South of the Malian capital of Bamako is a large, dusty compound that is home to one of the country's only two schools for the blind. There's a picture of a man with a stick, and a series of single-storey buildings painted in much the same orange-pink colours as the earth on which they stand. There are more than 100 children here, some attending lessons, others sitting outside the dormitories, where they sleep crammed together on pieces of well-worn foam rubber.
It was here that Amadou Bagayoko and Mariam Doumbia met 29 years ago, at the start of one of the most extraordinary success stories in African music. Now, recognised as celebrities even in a city famed for its musicians, they have come back to the school. They are smartly dressed, but look like pop stars in their designer dark glasses ("Phillipe Stark", I'm told. "Specially made") as they tour their old classrooms. They are here to discuss a series of major international events they are planning to help the school, including a fund-raising concert in the school compound that will involve everyone from Manu Chao to the West African rap/reggae star Tiken Jah Fakoly, along with their son Sam and his political rap band, and even members of the original school band with whom Amadou and Mariam started out.
"Parents bring blind children here and then never come back to see them. It's like throwing children away," Idrissa Soumaoro, former teacher and bandmate tells me.
Yet for Amadou and Mariam it was very different. They not only flourished at the school, where they were married three years after meeting, but used the skills they learned to launch their career. Their 2004 album Dimanche a Bamako has sold nearly 500,000 copies, reaching number two in France's pop charts. The duo are about to embark on a major UK tour, and success in the World Music Awards looks guaranteed with nominations for album of the year and African act of the year.
Amadou is delighted. "I love English music and started out listening to Alvin Lee, Eric Clapton, David Gilmour and Bad Company, trying to find a link between them and our Bambara culture. Getting an award means that the English have understood what our music is about."
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