By Jean Noel Mugabo 

On April 29, Portland Ovations will host two internationally celebrated musical groups from distinct yet related worlds at Merrill Auditorium in Portland. These are the five-time Grammy Award-winning and Gospel Hall of Fame inductees, the Blind Boys of Alabama, and the renowned Amadou and Mariam, on tour in the U.S. from Mali. 

“We speak the same language,” said Ricky McKinney of the Blind Boys. “Music reaches out to people – what comes from the heart enriches the heart, and the Blind Boys of Alabama and Amadou and Mariam have worked together before. It is like a bowl of vegetable soup. [The ingredients] might be different, but when you put it all together you get a good mixture.”  

Amadou and Mariam are enthusiastic about the collaboration. “We have a lot in common with the Blind Boys’ music and spirit. We love their music, because it talks about love, respect, life. Music is a universal language, and we bring Bamako and Birmingham together in a very beautiful way. We have a lot of fun performing with them. They are living legends and it’s an honor to be playing with them.”  

Originally formed at the Institute for the Blind in Talladega, Alabama, in 1939, the Blind Boys of Alabama went on to delight music lovers everywhere. They are credited with introducing many to the worlds of jubilee and hard gospel music, but they also offer more secular, modern music.  

Not all of their members are from Alabama. Vocalist, music arranger, and drummer Eric “Ricky” McKinnie, who spoke with Amjambo, was born in Georgia, and performed with other groups before being invited to join the Blind Boys by the late Clarence Fountain in 1989. Some of the members have changed over the years, and so has the name – from The Five Blind Boys of Alabama, to Clarence Fountain and the Blind Boys of Alabama, and now the Blind Boys of Alabama. McKinnie does not expect another name change any time soon. 

Amadou and Mariam also met at school, but half a world apart, at Mali’s Institute for the Young Blind. It did not take them long to realize they shared a passion for music – and for each other. The de facto ambassadors of African music, they enjoy sharing their unique combination of love story and music career with the world.  

Just like any couple, they said, misunderstandings sometimes arise.  “The answer is balance and respect. We both respect each other’s space and decisions. As any other couple, we have our issues, but we always try to solve it very quick. Same for the artistic part. Sometimes we compose together and then share with each other, and some other times we come up with an idea, and then we discuss it.”  

The couple has worked with artists from all over the world. Mariam has recorded songs of various famous artists, such as the Malian stars Siramory Diabaté and Fanta Damba, and French singers Sheila or Nana Mouskouri. Asked about an encounter with Stevie Wonder decades ago, Amadou and Mariam confess they hold good memories of that moment. 

“Back in the ’80s, we were recording some cassette tapes and touring in Burkina Faso. It was the time we moved to Cotê d’Ivoire, and while we were touring, we met Stevie Wonder in a music Festival in Abidjan. We had the chance to meet, talk, and jam for a while. We have fond memories of that time, and absolutely – yes – we love his music,” said Amadou and Mariam. 

Since their debut, Amadou and Mariam have been recognized for mixing Malian traditional music with rock guitar, Syrian violin, and other instruments from Cuba, India, and Egypt.  

“When you come to see Amadou and Mariam and the Blind Boys from Alabama, you don’t hear music that you [have] ever heard before! You might not understand the words…but one thing about it you are going to understand is the feel. We are going to sing some of our favorite songs, and the audience’s favorite songs – including one called ‘I can see.’ ” said McKinney. 

“I Can See” went viral in the U.S. and abroad because of its message, which addresses the challenges of life for visually impaired singers, as well as faith in God. Lyrics include, “I can see, can’t you see, God has been good to me….”   

Both groups will be on stage in Portland at 7 p.m., April 29. Their tour includes Burlington, Vermont; Boston, Mass.; New York City; Dallas and Austin, Texas; and Albuquerque and Santa Fe, New Mexico.