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Gus Garside is a freelance consultant with considerable experience of working within the learning disability arts world. The following essay is grounded with the extensive work he has done with learning disabled musicians as project manager, mentor and access consultant.

photo of Aimee Richardson in the RTE television studio with pink lights on stands behind her

Aimee Richardson plays the voice of Punky in RTE's animation series

Listening to Aimee Richardson play the harp at Belfast University in May I was struck not so much by her technical ability as her sheer musicality – her use of dynamics, her emotional range. Not satisfied with becoming an accomplished harpist Aimee also plays the flute as well as being an actor.

Most notably she is the voice of Punky, the main character in RTE’s (Ireland's national TV broadcaster) popular animated series in which, as the young girl with Down’s Syndrome, she manages to solve most of the family’s day to day problem by intuition or accident. Aimee now works alongside her non-disabled peers in theatre and music. But, having worked hard to develop her skills, professional opportunities are still less than she’d like.

The contribution that learning disabled people have made in all walks of life are beginning to being properly researched and documented. Though in exploring this it is well worth remembering that the concept of learning disability, intellectual impairment, or whatever label you chose, is fairly recent in relation to the span of human history. When the term Down Syndrome was created in 1866 the arts were seen as a distraction or therapy. No-one conceived that this newly invented group of people could be artists.

I’m going to mention just a small number of examples illustrating where we are at in terms of learning disability and music.

There isn’t room to talk about all styles of music or even to touch upon the musicians from Black, Asian and minority ethnic communities who play alongside their non-disabled colleagues in, for instance, Bhangra, Céilidh or Ra’I groups within their communities. To do justice to this would require a substantial research project but it would be worthwhile and might in parallel examine aspects of how disability is culturally constructed.

photo of Jez Colbourne wearing a yellow raincoat and a leather hat, standing in the open doors of a large shipping container with two other performers

The Gift: Performers (L-R) Billy Hickling, Jez Colborne, Alan Clay. Photo (c) Tim Mitchel

But to the job in hand… here’s a few that have gained wider recognition.

The London based company Heart n Soul is always a good place to start offering many fine examples so I’ll focus in on The Fish Police, a band that grew out of one of their youth projects. The members of this trio combine contemporary funk and hip hop drawing from their personal love of computer games, fast food and anime. The result is a near unique and surreal blend that has taken them to New York's Lincoln Centre, Ireland and Turkey as well as performing at London’s Festival Hall and in the opening ceremony of the 2012 Paralympic Games. It is their interests and particular worldview, looking into places we often ignore, that makes their cultural contribution so vibrant.

Similarly it is the things that fascinate him personally that fuel the musical vision of Jez Colborne (aka J C Jamma). Having honed his onstage craft as a lead actor with Bradford’s Mind the Gap theatre company, Jez has recently  in collaboration with them , refocused his attention on his musical career. Already a singer-songwriter of note, having performed in China, Switzerland and Germany as well as throughout the UK he recently began making work using unusual materials. It was his interest in air raid sirens that led him to use them in his show Irresistible which referenced the seductive singers from the Odyssey. His new work, Gift, is set in a shipping container which he uses as an instrument, an amplifier, a stage and a venue. It has already been performed at the Southbank Centre and is destined for this year’s Commonwealth Games in Glasgow and a later  BBC Radio 3 broadcast.

It was the musical mayhem of shows by the punk band Heavy Load that made their gigs so popular. When asked by a production company if they could create a theme tune for the Channel 4's drama series Cast Offs that would be “unusual and anarchic” they said yes, that’s what they do. In the 15 years of their existence they performed all over the UK (including two shows at Glastonbury) as well as New York, Berlin, Scotland and Copenhagen. In 2008 the feature length documentary Heavy Load told their tale. It documented their arguments, differing musical tastes, and the trials and tribulations of being in a rock band along with their energy and in your face approach to music making. They called it day in September 2012 at a Paralympic Festival in London’s Trafalgar Square. But as their press release says they are all still talking to each other.

Among the challenges they faced was losing large numbers of learning disabled audience members at 9pm when support shifts changed. This led to their involvement in setting up the charity Stay Up Late, which campaigns for people to be able to do the things they want, when they want. Stay Up Late now runs a successful gig buddies scheme. And among its many projects has been the release of two Wild Things CD compilations showcasing music by learning disabled musicians from around the world.

Another good place to stay in touch with what happening internationally is the radio station Shut Up and Listen run by Brighton based organisation Carousel. For instance, they recently broadcast a session by the rock band Rudely Interrupted in Melbourne before they set off on to tour Australia and in Russia, Los Angles and Italy.

From the ultra-cool Station 17 (Germany) to the sadly no longer Avant Garde band Reynols (Argentina) there are now many examples of what learning disabled musicians are bringing to the scene. We’ve come a long way from when I wrote “She’s Doing Too Much Music” (1995) about how a gifted learning disabled classical and jazz musician was being held back by the system. Perhaps all that stands in the way now is the commercial interests of big companies and TV talent shows that tell us what we should be listening to and try to prevent us from exploring the outer edges where music gets really interesting.

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