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.

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