How many blind Malian couples can you name? Okay, I believe you. Now how many world-famous blind Malian couples can you name? Read on to increase your score.

Amadou Bagayokou and Mariam Doumbia first met in 1976 at the Malian Institute for Young Blind People. She had lost her sight at the age of five, following a bout of the measles. He was blinded by a nasty cataract when he was 15. They hit it off instantly, and Amadou says the couple has not been separated for longer than a week since they met. One of the biggest binders in their relationship is their shared love of music. With his gift for the guitar and her powerful voice, the pair were destined to make sweet music together.

The first time I encountered them was when bombing along in the back of a 15-year-old Citroën van. The dj cum driver put on Amadou & Mariam's 1998 single Mon amour, ma chérie, and his passenger audience was blown away. It is not surprising that this is the song that made them famous in France. My next, and even better, experience with them came in June 2005 at Evreux's music festival, Le Rock dans Tous ses Etats. I was sweating so much I might as well have been under the Mali sun, and dancing like a fool at the front of the huge crowd with an equally enthralled friend. The energy of the live show was overpowering. The two stars were backed by exhaustingly vibrant musicians, most notably the bongo player with his sweaty arm muscles flashing in the hot sun.

The music itself is eclectic. The song I heard in the back of that van is a gorgeous love ballad. Occasional twangs of electric guitar frame Mariam's clear and resonant voice. They have more strings to their bow than this, though. The new album was produced by Manu Chao, and he also added a few guitar pieces to some tracks. This makes for an almost poppy sound at times, although the West African rhythms remain very present. The latest sound they are offering is more funky than what we have heard in the past, and therefore even better to dance to under the sunshine. Amadou & Mariam have also begun to sing more explicitly about politics. They want an Africa without war and poverty, and they want a Europe where Africans can live without fear:

"Vive la solidarité entre les peuples, Maliens, Ivoiriens, Burkinabés , Mauritaniens, Sénégalais, Guinéens, Ghanéens, Maliens français... Donnons-nous la main pour une même vision !"

It may take a while for the names Amadou & Mariam to become familiar in Britain and America, but their celebrity in Mali has reached mad levels. Everywhere they drive in their Nissan with its personalised COUPLE AMADOU & MARIAM number plate, they are greeted by fans. Bamako adores its most famous exports. The Malian singer Rokia Traoré says the couple's blindness, and their refusal to let it hamper them, gives them a magical air. Mariam (La Jolie Mariam as she calls herself on stage) is obsessed with fashion. She has a staggering collection of beaded sandals, wax-printed robes, and glistering gold jewels. She says she never leaves the house without her bijoux. Nowadays, her favourite couturier and bijoutier are swamped with orders from young girls asking for clothes and accessories in the style of Mariam. The latest album, Dimanche à Bamako has been released on cassette in Mali. Amadou explains that "we don't have CDs here. Too expensive". There are no concerns over peer-to-peer networks in Mali - the real problem lies in the pirated cassette copies of the album circulating in the country. So buy the real albums:

Discography

Sou Ni Tile - May 5th, 1998
01 - Je Pense A Toi
02 - Combattants
03 - Mouna
04 - Pauvre Type
05 - Dogons
06 - Baara
07 - Dounia
08 - A Radio Mogo
09 - Djandjola
10 - On Se Donne La Main
12 - Mon Amour, Ma Cherie
13 - Teree La Sebin
14 - Toubala Kono
15 - C'est La Vie

Tje Ni Mousso - October 19th, 1999
01 - Chantez Chantez
02 - Djagneba
03 - Dans Ce Monde Trouble
04 - Si Nekeneya
05 - C'est Comme Ca
06 - Laban
07 - Beki Miri
08 - Bali Maou
09 - Si Ni Kan
10 - Dek I Lalane
11 - Be' Smil Lah
12 - Mianga Titi
13 - Fantani
14 - Ko Be Na Touma Do
15 - Nangaraba

Wati - June 4th, 2002
01 - Walide
02 - Ilbiwan
03 - Les Temps Ont Changé
04 - Baroni
05 - Sarama
06 - Dougou Massa
07 - Chauffeurs
08 - Mali Denou
09 - Lahilala
10 - Barika
11 - Fana
12 - Poulo

Dimanche à Bamako - November 8th, 2004
01 - M' bifé
02 - M' bifé balafon
03 - Coulibaly
04 - La réalité
05 - Sénégal fast food
06 - Artistiya
07 - Fête au village
08 - Camions sauvages
09 - Beau dimanche
10 - La paix
11 - Djanfa
12 - Taxi bamako
13 - Politic amagni
14 - Gnidjougouya
15 - M' bifé blues

Sources:
Article by Nathalie Dolivo in March 7th, 2005 edition of weekly French Elle.
www.amadou-mariam.com, where I found:
Article by Stéphanie Binet in Libération
RF1 review by Jacques Denis
Oh, and the quotations are translated from the French by me

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