Amadou & Miriam mix it up
Amadou Bagayoko and Mariam Doumbia met at Mali’s National Institute for the Young Blind, where they both performed in the orchestra. The traditional sounds and rhythms that surrounded them in Bamako, Mali’s capital, remain the foundation of their music. But there’s much more to their story. Asked to name their biggest inspirations, musical and otherwise, electric guitarist and singer Bagayoko responds in French: “Le Pink Floyd. Le Led Zeppelin. John Lee Hooker for the blues side. And Jimi Hendrix.
“Stevie Wonder,” he adds quickly, from a hotel in Montreal.
Early in their career—while living in Ivory Coast during the late ’80s—Amadou & Mariam met and jammed with Wonder. The interest and support of the legendary blind U.S. singer proved a great motivator for their music. But it took another decade of playing small stages around West Africa before the husband-and-wife team started touring in Europe and beyond.
The big break came nine years ago, when French rock and world-music guerrilla Manu Chao came forward to produce and play on the album Dimanche à Bamako, which sold more than 300,000 copies. Amadou & Mariam became music stars themselves, opening for U2 and performing at the 2010 FIFA World Cup celebrations in South Africa.
“Our latest release, Folila, our seventh, was recorded in Paris, Bamako, and New York,” Bagayoko notes. “We had a number of guests help out—including Santigold, TV on the Radio, and Jake [Shears] from Scissor Sisters. The title means simply ‘music’, and there are plenty of traditional [Malian] instruments as well as modern ones. Ever since we started to make our own music the base of our inspiration is traditional Malian music, the Bambara music of Bamako, Ségou, and other cities, and we include djembe in our percussion. On this tour we’re playing a mix of songs from Folila and our other albums.”
The globetrotting couple is happy to be back in Canada, Montreal in particular—a city they’ve come to know well. “We’ve played here many times over the years. We have a lot of friends, and it’s great to be with them again.”
Currently, Amadou & Mariam are based in France, and this fall they’ll be performing in some of the economically and culturally deprived communities on the outer fringes of Paris. “People from the suburbs normally only get to see us on TV, because there’s no way they can afford to go to the Olympia or La Cigale [two major concert halls in Paris],” Bagayoko says. “So we decided to get closer to them. It’s the first time we’ve tried such a venture, and we’re really looking forward to it.”
Amadou & Mariam perform at the Burnaby Blues & Roots Festival this Saturday (August 11).