Amadou and Mariam are no strangers to Wales, performing at the 2013 Hay Festival. Their career, to date, has included appearances at Glastonbury and the opening ceremony of South Africa’s 2010 World Cup. Their diary has them regularly travelling between Europe and the Americas. All this means that Amadou and Mariam can claim to be a successful African export. With beginnings in Mali, it may understandably be assumed that a key interest of theirs will be in Hay Timbuktu activities. However, it was their direct experience of disability from a West African perspective, added to how it influences their music, which was of most interest during the meeting.
So how did the “blind couple from Mali” emerge from one of the poorest countries in the world to become one of the biggest acts on the international music scene? What obstacles have they faced as they have climbed the greasy pole from the poverty and need of Mali to the relative affluence of the music industry? Finally, what does their experience have to teach Disability in Wales and Africa as well as the wider Wales Africa sector? I went behind the main stage, at the Greenbelt Festival, to try and find some answers.
The story of the duo goes back to the Bamako Institute for the Young Blind in 1975, where they first met. It was early days for the Institute and there were only five students being trained. Things were clearly hard for blind and other disabled people, with severe poverty and negative views as to what could be achieved. Indeed, within the Institute, students were given a choice of carpentry training for men and the dyeing of clothes if you were a woman – an interesting choice given the nature of people’s impairments!
Amadou and Mariam decided that their skills lay outside these expected norms and decided to focus on music. It was music that brought them together and allowed them to travel and give concerts. It was through music that they were able to give the message that people with disabilities have real contributions to make to their communities and society in general. It was their music that allowed them to present people with disabilities in a positive way to the public.
It is worth noting that when asked how difficult it had been for them, as blind musicians, to perform on the West African and world stage, they did not identify a significant problem through their visual impairments. However, had they not chosen music; life would have been rather different. Music had not only helped them, but also assisted other blind people to move forward, communicate their ideas and, in some situations, make a living. It has also been shown to be a regular mechanism for social change. Being globe-trotting superstars may not be everyone’s realistic aspiration. Nevertheless, developing the skills you have, rather than those that other people think you should have, is crucial when combating the negative attitudes which many disabled people face.
An important aspect of the Amadou and Mariam message is to assist their audience to understand what it is like to be blind. Although it was not possible to do this at Greenbelt, as they performed on an open-air stage, they have been known to turn the lights off during their act. This, they said, enables some understanding of blindness. It encourages people to adopt different terms of reference with the world around them, and consequently engage with their music in alternative ways. Mariam explained that “the concert in the dark is a way of achieving equality with the audience who are enabled to understand our feelings”.
This part of their act is known as “Eclipse”. It is named after a mixed sighted and visually impaired band they played with as students. However, it has a second important purpose in that it can introduce outsiders to the smells and sounds of Mali, for example, mosquito spray and the bustle of the marketplace, both particularly strong at night. How might these compare with Cardiff, Swansea, Wrexham, or rural mid-Wales?
Amadou and Mariam describe their music as African but influenced by Blues and Rock. This mixture has been developed to enable their appeal to a wider audience. Some people may enjoy the rhythm, others the guitar work, and still more the West African tradition of dance and drums. All of these came over clearly during their act. However, music is not just for entertainment; it is about communicating the realities of life and so it has become crucial for Amadou and Mariam to tell stories from Mali and Africa. Stories so often not told by the media of the North.
I was able to discuss with them a little of how we in Wales could support disabled people in Mali and Africa in general. A key aspect of their response was the empowerment of disabled people by developing self-confidence and providing resources, which enable them to achieve their potential. This development, of course, must spread out into the wider community. The community needs to learn about the potential of disabled people. They need to understand the barriers disabled people face when trying to participate in community life. If they do not know where the barriers are, how can they be expected to remove them?
Every year Amadou and Mariam organise a festival to link Paris with the Bamako Institute. It raises money to enable disabled people to establish what they are capable of and to move nearer to fulfilling their potential. They asked people in Wales to establish similar Links with Bamako, providing both resources and moral support. This support will assist the Institute as it works with, not only visually impaired individuals and their families but the whole community; attempting to develop a more inclusive society.
What struck me about our discussion, and their act which followed, was that there was no attempt to hide Amadou and Mariam’s blindness. It was there for everyone to note, down to the guides who helped them on and off the stage. Also, the act came over as authentically African. Although they utilised some characteristics of Afro-American music, their identity and their roots are clearly in West Africa. So often a regular view of disabled people is that they can be accepted if they become a little more “able-bodied”. Likewise, do we sometimes perceive Wales Africa as a mechanism to move the latter nearer to the former? It is interesting, and maybe a little disconcerting for some, that Amadou and Mariam’s success, as disabled people, has been based on them developing and adopting their own agenda. They chose music, rather than carpentry or clothes dyeing as their route, despite what the status quo said. In their case, this has led them to international fame.
It rained during the Amadou and Mariam act. The rain had been expected between 3 and 6 pm. It came between 9 and 10.30 pm. This did not seem to dampen the spirits of the people who came to experience an act full of rhythm, dancing, and passion. It is sometimes said that music communicates where other languages fail. This certainly seemed to be the case here, despite my inability to speak French.