x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

The Mawazine Sessions, part 4: The Malian duo Amadou & Mariam

Amadou & Mariam, known as 'the blind couple from Mali', speak about the success of their album.

Amadou & Mariam have an eclectic sound laced with the melodies and rhythms of their native Mali. Courtesy Dave Stelfox
Amadou & Mariam have an eclectic sound laced with the melodies and rhythms of their native Mali. Courtesy Dave Stelfox

Amadou & Mariam are on a roll.

The blind Malian duo may have been producing their scintillating mix of African pop for nearly three decades, but in recent years the husband-and-wife team have really shone, getting slots supporting the likes of U2 and Coldplay.

Speaking before their headlining appearance at the Mawazine Festival in Morocco, Amadou Bagayoko and Mariam Doumbia relish the release of their latest opus, Folila.

The album continues their streak of collaborations, with special guests including Santigold, TV on the Radio and Jake Shears from The Scissor Sisters.

Bagayoko says it's the duo's most accomplished record. The aim, he says, is to truly go global.

"That is important to us. We wanted to reach out to as many different artists as we can," he says. "We wanted to really create an international album showing that when it comes to music, everyone and everything can mix. Music is truly an international thing."

Despite the rock and funk flavours, the common threads through Amadou & Mariam's seven international releases are the vibrant melodies and rhythms native to Mali.

Ever since their emergence in the mid-1980s, the duo's hallmark has been the vocal interplay between Bagayoko's husky tenor and Doumbia's more delicate phrasing.

The performance is supported by Bagayoko's cracking guitar riffs; he is equally at home on everything from blues numbers and reggae riddims to straight-up rock 'n' roll.

The eclecticism, he says, stems back to his youth at the Mali Institute for the Young Blind.

Bagayoko and Doumbia lost their vision at the ages of 16 and 5, respectively, as a result of untreated measles.

Inspired by the international sounds blaring on the radio, Bagayoko explored performing on different instruments.

"I was into everything," he recalls. "I started playing on the drums first, then I sang and then went on to playing the guitar. Everything I touched I wanted to play. I truly believe that music was sent to me as a gift."

Doumbia, a fellow student at the institute, found solace through performance.

A sought-after wedding singer in Bamako, Doumbia describes the stage as the place she felt most comfortable.

"It is really through singing that I found the best way to be myself," she says. "To go out and perform every night was exciting and through songs, I could express myself that much better."

Doumbia's singing talent caught the ear of Bagayoko - who had already developed into an acclaimed singer-songwriter - and the duo was born.

"When I first heard her voice I thought, 'I simply got to know this person,'" he says. "So I approached her and we started talking and we simply took it from there."

Doumbia didn't take much coaxing - she was already a fan of his work.

"I just loved the way he played guitar," she says.

After their marriage in 1980, the duo began composing and performing in earnest.

Amadou & Mariam's early compositions were mostly sparse exercises built around bluesy guitar riffs and vocals.

Those early recordings, on cassette tapes, sold considerably well around west Africa. The enthusiasm was enough for the group to land a record deal in 1996 and move to Paris. While their string of international releases sold well in France, it was not until 2004's Dimanche à Bamako that the group was thrust onto the world stage.

Produced by the world music star Manu Chao, the album drew fans with its evocative sounds. Snippets of Bamako's traffic and public conversations were infused within the dynamic songwriting.

Rock and indie fans fell for Bagayoko's stellar fretwork, while glowing endorsements came from U2, Coldplay, Blur and TV on the Radio.

"Things have now changed," Doumbia says. "There is a lot more travelling and more shows and you really feel that people are interested in us. But at the same time, I always felt we were doing our own thing. The albums are just us performing songs that we like. I think it was the people that came to us, rather than the other way around."

Regarding being known internationally as "the blind couple from Mali", the duo don't mind.

"It's a badge of honour," Bagayoko says. "At the beginning it was normal for us to be known as the blind couple and we also felt that we were representing the blind institute in Mali where we both came from.

"We never felt bad about that and we are very proud to be known by that because it shows people that we can still achieve despite our condition."

sasaeed@thenational.ae

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