This is a project that began when Dutch blues lover and humanitarian, Joris Wijngaarden invited me for lunch in Brugge, Belgium while I was on a European tour with my band. It was there that we first put our heads together and imagined a musical extravaganza that would promote blues music and brighten hearts, create cooperation, stimulate creativity, and blur the lines between who has a disability and who does not. It was there that we conceptualized United by Music.
Joris and I agreed on the fundamental value that all people are created equal and as such, should be given equal opportunities. Although I am considered a normal person by most societal standards, I was discouraged most of my life from pursuing my school-girl fantasies to be a singer. Right and left, I was told that I was not thin enough, good enough, rich enough and in some cases Christian enough, to be a star. I chose to pursue my dreams anyway and became a successful blues singer by studying music, staying true to myself and writing songs to inspire myself, and others, to overcome their obstacles. My challenges, though severe, were nowhere near as extreme as the millions of people all over the world who live each day with a physical or intellectual disability. I can only imagine how discouraging it must be to try to live a normal life and at every turn, be told you cannot do it. How frustrating to want your own home, your own marriage, your own business, and be told it cannot happen for you. How maddening to have a dream to perform onstage, only to be told that your disability makes you unacceptable, or unprofessional as a band member.
United by Music gives people a chance to prove what they can do as musicians, dancers, artists and singers. They sing in English because English was the language of the early blues pioneers and because singing in English shatters a stereotype immediately, that a disabled person cannot master a second language. In the process, we remind people about how blues and gospel music inspired African Americans when they had no rights and no freedom, to transcend their crippling sorrow and pain. United by music inspires our students to write their own songs and stories about their own heartbreak and experience. Its lovely to see "so called normal" musicians shelve our egos, put aside our own prejudices and stereotypes about people with disabilities, and treat each other with dignity and kindness. United by music teaches confidence and boosts self-esteem. By learning the show business motto "the show must go on;" UBM helps all of our students learn flexibility and showmanship. And all of it has come true tenfold every year that we have done the United by Music project.
This 2008 United by Music tour was especially amazing! It was very special for all of us who participated and all who witnessed the growth of each of our artists. It was unique this year because for the first time, we had instrumentalists (sax, guitar, piano and drums) as well as vocalists and dancers. It was a triumph because we appeared side by side other so-called normal musicians on so-called normal festivals and held our audience. It was a victory because we were the first band featuring "special" people at the Rock Voor Specials festival in Belgium. It was a jubilee because we played many "normal" venues as well as institutions. It was a celebration because every evening, new friendships were made and new barriers were broken. Our artists started out tentative and shy, and ended up dancing and working the crowd with gusto. Night after night, they went onstage and overcame personal challenges - a dad in the hospital; a break up with a girlfriend; weekly kidney dialysis; back trouble. I personally was recuperating from major cancer surgery while we did the tour! Through tears, pain, anger and broken zippers, our artists proved they were professionals by demonstrating that the show must go on!
These are the photos from some of our tour of the Netherlands, Capetown, South Africa and Belgium. There is a magical moment in each picture and I know you will be able to see the joy that our project brings to each of us lucky enough to be involved. We have a dream to take the United by Music project worldwide and give people everywhere a chance to use blues music as a metaphor to overcome their own suffering. Thankfully, hundreds of United by Music volunteers have already joined up to help us make this dream a reality. If you are interested in helping us, go to Unitedbymusic.eu and send us an email.
Music is what unites us and makes us all the same. We are all United by Music and we are all part of the same musical human family.
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united by music