A few trade secrets for stalkers. Visiting R&B stars invariably favour the Landmark in Marylebone (with the exception of Mariah, who stays at the Sanderson). Since the 80s, indie bands have favoured the Columbia Hotel in West London. Often, singer-songwriters go for the Kensington Garden Hilton in Knightsbridge – handy for those muse-stoking walks in Hyde Park. And this year’s most celebrated world music phenomenon? Where do Amadou & Mariam stay when they’re in town? Right now, the Malian duo are perched on the edge of their bed in, of all places, an East London Travelodge.
The humble accommodation may seem surprising on first inspection – at least it does until you realize that Britain’s most ubiquitous motel chain is a probably the only practical choice for the visually impaired traveler. The beds are always in the middle of the room. The work surfaces are always situated opposite the bed, while the bathrooms are always to the right of the bed. Touchingly, Amadou Bagayoko & Mariam Doumbia are no less tactile with each other in person than they are on stage, where Mariam is wont to absently stroke her husband’s head. If their default mode is a calm, carefree air most of the time, it certainly doesn’t do any harm that they’ve just heard they’re to emerge from next week’s Radio 3 World Music Awards with two of the most prestigious gongs: Best African Artist and Best Album, for last year’s breakthrough success Dimanche A Bamako.
That said, they’re conspicuously unsurprised by the news – and not without good reason. If Amadou & Mariam didn’t get the award for best album, who else could it have gone to? Dimanche A Bamako finally propelled the duo beyond the confines of the specialist shops with a deeply evocative kaleidoscope of insistent Malian soul excursions and a scattering of newly politicized paeans to the plight of the economic migrant – the latter, you imagine, an inevitable side-effect of getting global agit-pop icon Manu Chao to produce the album. If Amadou & Mariam’s time has indeed come, it’s a view with which Amadou (with the help of an interpreter) is swift to accord: “The only surprise is that we stopped expecting it after Wati [their fourth CD, released in 2003]. Maybe we have been naïve, but we always thought that this wasn’t especially difficult music for a Western audience to understand.”
You might have heard a similar point being made in the past by African singers such as Baaba Maal and Youssou N’Dour. Unlike them, though, Amadou & Mariam have yielded little to the cheesier production mores of Western world-pop. “I haven’t had to Westernise my playing,” argues Amadou, “because those influences were there from the beginning.” When the couple met, at the Institute For The Blind in the Malian capital of Bamako, Amadou had already found his way around a fretboard with the help of Pink Floyd and Eric Clapton cassettes. Whatever blues purists might have to say about Clapton’s laid-back style, it’s also the most audible foreign constituent of the 50 year-old’s playing. Furthermore, it suits the duo’s lilting African pop very well. But then talk to Amadou for a while and you realize that the guitarist – who lost his sight to cataracts as a teenager – has little time for purists. When he started to collaborate with Mariam – then, a popular singer at local weddings – he says it was on the understanding that they do something which assimilated the gamut of his influences. For Mariam – a Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye fan – it wasn’t a problem. Their sudden rise to stardom in France came after 1994 when a Malian businessman Sékou Minta booked for a residency in the Paris suburb of Saint-Denis. You suspect, though, that it might have happened sooner or later. “We’ve always had confidence in ourselves,” says Amadou. “which, in a way, helped us go through with tough decisions.”
Presumably, moving to the Ivory Coast in 1986 was one of those decisions – not least because it entailed leaving their children with the couple’s extended families. “It was something we had to do,” explains 47 year-old Mariam, “because that’s where the studios were.” Two years after arriving in the Ivory Coast, a three day recording session yielded over twenty of the songs which can be found on a new CD, 1990-1995: The Best Of The African Years. Without the beefier band arrangements of recent years, Amadou’s melancholy picking and Mariam’s gritty incantations radiate a vast, starlit intensity. Many of the subjects – love, homesickness, financial struggle – are universal. Others, such as Si Te Djon – a plea for divine intervention from a blind person – have universality conferred upon them by virtue of the duo’s spine-tingling delivery.
For Mariam, who lost her sight to measles at the age of five, visual concepts have long assumed a faintly abstract quality: “Because I have some memories from before, I have some memory of what colours are like. There are some things I remember more than others. Such as what? Well, the stars. I remember my friends, but not so much their faces.”
“If anything,” adds Amadou, “it has made us more driven to succeed. We go back to the school where we met and it makes people realize what they’re capable of achieving. Awards help to signpost those achievements.”
Even when those awards inadvertently see the duo’s music shoved into the vast global ghetto of “world” music? Just because he can’t see people, it doesn’t mean Amadou is any less capable of imparting a look of weariness their way. After years of recording cassette-only albums in a continent where bootlegging accounts for the vast majority of sales, Amadou & Mariam are understandably reluctant to disparage a system which sees them earning money from their records: “I think, personally, that describing what we do as ‘world music’ is not a negative thing. Because we’re all in the same world. Do you have another term for it?” Alas, a few seconds of frantic head-scratching yields nothing, much to Amadou’s amusement. “In that case,” he smiles, “why not carry on using this one for the time being?”