CULTURE

Deaf musical artists lead a collaborative karaoke performance

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In Hear! Here!, an interactive performance/gathering in the Karnabal Festival, deaf artists lead dances, poetry presentations, and even a karaoke sing-along, as they debunk stereotypes on what differently-abled people can create. Illustration by JL JAVIER; photo from B. RELUCIO

Manila (CNN Philippines) — It began with a simple question: Paano mag-karaoke ang bingi?

It’s a valid query which, although silly at first, cuts through several realities in the country. The question was posed by James Harvey Estrada, an artistic director for Scenius Pro., a contemporary performance collective. After several years, it would eventually lead him to create Hear! Here!, an interactive performance/gathering at the recently concluded Karnabal Festival in Quezon City. There was still karaoke involved.

The gathering was held at My Children’s House of Hope in Litex, Commonwealth, a school for the deaf. It started with the singing of the national anthem which took most of the audience by surprise. It’s not everyday you see “Lupang Hinirang” sung through motion. “Alam nating lahat ‘yung kanta, pero may realization na sa ibang language siya kinakanta. It feels foreign dahil ‘di mo maintindihan exactly ‘yung motions pero lahat pa rin tayo Filipino,” Estrada says. This play on differences and commonalities would set the tone for the entire experience.

The deaf fit stereotyped roles in television shows and movies. They’re mostly oppressed, a source of pity, something meant to trigger an emotional response. For performances, they’re often directed and rarely dictate the performance. This is what Estrada and his group are trying to change or at least shine light on.

The essence of the Hear, Here! is that everyone, deaf and hearing alike, should be performing with each other and for each other.

“We wanted to create a safe space where these two communities [the hearing and non-hearing] who don’t usually interact with one another can be creative and create something together,” says Estrada. Hear! Here! brings these two groups together to debunk stereotypes — that not everyone is out to take advantage of people who can’t hear and that the deaf, too, can create something we maybe thought they couldn’t.

For this year’s performance, there were 18 members of the audience and 18 deaf performers. “We wanted to have an equal number of hearing and deaf participants,” says Estrada. “Last year, mas maraming hearing. It was a test run, actually.” Also held at Karnabal in 2016, the first run had more hearing-abled attendees, which made it seem like the deaf are performing for those who can hear, when the essence of the gathering is that everyone should be performing with each other and for each other.

This year’s first activity was introductions. Each audience member was partnered with a deaf performer. “There were no interpreters, we leave it to them to discover ways to communicate,” says Estrada. Left to their own devices, most of them ended up using their actual devices: phones became the platform for conversation mixed in with universal gestures.

Not being able to hear means you value listening more. Not being able to hear means you block out voices that can instill doubt or hesitation.

The deaf communities have their own culture, necessitated by the difficulty that comes from interacting with them. Apart from being a minority due to their disability, syntax is also challenging for deaf communities, especially with American Sign Language (like “me punta doon”). This creates a wariness in them, especially when approached by people outside their community. Thus, when Estrada initially tried collaborating with deaf communities, they were hesitant, thinking that the group would take advantage.

Eventually, they would find willing collaborators and started working with My Children’s House of Hope. The ensemble went through a series of meetings to plan and rehearse. These, too, carried the concept of equality. Scenius Pro. had deaf artists that would join the meetings. To balance out the discussions, whenever someone from the school would talk, everyone would listen. “We would go every other day. Mas mahirap siya because you’re not in your comfort zone, wala ka sa studio. ‘Yung rehearsal mo ‘yung totoong buhay ng community. Para na siyang immersion and research combined,” Estrada says. Planning was painstaking as the group would rehearse one day and find issues the next, which would change the plan. Nevertheless, the team pushed through with their decision to work with the school.

Hear! Here! brings these two groups together to debunk stereotypes — that not everyone is out to take advantage of people who can’t hear and that the deaf, too, can create something we maybe thought they couldn’t.

After the introductions, each pair was tasked to create a decoration piece, then a presentation to the rest of the groups. The act highlighted the concept of connecting two communities that are estranged from each other. The simple act of creating something tangible and intangible opened opportunities, or at the very least, notions of possibilities.

The result, at least from the eyes of someone who can hear, was interesting. Poems were timed to hands moving with diction. Dances were accented with sign language, which was unique from the rest of the body’s movement. And, on this year’s initial run, the famous Filipino love for karaoke lived on, with its very own brand for the deaf called Sing-Sign-Along. “What struck me the most was when nakita ko ‘yung ibang deaf performers, sila pa ‘yung mas ganado, sila pa ‘yung mas nakikinig,” Estrada says. He’s right. Not being able to hear means you value listening more. Not being able to hear means you block out voices that can instill doubt or hesitation. There’s a lot we can learn for them.

“We wanted to create a safe space where these two communities [the hearing and non-hearing] who don’t usually interact with one another can be creative and create something together,” says James Harvey Estrada.

After all the performances, the entire group celebrated with a Zumba class which was followed by a small meal. Afterwards, there was a short talkback, just to get insights from both the participants and the performers. When asked how they communicated, one audience member remarked, “Minsan tignan mo lang ang partner mo sa mata, magkakaintindihan na kayo.

While that specific pair seems to have hit it off, there’s still a long way to go, which is why Hear! Here! is a continuous process of bridging together the two communities. Although we haven’t really answered the question how deaf people sing at karaokes, it feels like we’re headed in the right direction.