Sunday, 27 November 2011

Guest post: Concert in the Dark - Amadou and Mariam from Mali

I am pleased to introduce another guest post, this time from Dennis, who has agreed to answer comments on the post.  Dennis is sighted and we share similar views on world music. 

A few weeks ago Dennis said he was going to ‘The East End’ for a concert of some North West African music.  The performers were blind and the concert was to take place in the dark.  I probably muttered that Blind Restaurants were springing up everywhere (I think Zurich was the first in Europe) and that there was also blind football and blind chefs. I was ambivalent and wished Dennis a good time and hoped to hear more after the concert. 

The BBC Radio4 programme In Touch covered the concert very well, though I could detect some mild exasperation in the voice of the presenter and as we are both visually impaired, we are probably attuned to little voice nuances.

Anyone reading my twitter feed will see some comments on blindness awareness and how some organisations in the health, retail and even charity sectors are hopeless.  I had been told by a hospital trust (NOT one that I attend!) that their nurses experience blindness for a day, well a couple of hours.  Many professionals and those “experiencing” blindness as a learning gimmick are rather shallow. After all, the lights come on again and the simulated blindness glasses come off ...


I'm a sucker for aural stimulation and buy CDs by people I've never heard of on the off chance a track or two, or hopefully more, will transport me to undiscovered countries.  Thus I stumbled on "Sabali" by Amadou and Mariam on a DJ mix album.  The song appealed for its vocals and rhythm.  I had no idea the performers were from Mali, or that they were married, or that they were both blind.

Perusing upcoming events, I discovered they were playing at The York Hall in Bethnal Green in London in a presentation by The Barbican, so I thought I'd don my explorer boots and find out more about their music by going to the gig.  When I paid for the tickets, I learned there would be no "show" as such as the entire performance would be in the dark.  We were warned not to wear open-toed shoes, high heels or strong smelling fragrances.

On arrival at the venue, my companion and I discovered something that looked like an old school hall, but was actually the home for boxing matches, and we were given a card to hold up should we need to leave the performance at any time.  An usher with night-vision goggles would escort us from the hall and we would not be able to return.  We made sure we would not need emergency toilet facilities.

As we entered, a tape was playing of random sounds you could hear in any urban development anywhere in the world - voices, dogs barking, cars.  It was illuminated as if it were twilight and then the lights went out completely, so I could not see my hand in front of me, or the person next to me, and I only knew an usher was walking past by the spring in the floorboard under me.

A cock was crowing on the tape, the sound I associate with imminent dawn, but it remained oppressively dark and I realised I felt unsettled and anxious as daylight stubbornly refused to break.

A man began telling us the life story of the musicians in an intense African accent and I had to listen hard to understand what he was saying.  I realised at that point how much I rely on facial expression and body language to help me understand what people are saying.  The couple began playing their songs.  At first, the music added to the unease I felt.  It was a hybrid of North African Arabic sounds and rhythms with those of the sub Sahara, and jarred in my ears used to western scales and instruments.

Gaps between songs were interspersed with more sounds on tape, more narrative and wafts of intense scents which I assumed were native to the various cities the couple visited during their story and rise to international success.

It took some time for me to relax into the music and to enjoy myself and the event.  As we left, I told my friend that I was sure I had felt breathing on my hands at one point and was freaked out by wondering whose face could, or would, be so close to my lap where they were clasped.  He laughed and told me that the darkness had made his mind wander and at one point, he had saw something light and bent towards it to see what it was.  It proved to be the dial on my watch, so it had been he who had been breathing on me as he bent to look at the light.  I told him he was lucky I had not punched him.

Musically, the gig was, to be honest, nothing special.  They performed "Sabali"' so I was happy, but a lot of the material left me unmoved, positively or negatively.  As an event though, it gave me an inkling, an insight, in to what some people without sight may sometimes feel.  I'm not saying I now know how blind people feel all the time, but it made me realise how much I take sight for granted.

I'm not sure this was the intent of the gig.  Possibly, the idea was to allow the audience - which was capacity and a couple of thousand strong on a third successive night - to experience the music in the same way as the performers.  In the west, we are accustomed to lasers, lights, videos and optical illusions to accompany the sound at concerts, so by restricting us to using our ears and noses and touch, we were in foreign territory.  That's pretty much how I imagine a blind person must feel when going somewhere new for the first time.

If you want to hear "Sabali", you can find it on you tube at