Amadou & Mariam: Fluent In Pop Globalism

Guitarist/vocalist Amadou Bagayoko and singer Mariam Doumbia are a blind married couple from Mali who just so happen to make some of the world's most irresistibly funky music.

Their latest album is the marvelous if somewhat misleadingly titled "Welcome to Mali," on which they proudly fly the globalist pop flag: Traditional -- and not-so-traditional -- African musical ideas and instrumentation are blended with electro-pop keyboards, Memphis funk, rootsy reggae, blues-rock guitars, disco and rockabilly flourishes and, in a summit with K'Naan, American hip-hop via Sub-Saharan Africa.

The textured, globe-trotting sound was shaped, in part, by the album's British co-producer Damon Albarn, who did for "Mali" what Manu Chao did for 2005's acclaimed "Dimanche a Bamako," giving the album a decidedly sexy international sheen.

"We definitely choose the term 'global pop stars' rather than 'African pop stars,'" Amadou says in a telephone interview translated by his manager. Amadou & Mariam perform Wednesday at the Birchmere.

You and Mariam have been making music together since the 1970s, but it wasn't until you got together with Manu Chao that you really broke through internationally. How have things changed since then?
From the '70s until the Manu Chao album, we went slowly but surely. And we liked that actually. We initially went from Mali to Africa, then from Africa to Europe. Then we went from Europe to the whole world; we're part of the big global scene now and play the big festivals, in front of a lot of people.

You're touring U.S. amphitheaters with Coldplay, but you're also doing some more intimate club shows in the States. Will your approach be different in the huge venues than it is in the smaller rooms?
Definitely there's a different approach. Obviously in the big amphitheaters, we're going to be playing in front of thousands of people. So there's a lot of psychological preparation we have to do. Smaller clubs are more intimate, and that's easier for us. Our musical approach remains the same; it's mainly about motivation. I know that at the big places, I have to be prepared to play in front of people that do not know my music. They are not meant to know my music, because we are the supporting act. So you have to be focused and be motivated to do a good show.

For the song "Africa," you worked with the Somalian rapper K'Naan. How much hip-hop do you listen to? Is it a genre you spend much time with?
Actually, we do listen to hip-hop a lot. There's a lot of radio down here that plays hip-hop, and we really like that music because it spreads a message. Our son is also doing hip-hop. It's definitely part of our musical world. We collaborated with K'Naan mainly because we wanted to add that color to our music.

(More after the jump.)

A bunch of young, white indie-rock bands from New York have been incorporating Afropop elements into their music lately: Vampire Weekend, Yeasayer, Harlem Shakes, Dirty Projectors. Are you cool with them appropriating your music?
Yes, indeed. Because we African musicians have always integrated pop and rock into our music. So the other way around is rather cool for us. It's part of that global idea we have about music, making it international.

And it's nothing new: You listened to Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin when you were growing up and thought they sounded African, right?
Definitely. That music was speaking to us, and we could find some kind of spitting images of our own African music. We got inspired to meld their ingredients to our own music.

Did you learn to play those wicked blues-rock guitar licks from those records, or was it from listening to the blues music of Mali?
It's a story of fusion. The influences are partly the tradition of Malian blues, but also influences we got from listening to a lot of those bands.

A lot of people coming to your music don't understand the French lyrics. They just like the sound. Does it bother you that they're missing the messages?
It doesn't really annoy us. We've been listening to radio for our entire lives, and when we first listened to all those European and American bands, we didn't understand any lyrics, though we could sing those songs. But it's all about the melody and the rhythm and the emotion.

Like when you listened to Stevie Wonder, you could understand?
Yes, it's exactly that. We love Stevie Wonder. And imagine, I didn't even know he was blind! I listened a lot to "Superstition," and I was singing it all the time. I actually did not understand his lyrics, only a few words. But the language is not like a barrier

What was it like meeting Stevie?
We met back in 1989, on the Ivory Coast. It was a party for humanity at the Ivory Hotel. I can remember it well. He was the main guest and he invited us into his room. He played the keyboard and we were singing with him. He gave us a lot of encouragement for our own future. It was a great meeting. It was important for us to meet somebody like him at that time. It was so important to get encouragement. We weren't yet known; meeting him was part of the success for us.

By J. Freedom du Lac |  June 5, 2009; 12:28 PM ET Interviews
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