The story is compelling enough by itself. Amadou Bagayoko and Mariam Doumbia were both born sighted in the Malian capital of Bamako in the 1950s. Both went blind as young people–Mariam because of untreated measles and Amadou from a congenital eye condition. Although they grew up within a few blocks of each other, they met only as students at Bamako’s Institute for the Young Blind, where Amadou became leader of the school’s orchestra and Mariam was its lead singer. They fell in love, married, and took off on a tour of West Africa’s musical capitals–Lagos, Abidjan, Conakry–in search of fame and fortune.
From the start Amadou & Mariam had something distinctive, and their music circulated widely on cassettes. The music of Mali, from centuries-old story songs accompanied by the twenty-one-string kora to modern pop, has a mysterious ability to blend with other traditions without losing its own distinctive qualities, and Amadou & Mariam forged a blend that looked outward to the whole world. Their square, short-phrased African tunes, often sung in harmony, were supported by Amadou’s electric guitar, speaking in Caribbean, American psychedelic, and James Brown-style funk accents. At first they sang mostly in African languages, but, when they began to use French more often (translating songs from their native Bambara), their cassettes gained cachet in France itself.
The musical spaces defined by this simple duo, it turned out, could be filled in with a great variety of rhythms–African drumming in several styles, the ethnic-electronic rhythm tracks of French star Manu Chao (who produced the duo’s 2004 breakthrough album Dimanche a Bamako), the nu-disco of Scissor Sisters, and a bevy of collaborators from the rock world who hitched their stars to this pair of singers whose difficult lives seemed to have been musically boiled down to a kind of alchemical beauty and warmth that transformed any ingredients it touched. Beginning with an appearance at Mali’s Festival in the Desert in 2004, they played international venues of steadily increasing size. They opened for Coldplay, then U2, and sang at Barack Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize ceremony. Lately they’ve been involved with musical efforts to tamp down the violent conflict that has torn up their once peaceful country.
Only in the monoglot United States have they been somewhat less than blockbusters, but they’re coming on strong here, with shows buoyed by the sense of flamboyant command that marks many of the great African performers. Now, fresh off the release of an EP of Latin techno remixes of some of their songs, they come to the Power Center on July 2 as part of the Ann Arbor Summer Festival.