A blind love of music

Becky Daniel finds her senses awoken at the international premiere of Eclipse, the new show from world music superstars Amadou & Mariam, performed in total darkness

I was led to my seat in the half-light of the hall. As I began to settle down I could feel a gentle breeze on my face. Then sounds started to rise – a broom sweeping, children’s laughter, the footsteps of an unseen passerby, distant voices, the roar of a motorbike, domestic animals grunting and barking…

Suddenly a cockerel crowed and the auditorium was plunged into the deepest darkness where even with eyes wide open, sight was impossible. So began Eclipse, the new show from world music superstars Amadou & Mariam, premiered as part of the Manchester International Festival in July 2011.

From among the background sounds of village life in Mali, an African man’s deep voice told the incredible story of the “magic couple,” Amadou Bagayoko and Mariam Doubia. Despite having both lost their sight at an early age, their story shows how quality of life and accomplishment don’t need to be hindered by disability.

The meteoric rise of two blind African children to global success reads like a fairytale. Now married for more than 25 years, Amadou and Mariam met in the orchestra of The Institute for the Young Blind in Mali’s capital city, Bamako, in 1977. They recognised a shared passion for music and began to play together before eventually falling in love.

The pair have created bestselling albums Welcome to Mali and Dimanche à Bamako, worked with musical heavyweights such as Manu Chao, U2 and Damon Albarn, and sung at Barack Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize ceremony.

Back in Manchester, in the darkness of the hall a guitar riff burst the concert into life as I tuned in keenly to the instruments and voices. New Century Hall was entirely blacked out for their electrifying performance, where for an hour and a half, the audience could share Amadou & Mariam’s world. Fusing pop, blues, Malian music and spoken word, Eclipse features songs from across their career, including tracks from their forthcoming album.

Climate control and smells were used to enhance the sensory experience, while ticket holders had been asked to wear no perfume, wear sensible footwear and make as little noise as possible.

It felt as if the music was everywhere, especially inside me. My sense of hearing felt enhanced and I also became hyperaware of the vibrations in the floor as all around, people tapped their feet.

Amadou’s bluesy guitar, accompanied by the interplay of the couple’s sonorous voices, makes for an infectious, uplifting style, which has steadily gained them fans, first in West Africa and then France, before they became popular worldwide. Rooted in traditional African rhythms yet fresh and modern, their music’s contagious quality seems to invite listeners to engage with their whole hearts.

And as if the pleasure they have given the world through their talents and music was not enough, in 2010 Amadou & Mariam became World Food Programme goodwill ambassadors. Their Malian background gives the pair a unique insight into the ongoing hunger and struggle for daily life faced by millions across the globe.

Their ambassadorial roles recently took the couple to Haiti, a country still struggling after the 2010 earthquake, where singing at health clinics and schools enabled them to deliver a message of hope and bring a smile to some of the children and adults suffering in the most adverse situations imaginable. Music celebrates life, and as the proverb goes, “where there is life there is hope.”

Just before the end of the Eclipse concert, a full silvery moon rose up above the stage, the first light for 90 minutes. Then the lights went up to reveal the beatifically smiling couple and their band. The audience’s clapping and cheering was rapturous in appreciation of this inspirational duo who are the living embodiment of light conquering darkness and positivity overcoming negativity.


Amadou & Mariam are currently touring Europe with Eclipse and perform at the Barbican, London, on 2-4 November 2011. The book about their lives, Away from the Light of Day, is available now.