|Venue:||London O2 Shepherds Bush Empire|
I have never seen Amadou and Mariam live before; I don’t even really know the band, which is part of the reason I wanted to see them. It also meant I had no idea what to expect. The husband and wife duo from Mali appeared on the darkened stage and began performing with just Amadou’s guitar for accompaniment, and then halfway through the first song the rest of the band appeared all around them as if from nowhere: a drummer, a dreadlocked percussionist, the man at the keyboard, a bassist and two backing singers. Throughout their songs, the duo at the centre of the stage stand like obsidian obelisks, oddly sombre dressed in black; powerful and strong, while the rest of the band sway around them like jellyfish in a sea of warm Afro-bluesy currents.
Amadou and Mariam are both blind. They met at Mali’s Institute for the Young Blind, where they both performed music regularly. They married in 1980 and started playing music together in 1983. In 1996 they moved to Paris and signed to Polygram’s Emarcy label. They soon won over the French public, and the rest of the world followed not long after, helped by a seemingly endless list of collaborations with famous musicians including Stevie Wonder, Manu Chau, and for their latest album Folila (which means ‘music’ in Bambara), Santigold, TV on the Radio and Jake Shears from the Scissor Sisters, not that they need any celebrity endorsements these days.
Of the 100 faces around me, four are black. When they released a compilation of their early African cassette recordings under the title Dimanche à Bamako, they won two BBC Radio 3 awards for World Music in the African and Best Album categories. I don’t know if this does attach a stigma to them, but I don’t think they have ever been played on radio 1. Do British consumers immediately categorise anything that might be interesting as probably not fun? Because Amadou and Mariam are great fun, and they have the crowd in the palm on their hand(s), swaying and clapping along.
In between songs Amadou says little, occasionally checking up on us with his trademark es-que çava? in his slow Mali drawl. He introduces the song Africa by just chanting the title hypnotically, Africa... Africa... After the first five songs Mariam disappears without any explanation and does not reappear. Amadou explains at the end of the show that Mariam was not well tonight, but that it is her birthday, so we all sing happy birthday and then everyone leaves. It’s all quite abrupt and for someone who did not know the band anyway, slightly confusing, but no one else here seems perturbed.
I ask around a bit during and after the show- ‘Are you a fan of the band?’, and there is a lot of ‘sort of, yes.’ Apparently a lot of people ended up here through friends, or on a whim, and no one can tell me the name of a song I like half way through. Which in a way is great: hopefully some new fans will have been forged tonight, and I find it gratifying that so many people, like me, are willing to take a punt on what turned out to be a great night.
Posted: Sat 14 April 2012