It it fitting that tonight’s show should fall on the same night as the memorial for Michael Jackson. While Los Angeles, and the entire world, celebrates an unlikely life, one of music’s most unlikeliest stories continues to thrill its audience.
Amadou & Mariam’s story is one of modern music’s truest fairy tales. Blind since early childhood, the couple met at Mali’s Institute for the Young Blind. Companionship and a shared love for music gave them solace, and since 1974, their blend of African blues, soul and jazz has garnered an ever-increasing worldwide following. Their latest recording, Welcome To Mali – which tonight’s show leans on – is widely regarded as last year’s outsider-come-crossover triumph.
But tonight isn’t just about the leading pair. Unlikely stories are commonplace under Manchester International Festival’s purpose-built marquee-come-circus top, known as the Pavilion. Behind Amadou & Mariam stands more than just a collection of session musicians. In many ways, the lives of many of the members of the Beating Wing Orchestra are as remarkable as the couple they are performing with.
Composed of musicians from Kurdistan and Cameroon, Bangladesh and Brazil, the Beating Wing Orchestra is made up of refugees, asylum seekers and a sprinkling of local musicians – some of whom have incredible stories to tell and all of whom, as this night proves, clearly possess a great deal of musical talent.
The Malian pair enter the stage and nervously address the expectant audience. Dressed in elegant African robes with gold decoration, it’s impossible to feel anything other than a little under-dressed as I stand, apologetically, in t-shirt, jeans and trainers. But, despite my own self-conscious sartorial concerns, tonight’s audience is a rather smart bunch. A bit older than one might expect, it does feel like we’re surrounded by plenty of well-heeled broadsheet readers.
Amadou & Mariam perform the first couple of songs without accompaniment. While the venue isn’t particularly large, it feels like a rather restrained start. Happily, the introduction of the Beating Wing Orchestra raises both volume and temperature. The delicious African groove of Welcome To Mali suddenly fills the marquee, tempting those who previously had hands in flannel pockets to shuffle their feet and sway their hips. A darkened space in Manchester’s city centre is now bursting with Malian rhythms and the warm glow of African melody.
Welcome To Mali’s most memorable moments resound with a renewed vibrancy. Inspired by the Beating Wing Orchestra’s ceaseless energy and visible enthusiasm, tracks such as Ce N’est Pas Bon, Djuru and I Follow You elicit broad smiles throughout the venue, as their infectious rhythms take hold. During the latter song, Mariam tenderly embraces her beau, as he skillfully arpeggios along the fretboard a gleaming gold Fender guitar. It’s an intimate moment for an intimate occasion.
With Amadou & Mariam’s diary being as it is now, catching them in such close quarters is something of a privilege. An early, daytime slot at Glastonbury’s Pyramid Stage is all well and good, but it just can’t compete with tonight’s rarefied atmosphere. As the unlikely stars take their final bow, Manchester gushes in collective appreciation.