Snaky electric guitar lines, exotic Afro-blues melodies, hip-shaking (and occasionally even hip-hop) polyrhtymic beats and haunting, dipped in melancholy vocals sung mostly in French and their native Bambara.
That's the unlikely yet alluring mix that's made Malian guitarist/vocalist Amadou Bagayoko and his singing partner and wife Mariam Doumbia Favorites of music aficionados worldwide.
So it's been since their international breakout in 2005 with the album "Dimanche a Bamako," which won the couple numerous awards and huge sales, especially in France and Great Britain but also scoring them a Grammy nomination here and spots on best of the year lists in Rolling Stone, SPIN and Blender.
Now Amadou and Mariam are pushing the envelope and hoping to raise their profile even more with "Welcome To Mali," an equally frisky set that features hip-hop and electronica accents on three tracks by Damon Albarn (Blur, Gorillaz) and their first song sung completely in English.
And the duo (with six-piece backing band) is out sharing their unique stuff in concert, coming to World Cafe Live as a headliner on Tuesday, then joining Coldplay as special guest for a slew of U.S. summer shed shows.
Hardly an overnight sensation or typical rock concert opener, the married couple have been making music for more than three decades, and both are in their mid-50s. As a visiting musician (and visually-impaired role model), Amadou first met and started working with Mariam at the Institute for Young Blind People in Bamako, Mali, where she was a student.
I chatted with Amadou by phone the other day, with his bilingual manager Thierry Picouret handling the translations.
Q: The American banjo player Bela Fleck made a documentary film and album ("Throw Down Your Heart") in Africa, collaborating with musicians in several countries. He dubbed Mali "the crown jewel" in terms of musical talent and expression. What's your reaction to that?
A: Of course I agree with him. Maybe it's because Mali has something very special in its culture, and because there are so many kinds of music. Also, it's because people are very nice and open and used to people visiting from other countries.
You can mix rock, blues, reggae, jazz, whatever, because musicians in Mali have always been doing that kind of traditional music in a modern way. They're trying to be more universal and bring Mali music abroad, to make it as some kind of ambassador.
Q: Historically, only a handful of African artists have managed make a dent in the U.S. - Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Fela, Hugh Masekela, Miriam Makeba. Now you. Is that a cause of frustration to you?
A: The examples you cite are mostly people who speak in English, while we sing in French and Bambara. It's not like a frustration. It's just a fact I'm stating. African artists have had difficulty to face, just in getting to play in the U.S. and I think American audiences weren't ready. Now maybe that's different. More are interested and some musicians are breaking through. It's just a question of moment, and the moment is now.
Q: You've called your music "Afro-blues rock." Which musicians outside of Africa have particularly influenced you and who else, in your dreams, would you like to be collaborating with?
A: It's difficult to say one special influence or another, but I'd say Jimi Hendrix was really the one who inspired a lot, and John Lee Hooker as well. I got to play once with Steve Wonder, a long time ago in the Ivory Coast, which was very pleasant. I've also met the Led Zeppelin singer Robert Plant, who came to West Africa to participate in Mali's famous Festival in the Desert. We didn't have a chance to play together, yet but everything is possible.
Q: Do you and Mariam think of yourself as role models for blind people, and does the subject come up in your music?
A: That kind of message was definitely in our music, especially when we started working together at the school. At the beginning, a main message in the songs was that blindness is not a communicable disease. People didn't want to touch a blind person. They thought they could become blind. So we had to explain that.
Even now, we are trying to be an example. A few of our songs are political. Mali is a democratic country, so it is no problem in speaking your mind. Most of our songs are about everyday life, community problems. And we are also trying to show blind people that everything is possible, even to tour all over the world.
Q: How about love? Is that an important theme in your work?
A: Love is the first thing. We talk about love first, and all about love. *