Amadou and Mariam Bagayoko, Blind Pop Artists from Africa

July 1, 2009

AMADOU AND MARIAM, THE BLIND HUSBAND-and-wife pop act out of Mali, West Africa, have found a home in international rock and roll these days. Their 2005 album, Dimanche à Bamako, was produced by Manu Chao, and won top mainstream pop awards in France, while their latest, Welcome to Mali [Nonesuch], includes collaborations with Damon Albarn and the rock-tilting rapper K’Naan. Amadou Bagayoko’s defining electric guitar work, too, owes as much to rock as to any African style. Ask Bagayoko who his guitar heroes have been over the years, and he begins with Cuban guitarists he was turned on to in the mid ’60s, and quickly moves on to B.B. King, John Lee Hooker, George Benson, Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, Peter Frampton, and Ritchie Blackmore.

“My favorite was David Gilmour,” says Bagayoko. “I don’t play like him, but I love the way he phrases. And I think I play a little bit like Eric Clapton. I also love Alvin Lee for his speed. I really tried to play like that.” Bagayoko never quite got there, but what he did achieve was a unique, seamless blend of blues-rock and the modern pentatonic styles of Malian electric pop. On the traditional side, Bagayoko’s chief role model was not a guitarist, but the late, legendary Bambara musician Bazoumana, who used to rivet the nation of Mali with his live broadcasts of epic songs, accompanied only by his ngoni ba, a large and deep-toned pentatonic lute.

After strapping on his James Trussart Steel- Caster—customized with three pickups to produce Strat-like tones—Bagayoko takes his medium pick and starts riffing in Bazoumana mode. Sticking to the low strings, he works an F major pentatonic scale over a G tonic. This “Dorian” pentatonic scale, with no third degree, sounds vaguely bluesy, but distinctly Malian. As he heats up, Bagayoko executes fast pull-off and hammer-on riffs using mostly the 3rd and 5th frets and the open notes on the D and A strings. Then, he shifts to higher positions, developing fast rhythmic phrases over a pulse that remains slow and serious, like a slow blues.

Bagayoko’s first instrument was a djembe drum, so like many great African axmen, by the time he came to the guitar at age 14, he already had a highly developed sense of rhythm. His earliest guitarist role models were trailblazing West African players such as Zani Diabate, Djelimady Tounkara, and Kante Manfila, but by the mid ’70s, while accompanying Manfila and the great singer Salif Keita in Les Ambassadeurs, Bagayoko was tackling everything from Cuban and French pop to traditional adaptations, and lots of rock and funk covers. (Bagayoko’s first cover was James Brown’s “Hot Pants.”) When he met and married his wife and they became the duo Amadou and Mariam, Bagayoko’s focus narrowed as he perfected his characteristic fusion of Bambara music and blues-rock.

After showing off a bit of the two-finger picking technique he uses when playing acoustic, Bagayoko takes his pick and strums the accompaniment to the song “Masiteladi” (from Welcome to Mali), a driving Em-G-A chord progression using first-position voicings. As Bagayoko flies into an improvised solo, he takes full advantage of the open strings available in the E minor pentatonic scale before moving up the neck with his hammer-on and pull-off riffs. Because he typically plays through a Fender Twin Reverb or one of several Vox models, his sound has a harder edge than that of many West African guitarists, who tend to favor the Roland JC-120. Catching the spirit of the stage, Bagayoko throws his head back and rips into the high frets, pushing so hard his playing dissolves into a blur of stray notes and laughter. “I’m still trying to play like Alvin Lee!” he says with a smile.

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