Spotlight on France

Blues festival encourages mentally handicapped people to create own sound

Audio 10:00
Jordan, 18, plays his simplified guitar at the experimental music workshop
Jordan, 18, plays his simplified guitar at the experimental music workshop Hird/RFI

To mark the international day of people with disability (December 3) RFI reports from an experimental music workshop west of Paris where people with learning difficulties were seen as different, not deficient. "They're the most creative people on this earth," said bluesman Big Ron Hunter.


Hunter was among the many fine musicians at this year's Blues sur Seine festival. But before he hit the stage he joined a group of young people with varying degrees of mental handicap in an experimental music workshop at the Conservatoire in Mantes la Jolie.

He managed to strum a decent version of Highway to Heaven on a simplified slide bass, one of several instruments the young people had made from kits during the first two days of the workshop. 

He was clearly intrigued by their simple structure: a block of cheap wood, one or two chords that could be plucked or struck with sticks, and a pick up that allows users  to make their own, often surreal sounds. 

Bluesman Big Ron Hunter (seated) accompanies Joseph on a simplifed instrument at the workshop
Bluesman Big Ron Hunter (seated) accompanies Joseph on a simplifed instrument at the workshop Hird/RFI

Playing your own tune

"It’s important that it’s their instrument, not one bought in a shop," says Philippe Poppy, a special needs instructor who helped users assemble their instruments.

"They’re not musicians, they’re here to work on sound,  so what’s important is being able to express themselves through sounds that they’ve found for themselves."

Poppy says that that sense of autonomy is particularly important for people suffering from autism who find it difficult to communicate with others.

"They often feel aggressed by sounds from the outside world," he says. "They don't want to reproduce those sounds. But here they can select the ones they like, they can feel them. Even if it can be difficult for us to listen to, it’s what they want to say, it’s their form of expression."

The 30 euro guitar

The workshop is run by BrutPop, a small French structure that's been helping  mentally handicapped people make experimental music for the last six years.

Co-founder Antoine Capet and his colleague David Lemoine designed the instruments using computer-controlled tools at a Fablab workshop in the south of France. 

They wanted instruments that were easy to handle, but also cheap enough to be attractive to institutions caring for people with learning difficulties.

"Basically, anyone can now go into a Fablab with 30 euros of material and make a guitar. That's the idea, to stop glorifying the five-thousand euro guitar. No frills, just enough chords to understand the principle, no buttons, just a pick up."

Fablabs were developed by MIT, use open source technology and encourage the shared economy. BrutPop has prototyped about 10 guitars in a lab in La Drôme and hopes other labs across the country will add their designs.

"The aim is to connect labs, cultural centres and centres for people with learning disabilities to boost musical effervescence in France’s institutions," Capet adds. 

And although such workshops can have therapeutic benefits, Capet says it's not their main goal.

"We’re not taking a therapeutic approach to music, we’re actually convinced these people have a real passion for music. So we just want to make instruments that bring that out. It’s the idea of universal access: that simple things are simple for everyone, disabled or not."

"It was good playing with the musicians," says 33-year old Amandine who has Down’s Syndrome. "I’m doing this for my friend, so he can hear me on the radio."

As for Big Ron Hunter, he said it was "an honour" to have been able to play with them.



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