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Amadou & Mariam

Amadou & Mariam


World music duo


The ancient musical traditions of the West African land of Mali, whose story songs accompanied by stringed instruments are thought by some to be the source of the blues style in America, have proven unusually adaptable to collaborations involving other musicians from around the world. African Americans such as Taj Mahal have worked with Malian singers and instrumentalists, as have Spanish flamenco guitarists; Malian musicians, in turn, have borrowed from American pop, from reggae, and from various Latin American traditions. The husband-and-wife duo of Amadou & Mariam, however, have taken musical fusion to a whole new level.

Amadou Bagayoko and Mariam Doumbia were born near the Niger River in Mali. Although they grew up just a few blocks from one another, they did not meet until years later. Both were born sighted but went blind as young people, Amadou at age 15 as a result of a congenital cataract, and Mariam at five, after contracting measles and receiving inadequate medical care. Both played music when they were young, Mariam in a traditional African setting. "I started in traditional and family gatherings," she was quoted as saying on the World Music Net website. "I worked on my voice with a little transistor radio of my father's, then began to gain

confidence, and I moved out of the background and started composing."

Amadou, meanwhile, had begun performing in bands as a singer and guitarist. Western musical influences in Mali were diverse in the 1960s and 1970s, with American pop and rock, the music of Mali's former French colonizers, and stylistic exports from newly socialist Cuba all playing a role. He joined a band called National Orchestra B and then, moving to the Malian capital of Bamako, played with one of the top West African groups of the day, Les Ambassadeurs du Motel de Bamako, which also spawned the career of the internationally successful Malian star Kalif Seita. Remaining with Les Ambassadeurs from about 1974 to 1980, Amadou traveled with the group to such musical capitals as Paris, Lagos, and Abidjan, the capital of Ivory Coast. "That was my high school, the place where I could finally perfect my playing and face professional musicians," Amadou was quoted as saying on World Music Net. "I realized what I lacked technically, and the immensity of our repertoire. There were musicians from all over West Africa: Ivory Coast, Senegal, Ghana."

The next step in Amadou's personal and professional life came when he met Mariam at Mali's Institute for the Young Blind, where both were singing in a choir. They became inseparable and began performing together, and later married and had three children.

In the late 1980s Amadou and Mariam took to the road, leaving their children behind in Mali, to seek out a more vigorous popular music industry than the one their home country could offer. Passing through Burkina Faso, they ended up in Abidjan and immediately found a diverse music scene there. Billed as "The Blind Couple of Mali," they began to find new fans, and beginning in 1988 they released a series of five cassettes under the guidance of a Nigerian producer named Aliyu Maikano Adamu. These spare recordings featured only Mariam's singing and Amadou's electric guitar, but they nevertheless showed a unique new style, and the duo's fame spread, partly through the efforts of Africa's energetic pirate recording distribution network. Some of the songs Amadou & Mariam recorded during this period resurfaced on their international breakthrough album Sou ni tilé. Eventually they returned to Mali, having achieved stardom there in absentia.

The success Amadou & Mariam experienced in Africa brought them to the attention of European record companies, and after touring African venues in Europe in 1995 they were flown to London by the giant Polygram label to make a demonstration recording. The duo backed up the 1998 release of Sou ni tilé (on the Polygram subsidiary Emarcy) with a move to Paris, bringing their music to European audiences with appearances at such venues as the Transmusicales festival in Rennes, France. Sou ni tilé (Bamanan for "Night and Day") was released in the United States on the Tinder label in 1999, and an Amadou & Mariam track was included on the American label Putumayo's widely circulated Mali to Memphis compilation the following year.

Sou ni tilé displayed some of the duo's trademark eclecticism. Accompanied by a band, Amadou & Mariam included the Indian sarangi and tabla on one track, featured French-style fiddling on another and, like other West African artists, gestured toward reggae, blues, and horn-driven funk. Yet it was not just the dexterity with which Amadou & Mariam referred to other styles that attracted critics, it was the way they incorporated various influences into music that seemed personal and homegrown. "[N]either Amadou nor Mariam has a powerhouse voice, but everything on this disc comes across as heartfelt and genuine," noted Dirty Linen's Peggy Latkovich, who added that "Sou ni tilé is rich, sweet, and delicious."

Several more releases exposed audiences to different aspects of the versatile duo's music. The 1999 French release Se Te Djon Ye captured the intimate feel of their duet performances without a backing band. Tje Ni Mousso ("Man and Woman" in Bambara) was released in the United States on the Circular Moves label in 2000, and featured an organ and a horn section that made clear the debt Amadou & Mariam owed to American funk, specifically to the music of an influence they readily acknowledged, that of James Brown.

For the Record …

Members include Amadou Bagayoko , vocals, guitar; Mariam Doumbia , vocals.

Formed in Bamako, Mali, 1980s; lived and recorded in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, late 1980s and early 1990s; returned to Mali and moved to Paris, France, mid-1990s; released Sou ni tilé, 1998; released Wati, 2002.

Addresses: Agent—Ritmo Artists, P.O. Box 684705, Austin, TX 78768.

An Amadou & Mariam album was a linguistic mix as well, featuring lyrics in French and in the African languages of Bambara, Prul, Dogon, and Bamanan. Some of their songs dealt with contemporary scenes and issues in African society, but many had a more general spiritual or philosophical tone that sometimes reflected the couple's Islamic faith. "We are Muslims," Mariam explained in a French-language interview appearing on the scorbut.be website, and Amadou added, "Which means we believe in helping people, in taking on their suffering. We want to say to people that it's necessary to extend a hand, to work together. Life lasts only a short time."

Amadou & Mariam returned with the album Wati, released in Europe in 2002 and in the United States in 2003. The album continued to blend the sounds of Mali with those of the West, and it impressed writer Chris Nickson of the All Music Guide with "a sound that's remarkably down-home." After 15 years of recording, Amadou & Mariam have remained vital and open to new influences. What may turn up next in the Malian musical stew that informs Amadou & Mariam's music remains to be seen.

Selected discography

Le couple aveugle du Mali, vols. 1-5, Maikano (Ivory Coast), 1989-93.

Sou ni tilé, Universal, 1998.

Se Te Djon Ye, Sonodisc, 1999.

Tje Ni Mousso, Circular Moves, 2000.

Wati, Circular Moves, 2002.

Sources

Periodicals

Daily Telegraph (London, England), July 12, 2003, p. 12.

Online

"Amadou & Mariam," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (April 12, 2004).

"Amadou & Mariam," Emarcy Records, http://www.emarcy.com/artists.asp?artist_id=17 (April 12, 2004).

"Amadou et Mariam," Scorbut.be, http://www.scorbut.be/interview/interview_amadoumariam/interview.htm (April 12, 2004).

"Amadou et Mariam," Ritmo Artists, http://www.ritmoartists.com/AmMar/AmMar.htm (April 12, 2004).

"Amadou et Mariam: Sou Ni Tilé," Roots World, http://www.rootsworld.com/reviews/amadou-mariam.html (April 12, 2004).

"Amadou & Mariam," World Music Net, http://www.worldmusicnet.com/artists/amadoumariam_01.html (April 12, 2004).

"Sou ni tilé," Dirty Linen, http://www.dirtynelson.com/linen/85/recordings.html (April 12, 2004).

—James M. Manheim

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