Bright ideas can lose their way in the dark

Malian music stars Amandou and Mariam cut the lights for their latest gig. Why? So the audience would know what it's like to be blind - like them. Paul Vallely on a curious eye-opener.

It is easy for those of us blessed with sight to romanticise blindness. Amadou & Mariam, two of Africa's most celebrated performers, played an entire concert in a pitch-black hall at the Manchester International Festival . The idea was to share with the audience the world as the two blind musicians encounter it. If you cannot see, your sense of sound becomes richer, Amadou, the Malian guitarist, wrote in the programme – not that one could read it in the dark.

It was an interesting experiment. You were led to your seat in the darkness by an usher wearing infra-red goggles, having been given a white card to raise if you became disorientated to the point of being distressed. The night-vision glasses also monitored the hall throughout the concert "for your safety", the blurb announced, in case anyone got up to any funny business.

The dark was filled with the sounds of a Bamako dawn – cockerels, dogs, a pump splashing water, maize being pounded – which faded as a picked guitar melody kicked in. There was a peculiar intensity about the first few numbers as the guitar, kora, flute and some kind of mandolin overlaid one another. Rolling blues riffs gave way to more modal patterns. The local language Bambara shifted to French. Metallic licks alternated with crude boy-next-door strumming.

But then the problems set in. After a while the darkness brought home the fact that blindness is a sensory deprivation. I wanted to see the band and synchronise the sounds with the sight of what was making them. Was that phrase from a harp or mandolin, or maybe even a balafon – whatever that might be; the programme said there was one, but I wasn't sure what it was, though if I'd seen it I might have recognised it from my travels in Africa over the years.

Then there was the weird sense of being in a space with hundreds of others with whom no interaction was possible. I could just make out a chap in the next row wearing a dimly white shirt. But there was no sense of communion with the crowd which is part of what characterises the live music experience. Once or twice there was a roar of appreciation, as though those at the front had seen or heard something from which we at the back were alienated.

Background sounds (of idling motors, squealing children and a sea of cicadas) were so loud, where I was sitting at any rate, that they overwhelmed the reverential narrative by Hamadoun Tandina – telling the story of how Amadou & Mariam met at blind school in Bamako, developed a fusion of blues and Malian music, and won fans around the world, finally sharing stages with Coldplay and U2. Indeed so loud were the ambient noises that often the narration was impossible to follow. We had been promised atmosphere-inducing re-creations of African scents and smells, and variations in temperature to match the progress of the tropical day, but none materialised where I sat.

Manchester's biennial festival prides itself on innovative ideas. Some have worked brilliantly, like Punchdrunk's The Crash of the Elysium, in which children found themselves caught up in an interactive episode of Doctor Who. Others were better honoured in the breach than the observance, like the children's choirs in Victoria Wood's musical That Day We Sang, which were just not strong enough. A totally blacked-out concert was a nice idea when someone had it in a brainstorm session, but the reality just didn't deliver.

There was another problem. The music became less interesting as the 90 minutes – and the couple's chronological story – progressed. Mainstream Western influences eventually brought touches of disco and "la la la, baby baby, kiss me" lyrics. Only at the end did the lights come up as Amadou & Mariam performed their final number. At least we knew then that they hadn't just put on a CD and gone down the pub.

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
News
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
people
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Revealed: Why Mohammed Emwazi chose the 'safe option' of fighting for Isis, rather than following his friends to al-Shabaab in Somalia

    Why Mohammed Emwazi chose Isis

    His friends were betrayed and killed by al-Shabaab
    'The solution can never be to impassively watch on while desperate people drown'
An open letter to David Cameron: Building fortress Europe has had deadly results

    Open letter to David Cameron

    Building the walls of fortress Europe has had deadly results
    Tory candidates' tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they seem - you don't say!

    You don't say!

    Tory candidates' election tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they appear
    Mubi: Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash

    So what is Mubi?

    Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash all the time
    The impossible job: how to follow Kevin Spacey?

    The hardest job in theatre?

    How to follow Kevin Spacey
    Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

    Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

    To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
    Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

    'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

    The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
    Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

    This human tragedy has been brewing for years

    EU states can't say they were not warned
    Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

    Women's sportswear

    From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
    Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

    Clinton's clothes

    Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders