Saturday, 25 February 2012

Sign Language for Live Music and even more ramblings

It' may be a strange combination for some people to work out - but through circumstance every time I appear on stage in my duo Omoyele we are normally accompanied by a professional sign language interpreter to express and interpret our music for the partially hearing / deaf community. When I first picked up at a guitar at 15 years of age, and held ambitions of entertaining people in some way, to suggest that I would be involved in an act that caters for the deaf community is something, would of resulted in one of my very confused faces. I am sure of that

Ok, so lets fast forward to when I am 23, At this stage I had probably become a self taught competent guitarist - but what I would call a  ' bedroom guitarist ' - I had never played on a stage by this point or in an act, In fact my only attempt at a gig in public to date, was when I was on a ( I could do no wrong kind of date - trust me these have a rare occurrence  ) with a girl I worked with at the time, we found ourselves in an empty ' old mans ' pub with a couple of rather drunk older gentlemen. These guys were rather friendly and very jolly ( we did not know them by the way ) - and were armed with an untuned acoustic guitar, and they were not afraid to use it. They had their own mini karaoke / open mic show on the go for the few customers in that bar. Maybe that it is why their were not any customers?. Anyway, It was quite enjoyable as it did kind of give the night some character. Then it was suggested , as I remember by the date ( who remember I could do no wrong by ) to play myself - When the drunk guys got wind of this - the guitar was thrust upon me .................

............20 mins later of instrumental indulgence.......

..........I blew them away of course. They took it on the chin and my first gig was a roaring success. I had a groupee for sure and my ego was blazing. Maybe I am spinning the yarn a little - but  it was a taste of performing for me, for what I see now as for ......a very observant audience. I had a ball !!!! ...... showing off and all an audience of three

 Anyway I think I forwarding to 23 ( and then jumped back to 21 ). So lets get back on track. I'm 23 and now at Univeristy - guitaring is not on mind - an animation degree and meeting a girl is however. Here I will revert to bullet points so save you all another massive ramble ....

  • I meet a girl
  • she is nice
  • she sings in my ear 
  • oh my god she's good !
  • better than most
  • she becomes my gf
  • I play her lots of music I have written
  • We write songs
  • It kind of works
  • we start gigging
  • we cant get gigs at our own University student Union bar- because the entertainment policy is zero 
  • we run them ourselves ( so we can play to our friends ) 
  • we do a good job of that
  • we become live music promoters at our Uni

So yes , hope the bullet points were helpful - trust me we saved time x
So now we are ' In house' promoters at the Student Union bar. A nice big room with lots of students to entertain, We did a a great job of turning their Sat nights around. So we went from getting paid 20 quid in beer vouchers ( beer was £1 a pint and I drank most of the vouchers ) to £100 a night ( per week ) between us. This was a better deal for Omoyele of course. I wasn't allowed to drink her half of the winnings any more! Well anyway, we got  total freedom to book who we wanted and just got on with it, I certainly fell into  promoting quite quickly. Hence, I still have my hand in it now. We were full of bright little ideas and always looking to get interesting acts if we could, or do something different, Then Omoyele had an idea..........I will be honest.... I wasn't keen on .........and wasn't sure about at all. .....slightly out of my comfort I didn't quite understand the point for a start .........but I soon did as it took over my life for a while.......

As i said, I was studying animation - however Omoyele was studying BSL ( British sign language ) to become ( what she is now ) a sign language interpreter. At our Uni this was a popular course - maybe one of the best in the country for this type degree - ( is that rare for Wolverhampton Uni ) and as well as hosting lots of people studying BSL and Deaf Studies it is also a hub for the Deaf Community. With  a lot of partially hearing / Deaf people studying here. Omoyele wanted us to run a full acoustic gig ( lots of acts ) , where the whole night was signed by interpreters. Obviously this was a night that was designed to include this community in a music event that they too could enjoy. It took me a little while to see it clearly - but then I thought yes why not, It's different to the norm....its for a new audience....actually by now I am getting quite excited.......and my gf ( and co-promoter ) at the time was so passionate about it....hell yes .....why not.

So ......we did it .....

It was nightmare to organise.....we lost sleep.....people let us down.....I had no idea it would be such a mission to put on this show.......

First of all we had  to sort out a line up, Here, I instantly went to my Manchester and northern contacts who I guessed would be up for and get excited about doing something different. When we started booking for the University we booked people we knew - local acts we had met and befriended - but to keep things fresh I did alot of networking in the early days - to get acts from around the country. As we had a big audience at the Uni it was more about keeping the acts fresh than just booking local acts.  I had built up a good relationship with a northern songwriter / promoter Darren Poyzer who in turn  would come down to Wolverhampton with a mini army of singer song writers he knew from Manchester and Oldam etc . And to be fair, Great guys - all of  them, and good acts too.. So we offered it to them. They agreed and were excited.. The line up was our act Omoyele / Darren Poyzer and few acts from Manchester and another local act from Wolves..........Job done as far as I was concerned - make a few posters - spread the word ( didnt have face book back then ) ....yes job done ......................................not a chance

I would think there was a conversation that went a little like this 

First of all Omoyele tells me - ' Ok, we need all the lyrics for  every song  to be played on the night ' 

I'm probably saying back something like ' well you wrote most of them, that shouldn't be a problem should it ? ' 

' no off everybody , not just us , the interpreters need to practice the sets , and then maybe speak with the acts ' 

'  your joking ' 

'no ' 

' So the acts need to play sets with a prepared set list, no last minute changes ? ' 

' yup - they have to play exactly what they send us - as this is what the interpreters will learn ' 

' shit !' 

OK,  so now we have to get all the words fully typed out ( to every song that will be performed  and sent to us ( by every act on the bill ) at least a month before the show so the interpreters can practice and make sure they have no problems with the words - and then they still might have to confer with the act to talk about details with the interpretation ' 


anyway lucky for us all the acts on the bill were helpful - although they too, like myself,  were suprised it had to be this calculated. The thought of sorting out a strict set list to be played on the night was mentioned as alot of these acts had an army of songs - and would normally play what feels right on the night rather than a strict set list - however as I spent a few days conferring with the acts and making a few calls - another problem surfaced in my mind - 

And that was about our own songwriting. Omoyele and myself are joint songwriters but some songs are very guitar lead - mainly the ones that I wrote - and although some of Omoyele's songs are very lyric based - my song writing style is more about creating emotions musically I suppose - words dont matter to be so much to me - timing ./ dynamics / chord sequence / melody does - so lets say a song written by me may have a 1 min intro before any words are sung - there is alot of soloy finger picking stuff in my writing without vocals - and some of the songs are very basic in terms of lyrical content ( when i write the words ) - for instance one song I wrote has one verse and one chorus and thats it - repeated twice - but it is a 5 min song with non nattarive vocals and solo guitar - HOW BORING THIS MUST BE for a partially hearing person having this signed to them - if they can not hear the dynamics of the muscial peice and the emotion then this must be very unentertaining for them. So by having our own music signed I suddenly became very concious about the lyrical content of some of songs. Added to this,the songwriters from Manchester for the most part were very Lyrical based - singing songs about about a wider subject matter than we do ( most our songs at this point were relationship based - love songs) and having alot more content  within the lyrics of their work.Maybe more storytelling style etc type songs. Obviously a lot engaging to be signed and interpreted.
 So to sum up hear - as we were quite fresh songwriters and our natural style was maybe not at lyrically important as some of the other acts on the show - I was very self concious that signed interpretations of our music may not be as great as it could be for this event. ( just note this is my mass paranoia at the time and I am sure Omoyele when reading this will protest as her lyrical input to our music and songs is maybe more in terms of content and variation of lyrics).  That being said - I was very self concious all of a sudden. about our music being interpreted ( when the music may not be the most important thing - the words though are ) 

Nearer to the event things were going wrong. Alot of the Interpreters were students and we had some of them drop out late on. This put pressure on the remaining intepreters to work on extra songs. As if they didn't have enough on their plate already. I did well not to get stressed about all this - however Omoyele was feeling it - as she had mostly organised the interpretters / was interpretting a whole set herself ( as well as playing a 30 min set in our act ) and was angry she had been let down so late. But the people still left in the project were working hard to cover for the drop outs.

Then another bombshell
The deaf community as far as I know have large basis in a few City's in the UK - one being Wolverhampton, another being London. And when there is a big event on with their networked community they all flock from over the country to attend.. And guess what, there was some kind of party in London and most the deaf community were going to that on the night of our event- meaning they were not coming to ours event--- oh dear- Isn't Sods Law a Sod

So the people we were aiming this gig at and promoting it for and to - were suddenly out of town. Me being me, I completely got the ' why do I bother syndrome ', and probably looked to blame other people for this mass mix up as an initial reaction, but as there were many people already committed to this event and had put the work in already - I certainly found the, ' show must go on syndrome ' fast. As you have to - and added to that - we had a good line up and the gigs we ran were well attended anyway - just that if no one who was partially hearing or deaf was to turn up - then this obviously would be  a bit hard to take considering.. Just another lesson learnt, take it on the chin- etc etc. 

The gig went well - it was full of interpreters at least ( onstage and audience ) , and our normal crowd - there were maybe 3 partially deaf people in the audience who fully appreciated what we did and enjoyed the show. ( not the numbers we were hoping for but it was better than none )  The acts all enjoyed the new experience - the Manchester guys very much so as I remember. In my ramblings so far I think I am finally coming to my main point - Going back to the fact I was self concious about our songs maybe not holding up so well live as more lyrical based styled songs because I claim our songs really sometimes based more around emotion and dynamics rather than lyrical content - I was massively miss-interpreting just what Interpreting was maybe all about. 

Emotion can be Interpreted too .......and can add theatre to your performance

The first thing I noticed about having an interpreter on stage with us is that our duo now becomes three. And this diverts attention away from me. Which I actually like - for all my inner ego - I am not a natural on stage - I love performing ./ I don't get nerves / I like people listening and making nice comments , I like applause , but I'd be a fibber if I told you I am in my comfort zone on a stage. To put it simply - when I am on stage I am hoping everyone is listening but looking at the singer - If i think all eyes are on me I'd maybe run away ....... so the interpreter is very much part of the show - and I noticed with our performance  ( and the other acts )  a lot of hearing people were watching the interpretations as much as the acts if not more - my basic initial reaction with regards to our performance , was oh I like this, it is a diversion from attention to me -

What was interesting was some of the interpreters were a lot better than others. The ones that were good really put on a show - showed emotion within the interpretation and most definitely added to the theatre of the performance. The poorer attempts by a a few of the interpreters were for all to see. Now lets bare in mind the interpretations were done mostly by students learning their trade and maybe some lecturers too. So I can't be too harsh and critical at the different skill levels on show. But like anyone who gets on stage for what ever they do - the different skill levels were there to see and different interpretations had different reactions - and the people that had really put the work in ( or had more experience ) were really getting more attention by the audience. To be fair my eyes opened a little to the better interpreted performances - even though I do not fully understand sign language myself, the theatre that was added on stage to some of the performances and songs ( and ours ) was amazing. 

I sound myself rating the interpreters rather than songs. Which if I can big up Omoyele for a second - when I watched her perform her signing for one of the acts. She really stood out. And that's when I realised she was pretty dam good at what she was studying!!

I now really got it And the emotion that we personally put into our music can easily be represented through this language. Here it is worth mentioning that BSL around this time was officially recognised as an official language. So it has the same authentication as lets say English or French etc etc 

Since this event ( maybe in 2001 )  Omoyele and I have been actively gigging around. Although we went our separate ways in many ways - we still get together and gig. We actually have a small partially hearing fan base too and when we gig ( mostly in the Midlands or London ) we always have an interpreter by our side without fail. Its part of our show. 

For many years Fletch was our main interpreter, who is actually partially hearing herself - Fletch actually runs a small business called SIGNSONG  

Also we have been involved in playing a wedding where the bride and groom were both partially hearing - and been featured on BBC show see hear. Added to this we had a Video made for us by Fletch - the video was fully signed - thats not the video below by the way - that's us at Ronnie Scotts with FLETCH

To sum up - music is music - and it does sound like a massive irony that the music we write would have an interest for people that maybe can not hear it, as the whole point of music is for it to be heard. However words and the poetry of your song added to an emotional interpretation can add to what you have written - for a guitarist like myself the emotion I put into a segment of music maybe impossible to interpret unless it is done in a totally abstract way - but as a singer like Omoyele puts emotion into the way she sings a line from a song - so can a sign language interpreter.

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