'I am a music fan. I am a deaf man'

By Jonny Cotsen

I love music. I love attending as many gigs as I can. People always ask me why do I go to gigs or how come I have a huge music collection? I constantly get asked how can I enjoy gigs as a severe deaf person. The most straight-forward answer I can say is that I accept that I cannot hear the same as others do, but I get enjoyment from being out and about, hanging out with my friends, being in a gig atmosphere watching bands perform, dancing, enjoying what I can hear and not actually get stressed about it.

I am fortunate that I can lip-read very well and this enables me to communicate with the so-called ‘mainstream world’, which makes me confident and independent and I did not have to rely entirely on my ‘crappy’ hearing aids. My parents never wanted me to sign – it was their choice and I don’t regret their decision. However, I am currently learning to sign now as I think it lovely choice to be bi-lingual. I’ve never given up on listening to music – I remember when I was younger, religiously buying Smash Hits magazine for the lyrics, watching Top of the Pops with the subtitles turned on and buying Albums with the hope they have the lyrics in the inlay LP covers so I could memorise them. Having online access to lyrics is also a massive bonus.

I then adapted to follow music by feeling the beats through vibration. I memorised lyrics and then settled with video recordings of the singer lip-synching until I could follow the whole track – sometimes using body language to denote changes in pitch. High notes (I have no response to any high frequency sounds) which a singer lifting their head and the low notes by dropping it usually accompanies. I don’t always get it right but I pay more attention when following a band than anyone else because of the effort I have to put in. It makes a big difference.

I attend gigs and theatre a lot. Sometimes watching local bands, sometimes travelling to London or Bristol to see bands that I have seen at a festival or read reviews about it. I like a variety of different bands; from the gentle sounds of jazz, the down-tempo music of electronica, and trip-hop, the heavy deep base of hip hop! I would spend hours and hours listening to Winston Marsalis, Miles Davies, Portishead, Morcheeba, Jungle Brothers, Beastie Boys, Roots Manuva, De La Soul and many other people from record labels, such as Mo Wax & Ninja Tunes. Sometimes I have no idea what is said in their lyrics because I’m not able to get access to the lyrics, but I have just as much pleasure ‘listening’ to these band in the way that I want to listen to them. Sometimes I don’t need the words and the rhythm will play it’s part. Bo Ningen, a Japanese four-piece noise rock band is currently my favourite band to watch live… they are loud. Extremely bloody loud. I love them, not because that I cannot understand or listen to their lyrics but just they way they perform and watching the crowd perform with them. It’s like watching a noisy piece of physical theatre and I am happy to dance around. It is sheer euphoria, especially if you are standing next to their massive speakers and feeling the riffs coming from the band just blows you away.

Normally at gigs, I never really hear the banter in between songs (as it is too loud and normally too dark for me too read their lips) and sometimes I would often fail to hear a familiar song but I stay positive and pluck up the courage to ask a friend / the person next to me to remind me what that song is! Sometimes, I need to concentrate, and use all of my lip-reading skills especially if it’s a band that I know the lyrics to. It’s not easy but I have to be positive if I want to experience it. Some bands, particularly if I don’t know the lyrics or if they are a new band, I will sometimes have a beer or two (plus some sambucas) and take part in some crazy dancing but if I do I will lose some of the already reduced quality.

Last year, I came across the band, ‘Woman’s Hour’ (www.womanshourband.co.uk) on my Facebook page promoting their latest music video, ‘Her Ghost’. I must admit that I had never heard of them before but when I saw it for the first time, I was mesmerised from watching it. It was unlike any other music video that I have seen. The video shows the lyrics transformed in the form of sign language with interpreter, Vilma Jackson providing the translation. Although I can hear the lyrics and it sounds beautiful; watching the sign language from the interpreter look even more beautiful. It felt real and even for someone that does not understand BSL that well, it really tells the lyrics which resonates with the beautiful melancholy sounds that I can hear. I have not stopped watching it since. The British Journal of Photography described the video as “rich and glowing, fluent and immediate”. They are a super-cool band on the supercool record label Secretly Canadian.

The Festival of Voice was launched and I saw that they were playing. Yes. In Cardiff. My hometown. They will be at The Gate, Roath on the 9 June. They will be presenting their newly devised live performance ‘Seeing Voices’, in which British Sign Language (BSL) takes centre-stage. This performance has been supported by Artes Mundi and tickets are only £5! This is really exciting. ‘Seeing Voices’ will also incorporate specially commissioned video projections by established artists Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin, (http://www.broombergchanarin.com/) using previously unseen footage from the British Deaf Association archives. Many of my favourite things – music, performance and visual arts, all rolled into one. AND it happens to be accessible for deaf audiences. RESULT.

This is the first time this work has been performed in Wales. I really cannot wait to see this. This will be unique and different to any other live gigs that I have been to.

Finally, I am familiar with a small charity called Stagetext, which has pushed hard to make theatre accessible through captioning which is why I attend more theatre than gigs these days. Stagetext has grown from covering a small handful of performances to become a formidable force for accessible theatre, expanding their services across the UK. Stagetext are now working with Attitude is Everything (supporting Woman’s Hour), and for the first time ever, to provide captions and live subtitles for a music gig. I am still yet to see one in Cardiff or anywhere. Why is this not happening?! If our theatres are doing it, then why are the venues and promoters not doing it too? Live music should be for everyone. Deaf and disabled people shouldn’t have to miss out when their favourite band is in town due to poor access. Will this ever change? – I doubt it until we make this change. Having the opportunity to watch Woman’s Hour with BSL interpreters, which is accessible, will make a massive difference.

If only other venues / promoters /performers could see this. They are the ones that need to make this change. Improving access to live music doesn’t have to be costly and should be welcomed by everyone. Maybe one day I will see a Bo Ningen captioned performance!

Woman’s Hour are performing on 9 June, 8pm at The Gate. I will be there at the front, near the speakers. I hope to see you there too. Both deaf and non deaf audiences alike. This is a must for any music, performance and visual art fan.

Jonny likes to make things happen. He is a Teacher/facilitator/theatre maker and passionate about access and inclusion in the arts. 

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