When Manu Chao teamed up with Amadou and Mariam,
the result was a world music landmark.
They talk to Robin Denselow about Mali and Maradona
Amadou and Mariam with Manu Chao
Photograph: David Levene/Guardian
Manu Chao has been an inspirational figure in world music for years, though many outside the anglophone world wouldn’t think of him as playing « world music » – to them he is a rock star, playing Gypsy-folk-punk-whatever to huge crowds. Amadou and Mariam are the blind couple from Mali (Mariam Doumbia sings, Amadou Bagayoko plays guitar) who have mixed traditional Malian music with other forms and become sensations on the world music scene.
Amadou and Mariam owe some of their success outside Mali to Chao.
The French/Spanish musician approached them in 2003, and produced the following year’s album,
Dimanche à Bamako.
The pair’s earlier albums sold around 15,000 each, but Dimanche went on to sell more than 600,000.
Chao has since produced an album by the group SMOD,
led by the couple’s son, and on occasion performs with them.
The Guardian was present at their last meeting, when Amadou and Mariam joined Chao on stage in London,
for their first joint performance in the UK.
Manu Chao:It’s always a pleasure singing with Amadou and Mariam. I feel like part of the family now.
Amadou and Mariam – and all of Mali – are one of the best music schools I ever knew,
and to have the possibility of spending my time in Mali in their house, working and playing with them and their band,
and jamming with the family and their son – it’s an incredible experience for a musician.
Amadou Bagayoko:When he started to work with us, with his style and ours, it was a good mixture.
We learned a lot from his music. And it changed the way people saw us – it made people start talking about us.
It was a meeting of minds.
MC: The mix between their music and my music was so natural.
I remember the first day we were in the studio together in Paris.
In one or two days, we recorded I don’t know how many songs,
and we wrote songs together the first day. It was really, really easy.
AB: Yes it was natural. I remember.
Robin Denselow:Manu, why did you want to go to Mali? What’s so special about Mali for you?
MC: It was maybe my destiny. There are a lot of other places in Africa where there is good music,
but for me, now I’m part of Mali.
RD: Amadou, why do you think your style of African R&B fitted so well with Manu – what’s the musical connection?
AB: Because we’ve always listened to a lot of blues, and R&B, in Mali. We found a kind of link there.
But we’ve created our own style too, by listening to blues and rock. We’ve always been modern musicians,
open to other horizons.
MC: When I was a teenager, I used to listen to a lot of R&B and blues. I’m sure that blues was invented in Mali.
When I listen to American blues, I really feel the roots are coming from Mali.
The ancestor of John Lee Hooker was from Mali, for sure!
AB: Yes, when you hear the music, it’s nearly the same as Malian music.
RD: Did you expect Dimanche à Bamako to be so successful?
MC: When I record, I never think about that. Whenever I think about that, it’s always commercially very bad.
When I don’t think about it, sometimes it works. For me, the important thing is that I like what I’m doing.
Mariam Doumbia: I didn’t expect it to be that successful, no. It was a surprise.
AB: Wherever we went, people were talking about it – in Spain, Italy, America. It was a big surprise for us.
But we were already pleased when we recorded the album.
RD: Amadou and Mariam now have a new album, Welcome to Mali,
which includes collaborations with Damon Albarn. Manu, is it true that you are remixing some of the songs?
MC: I’m always mixing. When I’m at home, I put some songs on the computer for fun, smoke a joint …
I’ve been messing with a few songs from the CD, just for fun.
RD: But you have been recording with Amadou and Mariam’s son Sam?
MC: That was the next step for me. I’d been recording with Amadou and Mariam in their house in Bamako,
so I met all the family. Sam has a band called SMOD, and all night long,
the kids were playing and rehearsing on the roof, every night. I had my little studio,
and we started recording, just for Sam …
MD: We’re very proud that Manu has worked with one of our children. That makes us really happy.
It’s a good mixture – we do rock, he does rap.
AB: They are young, they have a different way of looking at things.
But we like what they do, because we listen to all types of music.
MC: Sam has got the influence of his parents, for sure. It’s another generation,
more involved in hip-hop and ragamuffin, but they don’t have drum machines;
they play just with one guitar.
So I’d define it as folky blues hip-hop. It’s a kind of UFO, the music they’re doing, so it’s hard to define.
Their culture is Malian traditional music, the music of their parents, and all the modern stuff,
but played with only one guitar. So when I recorded with them, there was just one guitar and voices.
I put a little percussion on and I really loved it like that.
I was a little bit scared that maybe the kids would say, « Hey man, we want a lot of drum machines,
I want it to sound like an American band. » But they were very clever.
They said, « No – it has to be like this. Not much production. » So I felt very happy that we had the same idea.
RD: Manu, did making Dimanche à Bamako change your career?
MC: Of course. It was the first time I produced a CD that was not my own. When I produce my own CD,
if it’s rubbish, it is only my problem.
But when you produce the CD of your friends, it’s more of a responsibility, you know?
RD: Your new single, La Vida Tombola, is a tribute to Diego Maradona. Is he a friend of yours?
MC: I know him, for sure. I really respect him. It’s always very interesting to talk to Diego about football
– and about life, everything. He’s a clever man, he has a big soul, and he’s definitely « from the neighbourhood ».
AB: Maradona is really good – he’s a good bloke. Of course, he’s famous in Mali, too – everyone knows him.
Malians love football; they follow football from all over the world.
RD: One other very different project involving Argentina is the recordings you’ve made with psychiatric patients
in Buenos Aires.
MC: We recorded in a psychiatric hospital in Argentina and it’s going to be released this year, I hope.
It’s ready, but I have to go to the hospital to decide what to do: whether to put it on the market,
or give it out for free.
It’s music, singing and talking about everything – poetry and philosophy.
The patients became my professors of lucidity. They say they are crazy, but they became my professors!
RD: The English translation of a book by your father, the journalist and writer Ramón Chao, is being published here:
The Train of Ice and Fire.
It’s about a wild journey he took with you and your former band, Mano Negra, across Colombia.
MC: It was a trip we made in 1993. We went across Colombia by train to play in the countryside.
At the time, I was touring a lot in South America, but when you are a rock band,
you play in the big cities and you appreciate that the real border is not between one country and another,
it’s between big cities and the countryside. It’s like two different countries.
So, after playing so much in big cities, we wanted to go deep into the countryside,
and play to the people in the heart of South America. My dad came with us.
I’m so proud he’s my dad – he’s more crazy than me. He’s my professor of craziness.
RD: So what are you doing next?
AB: We continue our fight. There are a lot of things still to do. We still have messages to convey.
Music should be universal, whether you are Malian, African, European.
We all play the same music.
We play together, and from there, we have ambitions for Malian musicians,
because we want Malian music to go beyond Mali, and for people to see Africa in a different way.
In our songs, we talk a lot about Africa because we want people to know that even though there are
a lot of problems in Africa, there are also a lot of good things.
• Manu Chao’s single, La Vida Tombola, is out now on Because.
Amadou and Mariam play the Concorde 2,
Brighton, on 24 February, then tour