Amadou & Mariam: The Sound Of Confusion

Amadou & Mariam write timely political songs you can dance to

“There is confusion everywhere/There is illusion everywhere/There is division most of all,” sings Amadou Bagayoko on the title track to Amadou & Mariam’s politically charged La Confusion (Because). Amadou sings those words in French; some other songs are in Bambara, the language of Mali, where he met wife and musical partner Mariam Doumbia at Mali’s Institute For The Young Blind. Although the words express disillusionment and distrust, the music is ebullient, and that’s the overall tone of the album, especially for those who don’t know French or Bambara.

Mali is explicitly part of the confusion noted in the album’s title. “We live in a globalized [world],” says Amadou, shortly after returning to Europe following a summer American tour during which the couple got a taste of this country’s own sense of confusion. “Our U.S. tour was very intense in a number of shows and cities. We haven’t had enough time to explore and have a clear idea of the change.”

Amadou & Mariam have been recording together since shortly after they married in 1980, but their international breakthrough came with 2004’s Dimanche A Bamako (“Sunday in Bamako”), a joyful record that combined traditional Afro blues with rock guitars and hyperkinetic production touches, courtesy of Manu Chao. It was a fusion that didn’t pander, that managed to sound contemporary to Western ears without diluting its firm base in traditional Malian styles. Known as “the blind couple from Mali” (they’ve lived in Paris since 1996), Amadou & Mariam expanded the Western connections on 2008’s Welcome To Mali, which included collaborations with Damon Albarn and K’Naan, and on 2012’s Folila, which featured Santigold and members of TV On The Radio, Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Scissor Sisters.

Those two albums demonstrated how adept Amadou & Mariam are at synthesizing musicians from diverse genres within their own confident approach. La Confusion, however, contains fewer distractions: Aside from producer/keyboardist Adrien Durand, the band consists mostly of African players rather than Western imports. Between Folila and La Confusion, both Amadou and Mariam worked in collectives with other African artists, says Amadou (via email, and with the help of a translator). “I was touring with Les Ambassadeurs along with Salif Keita and Kanté Manfila,” he says. “Mariam joined the group Les Amazones d’Afrique with Kandia Kouyaté, Angélique Kidjo, Mamani Keita, Rokia Koné, among others. They recorded an album, and Mariam joined them in some live shows.”

The political structure of Mali also changed between the two albums: A Tuareg rebellion and a military coup both occurred in 2012, and Islamist extremists took control of the north. “The situation in Mali is very delicate, but we were not affected directly,” says Amadou.

Lyrically, the couple, who write separately, focus on subjects that are anchored in the culture of contemporary Mali but resonate globally: disruptive political situations, sexism, complacency, emigration. Musically, La Confusion is still stylistically diverse, but the focus is usually on the couple’s vocals and Amadou’s cascading electric-guitar lines, even more so than on the last few LPs.

“We wanted to work different sounds and genres, from traditional music to funk, electro, blues,” says Amadou. “We listen to a lot of music, at home and also during the tour. The mix of styles in our music is a clear effect of the music and artists we listen to. I like Pink Floyd, Rihanna, Stevie Wonder, French auteurs; Mariam likes music from the ’60s. We like rock, pop, rap, traditional music as well.”

Some songs, such as “Yiki Yassi,” hearken back to the duo’s early, more traditional days; others, such as first single “Boufou Safou,” prominently feature Durand’s disco-funk keyboards.

Asked if La Confusion contains dance songs with a political bent, or political songs to dance to, Amadou replies, “This is something that we prefer the people to choose, either if they want to focus on the message or the music. We wanted to work on both aspects. And hopefully we manage to do it.”

—Steve Klinge