“Are you ok sitting on the end?” “Am I on the end?” This was an exchange I heard behind me before the start of Eclipse, and sums up the surreal atmosphere inside New Century Hall for this unique show. Staged in the dark, Eclipse is aimed to put its audience inside the heads of Malian superstars Amadou & Mariam, who are blind (in case you’d been living under a rock and hadn’t noticed). In other words, to help the rest of us experience one of their gigs the same way that they do, in the dark.
This means that even finding your seat is a challenge, though there are helpers and it isn’t quite pitch black at that stage. Once seated, your eyes start to adjust to the murk, providing entertainment watching newer entrants walk into each other and accidentally sit on each other’s laps. Given the context, it really shouldn’t be funny, but at no point does Eclipse ever get preachy about things like laughing at people almost falling over, so maybe it’s not that bad.
I’ve seen Amadou & Mariam three times before tonight, once with the African Soul Rebels tour, once supporting Scissor Sisters at the MEN Area (now THAT was a surreal experience) and two years ago at the last Manchester International Festival, playing with the Beating Wing Orchestra (an absolutely breathtaking show – I’m still bitter that no recordings of that collaboration have been released), but none of them were anything like this. Nothing I’ve ever been to was anything like this.
Once the lights (such as they were) went down, we were plunged into near absolute darkness (a couple of dim red lights at the back of the room provided some slight illumination, but not enough to shatter the illusion of blindness) and were surrounded by the sounds and smells of Malian capital Bamako. The smells were provided by Seven Scent, and were certainly atmospheric, though gave as much of an impression of being in the Hollister Co shop at the Trafford Centre as anything else.
The surround sound was hugely impressive though, both when providing ambient sounds in between songs and immersing you in the music itself. Narration about the lives of the two stars comes from Ivorian actor Isaach de Bankolé (best known for fighting James Bond in a stairwell in Casino Royale, and for appearing in 24), and the show beautifully mixes this with the sounds and the songs to give an immersive sensory biography of the couple. But, you know, in the dark. And that does make a huge difference.
As well as forcing you to reflect on what life must be like to never be able to see, the darkness does help to bring out the rhythms of the music in a way that doesn’t quite happen when your mind is distracted by all the things you can see going on. Maybe this isn’t scientifically accurate, but during songs like La Réalité and Beaux Dimanches, it was so easy to get totally lost in the music and the rhythms of Amadou Bagayoko’s guitar licks. This is always pretty much the case, but in the dark it just felt a lot more powerful.
With a talented band backing them and providing plenty of colour and texture to their songs, Amadou & Mariam have hardly ever sounded better than they did here, and the journey through their lives was punctuated by unfamiliar early songs and tracks like their first big hit Je Pense A Toi and the Damon Albarn collaboration Sabali (with Albarn’s voice floating around the room talking in French beforehand). There was a slightly muted reaction from the crowd at first, possibly because it took a little while to work out if you’re meant to clap in the dark and then a little while longer to be able to find your hands to put them together. That soon changed though.
At the end, the curtain drew back on the stage (not that we were aware there was a curtain, or a stage), revealing the silhouettes of the duo and their band, before the lights came up and they played one last song so that we could see they were actually there (after all, before that it could quite easily have just been a recording for all we knew, they could have been living it up in Paris), which was a slightly bittersweet moment. After all, they still couldn’t see us. But the rapturous applause that drew them back for a bow a good few minutes after they left the stage meant that they definitely knew we were there and that we were impressed.
Walking out into the late evening Manchester sunshine, there was lots to reflect on, not least the privilege of having my sight so that I could walk to the car, drive home and write this review without any assistance. Just as much, the privilege of having Amadou & Mariam debut their new show in our city, another triumph for the Festival and director Alex Poots, who was looking suitably excited before the show. But most of all was a feeling of joy that two people who were born with no privileges, and could have lived in utter poverty, managed to use their talents to enrich their own lives and those of so many millions of others through their music and charity work.
Truly a special show and one I’ll never forget.