Shattering the myth of deafness and music
Last Updated on December 3, 2006, 12:00 am
By Margaret Oganda
It is a few minutes to eight on a Friday, time for the morning assembly. A familiar scene replays itself in the school compound as 180 primary school pupils stroll slowly towards the flag post from all directions, outside the main school office block.
Well-trimmed hedges border the dusty open ground opposite the school-dining hall.
It is a bright morning as gentle rays of sunlight thaw the early morning chill, where they routinely gather twice per week for the morning assembly, or parade.
A few pupils walk alone, and others amble along in clusters for the usual weekly student presentations, Scout drills, flag-raising, as well as updates from the headmaster and teachers.
It’s a quiet place, too quiet to be a school. This is Machakos School for the Deaf, a school exclusively for the hearing impaired situated in Machakos District, close to the town centre, on Industrial Area Road.
Integration of sound and movement
Here, all the conversation and animated ‘talk’ between the staff and pupils is carried out entirely in sign language.
As the flag is raised, it is time to sing the Kenya national anthem. Surprise, surprise! They belt out the tune: "O God of all creation, bless this our land and nation, justice be our shield and defender…." The pupils sing their hearts out without skipping a line or losing tempo, except it’s all in silence.
Led by a member of staff, the pupils, who are both deaf and dumb or hard of hearing, join in to sing as they sway to a song they will never hear.
More surprises to come: The deaf pupils regularly participate in singing, dancing, recite poems, and even play instruments. And they have won many trophies.
How do they do it? The unique way that the hearing impaired integrate sound and movement mystifies many ordinary people, who often say they baffled by the fact that those who cannot hear can relate to sound, giving captivating performances.
Deaf people sense vibration in the brain
It is now known that totally deaf people feel vibrations if they stand next to speakers, or stand on a floor that vibrates. The deaf sing using types of music that are not based on sound.
One approach is to use sign-language based singing, or presentations that employ moving light patterns formed with the fingers and hand.
Some deaf people even develop an inner rhythm, which enables them to dance to music even if they do not hear the music.
In a presentation, Dr Dean Shibata, assistant professor of radiology at the University of Washington, observed that deaf people sense vibration in the part of the brain that other people use for hearing, which helps explain how deaf musicians can sense music, and how deaf people can enjoy concerts and other musical events and how some become performers.
Did you know that one of the greatest composers of all time, Ludwig Van Beethoven, developed hearing loss when he was 28 and became totally deaf at 50? Yet during that period, he came up with some of his most loved compositions like Symphony No 9.
Scooping top prize at the national level
Shawn Dale Barnett, an American, born totally deaf, grew up with a keen interest in music but was discouraged when attending a deaf school.
Despite being told deafness would keep him from being a success, he later became one of the first professional deaf drummers and was the first deaf man to have a top hit on MTV.
Of his performances, he said, "I go by feeling the vibrations in one way or another." He died of cancer in 2003.
Since the inception in the Kenya Music Festival of class 831H, the African Traditional Dance for the Hearing Impaired, the pupils from Machakos School for the Deaf have been scooping the top prize at the national level.
They have also received invitations to perform at state functions.
They specialise in a riveting showcase of the Kamba kilumi dance, which according to ancient folklore was one of worship, performed to appease ancestral spirits. The drummer pounds expertly on the kithembe drum, which has a particularly sonorous sound, especially after being warmed by a fire.
To sing and dance with no sound
The deaf pupils are caught up in this vigorous dance and the resounding beats. With their purple and white attire and striking face paint, they participate in well-synchronised movements that beat what most ordinary people can do.
"Our pupils move to the beat and rhythm of the music, as they sense the vibrations in the chest and in their feet, which is why in our case we use the kithembe drum that resonates well as opposed to smaller drums," explains Dorothy Mutinda, who has been teaching hearing impaired students dance and drama for the last ten years.
"They dance flawlessly and when we go out to perform, many people come to ask me if they are really deaf. They also play instruments like drums, tambourines, and assorted shakers like the maracas."
Mutinda has taught them not only how to perform dances for the national music festival but also regularly meets with members of the Christian Union (CU) to teach them songs which they "sign sing" during their meetings.
"When I learn a new song that I enjoy on my own, I come to school and call together the members of the CU. I sing it for them and demonstrate the signs, and actions for them clearly. I also sing it aloud a few times for them even though they do not hear me. They can see the movements that I make with my mouth that go with the words, and how fast or slow the tune is by the way I sway as I sing," she says.
Those with PLD find it easier to lip-read
Some of the students, Mutinda says, learn it faster than others because they have post-lingual deafness (PLD), which is a term applied to people who have acquired deafness after they have been able to speak, maybe through an illness, such as an ear infection, oteosclerosis, or meningitis which may cause inflammation of the inner ear. "Those with PLD find it easier to lip-read and pick up some of the words," she says.
"Often, I write the words on the blackboard so that they can grasp the meaning quickly to follow and understand the meaning of the song. Afterwards, I ask them to sing along with me, line after line until they can sing it themselves without my assistance," she says.
One of the Christian choruses the pupils enjoy singing is "This is my commandment that you love one another that your joy may be full…."
Mutinda also teaches the pupils poems in signs, the most recent one being an English verse titled "Eradicate Aids".
It is time for me to know,
I must know about Aids,
Please tell me,
Tell me all about Aids...
Soloist leads her troupe by brandishing a flywhisk
Explaining in sign language through an interpreter, some of the pupils speak about their experience in music and dance. Munyiva Mbithi, who has been dancing for the last five years, is the main soloist of the kilumi dance, and leads her troupe by brandishing a flywhisk in her hand.
"Without the help of a hearing aid, I can pick up only very faint sounds that sound very distant, so I rely on the steps that my teacher has taught me, and I lead the other dances with their movements using the flywhisk, which I point in the directions that I want them to move. The flywhisk also tells them when to change their steps," she says, adding that dancing is one of the things that she enjoys the most while in school.
"I have been taking part in Scottish, Ugandan and Kamba dances since I was in Class Three," says Mutheu Makau, a Class Eight pupil.
"I sense the loud beat of the drum in my body, and respond to it with movements, and I also follow the instructions of the soloist very carefully."
Instrumentalist learnt how to play the drums
Ndolo Mutiso takes part in the dances as well as drama and poems.
"I enjoy verse speaking and singing religious songs; that is why my ambition is to be a pastor when I grow up."
His friend Zablon Kengara has acted in several school plays.
"I enjoy taking part in drama especially when it carries an important message, like teachings about HIV/Aids."
Kasiva Wambua is the school’s main instrumentalist and started to take part in drama and music several years ago. "My teacher has taught me how to play the drums and the shakers, but now I would like to learn how to blow a whistle as we dance. During our dances I follow the flywhisk and that is how I know when to play and when to change the beat."