Manu Chao and Amadou & Mariam

The Malian Duo Record With Their Number 1 Fan


13/02/2004 - 

Pascal Obispo started the fan craze, paying tribute to his musical idol, Michel Polnareff, on his next album. But now Manu Chao has taken the fan process one step further, actually going out to Mali to record with Amadou & Mariam after falling in love with one of the duo's songs. The threesome's joint album is currently being recorded between studios in Paris and Bamako. RFI Musique hooked up with all three of them in Mali to find out more about a collaboration which promises to be one of the major musical events of 2004!

RFI Musique: When did you first discover the work of Amadou & Mariam?
Manu Chao: I remember I was driving on the ringroad round Paris with the car radio on. And all of a sudden this song just burst out and grabbed my attention. I was instantly hooked! I didn't know who the song was by when I first heard it, but as soon as I got to my friends' place I sang it to them and asked them who'd recorded it. "Oh everyone knows that," they said, "It's Amadou & Mariam!" But the thing is I'd been living in Spain at the time and their music never made the airwaves over there. French people had heard of Amadou & Mariam, of course, because of the hit they had in France with Je pense à toi, ma chérie, mon amour. As I said I was instantly hooked on their music. I was a total fan from the word go and rushed out and bought all their CDs. Amadou & Mariam were my big thing for the next year or two, in fact. Every day I'd put their records on at home and when I started singing along I'd add to them. All these ideas for melodies and backing vocals came into my head. It became a little game I played every day!

What was it about their music that appealed to you?
I loved the African blues-rock edge to it. But what really came across in their music was this immense sense of sweetness and gentleness. There just seemed to be an enormous amount of humanity there, both on the fast songs and the slow ones.

What made you want to come back to Africa again?
Well, it'd been four years since I'd been back here and throughout the whole of that time I'd missed it. It was a really physical sense of missing, too. I felt it in my guts. You don't just walk away and forget Africa like that, you know. It's like the Brazilians say, you get hit by sodade (a special sense of yearning for home). This is an amazing continent. I've only discovered the tip of it, but coming here is a pleasure and a lesson in life all wrapped up in one!

So this time round you're out here to record an album with Amadou & Mariam, is that right?
Well, thanks to a chance meeting I was lucky enough to hook up with Amadou & Mariam in Paris and we went into the studio together for a day to mess about and have a bit of fun. But we ended up working so well together that we stayed on in the studio for six days. We'd practically made an album by the time we came out! After that we flew out to Bamako to finish the recording sessions and create a few new songs. As a result of that we're now really good friends. We've created a lot of music together and we were really impatient to record the new songs.

With Amadou on guitar there must have been some very powerful exchanges between you?
The brilliant thing is that that exchange process goes on all the time, too. We get on really well together. Everything's really fluid. We didn't have to spend months together in the studio to get a vibe going, either. Everyone was surprised by the fact that we managed to practically finish an entire album in the space of a few days! There were songs that Amadou & Mariam had already written and others that we created together in the studio. Everything happened so spontaneously – I went straight from being a fan to being a collaborator and executive producer!

And what role do you play in the studio, singer, guitarist or producer?
Well, all the different hats I wear have got a bit mixed up over the years! On this particular project I play guitar when Amadou puts his down. He's the one who puts that special swing into the song. I look after the beats a bit and I'm in charge of the overall production of the album. I'm the one responsible for steering it into port! Apart from that, I sing, I do a bit

Will the album be out before summer, do you think?
Well, I don't really like to commit myself to answering questions about release dates before I've actually finished. All I can say right now is that the album will come out when it's ready – whether that's in the spring or in September, I can't say!

Do you think this collaboration with Amadou & Mariam will inspire a future album you make yourself?
I draw inspiration from everything! Mali featured on my album Clandestino, in fact. People didn't realise that, but it was there! When I recorded the guitar parts on that album I felt like Mali was really there inside me – I've always been inspired by Malians' ritornello style of guitar playing. Their style is very close to the way I play. I take traditional Malian guitar techniques and use them in my own iconoclastic way. Take a song like La vie à deux on Clandestino, for instance, that's full of the mini Malian guitar trances I love.

I've heard that you're busy with another personal project right now. Is it true you're writing a book?
Yes, I'm busy working on a thousand and one things all at the same time. But, yes, I am writing a short book right now. I'm learning all about making books as I go along. We're just doing the page-setting now. I've written all the texts for the book and my friend Wosniak who works for (French satirical newspaper) Le Canard Enchaîné has done the illustrations. We've had a great time working on it so far. The book's far from finished yet - and I've no idea what it will be like when it is! I've started putting all the texts, which I've written entirely in French for the first time, to music and that's like another little game for me right now! They're going to be mini-waltzes, I think.

So will the book come out with a CD?
Well yes, I hope so. Let's say "book CD" with quotation marks just to be on the safe side because I don't really know what I'm up to before I've seen the finished product! The thing with me is I skip from one thing to another from one day to the next. I can go from a book to gas cooker in the bat of an eyelid! But right now I can safely say we're well on the way to completing the book.

Is it a work of art and craft?
Yes, that's exactly what it is. Even when it comes to my music I say I work in a very "artisanal" way. I consider myself to be a craftsman. I believe in taking great care over things and not cheating by taking any kind of short cuts. But as far as the book's concerned, I'm just learning the ropes. This is the first time I've ever produced a book and we're taking care of absolutely everything ourselves. But it's brilliant, I'm finding it really interesting learning a new profession step by step!

Three questions to Amadou & Mariam:

RFI Musique: How did you come to meet Manu Chao?
Amadou: We met up with him in France through our manager and after that first initial meeting we began working together pretty soon afterwards. We really liked his music and it turned out the feeling was mutual. Manu really liked our music, too. So that's how the idea of a joint album came about.

What was it that he liked about your music, your guitar style or the naïve simple edge to your music and lyrics?
I think what he particularly appreciated was the simplicity of our lyrics and our music. It's not so far from the albums he makes himself, in fact. Once we'd clicked and discovered we were on the same wavelength a real process of exchange went on between us.

What kind of album are you working on with Manu? Would you say it leans more towards rock or African music?
It's a very mixed album, there's a bit of everythi

Pierre  René-Worms

Translation : Julie  Street