Feel the Music

Just because they’re deaf doesn’t mean their world is without music

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It’s Saturday night. Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” blares through the speakers while the karaoke performers dance along to the beat. The place is packed with onlookers who are dancing along, others gossip over coffee, play cards or shoot pool.

At first glance, this seems like a typical night out for many people. And, for the members of the deaf community, that’s exactly what it is.

At the coffee bar, a man orders a drink by bringing his hand toward his chin and extending it forward with a “W” shape, the sign for “water.” The karaoke performers are signing along to the music, and their dance steps don’t miss a beat. Occasionally, a hearing performer sings along. But the main form of communication is American Sign Language (ASL), a visual language communicated through handshapes and movements, facial expression and body placement. Though no one is talking, the room is anything but quiet.

Joyce LaHaye, a Baker College tutor, runs the monthly event at the District, a venue in Orion Township. She named it Deaf Night.

It is a place where music helps shatter stereotypes.

“I know it’s a challenge for people in the hearing world, when they have this vision of what it is to be deaf, and how music relates to them,” says LaHaye, who communicates through ASL. “If they are really confused on how or why deaf people like music, I would tell them that it’s through vibration. Deaf people may be close to the speaker, or watch other people and kind of copy the music. Maybe they will sign the lyrics to the song. We can follow whatever rhythms or movements [hearing people] have.”

LaHaye, who has been deaf since she was 3 years old, has always loved music. Her tastes run from country to rap music.

“I grew up hearing music. I’ve gone to concerts,” LaHaye says. “My mother would always explain the count and the rhythm. At any wedding we went to, my mother would dance arm-in-arm with me to ‘My Wild Irish Rose,’ her favorite song. She would always interpret that song for me. My mom passed away a few years ago, so that’s a special song.”

There is a common misconception that deaf people live in a world of silence. Hearing loss can run anywhere from profoundly deaf to hard of hearing. Certain sounds that aren’t distinguishable to some people may be clearer to others.

LaHaye has a little hearing. She listens to a lot of music at home, where she uses her computer and turns the volume on high.

“I have headphones and a small set of speakers,” LaHaye says. “I’ll find a song that has captions. I’ll read along with the song and I think, ‘Wow, that relates to me.’ Sometimes, I get teary-eyed, when I feel that release.”

“Music is a way to be peaceful, to calm my stress,” LaHaye adds. “To relax my mind and my spirit. It’s a way I can give worship. When I feel depressed, I need to make that adjustment with music. It helps me.”

When asked if LaHaye has experienced prejudices regarding music, she hesitates.

“Some people will say, ‘Why do you like music? What does music have to do with you? You’re deaf.’ And I’ll say, ‘Accept it, that’s who I am.’”

Benjamin Houston, a 19-year-old graduate student from Lahser High who is hard of hearing, performs karaoke in ASL to “Where is the Love” by Justin Timberlake and The Black Eyed Peas. While performing, his signs may be held longer, signed quicker, or made bigger to stress certain parts of the songs. Like any language, music can be expressed through sign language too. When he finishes, the people in the crowd put their hands in the air and wave them back and forth to show their approval.

“Growing up, my mom would always listen to music and dance,” says Houston, whose mother is hearing. “I would always ask, ‘What’s the song? What is it saying?’ She would explain the concept to me. So I guess you can say I was born interested.”

Houston has attended Deaf Night since he was 16. It’s common to see him walking around with his headphones on and his MP3 player attached to his hip, blaring Beyoncé or Nicki Minaj.

“I am usually listening to female artists,” Houston says. “I can understand them better. They have a soft but strong voice, while men have rough and loud voices.”

He’s a regular karaoke performer at the District, and says that, like many other deaf people who enjoy music, he uploads videos on YouTube signing along to popular music.

“I love to sign music,” Houston says. “My community needs to be happy as well, not just the hearing people. To those who aren’t aware of our appreciation of music … they should realize that music was made for everyone to enjoy.”

Although Houston is hard of hearing, he labels himself a deaf person. He has grown up around deaf family members, and has been surrounded by the deaf community.

“Deafness is who I am, but it doesn’t define who I am,” Houston says. “In the deaf community, deafness means that we are a minority of the large community … the hearing community.”

Detroit is home to many legendary musicians. That includes Sean Forbes, a name that’s famous in the deaf community and known in many hearing households.

Forbes, a deaf artist and rapper, grew up in Farmington Hills and went to Lahser High. He was surrounded by music at an early age. His father, Scott Forbes, is the guitarist of the award-winning country band the Forbes Bros.

“One of my biggest influences was Johnny ‘Bee,’ the drummer from Mitch Rider and the Detroit Wheels,” says Forbes, referring to John Bananjek. “When I was a kid he always came over my house and showed me how to play drums.”

His music career started to kick off while performing at Rochester Institute of Technology, a college that provides a deaf program.

“There were so many deaf and hard of hearing people there that loved music,” Forbes says. “Music was everywhere. People were blasting it in their cars, in their dorms, in their apartments. You’d go to parties and deaf people would be blasting music.”

Getting his name out there was a challenge. Forbes was used to people telling him no.

“There is prejudice out there,” Forbes says. “People have told me my entire life that I was not going to make it in the music industry, and that only fueled the fire even more. I didn’t sit back and listen to ‘No, no you can’t, Sean, it’s not going to happen. You need to continue college and get a 9-to-5 job.’ I really had to make this happen for myself.”

Forbes’ big break came when he bumped into Joel Martin, Eminem’s publisher, at the Detroit Music Awards. They exchanged emails, and Forbes eventually found himself in Martin’s studio.

“He had a video of myself signing two Eminem songs, ‘Cleaning Out My Closet’ and ‘Lose Yourself,’ Forbes says. “I went over to the studio and Eminem was sitting there with his engineers and his producers. They loved it.”

Martin decided to hire Forbes as an intern at the studio. He helped put Forbes on the map after watching his music video “I’m Deaf,” a song Forbes verbally raps while performing in ASL. Cartoonish lyrics dance across the screen while he rhymes, another visual aspect that makes the music more entertaining for the deaf and hard of hearing. His lyrics are witty and play on his deafness: “I’d rather not hear, rather not listen, I’m the perfect imperfection, never restricted.”

“Just from that one song, I signed a record deal,” Forbes says.

Although Forbes considers himself a musician rather than a rapper, his current projects focus strictly on rap and hip-hop.

“The bass and the drums are the rhythm track of any song,” Forbes says. “With the guitar and singing you have melodies, but to me it’s all about the backbeat. Those are the true things you can feel. The guitar and the piano usually get lost in the mix with me.”

Since he got his start, Forbes has written more than 30 songs and put out six music videos. His recent video “Let’s Mambo” features award-winning actress Marlee Matlin, the first deaf actress to win an Oscar for best actress in a leading role.

“I have met everybody from Ted Nugent to Alice Cooper to Bob Seger. All the important people that have come out of Detroit,” Forbes says. “I met Stevie Wonder at the House of Blues in Los Angeles. Being a deaf musician and meeting a blind musician, it was crazy. Growing up, a lot of the Funk Brothers who were on backing tracks for Motown used to come over to my house. I was talking about all these people with Stevie and I could tell by the look on his face that he was blown away by everything that I knew.”

Forbes continues to make new music and perform live for packed crowds across the country.  He was a featured cast member of  Motor City Rising, a documentary series focusing on the struggles and accomplishments of a group of Detroit artists and creatives, which ran June 1-15 on Ovation TV.

“Music is not something that is heard. It is something that is felt,”

says Forbes. “Music is for everybody.”

A small studio on Nine Mile Road in Ferndale houses the Deaf Professional Arts Network (D-PAN), a nonprofit organization co-founded by Sean Forbes and Joel Martin. D-PAN’s goal is to make music more accessible for the deaf and hard of hearing. Its website, D-PAN.com, provides music videos by deaf performers from around the nation.

Music videos are produced in the studio via a green screen. Performers sign along to popular songs, such as John Mayer’s “Waiting on the World to Change,” and most recently, a video featuring children who are deaf and hard of hearing signing to the White Stripes’ “We Are Going to Be Friends.” There are also several artists that create their own music.

One of artists featured on D-PAN is Nyke Prince, a drummer and songwriter from Los Angeles. She works as a successful model, and is the assistant to celebrity stylist Ken Paves.

Prince was born hearing and became deaf as a kid. She has been a dancer since the age of 3, mainly ballet and hip hop.

“When I would take a dance class, they would actually count out the rhythms,” says Prince, who communicates through a signed video service. “I have a hearing aid, and that’s helped a lot. I’ve always been motivated. I’ve taken speech classes, and they explained the music.”

Later, Prince decided she wanted to learn an instrument. She became interested in the drums.

“I play rock ’n’ roll, because it’s loud,” Prince says. “I try to play drums without the hearing aid. I can feel the vibrations in my chest and I put my feet on the ground and feel the vibrations. There are times I will have to use my hearing aids, like if I’m doing a performance at a live venue. I always look around to make sure that everything works out, and that it’s in sync. It’s not easy.”

Prince eventually met and dated Gil Sharone, the drummer from Stolen Babies. Sharone began to teach Prince how to better hone her skills.

“We did a one-on-one session for about three years,” Prince says. “He was willing to write notes and speak very clearly. That’s why I chose him as a teacher. He was willing to take the time compared to other tutors. Actually, he told me that there are a lot of deaf players that play music that we are not even aware of. Famous pianists, drummers, and so forth … they all have hearing loss.”

Even though Sharone is hearing, Prince insists there were no communication barriers.

“I’ve always made sure hearing people I date know some sign,” Prince says. “I typically date hearing people because the deaf community is very small — you’re always dating someone’s ex.”

Prince has a cochlear implant, a device she says is controversial in the deaf community. This is because the listening device requires major surgery, which can cause complications such as dizziness or tinnitus, to more extreme side effects such as meningitis or seizures. Also, some members of the deaf community believe that the device takes away the identity of a deaf person from deaf culture.

“It was my choice,” Prince says. “I don’t use it very often; I mostly use it when I’m listening to music because it can plug into my iPod. The only thing I can’t hear is background music. Depending on how loud it is, I can only hear chunks of the music. I’ll listen to it when I write, but I can’t hear it clearly. Or, I’ll hook my auxiliary system to my iPod in my car, and I can hear bits of it but I can feel it really well.”

“Was it successful? I guess not,” Prince says. “I’m satisfied with the hearing aspect of the cochlear implant. It did improve a bit. But it was more stressful than I anticipated. It makes me feel a little bit sick at times. It’s overwhelming. I don’t necessarily regret it. But I feel like the world is too loud for me now.”

Nowadays, Prince plays in Los Angeles with an emcee at venues such as the Roxy and Key Klub. She’s even toured with the Queens of the Stone Age and Nine Inch Nails.    

“I taught them some sign,” Prince says. “Everyone was so nice. It was a fabulous experience.”

Prince regularly spent time with Nine Inch Nails in the studio, even playing drums on a few tracks for the Nine Inch Nails album Zero.

“Seeing bands and various artists, music has really become my life,” Prince says.

Although she still plays the drums, she has been focusing on writing and performing ASL music videos for the deaf and hard of hearing. Some of the songs she wrote herself, like the song “Drug,” which can be found on YouTube. In the video, she walks around a dark bedroom holding a rose that she slowly breaks apart. She signs: “You are my only drug that can destroy me, you are the only drug that I cannot have.” It’s the story of a love-hate relationship.

“I feel like there is a lot of music that relates to [deaf people] with hearing songs,” Prince says. “What I want to do is expose the deaf community to all these songs that are out there. I definitely want to help change the music era this year.”

Prince explains there are some members of the deaf community that are offended that deaf people like music. They see it as a form of “trying to be hearing.”

“Some deaf people like it, some don’t like it at all,” said Prince. “It’s either one extreme or the other. That’s what I’m trying to change. We hope that one day, deaf people will be motivated to go to concerts and enjoy it like hearing people do.”

I know the deaf community,” Prince adds. “I’m trying to understand why deaf people don’t enjoy music. I’m a deaf person obviously, and I consider myself completely deaf. I’m not hearing at all, I don’t speak at all. Yet I have a very different perspective. I want deaf people to enjoy music like I do. I’m struggling with that aspect. My hope is that the community doesn’t feel offended, but I’m trying to show them that there is an equality there; it’s a fine line.”

Beethoven’s Nightmare is touted ad the world’s only deaf rock band. Band members include drummer Bob Hiltermann, bassist Ed Chevy and guitarist Steve Longo. The group has held a steady following since the ’80s. They recently played “Downtown Disney” in California’s Disneyland, where more than 3,000 people came to watch, most of whom were hearing.

Guitarist Longo was born deaf. He became interested in music in 1964, when he first saw the Beatles.

“They made the guitar look easy, I thought it might be easy to learn,” Longo says. “My parents bought me a cheap five-dollar guitar at the flea market. I had to read the manual to learn how. I just kept it up, learning about the different parts of the guitar. It was like a drug, playing music. Being addicted to it and not being able to get off.”

Most deaf musicians rely on vibrations to help them keep a steady beat. Longo mastered the guitar mechanically, one of the hardest instruments to tackle for a deaf musician.

“I started with the ABCs of music, the different chords, the basics,” Longo says. “I happened to learn how to do it right. I had to make sure that all the strings were muted.”

Beethoven’s Nightmare fully formed at Gallaudet, a deaf and hard of hearing college in Washington, D.C.

“In early days, we’ve heard of Beethoven’s symphonies,” Longo says. “I believe it was at 33 he had become deaf, and he became angry because he was frustrated with his hearing loss. So he decided to break all the rules and start doing things in his own style. I guess at that point, that’s when he started to write music, and the composition actually became better. I think his hearing loss made him become more creative. He put more of his soul into his music.”

“So in end, we named the band Beethoven’s Nightmare,” Longo adds. “Because that was his nightmare … becoming deaf.”

Their songs range from heavy guitar riffs to lighter rock ’n’ roll jams. Passages of Beethoven’s symphonies can be heard throughout their self-titled album. Drummer Hiltermann performs vocals on some of the tracks. Their live performances typically incorporate ASL performers who sign and dance along to the music.

“That also helps the deaf audience, it brings that visual aspect,” said Longo. “But we have a lot of heavy low-end bass instruments. That way, it really goes through the subwoofers. That helps the deaf people to really feel the music.”

The rockers don’t have issues staying in sync.

“I have a drum machine; it helps me keep everything in rhythm,” Longo says. “As far as hearing the music, the instrument, the tune, I can understand that. I make sure that we’re not out of key. I do have some hearing, but it’s not enough to hear a voice.”

Many of the songs, such as “Crashing Out,” deal with oppression, something that band members can all relate to.

“It’s a general description of what we all go through,” Longo says. “You can be deaf and you can experience audism [the belief that those who are able to hear or speak are superior], you can be handicapped and you can experience oppression. It covers all walks of life. People who are gay have to deal with it, women have to deal with it. In the track, there’s a lot of drums, a lot of symbols. It’s almost like you’re breaking down the walls that have been created. That’s really our goal.”

Longo has also had issues with hearing friends and members of the deaf community regarding his music.

“My parents don’t think I should be doing music,” said Longo. “My teachers, my friends [hearing and deaf] tell me that I shouldn’t be doing music. And I think we’re proving them wrong.”

Beethoven’s Nightmare will be making an appearance in a film called Deaf Ghost which will be out in 2013. The director and many of the crewmembers are also deaf. The lead actor will be singing with Beethoven’s Nightmare in a club scene.

Perhaps the most well known deaf performer is Evelyn Glennie, a Scottish solo percussionist who has won a Grammy and more than 80 international awards, packed hundreds of sold-out concert halls, and collaborated with superstars Björk and Sting. She’s a multi-instrumentalist who says she can play more than 1,800 instruments.

Glennie has been deaf for the majority of her life, communicating through speech and lipreading. Glennie, speaking on the phone as her schedule coordinator mouths the words to her, explains that deaf people experience vibration in an area of the brain that is used for hearing.

“You can also distribute the sound throughout the whole body rather than just the ear,” Glennie says. “Lower sounds can be felt in a lower part of your body and higher sounds can be felt in a higher part of your body. If you think of the body as a resonating chamber, it’s something that we can all do.”

Glennie says she performs in bare feet to better feel the vibrations. 

Glennie is used to often being questioned about her deafness rather than her music.

“As human beings, we all think that if you try to categorize something, it makes things simpler, when, in actual fact, it can make things a lot more complicated,” Glennie says.

In response to questions about her hearing ability, she has written an article about it on her website that she cleverly titled “Hearing Essay.”

“I hope that the audience will be stimulated by what I have to say (through the language of music) and will therefore leave the concert hall feeling entertained,” Glennie writes. “If the audience is instead only wondering how a deaf musician can play percussion then I have failed as a musician.”

“My hearing is something that bothers other people far more than it bothers me,” Glennie adds. “There are a couple of inconveniences, but in general it doesn’t affect my life much. My deafness is no more important than the fact I am female with brown eyes. Sure, I sometimes have to find solutions to problems related to my hearing and music, but so do all musicians. Most of us know very little about hearing, even though we do it all the time. Likewise, I don’t know very much about deafness. What’s more, I’m not particularly interested. I remember one occasion when I became upset with a reporter for constantly asking questions only about my deafness. I said: ‘If you want to know about deafness, you should interview an audiologist. My specialty is music.’”

Back in metro Detroit, the crowd at the District packs into the music hall to watch Altered Paradigm, a self-described hard rock band whose guitar riffs and drum solos are accentuated by the massive and numerous bass speakers that surround the stage, causing the floor to rattle from the intensity of the vibrations.

The ASL interpreter signs along to the music, her vigorous signs and facial expressions reflecting the high vocals and thrashing movements of the lead singer.

“Music is visual and vibrant,” explains 31-year-old West Bloomfield native Artur Pinkhasov. “To the hearing community it is all about lyrics and what message you are delivering. To the deaf, it is visual — the facial expressions, the movements and feeling the beats. That’s the true meaning to music.”

A mix of hearing, deaf and hard of hearing people, some in the crowd clap in time to the beat — others sign along to the music.

Although everyone in the room interprets the music differently — music is enjoyed by all.

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