Amadou & Mariam: 'Undoubtedly there is a musical connection between Bamako and Birmingham'
- Stewart Smith
- 15 July 2019
This article is from 2019
Malian duo discuss combining the sounds of West Africa with the American South ahead of their live collaboration with Blind Boys of Alabama at EIF
Malian superstars Amadou & Mariam are no strangers to collaboration, having worked with the likes of Santigold, Damon Albarn and Manu Chao. In their latest show, Bamako to Birmingham, the pair team up with gospel legends the Blind Boys of Alabama. The dialogue between Malian music and the blues has been widely noted: consider master guitarist Ali Farka Touré's absorption of John Lee Hooker, or the way Tinariwen plug Jimi Hendrix into Tuareg traditions. But gospel is a big part of the story too.
As Amadou explains via a translator, the idea is to bring American gospel back to its West African roots. 'Undoubtedly there is a musical connection between Bamako and Birmingham, or at least this is what we aim with this project,' he says. 'We are long-time fans of Blind Boys of Alabama, and after speaking with our manager this idea came up. They are definitely living legends of gospel music! And we are honoured that they agree on sharing this project with us. We love their work and interpretations.'
Amadou Bagayoko and Mariam Doumbia met at Bamako's school for the blind. She was a young singer who modelled herself on French stars like Sheila and Sylvie Vartan. Her songs (in particular 'Teree la Sebin' about the plight of disabled people) caught Amadou's attention, and they soon became partners in life and music. Amadou had already enjoyed success as a guitarist for Bamako's hottest band, Les Ambassadeurs du Motel, an adventurous outfit whose repertoire spanned rumbas, foxtrots, French ballads, Cuban and Senegalese Wolof songs, to rock, funk and soul. That eclecticism has informed the duo's own fusions of West African music with rock, pop, house, Cuban and Indian music.
Blind Boys of Alabama formed in the 1930s and pioneered a hard-driving gospel sound that has proven hugely influential. While other gospel artists like Sam Cooke crossed over into secular music, the Blind Boys stayed true to their roots. In the 1980s they started to take their music beyond the gospel circuit, covering songs by Bob Dylan and collaborating with Southern soul legend Booker T Jones. Founding member Clarence Fountain passed away last year at the age of 88, but the group keeps keeping on.
For Amadou the prospect of working with them is hugely exciting. 'We're working to have a complete set-list of tracks that travel the sounds from Africa to America, with originals from both groups, with new arrangements and new songs. We'll travel from contemporary African sounds and American roots music.'
In addition to recording two new tracks with the Blind Boys, Amadou & Mariam are currently working on new material of their own. 'We've already recorded some demos and we're crossing fingers that we will soon get back to the studio to work on our new tracks. We're very excited about this future album.'
Amadou & Mariam with Blind Boys of Alabama, Usher Hall, 7 Aug, 8pm, £14–£34.