ABOVE: AMADOU AND MARIAM AT THE ANDAZ IN NEW YORK. PHOTO BY CHRISTOPHER GABELLO.
Malian musicians Amadou and Mariam mix electric guitar, bluesy vocals, folk-like politically conscious lyrics, and afro-beats. If you’ve heard their songs described as “world” music, you’ve been misled. There are plenty of worldly things about the duo—the eclectic collection of artists they’ve collaborated with, their constant country-hopping, their mix of English, French, and Bambara lyrics—but the genre of the their music is not one of them. Look no further than their upcoming album, Folila, for proof. Amadou and Mariam’s seventh studio album, Folila features guest appearances from Santigold, Theophilus London, Scissor Sisters, TV on the Radio, and Nick Zinner of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.
Now married for over 20 years, Amadaou and Mariam first met as teenagers at Mali’s Institute for the Young Blind (they each lost their sight at a young age). They are clearly an incredibly close couple; when Interview interviewed them in New York last month, Amadou and Mariam spoke in unison, constantly finishing each other’s sentences—a fact that only adds poignancy to their songs such as “Mon Amour.” We don’t speak Bambara and Amadou and Mariam do not speak English, so we met in the middle and conducted our conversation in French.
EMMA BROWN: How long have you been in New York?
MARIAM DOUMBIA: Eight days. We came here to do photos, interviews.
AMADOU BAGAYOKO: We love New York. There are so many people here from of different nationalities. Tomorrow we’re going back to France to start our world tour. You’re our second-to-last US interview.
BROWN: And you normally live in France?
BAGAYOKO: We normally live in Mali.
DOUMBIA: But we spend more time in France than in Mali.
BAGAYOKO: We spend a lot of time in France.
BROWN: Is your world tour just going to be the two of you? Or are you touring with other artists?
DOUMBIA: Oh, with lots of musicians.
BAGAYOKO: It’s going to be the two of us and our musicians—the bassists, drummers, keyboardists.
BROWN: Because you’ve done quite a few tours with some very famous artists; didn’t you open for U2?
DOUMBIA: Yes, we’ve opened tours for Coldplay.
BAGAYOKO: And U2.
DOUMBIA & BAGAYOKO: Scissor Sisters.
BROWN: Whoa. And do artists like Coldplay approach you, or do you approach them ?
BAGAYOKO: They approached us. We met Coldplay in London, on a television show. We both played on the same TV show, they with their group, us with our group.
DOUBIA: We never plan it ourselves, but when an opportunity does come up [to collaborate with other artists] we will work with anyone. Our door is always open.
BROWN: Can you tell me a little about how you first got interested in music?
DOUMBIA: I was already singing by the time I was six years old. My neighbors would ask me to sing at festivities—marriages, baptisms, etc.—and they would give me presents. In 1973 [when I was 15], I went to the Institute for the Young Blind in Mali to learn Braille. When I was there I taught other people how to sing and dance.
BROWN: Do you come from a musical family?
DOUMBIA: No, there aren’t any musicians in my family; I’m the only one who sings.
BAGAYOKO: I started playing percussion when I was two. When I was ten, I started playing the harmonica, the flute. After that, I started singing and playing the guitar. I played in a lot of bands in Mali before I [lost my sight at 16 and] went to the Institute for the Young Blind.
BROWN: How would you describe your style of music? My iTunes wants to categorize your music as “world” music, but having listened to your album, that seems entirely incorrect.
DOUBIA: Our music is rock and blues.
BAGAYOKO: Mixed with African music; the basic elements of African music, but with blues and rock influences.
BROWN: What sort of music did you listen to growing up?
BAGAYOKO: A lot of rock music.
BAGAYOKO: A lot of pop music.
DOUBIA: James Brown, Jimi Hendrix.
BAGAYOKO: Pink Floyd and Bad Company.
BROWN: Do you only play together, or do you also have individual side projects?
DOUMBIA: No, we’re always together. We’ve always played together so we will continue to play together, at least for now.
BROWN: When you write lyrics, do you write them first in Bambara, or in French, or both?
DOUMBIA: We write them first in Bambara and then we translate them into French.
BROWN: How does it work when you collaborate with English-speaking artists—do you send them what you’ve written, and then they add their own part in English? Or do you work together with an interpreter?
BAGAYOKO: First we write the music: we bring them a song with the music already written, they listen to it and we explain to them what the song is about, what we are saying and [they write their lyrics].
BROWN: What made you choose to work with Theophilus London and Santigold on your new album, Folila?
DOUMBIA: With Santigold, we loved her voice, and then she invited us to Mexico for one of her shows. We couldn’t go, but we kept up the relationship and called her when we were writing our songs [for Folila]
BAGAYOKO: Theophilus London was someone who had worked on the remix of our last album, Welcome to Mali (2008), so we already knew him. We had performed with him in London and even here.
BROWN: Are you big hip-hop fans?
DOUMBIA: We like it a lot.
BAGAYOKO: Because it’s the music of the youth. It sort of has the same purpose as what we do, at least lyrically, because we both are communicating a message, just in different ways. Hip-hop artists talk, we sing. They rap forcefully, we sing gracefully. [laughs]
BROWN: And what is your message?
DOUMBIA: The message of love, the message of peace, the message of justice.
BROWN: And what do you hope to achieve with your music, your message?
BAGAYOKO: We hope to reach the whole world, spread a message that the audience can relate to and that will change their mentalities, so that people can co-exist in peace, in love, with a greater sense of solidarity. After concerts people come up to us and tells us how much our music means to them.
BROWN: Do you have a good dialogue with your fans?
DOUBIA: Yes, we talk with our fans.
BAGAYOKO: We make them sing with us during the shows. Outside of that, after the concerts people come see us and we talk. Sometimes [fans] will telephone us. We don’t talk to everyone, but with some people.
BROWN: Is there a difference in the reception you get in the US versus in Europe?
BAGAYOKO: It’s a little complicated to make a precise distinction; we have sort of the same audience. Here, in the US, people like our music because it’s very similar to blues. It’s the same thing in Europe. Everyone listens to blues and rock, it’s universal. Everyone dances.
BROWN: Are you writing new music at the moment?
BAGAYOKO: We’re taking a break. We haven’t even started practicing our album in its entirety yet, so…
BROWN: Do you have a country that you most like to play in?
BAGAYOKO: For our personal pleasure, yes. We like France a lot, we like New York a lot as well.
DOUBIA: And Canada.
BAGAYOKO: Yes, we like Montreal.
DOUBIA: And Brazil and Germany [laughs] and Spain.
FOLILA IS OUT APRIL 10th. FOR MORE INFORMATION ON AMADOU & MARIAM, YOU CAN VISIT THEIR WEBSITE.