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A Quietus Interview

We Have Come To Liven Up The Town: Amadou And Mariam Interviewed
Dale Berning Sawa , April 23rd, 2012 04:31

Dale Berning talks to the Malian musicians about the making of their latest album, Folila, and how each collaboration teaches them something new

Trademark sunglasses, mesmeric embroidered Malian dress and a sound that is at once as old and as bright as the Mississippi delta, “shining like a national guitar”: Amadou and Mariam – the blind couple from Mali – are a force to be reckoned with. Over the past 14 years, and with the considerable support of producer and manager Marc-Antoine Moreau, they have steadily carved out a singular place for themselves on the international stage with their unique brand of infectious afro-pop blues and their remarkable life stories. After 20 years of establishing their reputation in Mali and neighbouring west African countries – including a chance encounter and subsequent jam session with Stevie Wonder in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, in the late 80s – an invitation to play at the 1998 Transmusicales de Rennes, the annual festival held in the north of France each December, saw the launch of their worldwide career. They have since racked up an impressive count of guest appearances, collaborations, joint productions and the like with stars from all shores, from Manu Chao to Beth Orton to Damon Albarn to most recently TV on the Radio and Santigold. Read their 2008 autobiography, Away From the Light of Day, though, and their inspiring artistic trajectory takes on even greater depth when considered in light of the obstacles they have faced and the broader social change they have effected.

Both lost their eyesight at a young age, at a time in Mali when blindness was considered an insurmountable handicap – contemporary medical expertise and infrastructure were simply not available. Their story is one of determination, courage and utter dedication to the music that became their lifeline. They met at the country’s first institute for young blind people in the 70s, a meeting they describe with characteristic wit as love at first sight, and almost immediately started collaborating. They married in the early 80s and took their music on the road, using their collective power to educate people about blindness. Amadou had already solidified his status, in Mali and beyond, as a heavyweight musician, having played in numerous local orchestras and bands, and together they were unstoppable. In a recent interview with the Guardian, Amadou talks about how what was a true impediment became a source of courage, and the grace, the hope with which his words are imbued is incredibly moving. "The fact that we found courage, that we found our way and that we now go wherever others can go, means that we don't complain about this. We are just the same as anyone else. We have already forgotten about our blindness."

Last week marked the release of Folila, their seventh studio album, a collection of songs and voices that packs no mean punch. Recording sessions in New York, Paris and Bamako were initially intended to form a double CD, part traditional, part contemporary, but finally simmered down to one album. The broad range of guests – including Touareg guitarist Abdallah Oumbadougou, Kyp Malone and Tunde Adebimpe from TV on the Radio, Ebony Bones, the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s Nick Zinner, rapper Theophilus London, Jake Shears of Scissor Sisters and Amp Fiddler – makes for rich and unexpected listening. Traditional Malian rhythms and melodies and their intertwined vocals are welded to Amadou’s guitar, steeped in old blues and rock and roll, creating an indie aesthetic all their own, which resonates deeply with what each guest brings. The songs are sung in Bambara, English and French but this isn’t fusion in a 90s Womad kind of way. It’s of now, it’s bold, it’s tense – it’s thoroughly compelling. The Quietus met up with Amadou and Mariam in London on the eve of their current tour to speak about that vintage guitar sound, staying open to the world and how music is the source.

There are so many guests on Folila, bringing together vastly different worlds and cultures, and yet it’s impressive in its unity, which is testament to the strength of your music.

Amadou: Our music comes from the blues and the rock that we’ve always loved, but it is also thoroughly Malian, Bambara. It is a music that we have created ourselves. When we invite someone to come to play with us and record with us, they insert themselves into something that is already made, into our flow as it were. We explain what we are singing about in Bambara. So with Santigold on ‘Dougou Badia’ for example, we explained that we sing “We are artists and we have come to liven up the town, so that people can dance and party.” Santi found her own words, her own melody – her part, to join in with us. These songs exist already though, and we sing them live with our band, with or without guests.

Amadou, you have spoken before of the need for fusion.

A: When two or three people sing together, it is all about colour, the colour changes or multiplies. Music is universal. Whether you are from the north or the south, we can play together. And that is important. Each collaboration also teaches us something new. And we always try to change, with each new thing we do. With TV on the Radio for example, the parts that they wrote for the songs we recorded together we learnt and have incorporated into the way we sing those songs now. We have played with so many different people, contributing to their albums too – Angélique Kidjo, Manu Chao, M and many others. But we still also do our own thing, just the two of us. Both ways of working are important.

There is a lot of emotion on this record. And an old almost melancholy sound – like vintage vinyl. ‘Mogo’ feels like a sweeping love song to the Niger and the land.

A: We love old blues, the blues from long ago. Mogo is purely traditional, a love song for the country. We have heard that when people go to Mali they are struck by the welcome they are given, by the sense of unity there. We do sing about Mali, about how Malian people understand each other and relate to each other, young and old – how important it is to help each other, to join hands so that we can live together in peace.

I was wondering whether it is because you have such a strong sense of rootedness in where you’re from that you are able to fit into so many other places, staying open and generous?

Mariam: Yes, it is gives us courage and strength.

Often artists talk about the need to block things out in order to find their voice. You seem to be able to listen to new things constantly.

A: Yes, because it is in listening to others that you find yourself and your place. If you are always with other people it means you have figured out how to give them space. If you are closed in on yourself, you are making music for yourself, without any space for others.

M: And that isn’t good. Listening to others is crucial, in music as in life.

Are there still people you dream of meeting or collaborating with?

A: We have already met and played with so many people we had dreamed of meeting. Either playing on stage together or on a TV show together, recording together … But these dreams kind of just happen – and what we value most is the meetings. Meeting new people and working together, according to their own way of making music. Stevie Wonder, David Gilmour, Robert Plant … all these people who we dreamed of without ever considering we’d actually get to play with them or work with them. So our dream mostly is to just be able to continue. To find more people who are interested in what we do, with whom we can work and make music.

When you were young, what was the music that inspired you?

M: We listened to so much … Banzoumana Sissoko, Fanta Damba, for example, but also Dalida, Sheila, Nana Mouskouri

A: Because in the 60s and until the 80s really, there was no music industry in Mali, there weren’t any readily available recordings – on vinyl or cassette – to listen to. So we listened to lots of music from elsewhere – Johnny Hallyday, James Brown, Cuban music and much, much more. Now there are recording studios and records, people dance to Malian music in night clubs… but this only started happening in the 80s, so for a long time the only recorded music we listened was from abroad. That said, Malian music was always around us. We made it. We sang it for parties, for weddings, for baptisms. Traditional music was wherever people got together. We were always singing. There were local groups and competitions between different towns.

Amadou, as president of the Malian Federation of Artists, you must meet a lot of young Malian musicians.

A: Yes, we meet lots of artists of all kinds, we talk, we organise events, young and old together. And it’s true that it brings us great joy and a sense of pride. When we started playing, very few people made music. Musicians weren’t highly regarded and people didn’t really want their children to choose to be musicians. But now when you see all these people who want to make records, you realise that everybody wants to play, even those who don’t have any talent. Everyone wants to be a part of this, it’s a flowering of musicians everywhere, people singing, dancing, playing. It brings joy to people.

Do you write together?

M: No, we never write together, always separately. My inspiration comes at night - for Amadou it’s in the morning.

A: We each write alone, sometimes the words come first, sometimes it’s the tune, but once we’ve conceived a song, we come together to arrange it, to embellish it, to add things.

Do you ever need silence?

A: My problem is that I always need a background noise. As soon as I get home, I turn the TV or the radio on – it doesn’t matter whether it’s music or voices, I need something to listen to.

M: Yes, he can sleep with the radio on. I can’t. On the contrary, at night I need calm and quiet, because that is also when I write.

'Sans Toi' is my favourite song on this album – a beautiful hauntingly simple song.

M: It is a love song, about the love we have that we want to share with the world, with everyone. “Without you I cannot live” – it is as we sing it.

A: As we say in the lyrics, we are always together, we do things together.

Folila is out now