Biography: Amadou and Mariam, the blind couple from Mali, create unique pop music which shatters boundaries between rock, soul and the traditional music of the West African nation from which they hail.
Amadou Bagayoko met Mariam Doumbia at the Institute for the Young Blind in Mali more than thirty years ago. Amadou was already a well-known guitarist in Mali, having been a part of the group Les Ambassadeurs de Motel. Mariam had been at the school for many years, teaching singing and dancing classes. Eventually they got married and began to perform together around Bamako (Mali's capital). While they were successful in their home country, it lacked the resources for them to properly record and get international exposure, so they moved to Cote D'Ivoire and began to record and release cassettes there. After years of hard work, in the mid-90s they were finally invited to perform and record in Paris.
Their first major CD release, Sou Ti Nile, garnered some attention from World Music afficionados. It was the song "Mon Amour, Ma Cherie" which attracted the attention of World Music superstar Manu Chao. Manu decided to work with them and produced their landmark album, Dimanche a Bamako (Sunday in Bamako). This album rocketed them to fame, giving them the opportunity to record the theme for the 2006 World Cup and perform at the 2006 Bonnaroo festival.
Their latest release, Welcome to Mali, released last year in Europe and in March stateside, has received even greater acclaim. The Guardian listed it as their #2 album of 2008 (behind Bon Iver's For Emma, Forever Ago), lauding "the marriage of Mariam's childhood love of French pop with her husband's fondness for Jimmy Page." The duo figures to get still more attention as they tour the US this summer, opening for Coldplay in select cities.
Sou Ti Nile (1998) - The first album the duo released in Europe. Much more traditional and bluesy than their later releases, finding more Malian violins and less of the funky organs and keyboards that would dominate their later sound.
Tje Ni Mousso (2000) - This is where they start to bring the funk. The heavy horns of the final track, "Nangaraba", announce the arrival of a new type of Afro-funk, while the opener, "Chantez-Chantez", is a syncopated take on a Canned Heat-style boogie workout. This isn't as accessible as their two latest albums, but I still think it is the best place to start.
Wati (2002) - A step back from the funk of the prior album, but still a beautiful work of Afro-blues.
Dimanche a Bamako (2005) - Their breakthrough album. Produced by Manu Chao and featuring many guest spots from him, this is probably their most polished album. It also showcases their diversity, from the intense, funky "Coulibaly" to the much mellower "Camions sauvages" and "Mbife". I can't help thinking that several tracks sound more like Manu Chao than Amadou and Mariam, though.
Welcome to Mali (2009) - Their most modern album, this is a beautiful pop masterpiece that bridges boundaries between countries, languages, and musical styles. "Batoman" is richly funky, "Masiteladi" features blistering guitar work from Amadou, "Magossa" pairs a beautiful vocal from Mariam with deep bass clarinet vamps, "Djama" rocks over a thick reggae bass line, "Djuru" bows to the traditional with a guest Kora spot from Toumani Diabate. "I Follow You" features the duo's first English vocal, touching in its simplicity. Check out the three videos at the bottom below for a taste of how transcendent this album is.
Sounds Like: Amadou and Mariam sound like almost no one else. Amadou's guitar is rooted in the pentatonic solos of Malian guitar masters like Ali Farka Toure and Boubacar Traore, but he brings a Steve Cropper-style sensibility to his playing which no doubt comes from listening to lots of 60s and 70s American rock and soul records. Amadou's voice is soulful and slightly reminiscent of Baaba Maal, while Mariam's is much more delicate than her African counterparts, and almost sounds like a Chinese opera singer. Their band is very funky and energetic, and will get your feet moving, without a doubt.
Similar Artists: Ali Farka Toure, Cheikh Lo
Similar Bonnaroo Artists: Vieux Farka Toure comes from the same guitar tradition as Amadou, though he's much more traditional and bluesy. Toumani Diabate is also from Mali and plays a similar style of music. He guests on "Djuru" on Welcome to Mali and could show up for a collaboration. But really, he too plays a much more traditional style of music than Amadou and Mariam.
Suggested Listening: Amadou and Mariam have steadily grown more funky and modern, while still maintaining ties to their deep roots in Mali. Much of their earlier work is more mellow, though still danceable. Here's a performance of Toubala Kono, a song on Sou Ni Tile, their first American release:
If you like Manu Chao, you should check out the video to "Senegal Fast Food", on which he sings:
That song is on the Manu Chao-produced Dimanche a Bamako. Here's a live performance of one of my favorite songs from that album, "La Realite":
Now to the material from the new album. Here's a video of the performance of the final track, "Sekebe". This one I think properly reflects the energy level of their live performances, and is probably the closest to what we will see at Bonnaroo:
Here's a stripped down version of the band (just Amadou, Mariam, and their incredible bass player), playing the amazing song Masiteladi, one of my favorites on the new album:
The guitar-bass interplay towards the end is just unbelievable.
Finally, my least favorite Amadou and Mariam track, "Sabali". A lot of people like this one, but to me it is just a bit overproduced, plus it doesn't feature Amadou's voice or guitar, and Mariam's voice is autotuned. It's still good, and very poppy, but I tend to skip it now to get to the rest of the album. If you have been turned off by this song or this album, give the rest of it a chance. But judge for yourself:
I'm not sure how this will sound live; it should be pretty interesting.
Physical Reaction/Live Show: Amadou and Mariam's show at Bonnaroo will be a high-energy dance party, even more so than it was in 2006. They will probably have a bassist, keyboardist, drummer, one or two people playing African drums, and some dancers to get the crowd moving. I think there could be some collaborations, most likely Toumani Diabate, the kora player who will be there will Bela Fleck and guests on their latest album.
Personal Notes Well, I mixed in plenty of my personal opinion above, so it should come as no surprise that I absolutely love Amadou and Mariam, and believe they are making groundbreaking music with remarkably wide appeal. I think they have an opportunity to rise above the "World Music" label and find their way into many music collections. And their live show, as especially the Sakebe video above attests, will be one of the best places to dance your tail off at this year's festival.