To expand your horizons while remaining true to your roots is a challenge that Amadou & Mariam have risen to - and consistently met - throughout their career.
Each new album has found the husband-and-wife duo from Mali boldly moving forward and breaking fresh ground, while at the same time preserving their instantly recognisable trademarks: the exquisite song craft, Amadou’s thrilling electric blues guitar and the magical interplay of their two voices, which first brought them popularity.
In recent years, Amadou and Mariam have toured with Coldplay and U2 and jammed with musical heroes David Gilmour and Johnny Marr. They’ve performed at a Nobel Peace Prize concert in honour of Barack Obama, and played at the opening ceremonies of the last two FIFA world cups. Manu Chao and Damon Albarn have lent their production skills to their records and they have worked with some of the most innovative names in contemporary rock music via Albarn’s ‘Africa Express’ and other cross-cultural projects, such as ‘L’Afrik C’est Chic’.
And as their celebrity has grown around the world, the scope and ambition of their music has grown with it. Amadou has often said that the invitation to share songs and ideas with other musicians and find new ways of expression is the most exciting adventure any musician can undertake. And it is that sense of shared openness and collaborative opportunity, which is at the heart of Amadou & Mariam’s new album Folila.
The story of Folila - the word means ‘music’ in Bambara - boasts three distinct chapters, and is a tale of how two records became one. Marc-Antoine Moreau, the duo’s long-time manager and producer explains: “The original idea was to make two albums: a crossover record in New York City, where Amadou and Mariam have many musical friends and relationships and the other a more rootsy album recorded in Bamako with mostly African guests and African percussion instead of a drum kit.”
Both plans came to fruition, but when Amadou and Mariam listened back to the richness of the two sessions, a third way suggested itself: to combine the two recordings in a seamless, organic fashion. The result is Folila, a near-perfect example of how tradition and modernity can work together to generate creative forward movement, two parallel rails leading to a common musical destination.
CHAPTER ONE December 2010. Amadou and Mariam arrive in New York City with a bunch of guitar-and-vocal song demos. They take up residence in the penthouse of Cooper Square Hotel. It’s an ideal base in which to relax and limber up for three weeks of intensive sessions at Downtown Studios, where they are joined by a procession of friends, collaborators and soulmates.
An early arrival is Santigold, a big fan of Amadou & Mariam who invited the couple to play at her wedding three years earlier (sadly a prior engagement kept them, from doing so). This time there were no diary clashes and Santigold co-wrote and lent her soulful voice to the trance-like “Dougou Badia”. She also brought with her Nick Zinner, guitarist in the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, who proved a fine foil for Amadou’s bluesy guitar playing throughout the sessions.
Then came Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone, Brooklyn soul poets from TV On The Radio, whose voices flowed effortlessly into the spirit of “Wily Kataso”. Jake Shears
of Scissor Sisters, whom Amadou & Mariam memorably supported on tour in the UK in 2007, lent his distinctive high voice to the uplifting “Metemeya”. The British singer Ebony Bones, whom Amadou and Mariam met on an Africa Express outing, helped create a thrilling mix of Congolese rock‘n’roll and Tribal-electro on “C’est Pas Facile Pour Les Aigles”. Theophilus London, who made a brilliant remix of the Damon Albarn produced track “Sabali” from Amadou and Mariam’s 2009 album Welcome To Mali, came by to rap on “Nebe Miri”.
CHAPTER TWO It might have ended there. But back in the Malian capital of Bamako in the autumn of 2010, Amadou & Mariam then took the same bunch of songs into the Manjul studio and re-recorded them, with the same tuning and tempo, in quite a different fashion with African musicians, including the percussionists Vieux et Boubacar Dembélé on doumdoums and djembes, bassist Yao Dembélé, world music star Bassekou Kouyaté and his hypnotic ngoni, keyboard player Idrissa Soumaoro and Tuareg guest Abdallah Oumbadougou, who added his snaking, desert blues guitar lines to “Bagnale”.
Into this African musical summit stepped Bertrand Cantat, former singer with French rock band Noir Desir, who arrived to perform a similar role to Manu Chao on Amadou and Mariam’s 2005 album, Dimanche à Bamako. His voice, his guitar and harmonica permeate tracks such as “Africa Mon Afrique” and “Mogo”.
CHAPTER THREE Paris, 2011. Amadou and Mariam find themselves in their second home with two albums’ worth of material. The New York sessions would make a fine album in their own right - and so would the Bamako sessions. It’s impossible to chose between them and so the answer becomes obvious: the two belong together in a new and rich musical concoction, ancient and modern; retro and futuristic; organic and electronic, all at the same time. To realise this vision, Marc-Antoine Moreau (friend, manager and producer since the duo's 1998 international debut Sou Ni Tilé); and a bunch of skilled mixers are brought in, including: DangerMouse cohort Kennie Takahashi; Renaud Letang; Josh Grant; and Antoine Halet.
Folila is the first Amadou & Mariam studio album since Welcome to Mali, one of the most acclaimed recordings of 2009, and which featured contributions from Damon Albarn, K’Naan and Keziah Jones.
The couple met in 1977 while attending the Institute for Young Blind in Bamako (where they continue to play an annual benefit concert). Influenced by the records of Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton and Pink Floyd as well as traditional African music, the couple began working as a duo in 1983 and their early recordings have since been remastered and reissued by Because Music on the box set ‘1990-1995: The Best of the African Years’.
Sou Ni Tile, their first album recorded outside Africa, appeared in 1998, and went on to sell 100,000. It was followed by two further albums, Tje ni Mousso (1999) and Wati (2002).
Their transition from world music stages to rock festival headliners came with 2005’s Manu Chao-produced Dimanche à Bamako, one of the best-selling African albums of all time, winning a prestigious Les Victoires de la Musique award (the French equivalent of the Grammys) and two BBC Radio 3 Awards for World Music.
In 2011 Amadou & Mariam performed the first of their unique Eclipse shows at the Manchester International Festival. The concerts, staged entirely in the dark, chronicle the duo’s life and work together, featuring songs from across their career including the premiere of “Wily Kataso” from Folila. “If you cannot see, your sense of sound becomes richer,” explains Amadou. “You appreciate the qualities of sound. That’s one reason I wanted to have a series of concerts in the darkness. I wanted the audiences to try to hear the music just as Mariam and I hear it”.
An autobiography Away From The Light, published in June 2010, tells the story of their early years, during which they accepted and adapted to their blindness, and ends with the duo performing to Barack Obama at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in December 2009. In between, the book traces the moment they met at the Institute for Young Blind in Bamako and the epic journey that has made the couple the best- selling and best-loved act to come out of Africa this century.