Interpreting the world music of Amadou & Mariam

John J. Thompson

It is generally accepted that rock and roll was born in America but with decidedly and rapturously African DNA.

Many of the most credible and influential Western artists of the last several decades have looked for melodic, rhythmic and even lyrical inspiration from the Global South. The Rolling Stones, U2 and Eric Clapton have dabbled, but for millions of people it was Paul Simon’s commercially and critically successful 1986 album Graceland that first introduced them to the concept of world music, the vaguely ethnic genre that likes to incorporate musical elements from around the world – or at least from Africa and South America.

We can thank the world-music community, the explorative instincts of the modern indie rock scene and the growing cultural influence of globalism for musical gems like Folila, the latest project from Amadou & Mariam. This charming blind couple has been recording in their native Mali and in France since the mid-80s. Their story deserves a film. Guitarist Amadou Bagayoko and singer Mariam Doumbia met as children at the Institute for Young Blind People in Bamako, the capitol of Mali. The two sightless artists found love and harmony as they began to explore the music of America and Europe through their West African palettes.

Some 30 years later they landed a deal with Nonesuch Records and partnered with celebrated French world music producer Manu Chao, who helped them hone their craft into a seamless blend of African tonal motifs and American blues elements. They found their way into the awareness of - and onto the stages of - major artists like U2, Blur and Coldplay and became near instant sensations at hipster gatherings like the Coachella and Lollapalooza festivals. In the world-music scene Amadou & Mariam are a big deal indeed.

Their music joyfully jumps between languages and time signatures and back again.

Folila, which is translated as “music,” is definitely the duo’s most Western-accessible project to date. The underlying grooves are irresistible as they anchor African melodies and lyrics in a variety of languages. The instruments sound rich and warm and the spacing is generous. Horns, various guitars, complex rhythms that never leave the pocket and gurgling keyboard or organ sounds provide an analog sonic tapestry for the voices to weave into. The credits detail the contribution of what seems to be over 100 different musicians in New York, Mali and Paris, where this project was concocted. While the contributions of these artists are certainly interesting, it is clear from the beginning that the duo doesn’t really need them at all. Their music joyfully jumps between languages and time signatures and back again.

Although several songs include intermittent English lines or translations, most of them are wonderfully foreign-soundingt and clearly designed to make people feel really, really good. Never very vocal about their personal religious convictions, recent interviews indicate that the couple are Sufi Muslims, with a connection to a particular strain of mysticism known as the Tidjani brotherhood. But any kind of specific religious imagery is rare at best. The first track, “Dougou Badia” (featuring Santigold), states the couple’s goals pretty clearly: “To our audience we say, we have come to liven up the town.”

While other songs touch on the devastation of poverty, the fatigue Africans feel over the political corruption they have endured for so long and challenges faced by members of any family or community, the tone is always encouraging and optimistic. Many of the duo’s songs feel just this side of Gospel, authentically revealing the African influence in that genre. That most of the lyrics are in a foreign language may dissuade audiences who prefer spiritual influences to be clearly labeled, but even without the benefit of translations, it’s clear that Amadou and Mariam are here to bring beauty into the world, to speak creativity into chaos and to bring a positive and constructive diversion to their fans.

Christian artists attempting to impact their own larger culture might take a cue here. A long-term commitment to social issues and a decades-long commitment to their craft allow Amadou and Mariam to speak into the lives of millions of listeners who likely don’t share their particular faith.

What Do You Think?

  • Have you heard Amadou and Mariam?
  • What can English-language Christians appreciate about world music?
  • When artists are singing in a different language, what is our responsibility to translate lyrics and pinpoint beliefs?


Topics: Music, Culture At Large, Arts & Leisure, News & Politics, World