The French connection that put two lovebirds on the world map

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AMADOU and Mariam aren't household names in the UK yet, but it may only be a matter of time.

The couple's sound - funky, feel-good, hypnotic rhythms powered by ricocheting congas, driving blasts of Memphis-like organ and Mariam's bluesy voice - is built on a 30-year love affair not just with music but each other. Both visually impaired, Amadou Bagayoko and Mariam Doumbia met and fell in love while learning Braille and performing in the Eclipse Orchestra at Bamako's Institute for the Blind in Mali. They play and sing with soulful abandon, and the exuberant spirit of their music is contagious. Their eight albums so far have made them pop stars back home and, more recently, in Europe. If worldwide fame now seems assured, it is partly thanks to Chao, who is doing for the couple what Ry Cooder did for the Buena Vista Social Club and Paul Simon for Ladysmith Black Mambazo.

The story goes that Chao first heard their laid-back love song, Je T'Aime Mon Amour, Ma Chrie (I Love You My Love, My Dear) as he was speeding around the Paris ring road. "I fell in love with that song and its melody," he says. "For almost a year I played their records round the clock. My French friends already knew them, but I'd been living in Spain, where they weren't known."

Mutual contacts brought them together at Paris's Davout Studios. After working for a week Chao decided to head back to Bamako with them to record. He'd been to West Africa in 1996, as part of his explorations for what became his multi-million selling Clandestino album; he was inspired to write the track La Vie Deux (Life Together) by his stay in Senegal.

As a recently released film of the project shows, Chao immediately felt at home with the couple and their family. "I discovered marvellous people there," he says. "Amadou and Mariam's percussionist Bouba, Jimi the blind bassist, and the rappers of Smod which include Amadou and Mariam's children. We'd rehearse at night on the roof and then play it to their parents."

"It was easy to work with Manu," says Bagayoko. "We had a good connection."

"We don't take any detours, we've always been like that - straight to the point," adds Doumbia. "Manu's music may be different but at the same time it resembles ours in the melodies and the ways the songs are constructed. He really liked that."

The couple's success is rooted in tenacity as much as talent. In 1986 a lack of good studios in Mali encouraged them to move to Abidjan in Ivory Coast for four years, releasing a series of Afro-pop cassettes, which crudely marketed them as "The Blind Couple From Mali".

Like many Malians, they then headed for the former colonial capital of Paris, where Chao heard their first international release, Sou Ni Tile.

Bagayogo lost his vision due to cataracts when he was 15 but that didn't stop him cutting his teeth alongside Salif Keita and Mory Kant in the West African band Les Ambassadeurs. Doumbia lost her sight following scarlet fever when she was five; by the age of six, she was singing at weddings and baptism feasts. "There are some advantages - our hearing has become more acute - there is a richer world of sound," she says. In their song, Artistya, they sing: "Being an artist isn't easy. Not everyone can do it. Pleasing a crowd isn't easy. Not everybody has the gift." Catch them on the African Soul Rebels tour next week, and you'll see very clearly that they do.

• The African Soul Rebels tour is at the Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 25 February. The documentary Amadou & Mariam: Dimanche Bamako is screened at the Filmhouse, Edinburgh, 15 February.

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