Author: Benjamin Bruel
Translation: Alex Menu-Kerforn & Fanny Rousselot-Viallet
Photo credit: Deaf Rave
In this flat located in Hackney, in the suburbs of London, there are always some vinyls scattered all over the floor, on the walls, on the shelves. You can find old drum and bass vinyls, reggae and a lot of jungle music. Troi “DJ Chinaman” Lee can hardly stop playing with his new mixing deck, which takes pride of place in front of him like a totem, in the middle of the room. “I’m having a blast with this new gear,” he says with a smile, in that North East London accent. “I don’t really have time to vibe right now because I am finishing up a big project for Deaf Rave.”
Troi was born deaf. “I think that was caused by a lack of oxygen when I was in my mom’s belly. I grew up with hearing aids,” he continues. He grew up with music also, a lot of music. Anyone who has ever set foot in the East End of London knows about its buzzing cultures, smells and sounds often hailing from Jamaica and Africa. Some of London’s first raves were held in this mosaic of graffiti and parks.
“I did my first rave just next door, in Dalston, behind a disused warehouse, on New Year’s Eve. That’s how I started to really love and want to make music. That became my pastime, I would go there every weekend, every month, to listen to jungle music,” he explains. Back then, in the late 1990s, London’s deaf community used to meet in a pub once a month. “After the party, I would say: ‘What are you up to? Come on, let’s go to a rave!’. They replied to me: ‘No, that’s for people who can hear. We don’t go there.’ Music was not part of their culture, you see.”
Breaking free from the limits
In 2003, a few years after his first experiences in Dalston, Troi Lee created Deaf Rave, the world’s first rave for deaf and hard of hearing people. Seven hundred tickets were sold in two months, and more than two hundred deaf people from all over the world came to Hackney. Since then, Deaf Rave has become the first and, unfortunately, the only organization in Europe to organize raves dedicated to deaf and hard of hearing people. Two or three times a year, in the UK, Deaf Rave parties bring together DJs, dancers, singers or sign language rappers.
Deaf people can feel the sound. In their feet, in their bodies, in their ears. They can feel the beat through the waves of vibrations released by the music. The different types of deafness relate to music differently. “Half of the deaf community enjoys music thanks to technology, just like me. The other half is there because it’s a place to socialize. People come and go. I’ve lost count of the number of couples who have been created there. But we continue to offer them a safe place,” the DJ adds.
Technology is a key issue because it allows people to break free from the limits – those between music and people but also between the deaf, the hard of hearing and the hearing people. The most famous device is called SUBPAC: it is a “backpack” created by the company of the same name, and it literally gives the impression of feeling a wall of bass on your chest. SUBPAC was initially created for immersive video game experiences or for sound designers, and the deaf community has seized on the object to better dance and rave.
Another company is trying to go beyond the limits of music: Not Impossible Labs is a sort of incubator of crazy ideas created by film producer Mick Ebeling. “Not Impossible Labs” also conceived its own backpack which has already been tested during the Life is Beautiful Festival in Las Vegas. “Half of the audience is deaf, the other half is hearing. They do not know how the device they are wearing is working, but once the music begins, they will all be able to share the same experience. This is how you create musical equality,” explains the producer in a presentation video of the project.
Dancing, living and investing the place
The problem with these technologies is their price and their availability: a SUBPAC costs 400 euros and Not Impossible Labs does not plan to make it available to the general public. At the time of COVID-19 and of closed venues, how is it possible to break down the musical boundaries between the world of the hearing people and the world of people with hearing loss?
For Deaf Rave, 2020 was to be the year of the confirmation. Following a first outdoor festival, two other big events had been scheduled to take place alongside workshops and booking in mainstream festivals – but the pandemic decided otherwise. The first “Online Deaf Rave” finally took place online, last summer. That was a blessing in disguise: thanks to internet streaming concerts compelled by circumstances, Deaf Rave brought together artists from 16 different countries. Among them were finger dancer Andrey Dragunov from Russia, English comedian and actor Danny Skit, dancer Signkid or Alex The Magician. Those deaf or hard of hearing artists gathered about 15 000 people during a two-hour live performance and introduced them to a vibrant culture.
A second event is scheduled for this summer, with the hope to be back on stage, on all stages, for everybody.“Just give us the platform, we go onto the stage and show the hearing world what the deaf culture looks like,” concludes Troi Lee.
About the author:
Benjamin Bruel is an independent journalist. He works in the field of new technologies and their inclusion in society and people’s lives. He’s also interested in music and video games.