Recently, I came across an article about an Egyptian orchestra made up solely of blind women musicians.
The group has been active since the 1960s, branching out from the Al Nour Wal Amal Association – Al Nour Wal Amal, meaning “Light and Hope.” Stories about the group have been picked up by The New Yorker and National Public Radio (NPR). In 2008, Amal Fikri, president of the Association, shared an interview with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) before one of the group’s concerts (Note: the UNESCO website spells the organization as “El,” rather than “Al” as it is found in other reports).
I wondered if there were more groups like this one – groups made up exclusively of blind musicians. After all, my job is based on the need to provide music to thousands of visually impaired and disabled American residents and citizens living abroad.
The Al Nour Wal Amal organization, and consequently its orchestra, stands apart in its mission, which is to protect the human rights of the women it embraces. However, the concept of completely blind and visually impaired performance groups are more common than one may think.
Classical Indian sitar player, Baluji Shrivastav, leads the United Kingdom based group, Inner Vision Orchestra. Baluiji has been blind since infancy. He’s performed with fan favorites like Stevie Wonder and Coldplay, founded the Baluji Music Foundation, and become a notable performer in his own right.
Carnegie Hall recently hosted the Korean Traditional Music Orchestra of the Blind in early 2014.
Five-time Grammy award winning group, The Blind Boys of Alabama, regularly perform across the United States. Rooted in a tradition of gospel singing, members are Lifetime Achievement Award winners by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS) and the National Endowment of Arts. The group performed at the Library in Spring 2002, as quoted in a Library news release, “fresh from their Grammy win.”
And, what about school groups? Schools for the blind have bands, orchestras, choral groups, and more. In pursuit of more information, I wandered over a few cubicles to visit my Music Section neighbor, Gilbert, for an impromptu Q & A. I knew Gilbert attended a school for the blind when he was younger.
In his experience, he joined a choral group in first grade. Most students who participated were completely blind, but also included those with low vision. His school also had a concert band, a jazz combo and jazz band, and barbershop quartets. Annual music festivals took place when six to seven schools for the blind came together; their ensembles performed for one another. In the end, the public was invited to hear a concert with students from each of the schools performing together as a coordinated group. Gilbert remembers being a member in one of the choirs, performing Bach’s Magnificat.
It would be good to expand on this topic in the future, and discuss the intricacies of performance practices among visually impaired and blind music groups. What role does a conductor play in leading a group that relies heavily on listening? What are some of their techniques? Also, I would like to discuss groups like these that are active today. Maybe we have some readers right now who are performers in their schools? Let us know; we love to know what our patrons do with music.
When we think of famous blind musicians, individuals usually come to mind, and we have mentioned some on this blog. When I came across information about ensembles of blind musicians, it showcased the power of music as a universal language. And the Music Section enjoys being a part of making music accessible.