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Malian musicians take blindness in stride

Amadou and Mariam would like to live in Canada. The middle-aged Malian couple whose multilingual, hook-laden hits have out-charted the likes of James Blunt and Green Day (in Europe) currently split their time between Paris and Bamako, the capital of Mali. But they "just love" Canada.

Admittedly Canada's appeal is in part because they have relatives in Montreal. But as guitarist Amadou, speaking by phone on behalf of himself and Mariam, explains, "It's mostly because of the way Canadians approach us, they are so welcoming. And respectful." The latter is something that the couple, being blind, appreciate.

Elsewhere in the world, things can get a little overwhelming.

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"In Paris everybody recognizes us and wants pictures. And it's even worse in Bamako," says Amadou.

Not that they mind success, and they're proud of the fact that many Malians regard them "kind of as ambassadors for the country." But the couple, together since they met at the Institute for the Young Blind in Bamako in 1977, and deeply in love ever since, just want to make music. Together.

"It's such a pleasure working together, playing music together. We understand each other really well," says Amadou. "Even when we do our own compositions by ourselves we always get back together to share ideas, our identity together."

Part of that shared identity is their blindness - Amadou's since his teens, Mariam's since early childhood. In a way it's been their "brand," ever since they began performing in Côte d'Ivoire in the 1980s and were billed as "The Blind Couple from Mali." To some this might seem a decidedly creepy way to market talented musicians, but Amadou says they didn't and don't have a problem with it.

"At that time in Africa it was normal to be described that way. Nowadays, we are known more as Amadou and Mariam, though. Everything takes its own time, and we are fine with that."

When they hit it big internationally in 2005 with Dimanche à Bamako (produced by maverick musical polyglot Manu Chao), the media treated their blindness as the astonishing capper to an already astonishing success story. After four years and collaborations with the likes of Blur's Damon Albarn, Somali-Canadian rapper K'naan and Malian superstar Toumani Diabate (among others), do they just wish people would quit asking about it?

"No," says Amadou, decisively. "The fact of being blind is part of our lives. Being a musician and being blind at the same time, having this kind of career - we want to show that's it's possible to do this - it's part of our mission."

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Embarking this week on a tour that includes a string of dates opening for Coldplay, Amadou and Mariam continue to experience as much interest from non-African musicians in their music as they do from journalists in their story. It could be construed as bordering on novelty, or the once-in-a-blue-World-Music-moon success of, say, Youssou N'Dour championed by Peter Gabriel or Ladysmith Black Mambazo by Paul Simon. But the range of musicians interested in Amadou and Mariam seems broader; the audience-base ditto.

In recent years they've begun performing at festivals best known for indie music, or at least for music mostly sung in English. Festivals like Coachella, Lollapalooza and Glastonbury. (Not to mention events like the opening ceremony of 2006's FIFA World Cup.) "Tastemaker" website Pitchfork included the song Sabali , from the duo's last recording, Welcome to Mali , at No. 15 on the Pitchfork 100 Best Tracks of 2008, right behind Lil Wayne's A Milli .

Amadou doesn't think their appeal - spanning cultures and generations - is such a big mystery, though.

"We listened to so much different music when we were younger, rock and blues, and we've been open minded about all kind of music. It makes our music a little bit different, but also there is also something in it for everyone to recognize. So maybe it's more universal. Maybe that is the reason so many people seem to like it."

The secret to being such a happily married couple who love living together, working together, having children together (and "sometimes argue but never fight,") is even more explicable.

"We listen to each other," says Amadou.

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Amadou and Mariam play Thursday night in Toronto at the Phoenix and Friday at Montreal's Metropolis.

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