Can you tell me a bit about the inspiration for the Calypso project?

The project was 5 years in the making and in all honesty wouldn’t have happened without the involvement of Ken Carter and Peter Boos. Ken has a charity here in the UK and has been visiting Barbados for over 40 years, Peter is a resident, having been born in Trinidad and Tobago, and moving to Barbados after studying in the UK. I was fortunate to have worked with both and we always spoke of a project involving the deaf community in Barbados. Both Peter and Ken are prominent members of the community on the island and have seen first-hand the deaf experience there, and as a deaf musician I know how music can be used to bring people together and influence change. Key to any project’s success is the involvement of deaf people. It wasn’t a vanity project, it was designed to improve the lives of deaf Barbadians and has very real outcomes - from workshops, to employment, to engagement, to activism, the list is endless.

Whilst we all knew we wanted to do something it was actually seeing the work of Bonnie Leonce which really spurred us into action. Bonnie was campaigning for greater awareness of ASL on the island and fighting for the rights of deaf people to have access to interpreters. That was what made us realise that it was the right time to get started, and as they say, the rest is history.

Why was engaging with the deaf community so important?

It wasn’t just ‘important’ it was non-negotiable.

Key to the success of any project is the involvement of the community which the project seeks to affect, in short ‘Nothing about us, without us’. Deaf people all share common ground, we know what it is like to be deaf in a way that hearing people do not. We know what barriers we face and how we wish to communicate, and we also know the joy that being part of the deaf community can bring. Stephen Illiffe, a photographer, spent a lot of time with the community and 13 people shared their stories with him. These hard hitting stories formed an exhibition alongside the concert to really shine a light on the lived experience of those involved and to emphasise the fact that deaf people want to be heard.

It was so important to have a project that was guided by what deaf Bajans want, not just what a project team thinks deaf Bajans want! That’s why we did a lot of engagement work and visited the island to really consult with the deaf community BEFORE we wrote the final project brief. It was clear to us that there was a demand to be heard and that deaf people on the island wish that they were understood by the hearing community. Through the engagement visit we began to understand the common themes - employment, education, communication and involvement - and these became our focus.

Sandra David was part of the research team and her role as a Specialist Teacher of the Deaf was to understand what education was like on the island from deaf students. Sandra spent a month working in the Deaf school with TODs there to understand current practice and to share examples of practice here.

It was also important to us that the project was fun! And what better way to do that than through music. Music is the artform that suffers the most in deaf culture, it is so often excluded from deaf people. We wanted to use music to educate and engage, and to show that deaf people really do have talent. We brought in Sean Forbes and Warren Snipe AKA ‘Wawa’ who are both ASL users, then we sought the best musicians on the island through working with Barbados Music College, added in the deaf community and the result was a beautiful mix of talent and culture.

I have to say that the relationship between the project team and the Bajan community was incredible. I really feel as though we worked well together, and I felt very much embraced by the deaf community - we still have a very active WhatsApp group!

In England I think that sometimes we take for granted some of the freedoms and rights we have, how does our experience here differ from that of the Bajan community?

I think there is a huge difference between our experience here and that of deaf people in Barbados. Here we have legislation which protects us from discrimination, and many deaf before me have fought for those rights. We have Access to Work which funds BSL interpreters and communicators, we have adjustments made in college and university to provide us with equipment, we have more visibility of deaf people on screen and greater deaf awareness. We also have specialist deaf provision in schools, Teachers of the Deaf (TODs) and newborn screening services. This is why we offer our support to the deaf community in Barbados, empowering them and standing up for their rights which is the main theme of the song ‘One Day’.

I think one of the greatest differences is our access to interpreters. Here there is an accredited training path and a regulatory body who ensure that interpreters working with deaf people are qualified and registered. They have also opened the qualification to deaf people so that they have equal standing as interpreters and translators. That is a huge difference.

What was your favorite part of the project?

It may sound like a cliché, but there are honestly too many to list and I cannot just pick one, so instead I’m going to list my top three!

I loved seeing deaf and hearing musicians come together to perform, and watching the workshop where students from the Barbados Community Music College taught deaf people to play the steel drums was honestly fantastic. I think for many of them it was the first time they had interacted with a deaf person let alone taught them a musical instrument and they embraced it.

The children from Irving Wilson School just light up every room they enter and their enthusiasm on stage at the concert was infectious. For most of them it was the first time they had visited Frank Collymore Hall and that to me was a big thing in itself. There they were, on stage, at a prestigious music venue being livecast across the world as they performed the national anthem in ASL.

Finally, shooting the music videos was so much fun! We ran workshops and training sessions to recruit the local deaf community, who were then given paid employment in the shoot - from production runners, to caterers, to the people in the music videos themselves. This led to a paid internship with Broad Street Media for Dario Nightendale and I am really hopeful that we have sparked a few careers in the media industry.

What was the biggest challenge you faced?

I think the biggest challenge was Coronavirus. This had a significant impact on when we could visit the island, with us all being locked down, and then when we were allowed to travel again the additional restrictions such as vaccines, social distancing and compulsory masks made it difficult to get people together and to be able to communicate. There were also financial implications too. Our budget was created in 2019/20 and post-pandemic things were significantly more expensive.

The pandemic held us up for two years and it was incredibly frustrating to know that deaf people on the island were more adversely affected by the pandemic than their hearing counterparts. It made us more determined to get the project finished as soon as we were able to.

The concert looked amazing, what made it so special for you?

It was an incredible evening and I am so proud of everyone who was involved. The highlight for me has to be the children from Irving Wilson School, to see them dancing and signing and having so much fun really made the whole project worthwhile. I love their can-do attitude and I think audiences loved that.

Technology also played a big part. The event was live streamed and we had over 1,500 people watched it across the world - which was impressive considering the link stopped working 30 minutes before the event started and had to be changed! There were also live captions and ASL interpretation on stage, both of which were a first for Frank Collymore Hall.

There were a large number of deaf people in the audience which was great to see and Barbados Council for the Disabled recruited a number of deaf people to be front of house staff for the evening. This was incredible in itself, seeing deaf people employed and communicating with an audience of over 500 hearing people. I think it really showed all involved that deaf people can be included in society. We stayed chatting for hours after the concert finished. It was just a fabulous night and one I will not forget.

Which of the three songs is your favourite?

That’s like asking someone to choose their favourite child! I can’t pick one, I like each of them for their own reasons.

‘If You Haven’t Been to Barbados’ is gorgeous and I think it really shows the beauty of the island and the people, One Day for me has the strongest message and Stand Up! is so catchy I often find myself humming it.

If I really have to pick one then I would choose ‘One Day’… just don’t tell the others!

What about the legacy of the project, did it actually make a difference?

It really did. We set out with such a long list of things we wanted to achieve and I honestly believe that we have surpassed that. I am still collating official figures but I am hearing anecdotes of a number of people who have secured employment following the work that we did on building links between hearing businesses and deaf workers. I am hopeful that deaf people are becoming more visible members of society, for example Dario Nightengale was the first deaf person to win a National Youth Award, which is a prestigious mainstream award - it was very fitting that the ceremony was held at Frank Collymore Hall.

The project started a much needed conversation about deaf rights and there is more awareness of the deaf community now. The number of people enquiring about ASL lessons is rising. We’ve seen the formation of the Bajan Deaf Hands Choir and I know that the ASL anthem has been shared in Venezuela where they are looking to run a similar project.

We’ll be publishing a full report written by Dr. Penny Moore in due course but for now I think these achievements are pretty impressive.

What’s next? Will you replicate the project in other countries?

First is a little break and then I will be looking at the next project. The Calypso Project was huge for me personally and certainly the largest project Audiovisability has ever delivered. Music is found in every single culture and community and as a naturally curious person I am alway looking for the ‘what’s next’! Wherever this will take me it is key that it is what the deaf community there wants, and that they are a key part in the project’s delivery.

And lastly, can you sum up Calypso in 3 words?

Finally, an easy one - ‘action-packed’, ‘exciting’, and ‘powerful’.