Amadou & Mariam: “Our Music Has A Message, But We Also Want People To Dance”

Mali’s Afro-pop stars Amadou & Mariam are among the most storied – and influential – musicians to emerge from West Africa. And, in 2020, they’re leading a global Afrobeats movement, impacting everyone from Jamie xx to Drake.

Amadou Bagayoko (guitars/vocals) and Mariam Doumbia (vocals), who are both blind, met back in the mid-’70s at the Institute for the Young Blind in Mali’s capital of Bamako – its music program renowned. Amadou – into Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd and traditional Malian music – was already active as a professional singer/guitarist. The couple eventually wed and formed a blues outfit, circulating early recordings on cassette. Later, Amadou & Mariam attracted an international following, while transcending old notions of ‘world music’. They relocated to France to make 1998’s album Sou ni tilé, with the engaging song ‘Je pense à toi’. Amadou & Mariam received the first of three Grammy nominations for 2005’s buzz Dimanche à Bamako, which French identity Manu Chao guided. In 2008 they reached a wider listenership again with Welcome To Mali, the classic single ‘Sabali’ helmed by Damon Albarn. Amadou & Mariam last issued 2017’s La Confusion, their most electronic album, ruminating on the ethnic and religious conflict in their homeland – and global unrest.

Amadou & Mariam have hit major rock festivals like Coachella and toured with Coldplay and U2. The experimental fusionists have also collaborated expansively, even cutting 2012’s bop ‘Dougou Badia’ with Santigold. Recently, they worked with The Blind Boys Of Alabama. Besides, Amadou & Mariam have had their tunes remixed by cred dance-types such as the German deep houser Henrik Schwarz and French disco pioneer Cerrone.

This April, Amadou & Mariam will return to Australia to headline Bluesfest Byron Bay 2020 as well as gigs in Sydney and Melbourne. The duo previously toured their acclaimed conceptual show Eclipse, performing in complete darkness so audiences might understand how they experience the world. Music Feeds caught up with the maestro Amadou to talk music – and discovered that, as groovy grandparents, he and Mariam are Arianators.

Music Feeds: You are headed to Australia to play Bluesfest and side-shows. What can you tell us about your current live show?

Amadou Bagayoko: We are so looking forward! This is going to be our first tour in 2020 and we are so excited! We will be performing songs off our latest release, La Confusion, along with some of our most popular songs like ‘Senegal Fast Food’, ‘Sabali’ or ‘Je pense à toi’, among many others.

MF: You last released the excellent La Confusion in 2017. It was a very bold statement, musically and lyrically. Importantly, you referenced the recent political volatility in Mali. What did you hope to convey to listeners with the album?

AB: Thanks for your words. Our music is inspired by what is happening in our country and in the world. Inspiration comes from what we listen to and experience on a daily basis. When we started working on La Confusion, we wanted to talk about what was going on in Mali, but also in the world. Our music has a message, but we also want people to dance and enjoy it. Even though we talk about difficult things, it’s the reality and we need to listen, accept and change what needs to be changed.

MF: Are there any plans to release new Amadou & Mariam music – even a new album – in 2020? If so, what can you tell us about it?

AB: Yes, we are currently working on new songs, but I can’t tell you when this is going to be out. I’m excited because so far we did a couple and they sound amazing.

MF: These days you’re apparently based in Paris. How do you enjoy living there? What do you miss most about your Mali homeland?

AB: Well, our home is Mali and we live there but, when we are touring, we stay in Paris. We have a great number of friends and family there, too. We have a good balance between Bamako and Paris and go back often to be with our family. We are very connected with Mali and our life there.

MF: You’ve had some amazing exchanges and opportunities over the years in terms of festivals, guest tour spots, and collaborations – even receiving Grammy nominations. Do you have any personal highlights?

AB: Indeed, we are very lucky and have had the chance to collaborate with so many amazing artists. We have very fond memories from different moments with U2, Coldplay, Damon Albarn or Manu Chao. Each one of them has brought something different to our music, apart from great memories too.

MF: In 2010 you published your autobiography, Away From The Light Of Day. How did you find the experience of telling your stories and looking back?

AB: This project gave us the opportunity to share with our fans our story, our experiences personally and professionally speaking, and what we have been through to be where we are nowadays. In many ways, this book was an important exercise of self-exploration and bringing so many good memories back.

MF: Young people everywhere are listening to music from across Africa like never before – and the music industry seems to be less centralised. Nigeria’s Burna Boy is huge in hip-hop. Hip-hop, R&B and pop acts from the US and UK are collaborating more with musicians from countries like South Africa, Nigeria and Kenya and taking influence from different Afro-pop forms. And you have even influenced some dance DJ/producers like Jamie xx. How do you feel about this new globalisation of music? Do you feel generally that Africa’s diverse music scenes are benefitting?

AB: Well, influences and collaborations are always good, because it brings a new way to perform or understand music. I’ve always liked changes because it brings movement and new things at all levels. So this is good from many points of views for listeners and artists.

MF: What music do you personally enjoy listening to these days?

AB: We listen to many things. We like Ariana Grande, Gorillaz, Fatoumata Diawara, Matthieu Chedid… The radio is always on at home, so we listen to various genres and artists.

MF: You had a song with The Magic Numbers, ‘All I Believe In’, on The Twilight Saga: New Moon Soundtrack in 2009. That was very big news at the time since those movies were so popular. How did that collaboration and placement come about?

AB: Indeed, we’ve heard that the Saga was so successful back in times. This came by our record label and we enjoyed the collaboration because we were invited to perform and compose also with some lyrics in Bambara.

Amadou & Mariam will perform at Bluesfest 2020, as well as a Melbourne sideshow. Head here for details.

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