By Derek Mortland
G’day mates! How ya goin’? First, let’s dispel a myth and answer a question that may be burning in some readers’ minds: The water does not go down the drain the opposite direction south of the equator. OK? So what am I doing down in Aussie land besides looking for myths to shatter? Well, the most direct answer is, I’m a musician who recently performed at an international music festival for people with disabilities in Brisbane, Queensland, Australia. But before I tell you about that, you need to know some background.
I was injured in a motorcycle racing accident on June 14, 1997. I knew that the likelihood of my walking again was minimal, but with a T9 injury I saw no reason why I could not play guitar from a wheelchair, so I set about relearning to do what I had been doing since I was 12.
Following the sense of loss created by spinal cord injury and my struggle to get through rehab and create a meaningful life for myself, I looked to music, but getting back what I once had proved frustrating. Although my hands and arms worked well enough, my trunk balance and wheelchair presented tremendous difficulty in holding and positioning the guitar. I tried playing lying down, sitting in bed with pillows, on the couch, in my chair, and none of it was working. I couldn’t get anything in the appropriate playing position to make music the way I wanted to.
I eventually worked with a physical therapist who strapped me in the chair in different positions and gave me the guitar to play. We began to work out options and I also began changing seat and dump angles on my chair. It took about a year before I could really play again, and it is still challenging for me with the position I play in. I learned how to incorporate the use of different guitar tunings to compensate for my unusual hand positioning on the instrument. This opened a whole new world of musical possibilities for me.
As I became more involved in playing again, I started searching out gigs and opportunities. While preparing to come to Australia in January 2003 to find out more about an energy healing modality called pranic healing, I came across Access Arts in Brisbane during an Internet search. I saw that they were hosting the seventh annual Asian Pacific Wataboshi Music Festival for people with disabilities (“Living the Dream”) Nov. 16-23, 2003. Wataboshi is the Japanese word for dandelion seed. The mission of the festival, which originated in Japan in 1976, is to have the seeds of love and awareness of disability scatter in the wind like the seeds of the dandelion and spread throughout the world.
I contacted Access Arts via e-mail and told them I wanted to send them my CD, be considered as a performer in the festival and meet with them when I came in January. Things worked out great with our meeting. Access Arts would cover my expenses while at the festival, lodging, and meals, but I would need to cover the trip and any other expenses. It worked out that I received funding from the Ohio Arts Council and private donations to cover these expenses. I would be the only American musician at the international festival.
However, frustration would again intrude as I prepared for my trip. I got a nice big pressure sore on my bum about three weeks before my departure date. Still, I was determined to go to Wataboshi. It was a scary decision to go with this condition, so I spent as much time in bed as I could beforehand with frequent visits to my local wound care center. The pressure sore was healing, but slowly, and was still open when I left. During my flights–27 hours in all–I sat on my ROHO with a hemorrhoid donut stuck in it. I used this same cushion in my chair to keep the sore elevated with minimal pressure on it.
I kept shifting and doing pressure lifts as much as possible during my flights and frequently wondered how my butt was holding up. My plane transfer in Los Angeles saw me barely make it on the flight, and when I finally did board I found they had given away my reserved accessible seat with extra leg room. Fortunately I ended up getting them to bump me up to business class–a godsend as I now had more room to do range of motion with my legs and a seat that reclined almost all the way and relieved even more pressure.
The Wataboshi Experience
When I arrived, the festival put me up at a nice hotel near the performance site in downtown Brisbane. Brisbane streets, businesses, and transportation are tops for accessibility. However, the city is very hilly, so this can present problems even though curb cuts are everywhere. Unless you are a marathoner, there are only so many of the hills you can take. As for transportation, there is a fully accessible bus system, train system, and boat service that uses the Brisbane River. There is also no shortage of fully accessible lift-equipped cabs driving around. Apart from the hills, it’s “no worries” getting around as a wheeler.
Wataboshi was more than I imagined. It started out on a beautiful sunny Sunday afternoon with opening ceremonies on the lawn outside the Brisbane Powerhouse Centre for the Live Arts. The Powerhouse sits on the Brisbane River and actually used to be the powerhouse for the city. The view from the lawn looked out on the wide flowing river in the background with rolling hills of trees and posh houses on the opposite riverbank and hillside. The converted Powerhouse is fully accessible with three levels to the building and multiple performance spaces throughout. It still retains its rough industrial charm with unfinished ceilings and walls in the middle of the massive structure. The performance spaces and stages tie into this industrial feel but are fully modernized, with full access for audience and performers alike.
The concert band, Musical Chairs, started the festivities under the afternoon sun, situated between Australian shade trees on the left, festival sculptures and totems behind and to the right, and a lawn full of festival attendees before them. I learned from chatting with Ian Stanley, a flutist in the band and wheeler from down under, that the band evolved from someone offering musical instruments and lessons to Wheelchair Sports of Queensland. Several of the participants took it up and the rest of the band is filled in with nondisabled performers. That night there was a reception inside the Powerhouse and the opening of a photo gallery display by Belinda Mason-Lovering titled “Disability and Sexuality.” The images of wheelers and others with disabilities explored socially taboo issues–sexuality, body image, identity, family and grief–and made connections between disability and sexuality that created an erotic and evocative exhibit.
The festival was set up to allow performers, presenters, and anyone who so desired to attend and participate in daytime workshops involving music, dance and performing art. Transformation overcame me in my most memorable workshop. The Butterflies Dance Troupe from Sri Lanka presented an improvised movement and dance workshop. It included people with and without disability. Even someone’s guide dog got in the act, and my chair and others frequently got used as a resting piece or something to move on or around by other dancers who did not have a physical disability. Much of the time we were in close proximity or contact with one another or as a group.
Having the chair used as a piece in performance art was a welcome change from the touchiness of everyday life. It was good to break out of the mold of musician and to be able to move for a while. Upul Samanthilaka, a wheelchair dancer in the company who lost his legs as a soldier in the civil war in Sri Lanka, was a great teacher and inspiration for me to move and dance using my chair. I also improvised music for the dancers with other musicians from the festival who I had never played with before. It warmed my heart and brought light to my soul to be a part of the beauty and energy in the room. It was beautiful to not know which note would come next, which emotion would come forth through the music, watching the dance unfold and just be from one moment to the next, just as the music was. Then dance and music became one, building off each other, changing each other, becoming separate, then becoming one again. This lasted for almost half an hour and seemed to have all of us in a wonderful, trancelike, moving meditative state.
Other workshops covered singing, drumming, song writing, poetry, how to create arts programs and creative spaces in communities, jam sessions, creative forums and lunchtime concerts. I participated in many of these and was able to meet so many wonderful people from across the world. Everyone seemed to forget his or her disability or that disability even existed. Even those without a disability seemed one and the same to those who had a disability. It was a wonderful environment. Only the music and art existed. Everyone has the ability to create–and everyone did.
Living the Dream
The feeling of inclusiveness was driven home for me by watching the performance of Garden on the Moon. Garden was conceived and created by Shane McFarland, who has cerebral palsy. The performance incorporated a cast of seven and was based in large part on Shane’s true-life story as a resident of a nursing facility in Australia. The touching and emotive story almost entirely took place behind a large white translucent curtain covering the theatre stage. Images, kaleidoscopes, mobiles, and shadows of the performers–including Shane and fellow power-chair users Bevin Diver and Sonya Blemy, puppets and marionettes–were projected onto and through the screen, adding an ethereal element to the piece. The performance was accompanied by a live soundscape improvised by musician Brettski, who earlier had the performers and people at Red Cliffe Center for Disabilities compose pieces that were then played back live, with Brettski filling in parts on synthesizers and theremin.
The story itself, set in a nursing home, explored the seclusion and frustration a resident experiences as more and more of his freedom is taken away. Eventually his only form of communication–his liberator voice computer–is pulled from his power chair, leaving him speechless. A real liberator was actually used as the voice of Fimbar, Shane’s character in the play. Shane also uses one in real life. The quality of the story, production, soundscape and visuals led the audience to become part of the story and production, and they received it with a wonderful standing ovation.
There were many other performances during the week, which were equally emotional for performers and audience alike. These included the Australian bands Loose Tooth, Bi-Polar Bears, and the Junction House Band; New Zealand pianist Zeb Wulff; New Zealand comedian Philip Patston; “The Three Blind Muses,” Janelle Colquhoun, Julie-Anne Van Der Boor, and Caitlin McMorrow, from Australia. The gala concert consisted of performers Sangud Maneekum, Thailand; Nguyen Duc Anh Manh and Le Phouc Toy, Vietnam; Lee Chin, Karen de Silva, and Yvonne Raj, Malaysia; Chih-Hsien Cheng, Taiwan; Yamunakala Paramanandam, Maduri De Costa, Ramanie Damayanthi, and Upul Samanthilaka, Sri Lanka; Zahid Sulong and Christine Koh, Singapore; Shum Yin Ping, Hong Kong; Anderson Go, Phillipines; Seigo Nochi, Japan; Hee-kwan Bae and Su-kyoung Oh, Korea.
My dreams and aspirations came to their own realization during festival performances. I played in the Visy Theatre in the Powerhouse with Japanese taiko drummer Motoyuki Niwa and Aussie pianist Jeff Usher in a concert called “Healing from the Medicine Wheel.” Medicine Wheel is the title of my CD, which explores the realization of my accident and life experiences through an instrumental musical journey on solo acoustic twelve-string guitar.
Moto and Jeff greatly added to my music and breathed new life into my compositions, which allowed me to hear and experience them in a new way. Jeff is a blind pianist who I first met and clicked with in my travels down under last January. I met and talked with Moto right before the festival started. Festival director Ludmila Doneman had the idea of our performing a selection of my pieces together. We also played one of Jeff’s compositions titled, “Song for Mother Earth.” It was a highly moving experience to have my music honored in this way and to perform on an international stage in front of an international audience with two other international performers.
I played a couple of solo gigs in the Spark Bar, also in the Powerhouse. One of these was at the Summertime Jazz and Blues Festival, where I switched sets with Jeff Usher and Aussie guitarist-singer Barry Charles, who reminded me a lot of Tom Waits. The other was one of the highlights of my career and the festival. I was blessed with the great honor and privilege of having concert pianist David Helfgott, subject of the acclaimed movie Shine open up for me (Geoffrey Rush won the 1997 Academy Award for Best Actor for his portrayal of Helfgott). David was the festival ambassador and decided to grace us with his stylings on the bar piano a bit before my set. I wasn’t sure what to think as I came on stage. At first I thought, “Oh great, I have to follow a world-class concert pianist.” But then I thought, “Well, it’s not everyday you have a world class concert pianist open up for you.”
Moto and top Aboriginal didgeridoo player William Barton later joined me in my set, in which we played some heavily improvised eclectic pieces with a tribal influence. After this, Aboriginal singer Del Mae Barton, William’s mom, also joined us.
In “Living the Dream”–my dreams did come to life, as did those of others who participated in Wataboshi. My frustrations and my disability always seem to disappear when I am creating and performing, as I am only concentrating on my ability. It is my hope to inspire others to follow and pursue their dreams, concentrate on their ability, and to live even bigger dreams for myself in the future.
Derek Mortland lives in Columbus, Ohio. To order his CD, Medicine Wheel, or read more about him, log on to www.derekmortland.com.