially in Mali,” says Amadou. “It was important for us to raise consciousness of all the blind people in Mali through our music.” The couple have done more than that – over the past few years, they have worked closely with the Blind Institute to stage several fund-raising gigs for the school in conjunction with the charity Sight Savers International.

As for the music, there is still plenty to come. According to Amadou, “Now, we are trying to conquer the world.” Are they confident? “Ah, oui!” And did they ever imagine they would be so successful? “Non,” he replies, with a bemused grin. “I could not have imagined any of this. Our biggest goal was to be known in Mali.”

International success has been a long time coming. “We’ve been touring for three years,” says Amadou. “But we still really like playing live. It’s the main thing for us.” Their touring schedule would test a twenty-something, let alone a middle-aged, blind couple with three children (one of whom, Samou, is following in their musical footsteps, as a rapper). I ask whether they’re going to rest any time soon, and they laugh. “Music is our passion; we have no need to stop,” says Amadou.

Their other passion, evidently, is each other. Throughout our chat, they whisper between questions and giggle like schoolchildren. While many husband-and-wife musical partnerships flounder, Amadou and Mariam’s has grown stronger over the past 30 years. “For some, I can see it is strange, to be together all the time,” says Amadou, “but for us it’s a benefit to be always in communication.” As usual, they said it better in song: “Avec toi, chéri,” murmurs Mariam, in “Sabali”, “la vie est belle."

'I was hooked!': Mali goes global

Charlie Gillett, world-music expert

Dimanche à Bamako is a pop album first, a world-music album last, if at all. It’s the kind of record that makes you want to sing along, even if you don’t understand the words.

Damon Albarn

They are a classic rock’n’roll, soul duo. You won’t find anything more ecstatic this side of Bamako [capital of Mali].

Manu Chao, collaborator

I was driving with the radio on, and this song burst out. I was hooked! Every day I’d put their records on and all these ideas for melodies and vocals came into my head.

Amadou & Mariam are touring Britain from Tuesday. For more information, go to www.amadou-mariam.com