Interview by Jane Cornwell

AMADOU BAGAYOKO and Mariam Doumbia, the talented blues
guitarist and the nightingale-voiced singer marketed as “the
blind couple of Mali”, are enjoying huge success in their
adopted France with Dimanche * Bamako, produced by the cult
Franco-Latin musician Manu Chao.

The album is a slice of Afro-pop heaven, stippled with Chao’s
stylistic fingerprints (street noises, wailing sirens, reggae-
lite, sonic trickery), although he insists that it’s the
married duo’s record.

Before Chao encountered them, Amadou and Mariam had already
been living in France, where they had released three albums
on the Paris-based Universal label, since 1997. But their
career in francophone West Africa stretched back to their
first official concert in 1980, and included numerous
cassettes that sold out and were enthusiastically pirated —
across Mali and Senegal, Guinea Bissau and the Ivory Coast.

They sing in French, Bambara and other local languages, of
peace, life and love. Their own love, in particular. “On the
big things, like music, or our children (three, all grown),
we understand each other perfectly,” says Mariam. “If we
disagree, it’s over things like having the radio on. The
secret of a good marriage is staying calm.”

Both musicians were raised by big, supportive families in
Bamako, Mali’s capital. After Mariam lost her sight, at the
age of 5, a side-effect of measles, her school-principal
father encouraged her creativ-ity. At Bamako’s Institute for
the Young Blind she taught singing and dancing to other
children and listened to records by popular Malian chanteuses
as well as crooners such as Nana Mou skouri. She joined the
institute’s Eclipse Orchestra in 1975, having already carved
a reputation as a teenage guitarist in Les Ambassedeurs du
Motel de Bamako, one of Africa’s hottest bands.

So did Amadou. “I was already making money from music,” he
says. “The institute had to persuade me to come.” Robbed of
his vision by cataracts at 15, Amadou took courage from role
models such as Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder, and threw
himself into playing like his heroes Eric Clapton, Jimi
Hendrix and Alvin Lee of Ten Years After. He had a hit song
in Bambara that happened to be one of Mariam’s favourites.

“Music was our common passion, so we were always speaking,”
he says. Together they crafted a mix of funk, soul, blues and
Malian musical traditions, moving to Abidjan on the Ivory
Coast — the centre of West Africa’s music industry — and
releasing cassette after cassette.

Dimanche * Bamako was recorded in Paris and Mali on Because,
a new French label. Its guests include the Ivory Coast reggae
star Tiken Jah Fakolly and the couple’s eldest son, who can
be heard rapping on Politic Amagni, one of the album’s
several hardline (but melodic) protest songs.

The UK, it’s hoped, will now embrace the duo as France
has. “We’re happy that our message of peace, love and
tolerance is spreading,” says Amadou, as Mariam nods. “Tell
everyone they must discover this music,” adds Chao. “Just
tell them it’s medicinal music. Tell them it’s good for their
health.”

Amadou and Mariam play the Marquee Club, WC2 (020-7734 8690),
on June 9