Lundi à Londres
Away From the Light of Day is the biography of the Malian musical stars Amadou & Mariam. On May 17th we sat down with this lovely couple to ask them a few questions about their music, inspirations, being blind and their romance. Being too polite to ask ourselves, we learned most about this topic with a little help from the crowd that came to see them perform at the presentation of the book later that evening.
Ian Clayton (author of Bringing it all back home) was also there to read his favourite parts of the biography, while Andy Morgan (former manager of Touareg rockers Tinariwen) was there to ask some (better) questions at this London book launch. After finding out that we all had travelled from France by train earlier that day, Booktunes began with some questions about the music. Their manager Marc-Antoine Moreau was there to help out as an interpreter and give extra insights.
Booktunes: Which songs by Amadou & Mariam would serve as a soundtrack to Away From the Light of Day? Which songs illustrate the story being told in this biography?
Amadou & Mariam: 'À chacun son problème', 'La Realité' and 'Terre La Sebin'.
BT: What about songs by other artists?
Amadou: 'Staying Alive' by the Bee Gees really inspired me, I love the way they use harmony in their songs. 'Money' by Pink Floyd also really helped us. And we both love Stevie Wonder's 'Superstition'.
BT: Are there any other African artists we should listen to when trying to get deeper into your story?
A: Tabu Ley Rochereau with his 'Pitié' and Youssou N'Dour's 'Immigrés' are both favourites.
BT: And what about you Mariam, in Away From the Light of Day you refer to French music. Which songs in particular?
M: 'Pendant les Vacances' by Sheila and Nana Mouskouri's 'Soleil Soleil'. Ah, I shouldn't forget Sebastian Iradier with 'La Paloma'.
BT: James Brown?
A: Yeah before I started playing with Les Ambassadeurs (du Motel de Bamako) I played in a group from Koutiala called Koulistar. That was definitely my James Brown period. 'Popcorn'.
BT: Soon you will start working on the new album. Do you have plans on working with any of your favourite artists?
A&M: It's a work in progress…
BT: It is because of your collaborations with other artists that we got to know you. Being a big fan of Manu Chao, we heard Dimanche à Bamako in a café. Next day we went to the store, bought some of your earlier work, et voilà.
BT: At the start of Amadou & Mariam you decided to move away from the bands, and start performing with just the two of you because the people liked it?
Amadou: It wasn't the people; we made this decision ourselves because we wanted to grow but needed to find 'the' Amadou & Mariam first.
BT: From there you started to move away from the traditional music. This fits within the story that tells your dad was quite liberal. I even read you had a hippie uncle! What did the people of Mali think of Amadou & Mariam working with different artists, changing styles, exploring the world?
A: In Mali, people really enjoyed our music. We moved to Europe because everyone thought they would love it there since it is more Europe-related.
Marc: Amadou & Mariam never started out as a traditional group in the first place. They started with their own compositions and moving from there as a mere pop act. From these compositions and from the foundation they build as an act, Amadou has been experimenting ever more with traditional instruments. He is doing his own mix of that. C'est la création. Not being influenced by a certain trend, but doing things with a certain reason.
A: It is my feeling, my roots; we are doing what we like to do.
BT: About being blind. We use pictures to organise our memories & thoughts. Like reminding ourselves which tune is on a record by looking at the sleeve, locating the things we have put aside. How does that work for you?
A: By touching and reminding the shapes of things. When it comes to images, I recreate images from my early youth before I was blind. This recreation of images has always been there, and I even expanded my library by building new ones. I might have images in mind from when I was twenty years old and already blind already for a long time.
BT: And what about smell? It seems hard to recreate.
A: That is what blind people do, recreating senses, smells. And the Braille alphabet has helped a lot too, plus some new devices like my speaking watch.
BT: So did you use Braille to write the book?
A: No, Idrissa Keïta, a Malian writer and artist living in Germany, wrote it down. We met a few times in Paris and had long conversations over the phone. He set up the story and read it aloud so I was given the opportunity to control all bits and adjust the text.
Ian Clayton: There is a lot of dialogue in the book.
BT: Indeed, and there are lots of data, names, and factual info in the book as well.
A: The things that happened in the past stay in my mind forever.
BT: For out last question we need to quote a beautiful part of the book. It is about the two of you have an intimate talk about music:
We went on to talk about music. She told me how much music meant to her, and I told her how much it meant to me.'I can't remember a single week of my life when I haven't played music. For me, music is moral support but also a means of expressing myself, of dialogue with the world outside'
'When we met, I especially loved the lyrics of you son "Dana-Môgô". Were do you get your inspiration from?'
'From listening to French songs. And you?'
'By listening to silence'.
BT: Wonderful… Amadou & Mariam, were you just being romantic, moving from French songs to the even more romantic silence, or is there something deeper to be found in this conversation?
A: I was being romantic here, but it really is true that I get a lot of inspiration out of nothing…
Marc: … and here we see the big difference with Africa. We, Europeans, try to make sense of things by using our reason, while people from Africa shape their lives and the meaning of it using their instinct.
Find the Soundtrack to Away From the Light of the Day accompanying this interview here at Booktunes.