Amadou & Mariam: New Century Hall, Manchester

The music of Amadou & Mariam, the blind superstars, came in gloriously vivacious colour at the New Century Hall Manchester.

HERE’S THE thing. How to review a concert that you’re not allowed to see? Amadou & Mariam, the blind superstars who have been making music together for more than 30 years and are the biggest-selling African act of recent times, are performing a series of gigs in complete darkness. The idea of their Eclipse show, says Amadou, is to allow everyone to “hear music as we do and imagine what it looks like”.

Thus the New Century Hall is fully blacked out. There’s a faintly exhaustive list of safety instructions to boot, including no open-toed footwear, no mobile phones and all personal items to be stored under your seat. If you feel unwell at any point, raise a white card in the air and an usher, equipped with night-vision goggles, will assist.

It’s all in keeping with the innovative ethos of the Manchester International Festival. As one of this year’s most intriguing offerings, the Amadou & Mariam show is a daring experiment that attempts to involve you on a highly subjective level.

As we’re first plunged into darkness, the sounds and smells of their native Mali come wafting through the speakers and grills. There’s a heady scent of jasmine. Cocks crow, children chatter and the occasional car splutters by in the dust. The production itself traces the narrative arc of the couple’s life, the voice of actor Isaach de Bankolé guiding the story between songs.

The music is little short of spectacular. Amadou & Mariam take the basic DNA of Western pop and soul and make it jump to irresistible African rhythms, electrified by Amadou’s bluesy guitar.

One song soundtracks the duo’s first meeting (at the Institute of Young Blind in Bamako in 1977), while others detail their marriage, their three children and the onset of international fame.

The lovely ‘Je Pense à Toi’, the song that made their reputation in Europe, is captivating. Though the highlight is ‘La Réalité’, tonight invested with the kind of joyous abandon that makes you want to wig out in the aisle, if only you knew how to get there — which helps point to a concluding impression.

For all its daring sensory immersion, the lack of visuals serves ultimately to distance you from what’s happening on stage. It’s a feeling compounded when the lights finally go up (just before closing song, ‘Wili Kataso’, a gorgeous taster from their forthcoming LP).

A radiant Amadou & Mariam are revealed, seated centre in red and gold, as the beating heart of a nine-piece band who’ve clearly been having a ball. It makes you instantly engage in a more visceral way.

They’re artists, after all, whose music comes in gloriously vivacious colour.

© Rob HughesDaily Telegraph, 19 July 2011

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