Kenya: City Music Producer Helps the Deaf 'Listen' to Songs

18 November 2020

We all enjoy music. We love its different genres, satisfying the fluctuating tastes and preferences of diverse listeners, and watchers. Music is sweet, it gladdens the heart.

Now take a pause. Whenever you listen to your favourite song, have you ever wondered the plight of the hearing-impaired who cannot?

This concern is what propelled Collins Mutindi, 33, to his career as a music and video producer for the hearing-impaired people.

One night four years ago, he was stranded at the Kencom bus stop in Nairobi after finishing his part-time job as a DJ at a club in Westlands. It was past midnight and he ruled out getting back home to Dandora Phase 5 safely.

He slept at the bus stop. But he had to inform his wife, Jane Iguri, about his change of plans, yet he didn't have a phone. It so happened that the lone payphone operator - popular as "simu ya jamii" - was open.

Deaf phone operator

The vendor, however, was deaf. While it was easy to signal that he wanted to make a call, the harder task was to inform the vendor he was broke and had nowhere to sleep. The operator gestured furiously for a few seconds, and as if on cue, a group of about five other deaf people appeared.

They were all small scale traders at the now deserted bus stop, their target market was the long-distance travellers pouring in every now and then from Nyanza, western and Coast regions. Their nights were fairly busy. Dusting a place for him and offering him a blanket, one of the traders welcomed Mutindi for the night. The bed was a flattened carton box and a thin sheet. The bedroom was right under the stand where the trader sold his wares - sweets, juice, bottled water and biscuits.

The night was one of the most peaceful Mutindi ever had. What moved him was not just their kindness, but the willingness with which the help was offered. Whenever the large screen mounted on one of the buildings in the area brightened the skies, they would all get excited. They tugged at Mutindi furiously whenever a motion picture appeared on the screen. He was puzzled by this behaviour.

Eureka moment

After a while, he understood that they wanted him to explain what was happening in the video. That reality hit him like a thunderbolt. How had he never thought of that simple matter staring at him? He had always wanted to join the entertainment industry, but had never thought of where exactly he would fit in. This was it - his eureka moment. He was going to come up with entertainment content that would be friendly to the deaf.

A tiny community of the hearing impaired, hurdled together in the cold, praying for dawn to arrive swiftly, changed Mutindi's life.

Working at Vigilance House under the tutelage of a senior police officer, Mutindi started gathering his tools of work. A sound system, a laptop, video editing software and audio recording equipment.

Armed with a stable internet connection, the enthusiastic producer started learning the Kenyan sign language. When a sign became too complex, he would resort to YouTube lessons and perfect it. It took him almost a year to gain proficiency in signing. He then launched Mutindi Productions.

Three years later, his hard work is paying off. He has a full crew, including a voice over artiste, a videographer, a sign language interpreter and one permanent hearing-impaired artiste.

When the Nation visited him, we found the entire crew on his sofa at his flat in Dagoretti, going over a new song that they were to shoot the next day.

The interpreter, Barbara Wambui, was seated close to the artiste, Gloria Wanjiku. Her role is a daunting one, but with grace and cheerfulness, Barbara patiently takes Gloria through the lyrics. Over and over, they converse in erratic hand gestures and movements accompanied by muted giggles and shrieks. They are happy, their connection deep and visceral. Surprisingly, it is Wanjiku who has taught her interpreter how to use sign language. They have been neighbours since childhood and their friendship has only got better over time.

Internet tutorials

As they do so, the producer, Mutindi, and his wife, who is one of the voice-over artistes, keep repeating the song in the background. They pick out words that are difficult for the interpreter to sign. They note them and turn to the internet where they quickly learn how to interrupt the dynamic duo and teach them what they have learnt.

"It is challenging at times, especially when we find words that are not commonly used. At times we use a mobile app for sign language but when a difficult word is not captured in the app, we resort to the internet for tutorials," Mutindi said.

In this particular session, the word 'declare' was quite hard to sign as the terms often used are speak, tell and say, the other troubling word was 'celebrate,' which is often confused with rejoice.

Despite the passing of the law that a sign language interpreter be part of the news on television, Mutindi believes that much more can be done for those with hearing impairment.

"Look at the shows, concerts, sports such as football, political rallies, advertisements and many other broadcast programmes that do not have sign language interpreters. There is an entire population of people abled differently that are left out every single day. Much more can be done," he said.

An hour later, the preparation session was done, it was now time to go to the studio -- in the producer's bedroom -- an unusual location for a business that draws different kinds of clients who come in large numbers at times.

The decision to use the bedroom as a studio was not a hard one for the couple after thieves broke into their previous rented studio and stole all their equipment.

"Other than insecurity, the studio invited many idlers, who, having no business to do and no desire to work with us, would come and sit there the whole day. At least now a client has to book an appointment before coming," the producer explained.

Mutindi was inspired by famous DJs and producers including DJ Khalid, Dr Dre, Aftermath and Will Smith who have adopted the idea of having their studios in their bedrooms. He has no specific time for working as he can wake up in the middle of the night and edit videos. The tranquillity of the early morning also comes as a boost.

Swiftly, Mutindi switched on the work machines and set up. The videographer, Julliet Owino, also propped her camera, the new song, "There is none like you", was already humming in the background. Before they began, Gloria signalled something and the music stopped. She explained that she wanted to do her favourite song, but the internet connection was poor, and the song, which was uploaded on YouTube, could not be accessed.

Jerusalema

The spirit in the room dampened, nothing seemed to be working out. Suddenly, Barbara had an idea. Everyone agreed with it and like a small army, the entire team marched outside. The popular hit song, "Jerusalema" was the idea. The crew had, at the height of the song's popularity, done a full signing of the song and even had a competition.

Like a hungry tiger that has chanced upon an unaware deer, Gloria pounced on the idea. With gusto, she directed Barbara, her interpreter to search for the song's lyrics.

When the beats began, Gloria closed her eyes, synced with the vibrations and opened her eyes, focusing on the phone held by Barbara to read the lyrics. Interestingly, she began the song at the exact moment the audio started, her mind tuned to the rhythm. Swinging her legs and waist, she maintained stable signing with her hands, a technique that Mutindi said was not as easy as it seemed.

Later, the producer revealed that Gloria is not just a sign language singer, she is also the graphic designer for the crew.

"Through music, Gloria is discovering her inner abilities. She is keen with production, but since she cannot hear, I have taught her to use the Photoshop application so that she can comfortably design our posters, logos and even come up with graphics for our work," he explained.

She has also expressed interest in camera work. However, terminologies used in operating cameras such as zooming, ISO, effects and dimming at times are difficult to communicate.

"Whenever we get stuck, we try our best to use the layman language to explain and she quickly gets what we are trying to tell her and she teaches us the exact signs to use. We are all students in this industry. She is our major referral point when we are uncertain," Mutindi's wife, Jane, said.

Many other hearing-impaired clients have been coming to Mutindi Productions to create their music. However, not all with the disability have gone to school, and they cannot understand the standard sign language.

"When we get clients who have not been to the sign language school, the project takes longer because we first have to teach them how to sign and it is not an easy task," Mutindi said.

Despite the challenges they encounter in their work, the couple is enthusiastic that the future is going to incorporate all people even those abled differently. Other than music, Jane posts motivational pieces on their YouTube channel -- Jane Iguri.

All they want is a society that meets the needs of every person regardless of their disabilities.

"You may be having all your senses functioning perfectly. You never know how your child, or your nieces and nephews will be. They may come as hearing-impaired yet you have documented all your family videos without a sign language assistance,' he said.

"How will they understand such important events? When you create anything, know there is a community left behind and it is your duty to improve the situation," concluded Mutindi.

soketch@ke.nationmedia.com

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