A FEW MINUTES WITH: Amadou Bagayoko of Amadou & Mariam
By Don Wilcock
Where is the home of the blues? Clarksdale, Mississippi? Helena, Arkansas? New Orleans? Chicago?
Talk about the blues! The married couple is from Mali in West Africa that includes portions of the Sahara Desert and has a population of 14.5 million people, 90% Muslim and 50% below the poverty line of $1.25 a day. Both Amadou and his wife, Miriam Doumbia, grew up in Mali’s Institute for the Blind and had to travel to the Ivory Coast to record their first album because Mali had neither producers nor recording studios.
And yet their 2010 album Welcome to Mali was nominated for Best Contemporary World Music Album. They’ve played world renowned festivals from Coachella to Glastonbury. And Bono personally chose them to open for the Johannesburg and Cape Town legs of U2’s 360 Tour in 2011.
In a career that spans three decades and eight albums they have taken their music around the world, performing at Lollapalooza in Chicago in 2008 and playing at the 2010 World Cup in front of 80,000 people and millions of TV viewers.
The New York Times calls their music “all bouncy, perky synth-pop that makes dancing the clear priority.” At first listen their upbeat sound shines a light on what we in America can only imagine might have emerged here had blues immigrated from Africa to the United States without the specter of slavery.
As downbeat as Amadou & Mariam’s circumstances might seem on first examination, their life has been one of love, joy and celebration released through a style of music that has made them stars of the world music scene. The title of their newly released EP Bofou Safou is a Bambara (the Malian national language) nickname given to nonchalant young men who would rather dance than work.
Calling from Paris, France, and speaking through interpreter Jack Sperry of Because Music, Amadou talks of a style of music that incorporates blues into a joyous, upbeat sound that is almost childlike in its infectious delivery and is impossible not to dance to.
“So, for Amadou & Mariam,” translates Jack, “the strong influence was blues, and blues is something for them that comes from Africa. So, that’s why it has similarities with American music, at least American music back then. It’s because the blues was brought to America from Africa. So, that’s how there are common similarities between what they like, their own blues references and United States music – popular music.”
I asked Amadou if he thought slavery had influenced the difference in mood of American blues vs. its origins in Africa.
“So, yes, it’s quite possible. African blues is indeed very rhythmic and danceable in comparison to American blues. United States blues became more structured with the use of 12 measures and 16 measures, whereas in Africa it remained a bit more authentic and traditional in its rhythm.”
There are five different mixes of “Bofou Safou” on the new EP (the full length album, La Confusion, is slated for release in September). Jack Sperry extrapolates on Amadou’s explanation. “The ‘Bofou Safou’ original track is Amadou & Mariam’s own version, and the remixes give their own interpretation in a way which brings a difference to the track.”
Was it a struggle to become a professional musician in Mali as a blind person when they were youngsters? “Musically, it wasn’t very difficult because they played their instruments, and as blind people who played their instruments, they had a lot of encouragement from everyone. But what was more difficult in Mali was the fact that there were no studios. That’s why they decided to move to the Ivory Coast (it’s next to Mali) to work on their music. On the Ivory Coast there were studios. There were producers, TV, media, factories, a whole recording industry – really the correct set-up to actually develop musically. Whereas in Mali, there was only radio as a medium.”
While there may be five remixes of one song on their new EP, the duo performs the same sets worldwide. “Basically, the set is the same everywhere because the set in itself is very diverse, very varied, Malian music being full of genres as well. In that sense, they have some songs that are slow, and some songs that are fast, some that are more dancey, some that are more rock. So, basically their set list can adapt to every place because it’s so mixed in a way. Generally, people are enthusiastic and surprised by Amadou’s and Mariam’s way of playing because what they play is basically African music, and the people like it because it’s not
traditional music. It’s traditional and modern as well, with influences from all over. That’s kind of their own characteristic.”
Does he think having grown up with Mariam and now having her as his wife make their music tighter than if they were just two musicians that weren’t associated with each other as man and wife?
“Their relationship obviously started very early on, but what really makes it work is they’re different in their style, in their taste. And their difference is actually what makes the harmony between. It’s the difference that keeps them away from monotony. These kinds of differences bring something new, and that’s really the characteristic of their sound.”
How did they get on the U2 tour? And did Bono and the band pick them personally? “Yes, it was Bono that picked them personally, and he was actually the one who then shared their cassettes, their guitar and vocal cassettes with other artists such as Coldplay and other collaborators that followed.”
They have an incredible resume for what they’ve done already. What’s still on their bucket list? “For now they’re touring to promote the new EP, but they’ll keep on doing their humanitarian work and help in any way they can through actions, through support for humanitarian causes, but for now they’re going to stay focused on the EP and the upcoming album, on promoting the album and on touring the U.S.A. and Europe, as well as the whole world.