Amadou and Mariam are two blind musicians from Mali, who play together as a duet (and also backed by other musicians at times) - Amadou plays electric guitar and accompanies Mariam with her vocals. They are also a married couple, and this book provides those of us who have had our curiosity sparked by their music with an opportunity to find out a bit more about them, how they met, and how they got to where they are today.
I've seen them perform a number of times, I don't think I've ever seen a couple so obviously besotted with each other asthey are; perhaps it is their blindness that makes them so unselfconscious about displaying their affections, perhaps part of it is also a reflection of the openness, I am led to believe, of the Malian culture - whatever it is, they are very clearly inseparable. I have often felt slightly distanced from them when I'm in the audience watching them perform (although having written this, their gigs are always sensational); whether this is again because of their blindness or the language barrier that exists between us - they speak only French and Malian - I don't know, but it certainly had the effect of making me want to read this book, that's for sure.
So, what do they have to say for themselves? The book itself is relatively short (156 pages with a further brief question and answer session added onto the end), and is narrated by Amadou in a matter-of-fact fashion which is vivid, unsentimental and very honest - if a little lacking in humour at times. There's a trademark humility and down-to-earth manner in the way that he speaks that makes it hard not to like and respect the man. He's not very expansive though - we get a hint of the large and vibrant characters that come into Amadou's life without actually getting many stories about them. Amadou remains at the centre of the tale he tells for most of the book, which is both a strength and a weakness at times; according to Amadou, Malian culture centres around the art of storytelling, but he rarely allows himself to wander off the main topic here. A pity in a way, as I really wanted to know more about the people I found myself imagining so easily.
I'm guessing from the conversational style of the narrative that the book was created by writer Idrissa Keita (an old friend of Amadou and Mariam's) from the transcripts of conversations he had with Amadou. It was originally published in 2008, in French - the translation is very good I think - it's not noticeable. If you've read 'The Motorcycle Diaries', then you already know the translator - Ann Wright. Full marks to her. Still, if you speak French, perhaps it might be a good move to buy the French version instead.
The story he tells really is an amazing one; how he copes with losing his sight at an early age, finds solace and a natural talent in music, support from musicians, and finally success - what a journey. It must be such a hard thing to be told that you have lost your sight, especially at such an early age, but the support he got from his community and the musicians he got to know really is heart-warming. One can infer from what he says that he seems to have been marked out as an exceptional talent from very early on in his life.
But where, I found myself asking, is Mariam in all of this? I had my answer, but only after 106 pages (two-thirds of the book) had gone past - although the cover credits both Amadou and Mariam (with Idrissa Keita) as authors, this is a bit misleading I feel; it's really Amadou's autobiography. Perhaps the publishers felt that it wouldn't sell as well unless they were both credited. When they do meet, his love for her shines out from the pages, and it's here that he starts to be more expansive about things. Theirs is a true love story, and very moving.
The interview at the end of the book is a welcome one, but it feels a bit tacked on. Andy Morgan, the ex-manager of Tinariwen asks them a few questions along the lines of 'Do you often suffer from homesickness?', 'Do you like rap' and so on - Amadou's and Mariam's answers are separate, and it's nice to finally read some of her words - but the questions themselves aren't difficult ones. Its better to have it than not to, though.
To summarise - if you like their music, you'll really enjoy this book - but be warned; this is a delicacy rather than a feast; just like their gigs it'll leave you wanting more.