“Since the very beginning, we have always wanted to mix our own music with great, talented musicians,” says Amadou Bagayoko. “We wanted to break barriers and open our ears to a new sound, to bring Malian music to a lot of people around the world in a form they would understand and enjoy.”
“We love what we do,” adds his wife of 37 years, Mariam Doumbia, “and we seek to make people happy with our music, help humanitarian causes and share positive messages about the good work being done by people in every corner of the world.”
With the release of ‘La Confusion’, their eighth international album, two of Africa’s most popular artists return to stake their claim to be the continent’s most successful musical ambassadors of the 21st century. “We’ve been away for a little while, but we are excited by our new songs,” explains Amadou. “We never stopped being Amadou & Mariam, but we were waiting for the best moment to come back with brand new music and plenty of energy for the live shows.”
‘La Confusion’ arrives at a difficult time for their homeland; just as their previous album ‘Folila’ was released, Mali was rocked by a series of calamities, including a coup, insurgencies and the takeover of a large part of the north by Islamists. “We recorded this album in France,” says Amadou, “but we were inspired to write the songs by the changes in Mali and around the world.”
If the mood of the title track is self-explanatory, the two singer-songwriters – Amadou and Mariam write all their songs separately (he finds it easier to work in the cool of the morning, she prefers the quiet of the night) – have penned their most topical material to date. ‘Femmes Du Monde’ argues for equality between the sexes in Mali; ‘C’est Chaud’ tells the stories of Africans forced to leave their homes and migrate, crossing the sea without knowing how life will be if they make it to Europe; ‘Fari Mandila’ criticises the feckless; ‘Ta Promesse’ censures those who give up easily and never fulfill their commitments and ‘Gnagamina’ talks about the turbulent times and terrors with which so many live today.
Amadou & Mariam’s story is one of the most inspiring tales of modern music; a love affair that propelled two grandparents from Mali into charts across the planet, winning enough awards to fill several sideboards and raising awareness of the difficulties in living in one of the world’s poorest countries. Into their orbit came such stars as Damon Albarn, Manu Chao, David Gilmour, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Scissor Sisters. Yet it is also a story that began in adversity and continues to evolve and inspire more than 40 years after it began.
Amadou Bagayoko was born in Bamako, Mali in 1954, six years before the country declared independence from France. With eyesight that had been failing from birth, as a young boy he was unable to join in any communal outdoor work, but would play his flute to entertain fishermen and often found music a more lucrative way to pass the time. A love of rock and blues meant that the teenage Amadou swapped his flute for a guitar in 1967 and was taken under the wing of the Guinean guitarist Kanté Manfila.
As the 1970s dawned, Amadou, though now completely blind, was one of Mali’s go-to guitarists, making a living playing Cuban songs for growing crowds, and in 1974 he joined Manfila and the singer Salif Keita in Les Ambassadeurs du Motel de Bamako, the city’s most progressive big band. Idrissa Soumaoro, Les Ambassadeur’s sighted keyboard player, worked at Bamako’s Institute for the Young Blind. Among his favoured students was Mariam Doumbia. Four years younger than Amadou and blind from the age of five, she was an accomplished songwriter.
In their joint autobiography, ‘Away From The Light Of Day’, Amadou explained why he suggested he help arrange her songs. “My real motivation was Mariam herself. Her beautiful voice, that is. The lyrics touched me because they reflected her sadness and the hypocrisy with which society often treats disabled people. I told her music was a good way to discover that we had a place in society. People would like us because we sang well and this meant we would be able to cut through obstacles; we could get by in life and forget a little about our handicaps.”
In 1980, the couple got married and played their first gig together. Live shows paid poorly, however, and there were no singles or albums because there were no recording studios in Bamako – almost the only place where music could be captured on tape was the national radio station, where the likes of Ali Farka Touré could often be seen recording. “Really, there was no music industry in Mali,” says Amadou. “It was not easy to buy recordings of Malian singers on vinyl or cassette then.”
In 1994, a Malian expatriate invited them to play a concert in France. While there they found a manager who promised to introduce them to an international audience. Three years later, their first single, ‘Je Pense À Toi’ was a hit on French radio. The trio of albums that followed – ‘Sou Ni Tilé’ (1998), ‘Tie Ni Moussou’ (1999) and ‘Wati’ (2002) – demonstrated how adeptly the duo could take their rock and soul heroes’ music and add an African twist to it. In September 2003, Amadou & Mariam and the Franco-Spanish singer Manu Chao set up camp in Studios Davout in Paris to record the album that would be their breakthrough. In January 2004, the trio performed live together for the first time at the famous ‘Festival in the Desert’ near Timbuktu, playing songs from their next long-player ‘Dimanche A Bamako’ to a select group of hardy travellers. “Manu Chao had enriched our music,” says Amadou. “Each time we made an album we hoped it would be a big success, but we really didn’t know about that one.”
“We didn’t know if it was good until we received a gold disc,” interrupts Mariam. “Then we realised it was ok.” It went to No. 2 and spent 101 weeks on the French album charts, selling 500,000 copies. In early 2005, they won the ‘Victoires de la Musique’ prize, the French music-industry’s equivalent of a Grammy, for ‘Best Reggae/Ragga/World Album’.
The rest of that decade passed in a blur as Amadou & Mariam became Africa’s hottest musical export. They toured constantly, becoming regulars at Damon Albarn’s ‘Africa Express’ events, where each concert meant collaborating with the likes of Johnny Marr or Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Amadou’s musical hero, David Gilmour, enlisted him as their second guitarist for a London date. The duo appeared on the Main Stage at Glastonbury, crisscrossed America, supported Blur at Hyde Park, toured with Coldplay and U2, performed at a Nobel Peace Prize concert in honour of Barack Obama and played at the opening ceremonies of the last two FIFA world cups. The duo also debuted their ‘Eclipse’ concerts, shows that take place in total darkness to allow their audiences to experience the music in the same way they do … “A lot of people in a lot of places got to know about Sundays in Bamako,” laughs Amadou.
After ‘Dimanche A Bamako’ came ‘Welcome To Mali’ (2009) and ‘Folila’ (2012), two albums that expanded the Amadou & Mariam palette by introducing their African soul music to electro-pop, art-rock and hip-hop. “We love to listen to all kinds of music in order to find new influences for our personal sound. We’re really passionate about blending different types of music and genres.”
The new album ‘La Confusion’ represents a back-to-basics approach after the previous two albums. The couple were joined in the studio only by their producer, Adrien Durand of the Bon Voyage Project, and musicians they knew well from Africa, such as the kora player Djeli Moussa Diawara and the young ngoni virtuoso Youssouf Diabaté.
“Adrien is a keyboard player and that is the sound we wanted,” says Amadou. “His personal sound and style is quite different from ours, but we have always looked for something different. ‘Sabali’ [on ‘Welcome To Mali’] was a keyboard song, a disco song. ‘La Confusion’ is a collaboration: we gave Adrien enough space to explore new sounds and new arrangements, but we made sure all the songs kept our own personality.”
The album opens with ‘Boufou Safou’, an African disco tune that harks back to African dance pioneers such as William Onyeabor. As soon as Amadou picks up his golden Telecaster on ‘Fari Mandila’, you can feel him experiencing the adrenaline rush of playing songs from their third album, the Memphis soul stew-infused ‘Wati’, for the first time. ‘Yiki Yassa’ updates a tune from their Ivory Coast days; Diarra has a classic Stevie Wonder-like reggae vibe.
“The songs have to sound different,” says Amadou. “We have to keep changing the colour of our music.”
“When it comes to mixing sounds, styles and influences,” adds Mariam with a laugh, “we have always been specialists.”