THEY were once called the “blind couple of Mali”, having first met at the country’s Institute for the Young Blind. Now their first names-“Amadou & Mariam”-are all that is needed. The musical duo have come a long way, both geographically and musically, since 1980 when they first started blending Mariam’s velvet vocals with the bluesy bass of Amadou’s guitar in their home city of Bamako. Since then they have produced several albums, one of which was nominated for a Grammy in 2012, and performed live in front of world leaders at the Nobel peace prize ceremony in 2009.
The country which they love and grew up in has also experienced change, but of a less positive nature. In 2012, rebel Tuareg forces seized northern Mali, imposing a religious ban on music that lasted a year. Some of Mali’s most popular festivals, vital to attracting international audiences and industry attention, were suspended amid security concerns and remain in limbo. Across the country, insurgent-led violence is a daily occurrence.
“La Confusion”, Amadou & Mariam’s new album, released on September 22nd after a five-year hiatus, feels all the more significant as a result. Indefatigably positive, and replete with synthesizers and disco beats, the musical duo implore the listener, and their country, to get up and go.
Those who lapped up the pre-releases might worry, on first listen, that the album doesn’t have much more to offer. They would do well to hold tight. Among the colour of “Bofou Safou”, a tongue-in-cheek take on Malian men who prefer dancing to working, and the disorder of the album’s title track, a musing on the country’s political chaos, lie bluesy gems like “Ta promesse” and “Mokou Mokou”, which lure the listener in with a satisfying lilt. Others, like “Massa Allah”, meaning “God has willed it”, are a testament to the couple’s persistent optimism. It almost feels like an act of defiance, a refusal to give up, in light of the darker times of war and terror their country has endured. As the song progresses, the chorus of voices responding to Mariam’s grows in strength, tempering the jubilance of the album’s earlier tracks.
Some critics have balked at the album’s emphasis on synthesized instruments, but it will not surprise fans who know that experimenting with new sounds and collaborating with new artists has always been a priority for the pair. Among the couple’s earliest influences were guitarists Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin (Amadou’s obsessions) and Sheila, a French songstress who was played frequently on Malian radio in the 1960s and 70s (the young Mariam used to sing along in harmony at home). Indeed, it was these influences which led to the breakout hit “Je pense a toi” in 1999, the first song of theirs to be released by a major French label.
Critical acclaim came from further forays into experimentation. The frenetic funk of “Dimanche a Bamako”, the pair’s fourth album, was a hit in 2005. Produced by and featuring Manu Chao, a French-born musician of Spanish origin famed for his lazy rhythms and tracks that mix multiple languages and styles, its stand-out singles like “Senegal Fast Food” took the raw and unadulterated melodies of the couple’s early days and drenched them in layers of colour.
For Cherif Keita, a native Malian and professor of Francophone literature at Carleton College in Minnesota, this willingness to experiment is not peculiar to Amadou & Mariam but symptomatic of a unique, Malian worldview. He argues that it can be summed up by the saying: “Manden be lonbo lanban, nka Manden te dafiri” (“Mande is a boat that will pitch, but will never capsize”). It refers to the idea that the national identity is rooted in tradition, yet ultimately malleable and open to change.
It is this mindset, together with a rich tradition of oral storytelling and Mali’s imperial legacy (its empire stretched across the vast West African landscape from the 13th to the 17th century), which has contributed to the country’s musical prowess. The movement of people produced a melting pot of cultures and a cacophony of bold, distinctive sounds that persist to this day. The country has a peculiar ability to produce multiple artists that at once seem so similar, paying heed to Mali’s hallmark repetitive beat, and yet so obviously distinct. Just compare Tinariwen’s northern desert blues to the funk of Mali’s south.
Like many Malian musicians before them, Amadou & Mariam give voice to their country’s pain, its hopes and its stories. The first hunter-gatherers were known to carry two objects: a weapon and an instrument for playing songs about histories past. Over time, the hunter’s storytelling role was replaced by the Jeli (“the great orator”), whose job included recounting epic narratives to melodies crafted on traditional Malian instruments. With their latest album, Amadou & Mariam show the rest of the world that whatever chaos their country endures, Mali’s musical soul has remained untouched.