No longer content with being classified as world music, Malian duo Amadou Bagakoyo and Mariam Doumbia are going global. The couple, who met at Bamako’s Institute For The Young Blind and married nearly three decades ago, broke through with 2005’s Dimanche à Bamako, whose mixture of West African rhythms, blues-rock guitar and intimate harmonies proved irresistible to a Western audience. (It didn’t hurt that superstar producer Manu Chao’s name was prominently featured on the cover.) Their new album, Welcome To Mali, ups the cross-cultural ante, featuring a collaboration with the Somali rapper K’naan and a leadoff track produced by Blur/Gorillaz’ Damon Albarn, whose autotuned vocals will shock the kente off world-music purists.
Singing in French and their native Bambara as well as a profusion of other African languages, Amadou & Mariam have taken advantage of their newfound celebrity to promote African unity, as well as a vision of their home continent free from outdated stereotypes and centuries-old conflicts. While only a few of their songs directly address political issues, their focus on universal harmony is itself a political act. It’s no accident that, when discussing the stylistic mixtures that are characteristic of their music, Bagakoyo uses the French word “métissage,” which translates literally as “miscegenation.”
The lyrics on Welcome to Mali, are simple even simplistic at times. (Sample from “Ce n’est pas bon”: “Hypocrisy in politics — it’s no good, we want none of it.”) But as Bagakoyo discusses below, the basic approach is a conscious choice, an attempt to cut through the cultural and linguistic confusion that troubles so many attempts at African peace-making. With a tour opening for Coldplay on tap for August, the “blind couple of Mali” are set to play to their largest American audiences yet. But first there’s a tour of mid-size venues, during which Bagakoyo sat down for a pre-soundcheck conversation. The interview was conducted in French, with translation by The A.V. Club.
The A.V. Club: You’ve talked about this album having a more global sound. Is that something that evolved during the recording process, or something that you went into the studio hoping to achieve?
Amadou Bagakoyo: It’s a bit complicated, but in essence, we wrote the songs first, and the colors came afterwards. We are very open to other musics, and so there are encounters between them, and cross-pollination. We want above all to make our music accessible to many people.
AVC: How did you end up working with Damon Albarn and K’naan?
AB: We met Damon through his music festival, Africa Express, when we played the first year in Bamako. He likes Malian music very much, so we did many things together in England, and in Kinshasa. When we wanted to record the new album, we called him, and he came. He played on “Ce n’est pas bon,” and afterwards he wanted to take things a little further. He brought in a piece of music, and Mariam brought in the lyrics, and that song is called “Sabali.”
We met K’naan in England as well. We played in the same hall together. So from then, we got to know each other. We found there was a link between his music and ours, and we invited him to our festival, Paris-Bamako. We also did Africa Express with him. So when we wrote the song, “Africa,” it made sense to invite him to sing on it as well.
AVC: “Sabali” begins Welcome to Mali with a clever bait and switch. It starts off with what sounds like an old field recording of African singing, and then it switches abruptly to synthesizer chords and Mariam’s processed vocals. Did you want to make a statement about what kind of album it was going to be?
AB: It was intentional. It announced the album. Every time we make a new album, we want the first song to sound different, to change the colors. On Dimanche à Bamako, the first song, “M’bife,” was also different from the rest of the album. “Sabali” is part of that dynamic. It says that we are going to go further with another way of working. We tried many things. That’s why there are the old sounds, and then the keyboards, which are much newer, more electronic. These are new colors for us. It surprises people, so that they say, “Ah! What are they doing?”
AVC: The lyrics on Welcome to Mali — the French ones, at least — are much simpler than those on your previous albums. Is that because a large part of your audience now doesn’t speak French, let alone Bambara?
AB: We’re always trying to write simple worlds, so that everyone can understand what we are saying. We don’t want people to have to reflect too much to understand what we have said. We want people to sing along with us. We always want to make things simple.
AVC: The messages are simple, but also powerful. You deal with themes of brotherhood, unity, solidarity and love.
AB: We need to address a large audience. So when we address ourselves to a large audience, the messages have to be easy to understand. In Africa, there are conflicts, so we try to say to people that it’s not worth warring among themselves. We are parents, we are friends, we are brothers. It’s all one family. So it’s best that they hear us, that they understand us, and we try to speak so that will happen. We want to sing about love, because we are husband and wife. We share this moment with the whole world. We want to speak about the essential things above all.
AVC: You recorded the new album in London, Paris, Bamako and Dakar. Is there a different feeling in the studio when you record in a different country?
AB: There were reasons why we were in each place. Most of our musicians are in Paris, and it’s easier to record there, in good conditions. In Mali, it was in search of the players of traditional instruments: the djembe the balafon, the kora. It was much easier to record them there than to bring them to France. In Senegal, there is a drummer who is also blind, so we went there so he could play something on the disc. In London, it was because Damon has his studio there. Each place had its own feeling, different than the others.
AVC: It seems as if the audience for African music in the U.S. has grown much more robust in recent years. Is that true from your point of view?
AB: It’s beginning to change. It’s not over, but it is happening. More people have come to understand the music, have come to see that what we do in Africa has links with the blues, and also with rock, and that we mix the two. People are seeing that music is universal. Africans as well have made a 180-degree turn and are learning how to make much more universal music, because the perception of African music is changing. People are drawn to African music, and see that it is music like any other. We can say that we are at the root of this change. We play in many different places, in many festivals, where they don’t have much practice in hearing African music.