AMADOU AND MARIAM at Harbourfront Centre's Concert Stage (235 Queens Quay West), Sunday (July 2), 9:30 pm. Free, as part of the Power Of Place festival. 416-973-4000. Rating: NNNNN
You've heard of love at first sight. Here's a story about love at first sound. Thirty years ago, Amadou Bagayoko heard a voice that changed his life. In the Niger River-hugging Malian capital of Bamako, at the Institute for the Young Blind, Bagayoko burned with desire upon hearing his future music/life partner, Mariam Doumbia, sing.
Blinded by scarlet fever at age five, she was a young teacher at the institute, and her only experience singing was at weddings and naming ceremonies. He had lost his vision at 15 from mistreated cataracts, and had become a revered guitarist with a local group (les Ambassadeurs) that later included Salif Keita, one of Africa's biggest stars of the mid 70s. Bagayoko was learning to read Braille when he heard Doumbia's voice. Although they had lived near each other for years, it was music that brought them together.
"When she sang, her voice was really beautiful," recounts the 51-year-old French-speaking Bagayoko via a translator. "So I noticed her right away."
Their first performance as Amadou and Mariam happened within a year of their introduction, in a room called the Salle des Anciens Combattants, backed by the institute band.
Four years later, they married and started a family (they now have three children) and toured north Africa, building a name in the region for their infectious Malian music. Momentum grew, tour offers came regularly, but the couple were stymied commercially. Mali's lack of recording facilities, labels and qualified producers thwarted their attempts to record an album. By the late 80s, nearly 12 years after they met, they were still without a single release for store shelves or shows. Neighbouring Ivory Coast was the place for recording, so they migrated and released six cassette tapes, efficiently titled Volumes 1 to 6.
In their next career gambit, Bagayoko and Doumbia moved to Paris and finally released three CDs in the late 90s. First, 1999's Sous Ni Tile (Polygram) raised their profile with a small hit called Je Pense A Toi, and then came Tje Ni Mousso (Circular Moves), a more rock-influenced effort. But it was number three, Wati (also on Circular Moves) in 2003, that caught the ear of somebody who would affect their careers radically.
Driving in Paris, Franco-Iberian world music rabble-rouser Manu Chao tuned in to a song from Wati on his radio and, like Bagayoko at the institute, loved what he heard. After contacting the couple, he arranged a studio rendezvous, intending to test the collaborative prospects immediately with a jam session. Chao planned to do more than just sit behind a mixing board stroking egos.
"We had our own songs written before meeting Manu," says Bagayoko. "But he had his songs, too, and it worked out really good."
The result, Dimanche A Bamako, was bigger than either party could have foreseen. No longer just a hidden gem in the lightly trafficked world section of music stores, Amadou and Mariam were now ruling French pop charts and snagging awards. Chao did a phenomenal job tweaking their sound enough to get mainstream pop's itch scratched; he deserves much of the credit as the co-author, singer and producer on Dimanche. But don't forget, it was a long road here from Mali, says Bagayoko.
"This album is very successful, but that is the product of years of hard work in Africa," he says. All three returned to Mali to work on Dimanche A Bamako. (Hence the name.) They even dragged Chao all the way, literally, to Timbuktu from Bamako as part of his enculturation. "We wanted to convey that [Bamako] is an active city where things are happening. There are also messages of love, solidarity and friendship."
Blind lovebirds travelling the world playing music together is an amazing story. The word "success" understates what they've accomplished. And this could be one of the greatest romances in music history. But most important, where in hell do they get those insanely cool matching sunglasses?
"The glasses are made in France by a designer," says Bagayoko with a malevolent chuckle. And after a long pause, "Yes, they are a special brand made for us."