The world music duo from Mali is already topping the charts in Europe. Now the couple is set to conquer the United States.
Just a few hours before a concert in San Francisco, Amadou and Mariam sit down to talk about how they met, what inspires them and why 2005 was a breakout year for their career. Although relaxing in their hotel room, the pair looks stylish. Amadou wears a black suit, a white shirt and his signature aluminum sunglasses by Alain Mikli, a French designer who is now the duo’s official eyewear provider. Mariam is dressed in a dark blue traditional African dress and flip-flops.
The words they use are like the ones in their songs-simple but sincere.
“Everyone knows there’s poverty and misery in Africa,” says Amadou Bagayoko, sitting next to his wife, Mariam Doumbia. “Through our music, we want to show that there are also happy events like weddings on Sundays, something we talk about in the song ‘Dimanche à Bamako.’
The song title is also the name of their latest album. Although their music has often blended different genres-and instruments as diverse as Syrian violins, Dogon drums and rock guitars-this collection has a different feeling. Incorporated into the songs are the sounds of street chatter, sirens, informal singing and other ambient noise from daily life around the world.
The sounds are the contribution of Manu Chao, the French/Spanish artist whose brilliant multilingual rock songs champion the underdogs of globalization. Chao heard the duo’s song “Chauffeurs” on the radio in 2002 and became an instant fan. His public praise for Amadou and Mariam reached the couple through the press, and they arranged a meeting with him in Paris.
“We didn’t know we would record an album,” Amadou says. “At first it was just three artists playing together.” Chao became the producer for Dimanche à Bamako in 2004, and the album was rereleased in the United States the following year.
An inseparable pair
Amadou and Mariam, both from Mali, met at the Institut des Jeunes Aveugles (Institute for Blind Youth) in Bamako, the country’s capital, in 1976. Both prodigies from childhood-Mariam as a singer and Amadou on a variety of instruments-they began making music together and haven’t stopped since. They’ve now been married for more than 25 years and are rarely seen apart.
Amadou began with harmonica, flute and an African drum called the djembé, but guitar is his instrument of choice these days. When asked about his influences, he cites Cuban music, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin and John Lee Hooker. Mariam sang traditional songs from Mali but says that she was also a big fan of French singers like Sheila and Nana Mouskouri, popular in the 1960s.
They are very happy with their popularity in Africa and Europe and say they would like to be just as popular in the United States. When asked what their goals are, Amadou smiles and says: “A Grammy would be great!”
At the concert, Mariam joins her husband on stage and rubs his head lovingly as she sings “Mbifé” (“I love you” in their native Bambara). To help the American audience along, she’s replaced the French lyrics with English. And the crowd adores them.
Later on, Amadou and Mariam get everyone to sing along in French by having them repeat words like fatigué, malheureux, misérable. Many don’t know what the words mean, but they sing and dance their hearts out. When the band exits the stage, a prolonged outburst of whistling and foot-stomping from the audience brings the couple and their musicians back for an encore. The crowd wants even more, but they’ll have to wait till next time. Amadou and Mariam may be winning the heart of the United States quicker than expected.
A Paris tip from Amadou and Mariam
When in the mood for African food, they head to Métro Barbès, where small shops carry all the condiments needed to make traditional dishes. To sample the fare without the hassle of cooking, Mariam suggests going to Mama Africa, one of her favorite restaurants in the city. 48 av. Jean-Jaurès, Métro: Jaurès, 01.42.38.67.67.
Jan. 20, 1976 “The first time we sang together in public. The concert was for the Fête de l’Armée in Mali.”
July 10, 1980 “This was the day of our wedding. Everyone was there. After City Hall, we went to the Institute for Blind Youth and we had a party from morning until night!”
March 5, 2005 “We won the Victoires de la Musique,” one of France’s most prestigious awards.
May 17, 2005 “We received our first Disque d’Or” for albums that sell more than 100,000 copies. “It was a dream come true.”
Oct. 26, 2005 “Just a few months later, we got a Disque de Platine” for albums that top 300,000 copies.