Friday, September 17, 2010

BOOK REVIEW: Away From The Light of Day - Amadou & Mariam with Idrissa Keita

Despite the double-billing and familiar profile of Mali’s first couple on the cover, this slim, engaging volume (written with Idrissa Keita and translated by Ann Wright of Motorcycle Diaries repute) is in reality the Amadou Bagayogo story, with wife Mariam not appearing on the scene until chapter thirteen of seventeen.

Against the backdrop of Malian independence and subsequent political upheaval, and the ritualistic vagaries and moral underpinning of Malian tradition, Amadou tells the tale of his failing eyesight and crushingly unsuccessful operation to correct it at the age of twelve, how he turned to music to assuage the hurt of exclusion from festivals and playground games ,and with the help of an encouraging mother and well-connected bass-playing uncle (who counted the superstar Guinean guitarist Kanté Manfila amongst his acquaintances) found fame, girls, patronage, travel and of course love in a career that is now into its fifth decade.

Amadou’s no griot and it shows in the matter-of-fact conversational tone (one assumes that the book was ghosted via conversations between Bagayogo and Keita). He’s very much at the centre of the simply-told story, the many characters and incidents informing an almost disconcertingly phlegmatic narrative no matter how colourful or tragic. All are treated as fatalistic bumps in the road on the way to a role in the acclaimed Ambassadeurs band in the early ‘70s and enrolment in Mali’s first Institute for the Blind at the end of that decade, where he became a teacher and forged his partnership with Mariam Doumbia (who herself has been blind since she contracted measles aged five). The relationship was not without its hitches. The feeling amongst family members was that both would have fared better if married to a sighted person, and jealousy and workload commitments resulted in a loss of teaching focus that compromised Amadou’s relationships with his students. Through it all Amadou comes across as a normal guy dealing in a down-to-earth way with the contrasting impacts of his disability and fortune, as the pair’s early mixed success paves the way for eventual global success that led to the still-remarkable, peerless Dimanche a Bamako (the already well-documented “glory years” are briefly recounted in the final chapter).

Finally, Andy Morgan bowls a few easy balls in a recent interview with the couple, which reveals little more than that they continue to be one of the most modest and least affected of superstars.

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