Amadou Bagayoko and Mariam Doumbia met in 1977 at Bamako‘s Institute for the Young Blind. Amadou was already a working musician and Mariam was a singer for weddings and traditional festivals. They married and began making music as a duo in the early 1980s, gaining instant recognition in their homeland.
Throughout the course of their career, their music has evolved from traditional Malian songs to incorporating many elements of rock, soul and electro. In the ‘90s they were signed to Universal in France and collaborated with Manu Chao on their breakthrough album Dimanche à Bamako.
Now on the verge of playing All Tomorrow’s Parties in England and the FIFA World-Cup opening ceremonies in South Africa this June, the pair is making their first trip to Iceland to kick off the Reykjavík Arts Festival on May 12th. I had the chance to speak with Amadou about their music, their career and the hidden blessings of being visually impaired.
Are we right in assuming this will be your first time in Iceland?
Yes, we have toured all over the place but we’ve never come to Iceland. But we are very pleased to go there. It’s great to go to a country we’ve never been to before.
With the release of Welcome to Mali, have you found wider recognition from the Anglophone world?
Yes, very much. We have had the opportunity to be on many television programmes in England and in the United-States, which we never thought we would do. It really gave us a whole new media coverage.
Your lyrics cover a wide range of topics, all the way from love songs to political songs for the people. Is this a reflection of your Malian culture?
It’s very reflective, because in Mali we sing about everything. The people really listen to singers and artists because they are at the centre of the culture, and they bring messages to the people.
Do you think your vision-impairment gives you other means for interpreting the world around you?
When you don’t have sight you have to imagine things and create your own universe, because it’s about the sounds you hear, not the faces or physical world. It gives you a different perspective. We have the advantage that we could see, once upon a time, so we can visualize people and things. We have seen men, we have seen women, and we have seen light. The fact that we are blind also gives us other features, like very developed hearing, a heightened sense of smell, we touch everything so we manage to see things that people with vision do not.
You have collaborated with Manu Chao and Damon Albarn, among others. How do you choose which artists to work with?
It’s just something from the heart. Manu Chao had heard our music and wrote about it in the paper, so that pleased us. We wanted to meet him, and we clicked right away. With Damon Albarn, we found each other at the Africa Express festival. We meet our collaborators mainly at concerts and a spark passes between us. We find each other backstage, talk to each other and see if we can work on something together.
We don’t target artists, like “on this album we‘re going to work with this artist…” Usually we create our songs, they take a listen and try to play on it. Sometimes they bring us a song and sometimes we even create all together.
Your music has changed quite a bit since you first started playing together, going from a very traditional sound to having more elements of electro and pop. Was this an organic change?
Absolutely. We always had a tendency to make traditional sounding music but with a modern take. When we arrived in France we had the opportunity to work with professional musicians from different backgrounds, and were able to do what we had wanted to do for a very long time. When we were young we listened to a lot of rock and blues artists, and we wanted to be like them, so we were able to develop our music further than before.
What do you think draws people to your music? What do they like about it?
The reviews we get are often positive. People seem to really like our simplicity. The fact that our lyrics are simple pleases people a lot. They also seem to like our attitude and behaviour, the way we are cool with people seems to attract them. In Mali, people like us mainly because of the message we send, because our messages give the people a lot of hope and that is very important in life.
What is the impact you see your songs as having, and what is the impact you would like them to have?
The impact we would like to have is for people to listen to our songs and try to live as we do through them. We want people to be inspired by our lyrics and for them to become driving elements in everything they do. Especially to bring awareness to people as well. We want to tell them that life can be good today but bad tomorrow, but you have to accept everything because things can always change.
Do you ever cry when playing music? Does your music make others cry?
We had many moments, particularly when we were in Mali, when our songs would make people cry a lot, because we were sensitizing them on the problems of visually impaired people. It brought on a lot of tears. Even now sometimes when people hear us sing, even without understanding the words, the melody will suddenly bring tears to their eyes.
Can you tell when audiences are responding well at your shows?
We can tell by the crowd when we come onstage and say our greetings, we notice if the audience is warm or not. If the crowd is warm, that makes our job pretty easy. If they aren’t, then we really have to bring some heat and make people move.
Are you’re ready to take on Iceland?
I think everything will go well and we will have a good crowd. We are always ready to party and make people dance. Our music is meant to make people move.
- Where: Laugardalshöll
- When: Wednesday, May 12, 20:30
- Price: 4500-5500 ISK
- Tickets: midi.is