It’s 2007. American songwriter Rosh Rocheleau and his band—then called “Rosh and One Eye-Glass Broken”—were touring in Europe. Rocheleau stumbled upon “Café in the Dark” in Iceland, a restaurant where blind servers brought food to diners, who ate completely in the dark. The experience stuck with Rocheleau.
“The powerful part is I had no idea if these people were black, white, tall, short, blind, wheelchair—I didn’t have that prejudgment of people,” said Rocheleau. “I carried that story with me for several years.”
A few years later, in 2010, and Rocheleau is in a diversity class for college. He shared the experience, and promptly after class a blind woman comes up and tells him he needs to bring the “Dining in the Dark” experience to Boulder, Colorado. He took her advice.
“It started out as something fun,” Rocheleau.
Of course, it became much bigger than that.
“The Blind Café,” founded by Rocheleau and his friend Rich Hammond, a spoken word artist from Portland, falls very much in line with the “dining in the dark” trend, in that individuals come and enjoy food in the dark and are served by blind waiters. However, Rocheleau wanted to take it one step further.
“[We wanted] to use darkness as a social change movement, as a way for people to connect,” Rocheleau said.
Participants in the The Blind Café first enter into a room dimly lit by candles, and are greeted by puppies that run around the area. Rocheleau said these are puppies that local groups train for blind people; often, during the show, these puppies roam around under the tables.
Blind Café then asks participants to turn off their phones. Rocheleau shows the group a Tibetan singing bowl—a type of “bell” in bowl form that makes noise when circling the rim with a wooden instrument—and says that every time they hear it go off, the audience needs to quiet down. The participants then create a Conga line and enter a room that’s “100%, pure, organic darkness.”
For the first 20 minutes, participants eat the food on the table, often fumbling to get to the bread and butter at the center. Rocheleau said he normally encourages individuals to “get a buddy,” allowing individuals to help one another adjust to the darkness together.
Then The Blind Café holds a discussion.
“We have a Q and A with the blind staff, and they get to share their story and people get to ask questions,” Rocheleau said. “It’s a really powerful and humbling part of the event.”
For the final component of The Blind Café, Rocheleau rings the Tibetan bell to silence the crowd, and Rocheleau brings out his band “Rosh and The Blind Café Orchestra”, composed of a quartet, a female vocalist, and Rocheleau at the guitar and singing, and they begin to play.
“With the music, we create this experience for people to emotionally open up. You can bawl your eyes out or sing to the top of your lungs or dance like no one is watching—because no one is,” Rocheleau said.
After playing a few songs, the band ends with “The Light,” written by another artist but performed by the band. The band teaches the audience the chorus, and invites everyone to join as they sing, “The light that shines through everyone, someday it will be gone—so make me yours, and I’ll make you mine.”
“And then we light this one candle that just wakes us all up, and we are brought to the light,” Rocheleau said. “It’s as if we’ve all woken up from some collective dream we’ve all shared together.”
Rocheleau sees potential for The Blind Café to be more than a discussion about disability and blindness. In the past, he has hosted couple therapy events where couples share their personal struggles—without any fear of others recognizing them—and help each other adjust to the darkness. He plans on piloting a Blind Café experience that discusses racism and discrimination. When asked, “Why the dark? Why are these discussions so effective in the dark?” Rocheleau has a profound response.
“It interrupts us,” he said. “It breaks down our habitual ways of checking out and not being present.”
Rocheleau explained that people have to concentrate on eating, on talking, on listening to the music without the sensory experience of sight to guide them.
Rocheleau said one of the best parts of The Blind Café are the relationships it creates, not just between its members, but between the audience members as well. He recalled one woman who cried and confessed that at the cafe, it was one of the first times she had been seen as more than a large black woman. Rocheleau illustrates this concept in one of the songs he plays at the the cafe called “Love and Rainy Days”:
All and all we fall down the rabbit hole,
Tumble and scratch and bruise our knees.
We fall and fall into each other’s thoughts again,
Only to wake up with that need
Of each other’s company
“It’s a really powerful tool for social change,” he said.
Because of the powerful and profound experience, The Blind Café offers, the company is in high demand. School districts and companies like Pepsi and Apple have taken advantage of group, and The Blind Café travels from city to city hosting events for people to attend. People interested in The Blind Café can find more information at theblindcafe.com.
Featured photo by The Blind Cafe