At its best, music can ease the barriers for empathic experience, imbuing a room full of individuals with a shared consciousness.
For the superstar Malian couple Amadou and Mariam, a catalog of incantatory, relentlessly grooving tunes is fuel enough to turn just about any assembly into a writhing celebration. But a decade ago they were looking for a different kind of communion, and set about to create a concert experience that invited audiences into their world.
Guitarist and vocalist Amadou Bagayoko and vocalist Mariam Doumbia return to the Bay Area on a tour marking the release of their new live album, “Eclipse,” a project inspired by the 10th anniversary of the much-discussed Manchester International Festival concert where they performed completely in the dark. They won’t be replicating the black-out conditions during their four-night run at the SFJAZZ Center March 16-19 or at Kuumbwa Jazz’s March 20 Rio Theatre show, at least not for the audience.
Bagayoko lost his vision at 16, while Doumbia became blind at age 5 due to untreated measles, and they first met in Bamako at Mali’s Institute for the Young Blind, performing in the school’s Eclipse Orchestra. They trace the concept for the Manchester Eclipse concert back to their days at the institute “where the Eclipse Orchestra has both blind and seeing people,” Bagayoko said in a recent phone call, speaking in French.
It took years to put the idea into action and when they were finally able to perform in complete darkness they found the experience strangely “calm,” Bagayoko said. With the theater completely dark, “people had to stay seated. It was calmer, with much less movement. But people could concentrate on how the vibrations of the music made them feel.”
An interesting experiment, it has not proven feasible to recreate the conditions on the road. “Things have changed,” he said. “There are a lot of challenges to get a proper tour with all the elements to get a dark room, and then there’s security and safety concerns. Production-wise it’s way easier to present a regular concert.”
For Amadou and Mariam, a regular concert is a scorching affair. They’re touring with their longtime five-piece band featuring bassist Yao Dembele, keyboardist Charles-Frederik Avot, and Egyptian-born drummer Yvo Abadi, co-founder of the French world metal combo Ethnician. Bagayoko’s style combines the stripped down approach of Malian guitar heroes like Boubacar Traoré and Ali Farka Touré with “tons of different inspirations,” he said, including Jimi Hendrix, John Lee Hooker, and Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour.
More than Malian musical ambassadors, Amadou and Mariam are the go-to act for the highest profile assignments, like recording the official anthem for the 2006 FIFA World Cup or performing at the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize ceremony. Eager to absorb new sounds and influences, they recorded half of their 2012 album “Folila” in New York City, where they collaborated with acts like rapper Theophilus London, Yeah Yeah Yeahs guitarist Nick Zinner, the Afrobeat horns of Antibalas, and TV on the Radio.
The couple’s breakthrough collaboration took place two decades ago, when the polyglot Latin music star Manu Chao heard their music on the radio in Paris and approached them about working together. He ended up producing and singing on their 2004 album “Dimanche à Bamako,” which went on to earn a Grammy nomination and win the BBC Award for best world music album.
The project made them stars in Europe, but more importantly it transformed the way they thought about creating and presenting their music. They’ve collaborated with dozens of artists from across Europe, Africa and North America, “but what makes Manu Chao very important is he changed our way of composing and performing,” Bagayoko said.
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“Rather than working on a track, Manu Chao composed a full album, a whole world we had to learn. He gave us a lot of ideas, like writing short, contained songs. He was very important to us.”
The synergy that powers Amadou and Mariam flows from the yin/yang nature of their stylistic palettes and divergent approaches to composing. They both write songs, sometimes together and sometimes apart. She’s a traditionalist who looks to ancient Malian forms, while he keeps an ear out for new sounds.
“It hasn’t changed since the beginning, since we got together,” he said. “We listen to very different music. I always have the radio on, and this always brings in something different.”
Contact Andrew Gilbert at firstname.lastname@example.org.
AMADOU AND MARIAM
When & where: 7:30 p.m. March 16-18, 7 p.m. March 19 at SFJAZZ Center, San Francisco; $30-$85, www.sfjazz.org; 7:30 p.m. March 20 at Rio Theatre, Santa Cruz; $47.25-$63; www.kuumbwajazz.org