Authors, Composers, Artists - Amadou and Mariam

February 2006

Photos: Patricia Bailer
Photos: Patricia Bailer

 "The fizziest afro-pop blues ever bottled" is how The Observer described Dimanche à Bamako (Sunday in Bamako), the latest album by Malian duo Amadou and Mariam. Released in France in November 2004, the CD went platinum, shot to number two in the charts – the highest position ever achieved in the European music charts by an African act – and won the prestigious Victoire de la Musique. Transcending musical genres, Dimanche à Bamako has made waves in rock, pop, rhythm and blues and world music charts, and was recently nominated for a Grammy Award in the United States.

Drawn together through a shared passion for music, the couple first met at the Malian Institute for Young Blind People in 1976. Mariam Doumbia, blind from birth, had started out singing traditional music at weddings and local festivals. Amadou Bagayokou, a singer/composer who had lost his sight at 15, played guitar with well known Malian musicians, Les Ambassadeurs. The couple married and began performing together in 1980. While long popular in Africa and among aficionados of world music, it was not until 1998 that the release of Je t’aime mon amour, ma chérie (I love you, my dearest, my love) was to propel them to international stardom.

The path to success was not smooth, and the story of Amadou and Mariam is as much a testimony to their determination as it is to their undisputed artistic talent. Vocal proponents of copyright as the means for artists to earn a decent living, Amadou and Mariam struggled for years as rampant piracy creamed off the income from their music sales. While fame now enables them to support their family in comfort, the couple still live modestly and maintain an exhausting work schedule.

WIPO Magazine recently interviewed Amadou between concerts in Paris. In the following extracts Amadou reflects on his personal experience of creativity and copyright. A short film of the interview will shortly be available on WIPO’s website.

On inspiration and creativity

"Inspiration comes from different sources. It comes from something inside you, your personal history, and, for me, the history of my country, which has marked my own life story. A lot of other creative artists – especially those I listened to when I was young like Jimi Hendrix, John Lee Hooker, Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder – have also influenced my work. French music has especially influenced my lyrics.

You can’t program creativity, it comes instinctively – a sudden idea. But there is nothing magical about it, everyone is gifted in different areas.

Mariam and myself sing to be together, to affirm our identities. Music is a passion. It is our life. We sing of freedom, love, peace and solidarity among people, and mostly of justice."

On the path to success

"We started performing a long time ago and success came bit by bit. At first, it was just playing with some friends, then it became a neighborhood group, then a professional orchestra, then building a career with Mariam in Côte d’Ivoire, then West Africa, then Europe. It took a long, long time. But we never gave up hope. It took courage to keep moving forward, to keep looking, to keep working.

It’s hard to get good recording facilities in Africa, and that makes it difficult for us as song-writers to get established in the music marketplace. That and, above all, the problem of distribution.

People like the fact that our music and our message are universal, and the simplicity of the lyrics. Our music is Bambara * inspired from n’goni [traditional lute] music, and it is influenced by rock and blues. This mix is the essence of our success. We met different people, we played and sang with Colombians, Syrians, who did different things to our music and who all helped to make it original."

On copyright

"It is logical that copyright follows creativity to defend the creator’s rights. Copyright is vital for us. We can’t survive just on what we are paid for giving concerts. We also need our rights to be protected. When we compose pieces we hope in return to benefit from the fruit of that work. Rights are what enable creators to earn a living and to carry on producing. Copyright is the lifeblood of the cultural industries.

I have some involvement in the management of copyright. I set up the National Association of Malian Artists and am president of the Syndicate of Professional Musicians, both of which work with the Malian Copyright Office."

On piracy

"People who listen to music without paying to buy CDs put a brake on production and creativity. The music industry works with artists, creators – who have their families to support like anyone else – who want to live from the financial fruits of their labors. And when that’s not possible, it is a problem.

In our country in Africa, Mali, where there are many creators and a lot of musical genres, I think the authorities have understood that music is something that can be protected, that there is much to gain and that many people could live from it. I think they will take measures to curb piracy. The authorities, artists, everyone involved need to work together to find a solution.

To young people who copy and download music illegally, we say that they are killing the music, killing the creators, killing a part of the country’s economy. We tell them: "If you really like an artist and want him to go on making the music you enjoy, then why don’t you buy his CDs so that he can make a living and produce more music?" We want them to understand that artists live from their work just like they do, it is symbiotic system of survival."

On being ambassadors of culture

"What I myself and Mariam would most wish for, apart from plenty of success, is that Malian music should become known as universal music – not just folk music, but music that everybody everywhere can appreciate, can listen to and dance to.

Through our status as musicians, creators, we defend a culture: We are Ambassadors of Malian and African culture."


*  Bambara is the name given to the people and language of the upper Niger River valley. Bambara music bears a noticeable resemblance to American blues.

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