World Music Features    Amadou and Mariam    World Music at Global Rhythm - The Destination for World Music

World Music Features    Amadou and Mariam    World Music at Global Rhythm - The Destination for World Music


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Amadou and Mariam
By Banning Eyre

Published July 12, 2006

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The cassette could hardly have looked more modest: a simple photograph of two, casually dressed musicians wearing sunglasses, one holding an acoustic guitar, the other facing a microphone, both looking shy and serious. Printed words on a yellow background above and below the photo read: Couple Aveugle du Mali, Vol. 1.

“Blind Couple of Mali” seemed a heavy-handed promotional phrase, but my Bamako cassette merchant assured me that the act was popular, and he quickly pulled a copy of their latest, Volume 4, on the cover of which the couple appeared in formal wear, still wearing sunglasses, smiling amiably, and now identified as Amadou Bagayoko and Mariam Doumbia.

The year was 1993, and these were among some 50 cassettes I brought home from Bamako for possible broadcast on the public radio program Afropop Worldwide. As I recall, neither one made the show. Volume 1 featured six, simple songs backed only by that acoustic guitar. Volume 4 offered stronger singing, and some rocking, electric lead guitar, but stiff, drum machine production made it otherwise hard to distinguish from the crop of inspired, but flawed, Malian roots pop. Apparently, I missed a diamond in the rough, for I had no clue that four international CDs later, Amadou and Mariam would be one of the most celebrated acts in world music. 

The morning after the couple played two sold-out sets at Joe’s Pub in New York last August, Amadou conceded his own surprise, as well. “We couldn’t have imagined this,” he said, casting his mind back to those early recordings, hastily made in a studio in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, “all the success, traveling around the world. We just wanted to play music together. We thought that ours was a story that would work in Mali, but beyond that, we never imagined.”

Amadou and Mariam’s latest release, Dimanche a Bamako (Nonesuch), has a story of its own. Manu Chao, the offbeat prince of European world music, produced the album, co-writing some of its 15 songs, playing guitar, singing and programming throughout. Chao’s presence helps to explain why the CD quickly sold 100,000 copies when it was released in France, but he can’t take all the credit for this album’s runaway success. Long before they met Chao, Amadou and Mariam had come upon a winning formula for blending the Bambara music of their ancestors with raw, rootsy rock ’n’ roll.

Bridging palpable brashness and irresistible warmth, the Malian couple has a sound like nothing else in African pop, and it all begins with that story Amadou referred to, the story of how this husband-and-wife team met at an institute for the blind in Bamako in 1975. Amadou was 20 Mariam was 17, and they knew very quickly that they were destined to be together.

“Which came firs

Recommended Listening


Amadou and Mariam, Sou ni Tilé (Tinder, 1998): The album that defined Amadou and Mariam as Malian rockers. The presence of tablas and Indian violin signals an unconventional bent to their international career from the start. Hits “Je Pense a Toi” and the jangling “C’est La Vie” belt with authenticity, despite the addition of blues harmonica and a brass section, and forays into reggae and Latin music.


Amadou and Mariam, Tje ni Mousso (Circular Moves, 1999): A&M consider this their most “rock” album, and the source of the strongest songs in their live show: “Chantez Chantez,” which kicks out the Chicago blues jams, “Djangneba,” in which Mariam sings over a rollicking backbeat, buoyed by blustery trombone, and the brassy closer, “Nangaraba.”


Amadou and Mariam, Wati (Circular Moves, 2002): Goes to the roots of the couple’s sound, featuring a stripped-down, driving, guitar-intensive production style and fewer guest soloists than on the earlier CDs. The roots theme comes home when, for the first time, African traditional instruments enter the mix, including calabash percussion, the twinkling spike lute, ngoni, and its bassy Moroccan cousin, the guimbri, which introduces the flavor of Gnawa music.


Manu Chao, Clandestino (ARK21, 1998): Chao’s debut solo album establishes the hallmarks of his approach: a light, playful touch, clean, gentle rhythms, the use of multiple languages, and ambient sounds from distant radios to telephone answering machines. The music has a kind of magical beauty that can as easily morph into nursery rhyme sweetness or punk attitude.


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