The Immense Sweetness of Amadou & Mariam

Lover-musicians Amadou Bagayoko and Mariam Doumbia — better known as Amadou & Mariam — met in the mid-’70s at a school for the blind in Mali. Says Amadou wryly, “It was love at first sight.” A shared love of music drew the two together; since then, they’ve rarely been apart, whether nestling and singing side by side onstage — each one seemingly trying to outsmile the other — or raising their three kids. For nearly 30 years, music has enriched their romance, and vice-versa. “I am interested in what interests her,” Amadou says, “and she is interested in what interests me, and we talk about it every day.”In a happy turn of events, French iconoclast Manu Chao heard Amadou & Mariam a few years ago on the radio, eventually hooked up with the pair, and produced their sublimely kick-ass collaboration, Dimanche à Bamako (“Sunday in Bamako”). The album became their Western breakout: It blew up on release in France last fall, selling more than 100,000 units and beguiling the finicky French press. Its warm-hearted charms have begun to seduce the rest of Europe and the U.S. as well.Mali’s fertile groove crescent has fueled fusional inspiration for years: Salif Keita has championed a globalized sound since the late ’80s, and Ali Farka Touré talked the Timbuktu blues with Ry Cooder. Damon Albarn went dubwise with Touré protégé Afel Bocoum and master kora player Toumani Diabate — who has also kicked it with neo-flamenco aces Ketama, Taj Mahal and jazz-boneman Roswell Rudd. But Dimanche transcends most Malian joint-development projects, both commercially and artistically, and A&M and Chao have nurtured an organic collaborative model that seamlessly integrates their simpatico styles and sensibilities. Chao’s trademark found-sounds of communal life, skanky-folky guitar bits, talk-sung vocals, toylike keyboards and low-profile rhythm beds flow riverine through Amadou’s naturalistic Stratocaster licks, the duo’s fulsome vocals and the accompanists’ savoir-faire. “It’s the simplicity of our lyrics and our music that [Chao] particularly appreciated,” said Amadou last year on Radio France Internationale. “[They’re] a little like what are in [his own] records. A real exchange has happened since then.” The results not only invite the listener into an expansive soundscape, but a touching story of true love. Amadou (who lost his sight at 16) started playing professionally in his teens. He honed his guitar chops in the legendary Les Ambassadeurs, fronted by the celebrated Salif Keita. Mariam (who went blind at the age of 5) had been tra-la-la-ing along with the radio since she was a child, memorizing the lyrics of songstresses from Malian diva Fanta Damba to Euro star Nana Mouskouri. She began singing at weddings and other events before she was 10. For several years, the twosome led the musical ensemble at the Malian Institute for the Young Blind in the capital city of Bamako, touring the country to entertain and educate people about the sight-impaired. They married in 1980, the same year their duo act debuted. Their career took another turn in 1986 when they moved to the Ivory Coast, where they recorded several cassette albums, gaining moderate popularity on the West African regional and expat scene as “the blind couple of Mali.” Amadou & Mariam first recorded in Paris in 1994, but when they hooked up with producer Marc-Antoine Moreau a few years later, their stock rose from local stardom to international recognition. Boosted by the success in France of the seductively hooky hit, “Je Pense à Toi” (I Think About You), 1998’s Sou Ni Tile (Night and Day)established Amadou & Mariam as globosonic syncretists. Amadou’s guitar bristle and the couple’s down-home, earnest vocals merged with funky-bubblin’ keyboards, dance-floor-friendly Latin-Carib horns, djembe-thumpin’ mojo and tasteful violin and flute morsels to etch a distinctive crossover template. “Je Pense à Toi” found Amadou in heartache-on-the-verge-of-heartbreak mode, with Mariam harmonizing in an intimate whisper, reassuring and affirming: “My beloved, don’t abandon me/My love, my darling, when I’m in bed/I only dream about you/When I wake up/I only think about you.” The French went gaga for it, as if Amadou & Mariam were the nouveau Beaujolais. They released two more albums — 1999’s Tje Ni Mousso and 2002’s edgier Wati — but didn’t score another hit, even though their worldwide fan base quietly swelled. Then, one day in 2003, a funny thing happened on the Paris ring road. One of France’s — and the world’s — biggest anti-stars heard the lovebirds on his car radio. “I went and asked my buddies who sang the song. [They said], ‘That’s Amadou & Mariam. Everyone knows [them],’” Chao told French radio. “But I had been [living] in Spain and their music wasn’t played there... I became a fan on the first listen. I bought all their CDs. At my house, I put on [their] discs and sang over them; I found little choruses, added some melodies.” The three hit it off upon meeting, and a jam session ensued. It went so well that they spent nearly a week in the studio in September ’03, finishing a major chunk of what became Dimanche. They recorded more tracks in Bamako and Mopti, a town several hundred kilometers up the Niger River from the capital. Although the fever dreams of “Sénégal Fast Food” and “Camions Sauvages” (“Wild Trucks”) reverberate like lost Chao solo gems, tracks like the anvil-hammering “Coulibaly,” tranquilly celebratory “La Fête au Village” and weirdly jaunty “Djanfa” (“Betrayal”) bloom with near-botanical hybridism, as much Mali as Manu. When asked, Chao said that what struck him most about A&M’s music was “the immense sweetness ... Whether the songs are slow or fast, there is enormous humanity.” He marveled at how well they listened to each other in the studio, how “fluid” everything was: “It all was done in a very spontaneous manner. I went from [being] a fan to collaborator and executive producer.” Dimanche brims with unadorned, declarative social and interpersonal commentary, reflected in titles that translate as “I Love You,” “Reality,” “Peace” and “Perversity.” Because their voices stay earthbound rather than soar skyward like the Salif Keita or Kandia Kouyate schools of Malian singing, A&M don’t get histrionic in their observations of the human condition. “People listen to me, my duty is to sing,” implores Mariam on Amadou’s sneakily shufflin’ unity hymn, “Peace.” “I am against no one/Long live the solidarity between peoples.” Mariam’s sweet yet cautionary words for her husband float over Chao’s gentle strums, harmonies and toy-xylophone tones on the lullaby-like “M’Bifé” (“I Love You”) and “M’Bifé Blues,” which bookend Dimanche. The songs echo Amadou’s sentiments from “Je Pense à Toi,” conveying the same unmannered authenticity. “Listen love/Don’t abandon me/Don’t humiliate me/Love is a debt/The promise is a debt/You love me, I love you, where is the problem?/I will love you until death.” Even the most sympathetically rendered English translation can’t do full justice to the emotional honesty of the original’s French and Bambara mix. “Africa,” Amadou told me over the phone, “is full of problems, but we also want to live in joy.” AMADOU & MARIAM | Dimanche à Bamako (Nonesuch) Amadou & Mariam play at the Knitting Factory Monday, September 12.

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