Keeping my ear to the ground: On getting music lessons at a ‘deaf rave’

It has been spectacularly enlightening to discover that I could learn more about the nature of sound from those who cannot hear than from anyone else.

12 December 2014

National Post

I am a creature of sound. I grew up in the music industry, and during my day job as a freelance writer, I’m rarely without my headphones and constant access to my Rdio account. Walking down the street, I frequently walk into telephone polls and bruise myself because I’m too busy paying attention to the noises emanating from my headphones, visually oblivious to the world around me.

It has therefore been spectacularly enlightening to discover that I could learn more about the nature of sound from those who cannot hear than from anyone else.

Deaf people, it might surprise you, can love music just as much as hearing people, and in fact “deaf raves” have existed for years. Because the deaf experience music through physical vibrations and not through their ears, these parties are — you can imagine — extremely loud and bass heavy.

They are also exclusive, and not the most friendly environment for hearing people. Many deaf people can be hostile toward the hearing, as they have spent their entire lives being treated like they are disabled when they much feel like they aren’t. The main reason for this, says drummer, promoter and acrobat Jacob Casselden, is linguistic.

“Sadly, I do feel disabled at times because a language barrier exists,” he says. “It is sad to look at the history of the deaf where the community were treated as though they are not vital in the society. Deaf people have, for example, been excluded from nightclubs because the signing looked ‘retarded.’ Things are being changed, but language is still a huge issue.”

I first became familiar with the deaf culture surrounding music in 2011, when I attended an event called Sencity — raves intended to break down the barriers between the hearing and the deaf. Founded in the Netherlands 10 years ago, the parties create multi-sensory environments that bring music alive to all your senses, including a vibrating dance floor that pulses in time to the beats.

I met Casselden earlier this year at a meeting of the Sencity producers. He made an observation that I never would have known about if it were not for befriending the deaf: the lips of North Americans move differently to those of Brits. Our upper lips are immobile in comparison, turns out.

“Your upper lip doesn’t work,” he said.

“I believe you will find, sir, that all my ex-boyfriends would disagree,” I retorted.

He laughed heartily. We’ve been fast friends ever since.

Casselden still struggles to lip-read me. When necessary, he throttles my throat: by sensing the vibrations in my esophagus he discerns my words. It’s impressive. I do, however, have to inform those around us that he’s trying to speak to me, rather than assault me, lest they worry.

From our first encounter, Casselden has impressed and astonished me. So sensitive is he to the physical experience of vibrations, he can feel the soft clapping of a child sitting 30 feet away. Of course, Casselden is hyper-musical for a deaf person, thanks to the fact that his parents gave him music lessons from a young age because they felt it would help him to socialize with the hearing world — and prevent him from feeling excluded from society the way so many deaf people are.

As I became friends with the broader deaf crew of kids who were putting Sencity together, I became more enamoured with their culture — and their language in particular. I’m a writer and a great lover of words, and the complexity and art involved in sign language is unbelievable.

“When I took a course in sign language at university, I became instantly hooked,” says Laura Gemma Brown, an informal deaf interpreter and a social worker with the deaf in London. “The language is so adaptable, and I love how many sign words there can be for one English word: there are six words for ‘toilet’, and I believe the record is 22 for ‘purple.’ Moreover, there is a depth of interaction in the way they communicate, because in sign you have to be face to face with somebody to speak to them — it’s more personal.”

Perhaps what I love the most about the deaf crew, however, is their brazen attitude toward life. Every member of the gang I met seemed to grab life by the throat — and not take guff from anyone. It seems that for many of them, being treated as though they are disabled their entire lives has left them with a refusal to ever be kept down.

Casselden remains one of my best friends, and in many ways, he’s one of my favourite people in the universe. This summer at a music festival called the Secret Garden Party, I implored him to help me understand what music feels like for him — we had talked about music for months but had never enjoyed it together. He stuffed my ears full of paper napkins — and then shoved my head into the bass bin of the speaker. The rattling of the sound waves through my skull was eye-opening.

We now go clubbing all the time. Nobody has ever been more fun to rave with. And yet he can’t hear a thing.