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Amadou & Mariam sing of hope

The couple are headed to Santa Monica's Twilight Concert Series. Their new album, 'Folila,' sings of harmony and peace even as strife tears their native Mali.

August 13, 2012|By Steve Hochman
  • Simple themes mark the music of Mariam Doumbia, left, and Amadou Bagayoko.
Simple themes mark the music of Mariam Doumbia, left, and Amadou Bagayoko. (Lawrence K. Ho, Los Angeles…)

Artists often want their audiences to see the world the way they do.

Malian musicians Amadou Bagayoko and Mariam Doumbia, professionally known as Amadou & Mariam, have taken that to literal extremes on a few occasions in the last year.

They're blind.

The married couple has realized a long-held dream with a handful of "Eclipse" concerts in England and Europe, performing in complete darkness.

"The intention is really to plunge people into the world of the blind in a way, and also give a very strong message of our evolution and demonstrate the hope we feel," says Bagayoko, the husband and electrifying guitar player, speaking in French via translator Joe Gunton. "People really do get the impression of eyesight lost. It's been very, very good."

They won't be able to do that with their Los Angeles area concert on Thursday. It's being held outdoors on the brightly lit Santa Monica Pier as part of the annual, free Twilight Concert Series. But illuminated or dark, there's plenty more of their world in which to plunge.

Start, Bagayoko suggests, with "Oh Amadou," one of the highlights of the couple's new album, "Folila." The album — an all-star affair on which they are joined by Santigold (on the rollicking opener "Dougou Badia,") Theophilus London, TV On the Radio's Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone, Scissor Sisters' Jake Shears and others — is the culmination of a midlife rise to the top strata of the world music scene in Africa, Europe and North America.

It's been a remarkable journey as the musicians, who married in 1983 and relocated from Bamako to Paris in 1996. In the last decade alone they've wowed audiences at festivals from Glastonbury to Coachella, had a series of French hits, collaborated with international artists including Blur's Damon Albarn and French-Spanish world music star Manu Chao (who produced two of their albums) and toured with Coldplay.

On "Oh Amadou," Parisian rock star Bertrand Cantat takes the lead vocal, sounding almost like a Gallic Chris Cornell of Soundgarden. He also provides bluesy harmonica lines, sparring with a spiky ngoni (an African ancestor of the banjo) played by Malian stalwart Bassekou Kouyaté. Those musical contrasts match the lyrics, in French, spelling out the dualities and contractions of life.

"'Oh Amadou' summarizes very well all the messages of the album," Bagayoko says. "The fact that we don't have the choice, there are days of hope and days of sadness, moments of pleasure, moments of fatigue. No one looks for suffering in any way, but we don't have the choice."

The days of hope right now are fewer, he says, as war has gripped their home country. They have returned there frequently since moving to Paris (half of this album was recorded in Bamako, and plans originally encompassed two separate albums, one in Mali, the other in France). But in recent months they've had to hear from afar as tribal, political and religious factions carve up the nation, and extremists have destroyed centuries-old tombs and shrines.

"It's extremely distressing," he says. "We never thought this sort of thing would happen again, happen now. Everything is going from bad to worse — famine, rape, destruction of historical monuments. Not a lot of reason to smile in relation to this."

They have eschewed using their songs as vehicles for political statements. And the songs on "Folila" were all written before the strife began. But it's impossible for them not to consider their message in light of all this.

"Everything that's going on is the antithesis of what we're talking about," he says. "It's almost as if we're completely out of phase with the current events. We talk about a unified Mali, peace and harmony. And what's going on is the complete opposite."

This all, he says, both complicates what they see as their primary missions, but also strengthens their resolve.

"We have two major thrusts," Bagayoko says. "One side is always to try to show to the world what is Africa, the values and cultures of Africa, to demonstrate to the continent to the rest of the world. At the same time, teach is too grand a word, but to encourage Africans themselves to have change in the right direction. Social engagement. Women's rights. It's not a contrast, but we speak to two audiences at once with a slightly different message that comes together."

They have also found themselves in the middle of another uncomfortable situation, coming under some loud criticism in France for working with Cantat, who had been convicted of manslaughter for the fatal 2003 assault on his girlfriend, actress Marie Trintignant. The death and trial were saturation-level scandals in French media. But acceptance and forgiveness are also things Amadou & Mariam want us to see in their world.

"We worked with him because of the person he is now," Bagayoko says. "We live in the present, not the past. One should perhaps stop looking at the past."

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