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Musical Visionaries Amadou & Mariam Discover America

by Denise Sullivan

Amadou & Mariam, the duo fusing African rhythms to rock, blues, electronica and other distinctive sounds from around the world are on summer tour. Their new single, “Bofou Safou,” celebrates living for the night and the joys of dancing, while their dynamic live show will flatten all assumptions about musicians with disabilities or of people who hail from regions in the world under siege.

“People are surprised by the quality of our music, and the way we are able to play with other musicians, to fit into other kinds of music – that is what amazes them,” said Mariam Doumbia, as quoted in The Guardian, around the time of the group’s eighth album, Folila, which featured a collaboration with TV On The Radio, among other indie rockers.

Both Mariam, and her husband Amadou Bagayoko, were born in Bamako, Mali and are legally blind, she from the age of five following a case of measles and he at 16 from degeneration caused by cataracts.  Through sheer force of talent, will, or luck of the draw, they found a worldwide audience, but the couple’s lack of sightedness and location away from the center of a music industry were never impediments to collecting listeners, especially among their musical peers.

Getting their start as a duo in the ’80s, Amadou was already an experienced guitarist working in what’s become known in the west as “Malian blues,” a sound indigenous to his country. He met Mariam through musical friends at the school for the blind where she was a songwriting and singing prodigy. By the ’90s, the pair were recording in rather minimalist style, releasing their songs on albums and cassettes. But it wasn’t until early in the 20th Century, when their 2004 album, Dimanche à Bamako, produced by French artist Manu Chao for the Nonesuch label, broke through to wider world audiences. In 2008, Damon Albarn’s production credits on Welcome To Mali expanded Amadou & Mariam’s alternative following even further. Younger listeners may be surprised to learn that the makers of a song beloved as “Sabali” are baby boomers and grandparents.

Persistent touring throughout the world and the US has seen the duo earning ever-more followers who understand the cross cultural connections between the blues, electronic music, rock, and indigenous sounds. Folila in 2012 continued to encourage cross-cultural and cross-category collaboration when it called on guitarist Nick Zinner of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Santigold for the song,”Dougou Badia.”

For all the good fortune afforded Amadou & Mariam, there is another side to the story of artists with disabilities from Africa and throughout the world.  Author, poet, and performer Leroy Moore is the founder of Krip Hop Nation, a worldwide organization devoted to fighting oppression of artists with disabilities.  Chronicling the history of ablism in the music industry, Moore has discovered patterns that plague society, then doubles down on its harms done to artists perceived to be easily taken advantage.

“Especially in Africa a lot of outside music managers go in and promote artists for two to five years, pump them up, then after their ride, they leave,” explains Moore who watched the cycle play out in the careers of Staff Benda Bilili and Liyana, led by Prudence Mabhena.

He says there are only a few artists from Africa with physical disabilities who have had careers the likes of Amadou & Mariam. Moore writes on his blog, “Many reports of both Staff Benda Bilili & Prudence stated the cost of traveling for physically disabled musicians, the inaccessibility of venues, etc.” But stereotypes and misperceptions persisted when the press posed questions like, “Is there a market for these artists?”

People are people, music is music and Amadou & Mariam are vital artists who bring joy to those of us who love their unique sound and strong message. The pair’s commitment to love, unity, and music as a great harmonizer makes a strong statement, not because they are blind; rather, it is a clear directive for the future, providing a vision for people of all ages, ethnicities, and abilities to open the doors of the heart and to dance through life together.

 

THU 20 JULY
9:30 Club
Washington, DC, US Tickets

FRI 21 JULY
Prospect Park Bandshell
Brooklyn, NY, US Tickets

SAT 22 JULY
World Café Live
Philadelphia, PA, US Tickets

MON 24 JULY
Millenium Park
Chicago, IL, US Tickets

THU 27 JULY
Cedar Cultural Center
Minneapolis, MN, US Tickets

SAT 29 JULY
Boulder Theater
Boulder, CO, US Tickets

MON 31 JULY
Musical Instrument Museum
Phoenix, AZ, US Tickets

WED 2 AUGUST
Rialto Theatre
Tucson, AZ, US Tickets

FRI 4 AUGUST
El Rey Theatre
Los Angeles, CA, US Tickets

SAT 5 AUGUST
The Catalyst
Santa Cruz, CA, US Tickets

SUN 6 AUGUST
Stern Grove Festival
San Francisco, CA, US Tickets

WED 9 AUGUST
The Triple Door
Seattle, WA, US Tickets

THU 10 AUGUST
The Triple Door
Seattle, WA, US Tickets

FRI 11 AUGUST
Tidewater Falls
Tidewater, OR, US Tickets

SUN 13 AUGUST
Edmonton Events Centre
Edmonton, AB, Canada Tickets

Denise Sullivan 7Denise Sullivan is a California-based author of books on music including Keep on Pushing:  Black Power Music From Blues to Hip HopThe White Stripes:  Sweethearts of the Blues and Shaman’s Blues:  The Art and Influences Behind Jim Morrison and the Doors. Follow her @4DeniseSullivan and at her blog.



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