The art of breaking down sound barriers

Neil Merrick

Neil Merrick reports on a musical workshop for people with learning difficulties and disabilities.

It started with a short African chant. Then three people began drumming in one corner of the room. Gradually others joined in using a range of drums and other percussion instruments until the steady rhythm built into a captivating frenzy.

Many eyes strayed towards Tanzanian singer and musician Hukwe Zawose. In spite of speaking little English, he was leading the workshop for further education students and adults with learning difficulties and disabilities organised by the Beatroots Community Project in Reading.

Many learnt by simply following the person next to them. After five or ten minutes (somehow time takes on a different dimension in African music), project co-ordinator Gavin Lombos called a halt to the drumming by counting to four and then waving his hand.

The music stopped and the 15-strong group returned to their original chant.

Workshops are being held throughout the south of England following the successful performance at the World of Music Arts and Dance (WOMAD) festival held in Reading this summer. During the next six months, Beatroots is extending the workshops to include physically-able young people as well as disabled people.

Project organisers are eager that many of the people who took part in the summer workshops and who mostly attend daycare centres return this autumn. Some of the forthcoming sessions will be led by students from the music workshop skills course run at Goldsmiths College, London.

"Once you start attending a daycare centre, pretty soon the only people you meet are people coming out of the mental health system or other people with disabilities," said Mr Lombos, who lectures at Goldsmiths College. "It's very difficult for these people to consume mainstream music by going to gigs. "

The aim of the workshops is to make the learning of music as non-threatening as possible. "People can come along and don't have to explain themselves, " he said. "They can take part and learn at their own pace."

The summer workshops had shown how music can be a means of communication for people with special education needs. Hukwe Zawose, who teaches at the national college of arts in Tanzania, explained how people could improve their skills through practical demonstrations.

Speaking later through a translator he said it was the first time he had worked with people with such a range of disabilities.

He said: "We introduced them to a range of cultures which is something they rarely get the chance to experience."

Mr Zawose accompanied the drums on a chizeze, a small string instrument which is played using a harp-shaped bow. The language barrier was not a problem. "I feel I can teach anybody with eyes and ears," he said.

Gavin Lombos said Beatroots had been looking for an artist whose skill or art-form was something which people who did not normally play music could relate to fairly quickly.

"Hukwe manages to communicate through singing and making gestures," said Mr Lombos. "There was one hour when nobody spoke a word to one another and he just pointed everything out."

About half of the group who participated in the summer workshops attend the Westmead Centre in Reading where adults with physical handicaps are helped to prepare for work. The rehabilitation centre runs a range of vocational and other courses.

"It mixes job training with the pleasure of doing arts and crafts," said Richard Spencer, who has an artificial leg. He agreed the summer workshops, which were also attended by people from Reading's MIND group, had provided disabled people with a rare opportunity.

"It was phenomenal. Disabled people don't normally have the chance to do this kind of thing," he said. "Yet nine times out of ten physically-impaired people are able to sing while verbally-impaired people can join in with percussion. It catered for everybody."

Although the workshops do not lead to any set qualification, students who want to pursue recognised qualifications later are offered full support.

The autumn term sessions, which encourage full integration between disabled and physically-able people, focus on samba music.

Although most popular in South America, samba draws upon African rhythms and even incorporates European military styles.

"There is more emphasis on being quite precise with playing," explained Gavin Lombos.

"There is less scope for improvisation. You have to learn specific rhythms for specific instruments."

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