Every countryside in the Third World has drivers of beat-up pickup trucks who will take hitchhikers to the city. Most of the time the trucks are manned by farmers traveling to and from town to buy supplies, and often livestock like chickens or peccary share the cab. Hitching a ride in developing countries is quite commonplace and is seen as a reliable form of (often free) transportation. But Amadou Bagayoko, singer, guitarist, and songwriter of the Afro-pop group Amadou and Mariam, says, "Some of these trucks are in bad condition. And you need to be careful 'cause those trucks can kill." Bagayoko is laughing in a hotel room in London as he describes the context of the song "Caminons Savages" ("Wild Trucks").
It's a rock song from their French Grammy-winning worldbeat CD, Dimanche a Bamako. The song sounds like Fifties rock with the wah-wah guitar comps, except there's an upright bass instead of electric. And Malian singer Mariam Doumbia, Bagayoko's wife of 30 years and the other half of Amadou et Mariam, isn't singing. She's a Bambara talking drum.
"There are a lot of links between our traditional African music and blues and rock in general," explains Bagayoko, "and we use the techniques of blues and rock to make it a more universal music." The composer of "Wild Trucks" is guitarist Manu Chau, a pioneer of the Latin alternative rock movement. Chau is the primary collaborator with Amadou and Mariam on Dimanche. "Manu brought a lot of weird sounds when he met with Mariam and me," Bagayoko continues. "Each of us brought our own pieces. So this album is a meeting, an encounter between musicians, but it's also an album about love and about daily life."
The recognition of common sounds, such as those from sirens, roosters, and exhaust pipes, can form bonds between people. Pickup trucks are cross-cultural, as are strumming guitars and the desire to travel to America and Europe to make a living. "Senegal Fast Food," more of a campy chant than a song, reflects on the effects of globalization and the paradox of Western lifestyles: "It's at Manhattan fast food's Dakar, Senegal, Cinema le Paris/Tomorrow I would be gone/The Bamako-Mopti station/Today I am getting married, I have confidence."
"The song is about immigration," explains Bagayoko, "and all the people in Africa who are dreaming, who want to leave and go to Europe or America. The song has a sense of adventure, but it also speaks of repression, of police, and visas, and the problems that people encounter. In the Bambara tradition, we have a saying: We're all in the same boat, and no one knows where we're going to end, but those who are on the other end remember and think of the ones who stayed home." Officially the couple, who have three children ages 26, 24, and 22, live in Mali, but their performing schedule takes them to the U.S. and Europe six months of each year.
Weddings are the cornerstone of social life in Mali, and Doumbia's piercing voice in the tradition of vocalists who perform at important Malian weddings is as melodic as it is percussive in its expression of love for her husband. Most of Amadou and Mariam's love songs are rousing blues, but Bagayoko insists their blues are not sad, only expressions of family obligation and responsibility. "When people love each other, they shouldn't leave each other. They shouldn't betray each other," says Bagayoko, "and they should stay together forever."
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