Amadou & Mariam
African music's recent history has been written on recycled paper, with a pen dipped in the ink of savvy resourcefulness. The biographical vicissitudes of The Bembaya Jazz, The Ambassadeurs, and the Rail Band of Bamako contain enough burlesque episodes for a sitcom, featuring indelicate managers, venal witchdoctors an piracy experts. In this hazardous context, the itinerary of Amadou and Mariam seems full of no-fuss heroics. Take the first hurdle in their long obstacle course: after meeting at the Institute for the Young Blind of Mali, they have to obtain approval for a marriage deemed unreasonable by their parents; the youngsters were the only ones to see the chances of a blind couple being successful.
In those days of military dictatorship, a musical vocation caused those with the most obvious gifts to converge on the hotels, where the house-bands, in exchange for civil-service salary, played to a clientele composed of government brass and foreign citizens, distilling the latest pop tunes and other fashionable music from Cuba in residential ballrooms. At the end of the Sixties, Amadou Bagayoko cut his teeth as a guitarist in the Ambassadeurs du Motel de Bamako, a versatile group later joined by Salif Keita. He refined his guitar technique, causing his fluid playing to sparkle, and thanks to a bridge or two that spanned the musical continents, cultivated a sense of versatility - the opposite of a scattering - that was to become the emergence of the radiant Bambara blues that has brought their recent productions to full bloom.
Mariam Doumbia sang, often accompanied by Amadou, and when the couple finally decided on a common career, their chances of success in Mali were so high that... they chose to emigrate to the Ivory Coast. Their success there took them by surprise.
Separated from their three children, they recorded a series of cassettes produced the Nigerian Aliyu Maikano Adamu; clothed by a single electric guitar, these recordings contain the initial versions of "Dounia", "A Chacun Son Probleme", and "Mon Amour, Ma Cherie". These songs returned some seven years later to grace the album "Sou Ni Tile", which broadened their horizon and caused the universality of African music to coincide with the resources of modern technology. "Tje Ni Mousso" ("Man And Woman") in bambara, added nuances of sound and rhythmical inflections to the already rich spectrum of their previous work, and caused other essences and perfumes to flow in from the four corners of the globe - the Portuguese cavaquihno, the violin of Bengal, jazz piano - towards the epicenter that is Africa, the land of a thousand dances.
Amadou and Miriam seem to hear their own music through the filter that made them marvel when they were adolescents: the pop of the Seventies, electric blues, reggae, Cuba... Without ever conceiving of it as a project, without even really thinking about it, man and woman caused their distant offspring, those who cradle was the Dark Continent, to come home. And this opening onto the world, this sense of hospitality, recharged the music of West Africa with a vital energy, and secured it in the maternal role that founded its identity.
This record gives "world music" a sense, a function, and a center of gravity that previous misuse of the term had hidden, damaging its reputation. The phrase invites us to a double understanding which can be found again in the use of words distilling counsel and recommendations, as happens in village meetings where the old exchange words with the young: and this manner of keeping a watchful eye, of preaching respect, patience and tolerance, finally causes little local virtues to unfold in a universal wisdom. With simple words, Amadou and Mariam relate the superiority of harmony over discord.
The amusing paradox carried by the songs of this blind couple from Mali is that they also have the power to return sight to those who think they can already see.