Amadou Bagayoko and Mariam Doumbia are unlikely pop stars. They’re a middle-aged couple from Mali’s capital city, Bamako, who started playing together in a house band for the city’s Institute for Young Blind People, where Amadou was a music teacher and Mariam a Braille student. Thirty years later, they’ve emerged as global pop’s band to watch—M.I.A. be damned—as heirs to the storied West African musical throne and as embodiments of the worldly, cosmopolitan flair that defines 21st century hipness.
Both shrug at the many unexpected lines on their musical résumé, like fronting for Western bands young enough to be their kids. They’re opening for mega-band Coldplay in a tour this summer to help promote today's U.S. release of their album, Welcome to Mali. And they’ve played with glam-rockers Scissor Sisters in a European tour. Sitting in the upstairs lounge of a boutique hotel in Manhattan’s trendy East Village, the couple is unfazed when I point out that Scissor Sisters got started nearby in a raunchy, gay-rock bar—a far cry from Bamako’s blind school. Music, Amadou offers through his interpreter, is a universal language.
The music of Amadou & Mariam, as their band is named, is certainly drawing universal acclaim. Their 2005 album, Dimanche à Bamako (Sunday in Bamako), took Europe by storm. Its bold mishmash of genres and sounds from around the world garnered barrels of approving ink, sold 600,000 copies and won a Grammy nomination. It was helped along a good deal by the work and support of Manu Chao, who is Europe’s reigning superstar producer.
The Welcome to Mali follow-up in late 2008 similarly gripped Europe, while stateside, it cemented Amadou & Mariam as one of those bands for which you earn cool points for knowing and loving. They’ve been in high rotation on Los Angeles’ renowned KCRW music shows (you should stream Tom Schnabel’s Café L.A.—really). And the music webzine Pitchfork ranked the album’s opening track “Sabali” (Because) 15th on its list of top 100 songs of the year.
“Sabali” is a good example of Amadou & Mariam’s eclectic sound. It’s chock-full of styles—a driving club beat; Mariam’s arresting, soulful vocals; eerie keyboard riffs. Before it’s done, the album moves through hip-hop, R&B, rock, traditional Malian and more—often simultaneously. Euro producers once again mix and spice it all up with an accessible poppy feel, and the result is just plain cool. Welcome to Mali was recorded in four cities on two continents, and it sounds like it.
All of this makes Amadou & Mariam hard to define; Rolling Stone just left it at calling them “Afro-hippie songsters.” But the Afro part is crucial, says Amadou. He and Mariam write and record their music in Bambara, Mali’s dominant language, and root in Mali’s homegrown pop, which has a long history of breaking out into global markets.
Among the country’s most famous musical exports is Salif Keita, whose Les Ambassadeurs held global pop’s center stage during the ’70s. Amadou played with Keita’s group in the ’60s, before it left Mali and West Africa. During that stint, the young guitarist began figuring out how to meld the Western artists he loved as a kid in Bamako—from James Brown to Pink Floyd—with West African and Malian styles.
After Keita left, Amadou focused his energy on the Institute for Young Blind People, where he and Mariam met and married. As Amadou told a Scottish newspaper last month, the couple “started talking about music and have never stopped.” Mariam had been a sought-after wedding singer since age 6. “First neighbors asked me, then their neighbors, then the whole town,” she told the paper. “I sang for everyone in Bamako who got married.”
Together, Amadou & Mariam slowly formed a West African following—and built up Mali’s pop scene in the process; their son is reaping the benefits today as a Malian rapper. They began producing CDs for international markets in the late 1990s and eventually caught Choa’s attention with a first draft of Dimanche à Bamako. Chao pumped up their stripped-down guitar and vocal mélange, and off they went.
Now Amadou & Mariam are hoping their musical fairy tale transfers to the American music scene. Their North American tour opens in Chicago on June 2 and will hit seven more cities over the following couple of weeks—including New York, Philly and Boston. Then it’s a long, hot July out West with Coldplay. Global music of any sort is a harder sell in the U.S. than Europe or West Africa, but the couple is characteristically optimistic about it all.
Music, Amadou again insists, is universal.
Kai Wright is a senior writer for The Root.