| 8.3°C Dublin

Hearing is believing for Mali's star couple

The Africa express rolls on. Damon Albarn's landmark set under that banner at 2007's Glastonbury festival introduced some of the continent's finest talents to an audience largely made up of white rock fans who would not normally be seen bopping to the sounds of downtown Bamako at Glasto.

Among the stars who shone brightest in Somerset that day were Amadou & Mariam, the blind couple from Mali, whose feelgood, genre-melting mix of Western pop and African blues has made the duo as famous in Timahoe as Timbuktu.

The husband and wife team first met at Mali's Institute for the Young Blind, where they both performed at the Institute's Eclipse Orchestra. Amadou Bagayoko, 57, became blind at the age of 16 due to a congenital cataract, while Mariam Doumbia, 54 tomorrow, lost her vision at age 5 after contracting measles.

Having moved to the Ivory Coast in the mid-1980s, the couple met Stevie Wonder, the first of many famous western musicians to fall under their spell, and they toured music festivals around the world.

Being native French speakers, the pair settled in Paris in 1996, having signed to Polygram, who released their first album outside of Africa in 1998, entitled Sou Ni Tile.

But it was their collaboration with Manu Chao -- the Latin/World music star -- that really raised their profile. Chao produced and sung on their 2004 album Sunday In Bamako -- Bamako is the capital city of Mali.

The record received ecstatic reviews in the western press and scooped numerous world music awards. Two years later, Amadou & Mariam found themselves sitting pretty at the top of the German charts after recording the official anthem of the 2006 World Cup in Germany with local legend Herbert Gronemeyer.

Albarn then promoted them with a missionary zeal, leading to the above-mentioned Africa Express project, which included their compatriots, Saharan desert blues collective Tinariwen, whose career has blossomed in parallel with Amadou & Mariam's.

Speaking this week, Albarn reflected on the profound effect spending time in Mali had on his music and worldview. "It was just a really inspiring, colourful, bright, gorgeous place, you know? Apart from the music, which really is like a river that flows through Bamako."

Their next famous fan was to come in the unlikely guise of Jake Shears, of the Scissor Sisters. The disco king asked the couple to support the Scissor Sisters on their UK dates.

The tour for Amadou & Mariam's 2008 album Welcome to Mali saw them become the go-to band whenever stadium rock behemoths wanted an opening act -- thanks to Albarn again, they supported Blur at their Hyde Park reunion gigs; opened for Coldplay on a leg of their Viva La Vida tour; and almost inevitably supported U2 on their 360 tour in South Africa.

The result: the video for the single 'Sabila' has registered nearly a million hits on YouTube.

Their new album, Folila, which translates as 'music' in their native tongue, was recorded in New York and Bamako, and is choc-a-bloc with guest collaborators from across the music spectrum.

The above-mentioned Jake Shears chips in on 'Metemia', while Santigold features on lead single 'Dougou Badia', which was the subject of a rave review from NME. London nu-soul starlet Ebony Bones sings on one of the album's highlights, 'C'est Pas Facile Pour Les Aigles', while Detroit funk veteran Amp Fiddler also weighs in on 'Wari'.

However, the collaborator who appears most frequently here is the controversial French singer Bertrand Cantat.

Cantat, the former leader of Gallic punk rockers Noir Desir, is infamous in his native country for being convicted of beating his girlfriend, Marie Trintignant, to death in their apartment in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius in 2003.

The case caused a sensation in France, where Cantat found himself a target of feminist groups. Eventually sentenced to eight years in prison, he served only half the time before being released, with French premier Nicolas Sarkozy refusing to intervene despite the calls for Cantat to serve the full sentence.

Banned from performing in Canada last year because of his criminal conviction, Cantat's appearance on Folila will go some way to rehabilitating his reputation.

As for Amadou & Mariam, they remain one of Africa's most successful musical ambassadors.

Folila is out now on Because Music. nkelly@independent.ie

Indo Review