Amadou & Mariam | The Reference Point Is Ever Elusive, Ever Mutational

Via issue 186, The Promenade Issue!

Written by

Bennett DiDonna

Photographed by

Simrah Farrukh

Styled by

No items found.
No items found.
GENTLE MONSTER sunglasses.

For many, travel is a right of passage—a distinctly visceral act, often elective, though sometimes not, where we take what we’ve seen, heard, smelled, felt, and tasted back home with us. The spirit of mobility, of venturing to new places, fosters growth and transformation. It stirs reassessment and renewal. And it is precisely this sense of openness and receptivity to voyaging across landscapes and soundscapes that has fueled the transcendental globe-trotting hybridization of musical duo Amadou & Mariam for the past forty-plus years. Born in Bamako, Amadou Bagayoko and Mariam Doumbia met as students in the mid-1970s at Mali’s Institute for the Young Blind. Their collaboration, which began in the school orchestra, eventually blossomed into a career and life together. With Mariam on vocals and Amadou on guitar, the husband and wife duo went on to hone their sound, weaving in vibrational West African rhythm with rock and blues. Everything changed in 2005 when their album Dimanche à Bamako skyrocketed the duo onto the global stage. This international success reached new highs in 2008 with the release of Welcome to Mali, which was produced by Blur and Gorillaz mastermind Damon Albarn, and went on to earn a Grammy nomination. In the years since, Amadou & Mariam have continued to pursue new collaborations, not bound by genre, to forge a sound entirely their own. The duo’s latest album Eclipse, explores their journey in a new context, fusing music new and old with spoken word to mark key moments along their career.  Flaunt spoke with Amadou & Mariam on the first leg of their current US tour.

GENTLE MONSTER sunglasses.

I wanted to start off by asking about your early years at Mali’s Institute for the Young Blind. How did you begin making music together and what records were you listening to at that point in your life? 

Mariam: I started in 1973. I went there to learn Braille, and soon after, I was given the opportunity to teach singing and dancing to a group of students. A little later I met Amadou, and we started an orchestra. 

Amadou: I started in 1975. I was already involved in music at that time because I played in orchestras like the Ambassadeurs. I also went to learn Braille. I had already received training, so it was rather a time of re-education with the learning of Braille. Shortly after, I was offered to join the orchestra as a guitarist, and we met every Wednesday in a room to play. I was responsible for the musical activities at that time, and I have fond memories because everything went very well. As for the music we listened to when we met, I listened a lot to James Brown, Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd, Bad Company.

Mariam: Nicoletta, a lot of French artists, Sheila E. 

How did you find your voice in music, and how has that voice evolved in forty-plus years of creating together?

Amadou: I was already playing in several orchestras by then. I had the role of singer, guitarist and composer. When I entered the Institute, I started composing there and Mariam was already singing as well. We united our creativity since we shared the Bambara style. Our sound has evolved through the music we listened to. 

Mariam: As we listened to French music, other artists, our sound was traveling and evolving. 

Amadou: The evolution also starts from the fact that we sing in Bambara and Bambara is linked to blues and rock. We have fused styles and sounds. In Abidjan, we started recording, and when we traveled to France, we met other artists from other genres and styles and we started recording with them. 

GENTLE MONSTER sunglasses.

From Damon Albarn to Manu Chao to Sofi Tukker—you’ve worked with an incredible range of musicians across genres and borders. How do you approach collaborations?

Mariam: It depends a lot on each artist. During music festivals, we often meet friends, artists, and meet new artists. Sometimes they approach us and propose to collaborate, other times they already know us and come with a clear proposal. For example, Damon Albarn already knew our music; Manu Chao, too. 

Amadou: Sometimes artists send us a blank canvas, i.e. just the reference, and we compose based on what the song makes us feel. Other times, they send us the song with more references and we adapt. For example, with Sergent Garcia, it was a collaboration together (physically) with his orchestra and we were improvising as we went along. With Manu Chaoit was also like that.

Every album tells a story, but your latest album, Eclipse, does so in a truly unique way. How did you come up with the idea of mixing songs and narrative interludes?

Mariam: The name Eclipse comes from our high school days since the orchestra we formed was called that. So this album, already in the name itself, tells a story. Our former manager, Marc-Antoine, heard the story of this orchestra and between the three of us, we started to develop the idea of this concert. It is a unique show because the hall is in darkness, and between songs, we tell the story of our lives. 

Amadou: In the creation of this project, we agreed with our former manager Marc-Antoine on the song repertoire and the story behind each song. With each song, we narrate our personal story, so it has a historical context of how we started, until our trip to France, and our tours in England, etc. The story is narrated to give more context and explain how we were received at each moment by the public.

GENTLE MONSTER sunglasses.

Photographed by Simrah Farrukh

Written by Bennett DiDonna

Photography Assistant: Hunter Cates

Location: SF Jazz

No items found.
No items found.
Amadou & Mariam, Eclipse, Bennett DiDonna, Flaunt Magazine