About two-thirds of the way through "Bofou Safou"—the opening track on Amadou & Mariam's forthcoming album La Confusion—the song sheds its buzzy synths and bouncing-rubber-ball bass line to make way for a central message delivered by Mariam Doumbia in a blend of French and Bambara, the national language of Mali.
Translated into English, Doumbia sings: To be born and to die for nothing is not good. / You have to work in life. / You can't cross your arms in life. / You have to make yourself useful in life.
According to Amadou & Mariam, "Bofou Safou" is a Bambaran reference to "nonchalant young men who would rather dance than work." But that stretch of lyrics, at least, could just as easily be interpreted as a lesson from the life and career of Doumbia and her husband and longtime musical partner, Amadou Bagayoko, who have personified "uncrossed arms" for nearly 40 years.
In two ways, actually: The duo has worked hard since meeting as teens at a Malian school for young blind people. (Bagayoko lost his sight at 16, Doumbia at 5.) They married in 1980 and paid their dues playing around Africa for much of that decade, often billed as "the blind couple from Mali." In the 1990s, they moved to France and began releasing albums internationally. They became well known within the narrow niche of people who pay attention to what's commonly known as "world music."
But in the mid-2000s, Bagayoko and Doumbia met superstar French musician Manu Chao, and the three decided to make an album together. The result—2005's Dimanche à Bamako—caught on with a much larger audience ("varied, bright, and charming" wrote Pitchfork in a glowing review) and turned Amadou & Mariam into global stars themselves. Since then, they've released two well-received albums, toured with U2 and Coldplay, and collaborated with K'Naan, TV on the Radio, Santigold, and Damon Albarn of Blur, among others.
In a translator-assisted conversation, Bagayoko defined the saying "you can't cross your arms" as not just about hard work, but also an unwillingness to stand still. Artistically, Amadou & Mariam have spent years exploring new combinations of sounds. On Dimanche à Bamako, Chao's roots in Latin music regularly shine through. Welcome to Mali, released in 2008, features a duskier take on Malian folk-blues and Afropop. And 2013's Folila is the one with many Western guests and more radio-ready rock sounds.
But in each case, these explorations are anchored by the fundamental components of the couple's music: Bagayoko's spirited take on blues-rock guitar, Doumbia's warm and welcoming vocals, and the rhythms and melodies of past and present-day Mali. That's the case, too, on Amadou & Mariam's new album, La Confusion, which is scheduled for release on September 22.
It's being touted as a shift toward electronic and dance music, and it is. You can hear it in the woozy synth backdrop of "Cest Chaud," and the video-game bloops of "Ta Promesse," and the skittering robo-beats of "Diarra." But these new elements never overwhelm the sounds Bagayoko and Doumbia have been making together for decades—the sounds that carried them to where they are today.
On August 9 and 10, Amadou & Mariam's first major tour of the United States in four years will bring them to the Triple Door for two nights of omnivorous electro-Afro-blues-pop-rock. Recently, Bagayoko was nice enough to answer a few questions about his recipe for a perfect song and his search for continuing inspiration.
Your albums have always featured many kinds of sounds, but La Confusion brings electronic music to the forefront. There are elements of house, disco, and dance music threaded throughout these songs. Why did you decide to go that direction on this album?
What we generally try to do when we write our music is to define the color of a song according to where it comes from—according to the inspiration—and to see what the song initially is trying to express. Once we have that in mind, we decide on the ingredients of the actual recipe, and that's when other elements such as the electronic arrangements come in.
On this particular album, these are the sounds that naturally fit where the songs came from. Also, we worked with Adrien Durand, a French producer who is very much into electronic sounds. He helped us go further in that direction. But it was something that was very natural and not forced at all.
So what is the color of La Confusion?
When we talk about color, we're talking about sounds. So if you were to define it that way, I'd call it a mix of... disco, dance, some rock, and of course African music as well. And if you were to define an actual color, I'd say it sounds like something bright green.
A dozen years after Dimanche à Bamako, it's undoubtedly one of the most important albums of African music to be released in the 21st century. Why do you think it found such a large audience?
This was mostly due to a blend of different types of music that we did when we recorded that album. It's really all about the encounter and the collaboration with Manu Chao, which brought a mix of two different types of music. On one side, African music, and on the other side, a more universal kind of music. I think it's those two styles coming together that appealed to so many people.
La Confusion could also be described as a collision of two different styles: African music and electronic dance music. Do you think it has the same kind of potential as Dimanche à Bamako?
I think it does, but it's much more in the details. We like to change sounds between albums. There's always a difference. So for this album, it's different from Dimanche and even from Folila, but... we also stay really close to the fundamentals of our music. We try to keep this as a constant, but what we want to do is to try to continue to unite as many people as possible using different sounds.
How do you stay on top of what's going on and how things are changing?
Basically, we listen to music constantly. Mostly through the radio. A bit through YouTube, but much less. It's mostly the radio. We find inspiration in the new sounds and the new tones. It's something that we've always done and we still do very much. We use what we hear as inspiration.
You and Mariam are both hovering around 60 years old. Many musicians have settled into a particular sound by that age. How do you explain your interest in exploring new styles of music this far into your life and career?
As an artist, when you're looking to please, you need to always adapt to the era that you're in. This requires research. It requires awareness of what's going on, and how things are changing, and taking into account all the technological changes that are coming up. And really being aware of all these things to remain pertinent. If you don't do these things as an artist, you can easily be left behind. So the idea is to keep researching and don't cross your arms.