Sunday in Bamako, and it's hot and dusty outside on the street, but inside in Amadou and Mariam's sitting room everything is altogether more subdued, with the lighting turned low. There's a huge flatscreen TV, a sizable sound system, and gold discs commemorating sales of their records worldwide, trophies in the two corner cabinets, and photos marking their progress around the globe, even a picture of the pair with a beaming Barack Obama, taken when they played before the Nobel peace prize ceremony in Oslo, Norway, in 2009. "He was cool," says Amadou, who looks the part himself, in his suit and (indeed) shades.
The furnishings, including a bunch of plastic flowers, are modest otherwise, and in any case they're not what really commands attention. Rather, it's the noise when you shut your eyes: the rumbling of sotramas (shared taxis) and Chinese-built motorbikes and trucks outside, the radio burbling away in Bambara from a room in the back, someone sweeping in the courtyard and a baby gurgling.
It is more than a decade since "the blind couple of Mali", as they were initially marketed in west Africa, came to prominence in Europe, first when their single "Je pense à toi" was a hit on French radio, then with their album Dimanche à Bamako. Since then, thanks to a succession of collaborations and support slots with acts including Coldplay and U2, Amadou Bagayoko and Mariam Doumbia have become the most successful musical export of their continent this century. According to Damon Albarn, who produced the song "Sabali" from their last album, 2008's Welcome to Mali: "I don't think there's ever been a band from Africa with whom people have engaged in quite such a way."
Pretty good going for a pair of grandparents, now in their mid-50s, who met (and then were married) at Mali's only school for the blind at a time when any kind of handicap – in a country where school enrolment still lags significantly behind the sub-Saharan average, and infant mortality well outstrips it – could well spell disaster. "In those days," Amadou once wrote, "being blind was the worst thing that could happen to you in Malian society. It was tantamount to being a beggar."
Most recently they have staged a series of semi-theatrical concerts in complete darkness, under the title Eclipse. The shows are billed as a "sensory experiment", an opportunity for audiences "to hear the music just as Mariam and I hear it", according to Amadou. Punctuated by performances from the duo, there are pre-recorded sounds of street life in Bamako – the traffic, the sweeping, perhaps even that same baby. And so, when I close my eyes sitting on their leather sofa, I already feel in some small part at home in Amadou and Mariam's world. There is even the smell of the place, a hint of incense; when I saw Eclipse in Manchester and in London, it was pumped into the auditorium because in Bamako it's burnt to cleanse the morning air each day.
When the building of the couple's current house began eight years ago, it lay on the southern outskirts of town in the district of Kalaban Koura but the view from their roof shows that it has now been swallowed in every direction. (The Malian capital is ranked by one thinktank as the sixth fastest-growing city in the world, stretching over 40 sq km – an indication that for all its poverty, the economy is strong, with growth now running above 5%.) Up here, there is a pair of dilapidated sofas, their fabric bleached in the sun, their stuffing disgorged; there's some grain spread out to dry over a piece of cotton; and there's the couple's French manager, Marc-Antoine Moreau, who is explaining that when he's in town, he often sleeps up here. Sometimes Amadou and Mariam will rehearse with their band up here, to the delight of passers-by on the street below. (I imagine it's a bit like when the Beatles played on the roof of their Apple headquarters on Savile Row.)
It is to Moreau that I turn to mutter something about the house not being in any way flash, even if it's big enough to support a semi-floating population of 40-odd members of their extended family; but as he says: "Decor – it's not important to them, for obvious reasons." It is rare for the couple even to be at home in Bamako now: in recent years, they've typically been on the road or in Paris, where they keep a small apartment, 11 months out of 12. This time around, they've been here since early December, and it's now the first weekend of January, but on Sunday night their peregrinations begin again, with normal tour dates, more Eclipse shows and promo work for their forthcoming album, Folila. According to Amadou, what he misses most when he's away from home is Malian tea. There's a ceremony involved in its drinking, which we observe now as we talk, with the teapot filled three times.
According to the Tuareg, who populate swathes of the desert of this vast landlocked country, the first cup is said to be fort comme la mort ("strong as death"), the second is doux comme la vie ("mild as life") and the third is sucré comme l'amour ("sweet as love"). It could almost read like a metaphor for the couple's own journey.
Born with milky eyes, Amadou suffered from congenital cataracts and his limited vision gradually deteriorated through his childhood. In Away from the Light of Day, the couple's memoir published in 2010, he describes one epiphany. His father, a bricklaying instructor and civil servant, had been posted to the town of Douentza, 800km from Bamako, when the annual fishing festival rolled around. Amadou's failing sight meant that he wasn't allowed to join in the festivities with his schoolmates, but two local musicians knew that he was making fumbling steps with the flute and harmonica. They invited him to join them, and when the townsfolk heard the three of them playing, they offered them part of their catch.
"I had got more than [my schoolmates] had got by fishing," he recalled, "and a voice inside me said: 'Amadou, your illness prevented you from going into the water. But your music got you more fish.'"
The following day, Amadou's younger brother died in the creek in a bathing accident. "Much later in my life, when I heard that Ray Charles had had the same unhappy experience [As a child, Charles witnessed the drowning of his brother in a bathtub]," Amadou later wrote, "I smiled. I understood that hardship, blindness, that death of a loved one, had shown us both the way through life. But to see this way, we had to accept the obstacles that went with it."
Even then, back in Bamako, there was hope; as well as suffering from cataracts, Amadou's corneas had become infected, which might at least be cured, leaving him with limited vision. But initial treatment was delayed and an operation failed. A doctor told him that a cornea transplant might work, "but they can only be done in a developed country… we don't have access to those techniques here yet".
I ask Amadou now if he still resents this. "Medicine just wasn't as developed as it is now," he says. "Naturally, things have changed a lot. The fact that we found courage, that we found our way and that we now go wherever others can go, means that we don't complain about this. We are just the same as anyone else. We have already forgotten about our blindness."
"People like us," Mariam adds. "They know we are blind, but it is our work – it is what we do – that counts most to them. People are surprised by the quality of our music, and the way we are able to play with other musicians, to fit into other kinds of music – that is what amazes them. It helps them realise that no matter whether you are blind or not, you can work, you can make music."
Cliche it might be, but role models were few and far between (Amadou cites only Banzoumana Sissoko, a blind ngoni player and grandfather of new star Bassekou Kouyate) and music of every kind was the couple's lifeline. As a teenage guitar prodigy, not only could Amadou distinguish a Gibson from a Fender Strat by its sound, "I was one of the few musicians who could recognise the precise provenance of pieces of Malian music, the region they came from – Kayes, Bamako, Sikasso, Ségou, Mopti, Gao and Timbuktu". Even then, when he went to join Les Ambassadeurs du Motel, the hottest band in Bamako – adventurous rivals to the more established Rail Band du Buffet Hôtel de la Gare, featuring by then the latter's old singer, Salif Keita – he was told he had a lot to learn about the repertoire. This meant rumbas, foxtrots, French ballads, Cuban and Senegalese Wolof songs, as well as some rock and covers of James Brown and Otis Redding numbers.
"People coming to hear us would bring a disc they'd bought," recalls Les Ambassadeurs' former keyboard player Idrissa Soumaoro when I meet him. "They'd say, 'I'll come back next week, I want to hear it.' We had to learn to play it live. It could be any kind of music."
As well as his role in the band, Idrissa – who is now 62 and in vigorous, clear-eyed health – taught music to the handful of students at the Institut des Jeunes Aveugles, built at the same location where it stands today in 1973. "'Why is he spending his life playing with the blind?'" he remembers people asking. "'Ah, he's wearing glasses! Maybe he's preparing for his own blindness!' But I've just always liked helping others."
His star pupil was a teenage girl, Mariam Doumbia, who had been blind since the age of five as a consequence of untreated measles. She had always loved singing – emulating, in particular, French stars like Sheila, Sylvie Vartan and Dalida, plus Nana Mouskouri. "People used to call me Sheila," she recalls now, "because I used to sing her songs on stage."
Helping Idrissa at the Institut was another pupil who had enrolled at the urging of its first director. And so Amadou and Mariam came together.
"It brings back memories, but it's changed a lot as well," says Amadou, as he walks arm-in-arm with Mariam across the rusty-red ground of the Institut des Jeunes Aveugles (the IJA, now called the Union Malienne des Aveugles). The blind school comprises several bungalows containing dormitories and spotless classrooms, and plenty of space in which to kick a football or chase a passing goat. Or even to put on a pop concert: in 2005, the duo staged the first of four fundraising gigs at the school. These "Paris-Bamako" shows featuring acts such as Neneh Cherry, K'Naan and local stars including Tiken Jah Fakoly. It's that support, as well as funding from NGOs including Unicef and Sightsavers, that has ensured the Institut's survival, and growth. In fact, it's now so successful that of the 367 pupils currently enrolled, approximately half have no problems with their sight at all, but see it simply as the best educational opportunity available to them. None the less, as the school's directors emphasise, more than 60 former blind pupils have gone on to prestigious jobs in the civil service, medicine and the law.
One student, Brouliye Bagayoko, is 31. He tells me that being blind has slowed his progress through life, but next year he hopes to leave and to become a sociologist. "It would have been impossible for me without this school," he explains. (He has been blind since the age of five: "They said it could just be a voodoo thing.")
It was the songs that Mariam wrote at the blind school that first attracted Amadou to her, in particular "Teree la Sebin" ("Certificate of Misfortune"), which confronts the plight of the disabled: "You who see me before you/ Have put in my head, A certificate of misfortune… I blame nothing but my malady/ The malady that made me blind." (It sounds better in Bambara.) Years later, when Damon Albarn wanted to produce one of their songs, he picked Mariam's "Sabali", recasting her vocal into something gorgeously other-worldly.
Amadou comes across as the more congenial figure. The pair both sport fabulous and fabulously expensive dark glasses courtesy of Philippe Starck, but in general she seems the keener of the two on the trappings of fame – in particular, her designer shoes and handbags.
But Mariam also embodies something that Malick Sidibé, the great photographer who documented Bamako's swinging nightlife in the 60s, identifies: "We don't have any Joan of Arcs, or Amazonians," he says, "but the women in Mali, they have grace."
(We meet Sidibé in the quiet house of his fourth wife; he once knew Mariam's father, and his famous studio lay in the district in which Amadou grew up. Now in his late 70s, frail and with his eyesight failing, he sits surrounded by black and white portraits of his family, and says how surprised he is that Amadou and Mariam – as a blind couple – should ever have known success.)
Mariam made her first recording at the age of 22 in 1980, singing with a band Idrissa had put together with students from the IJA called Eclipse. That same year, she and the 26-year-old Amadou married. Recording together, first in Bamako and later in neighbouring Ivory Coast, they released a number of cassettes, and their popularity slowly spread across west Africa. In 1996, they moved to Paris and, working with Marc-Antoine Moreau, recorded their first album outside Africa, Sou Ni Tilé, which yielded the characteristically uplifting "Je pense à toi".
(Even then, they owed a debt to luck: Moreau had first heard their music two years earlier, when bumming around Mali; he was sleeping rough waiting for an onward ride at the bus station in Bamako for four days, when the woman beside him started playing a cassette of Amadou and Mariam's music – a woman who, it later transpired, turned out to be Mariam's sister, so cementing their relationship.)
Ever since – whether working with the maverick Manu Chao on Dimanche à Bamako, or joining the lineup for one of Albarn's polyglot Africa Express gigs – the couple have grabbed the chance to collaborate with as wide a range of musicians as possible. The new album, Folila (which translates simply as "Music" – "We slightly ran out of inspiration," says Moreau) was recorded in Rome, Paris, New York and Bamako, and sees appearances from Scissor Sisters, TV on the Radio, Santigold and even Bertrand Cantat (the notorious French singer who recently served a prison term for killing his girlfriend, Marie Trintignant). But, according to their manager, there is always some kind of connection to the duo; and there are also contributions from other Malian stars, including the kora player Toumani Diabaté.
Wandering the Grand Marché in Bamako – past roadside merchants selling potatoes and mangoes, and outdoor beauty salons where rows of woman are having their hair braided – there is, inevitably, a hawker selling CDs. Punching above its weight, Mali has given the world the great desert bluesman Ali Farka Touré, Wassoulou singer Oumou Sangaré and the Tuareg band Tinariwen as well as the likes of Salif Keita and Diabaté (whom we catch playing at his club one evening). Dig deeper and it's not hard to make the argument that the blues originated here, hence R&B and pop and all that followed. It was this diverse and rich tradition that served Amadou and Mariam well, and any criticism that their music loses something in its encounters with acts such as Scissor Sisters faces the rebuttal that any debt of gratitude must surely work the other way.
(And as it happens, Jake Shears of that group, who first met the pair at the Bestival festival in the UK in 2006, later tells me: "It's always intimidating to work on music with musicians you love. But they radiate joy".)
Nonetheless, the business of fame carries with it certain responsibilities, at least in Mali. As well as his commitments to the IJA, Amadou is also the president of the Malian Federation of Artists, a lobbying organisation he helped establish with his own money. On the morning of the day before we fly out, he attends a meeting to elect new members to the board at a venue called la Pyramide. At least one constituent has fallen asleep in the morning heat, but business is conducted with much good-hearted joshing, and Amadou himself is duly re-elected to another two-year term. Dressed in a charcoal suit and waistcoat, he makes a quiet speech of thanks to the 40-odd assembled members – film-makers, theatre directors, photographers, musicians and the like – and approves the latest statutes for the federation.
From there, he is whisked the short distance to the studios of ORTM, the national TV station, to give a brief interview – broadcast live – about the federation's activities and the new record. And then, in a battered yellow taxi, it's back across the vast river Niger to the south side of town to a studio kept by a white rasta and reggae producer called Manjul. Here he lays down a guitar part for a record his old friend Idrissa is now making.
In the booth, Amadou takes off his jacket and rolls up his shirtsleeves. He picks up his gold guitar – the work of James Trussart, who has fashioned instruments for Jack White and Keith Richards – and listens intently to the track before finding, and nailing, the groove. Idrissa, in maroon slacks and lime green jumper, looking like the recently retired teacher that he also happens to be, watches from the control room and nods his head, smiling.
That evening, Amadou and Mariam play a small gig back at la Pyramide. Mariam stays seated behind the stage, letting a Wassoulou singer, Fantani Touré, take the mic for much of the evening; Amadou leads the band, but his guitar sound is horribly shredded through the dismal PA system. No wonder that he later tells me that one of his chief ambitions is to help bring better stage and studio equipment to Mali, so that local bands are less reliant on making it abroad.
The crowd is also small, split between locals and westerners, whether tourists or expats. Moreau mutters that it's Amadou's fault for not promoting the gig properly. But it doesn't seem to matter: on that flatscreen TV in Amadou and Mariam's sitting room the following the evening, ORTM is leading the news with footage of the performance anyway.
I ask the couple whether living and working together presents any problems. "It isn't always easy," says Amadou, "although it is made easier by the fact that we love the same things and we have always had the courage to do something. We are here, we struggle, we succeed, we understand each other, that's it."
"It's also about realising that when you are together, your mutual happiness is linked," Mariam adds. "My happiness is your happiness and vice versa."
Then there is their family. Their third son, Sam, belongs to SMOD, a hip-hip group, whose eponymous third album in 2010 was – like Dimanche à Bamako – produced by Manu Chao. (And Idrissa's son, Ramses, is a member of leading local outfit Tata Pound.) Do these grandparents like rap music? "Hip-hop musicians have a message, just like we do," says Amadou. "They might express it in a different way but we like it."
Faith sustains them, too. They are both Sufi Muslims, and Amadou aligns himself to the mystic Cheikh Ahmed Tidjani and the Tidjani brotherhood, who have their headquarters in Morocco. "Religion is the bedrock of life," he says, "and it's especially important when it comes to accepting problems in your life – when you have a problem you should always entrust yourself to God."
I ask Moreau about the couple's routine when they are on the road. Shopping, he says, is one of Mariam's favourite pastimes. But when they arrive in a new hotel room, they'll switch on the local radio station to hear something new, and they'll pray.
I say it seems a wonder that all their responsibilities – as spokespeople for the blind, for Malian music, for Africa writ large – don't weigh more heavily. "But when you live in this world, you have to make yourself useful," Amadou replies. "When you get to a certain level and you're able to make people happy, you must do so. Sometimes some new cause comes up and time constraints make it impossible to commit to it, but in our hearts we are always ready to share and to help, and give a voice to messages that can change things in this world."
The last I see of them is when our Air France flight from Bamako lands after its six-hour hop across north Africa in Paris. Other passengers are filing off, bleary eyed, anxious about catching connections. There, at the front of first class, are Amadou and Mariam, wearing their shades but slumped against each other, still fast asleep, alone together.
Folila is relased on Because on 2 April. Amadou and Mariam appear at the Observer's TEDX event on Saturday 10 March.
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