'I can't see but I have good ears'

'I can't see but I have good ears'
DETERMINED: Musical director Mr Alongkot Chukaew (above) prepares with his orchestra just before an open-air concert in January.

Deftly feeling their way along the bumps of the braille score, the young players of Thailand's first blind orchestra memorise scales, defying both their impairment and ingrained negative attitudes towards disability.

It is rehearsal time, just hours ahead of a concert at an open-air auditorium in a national park, and around 30 fledgling classical musicians enthusiastically strum, pluck and bow instruments they have held but never seen.

"At first it was really hard for me... I wanted to stop," said Joe, a 14-year-old budding cellist who picked up the stringed instrument nine months ago.

"But when I realised that others could do it, I gave it another try," he told AFP, smiling broadly.

Official figures show that Thailand is home to 1.8 million people with disabilities. Around 180,000 are blind, in a population of more than 64 million.

Yet campaigners say state provision for disabled people is poor, compounding a widely-held Buddhist belief in karma that in the minds of many, links physical impairments with the supposed "misdeeds" of a past life.

The Thai Blind Orchestra, made up of players aged between eight and 15 years old, offers a rare positive platform for disabled Thais.

The youths, who use donated instruments, were brought together by a professional classical musician whose day job is looking after elephants in the Khao Yai National Park in the north-eastern province of Nakhon Ratchasima.

The idea was planted when the blind students met Mr Alongkot Chukaew at his conservation classes in the park.


Teaching with the help of audible aids, including his guitar, the 43-year-old noticed that music caught the attention of the children.

He asked his music teachers to play different instruments and encouraged the youngsters to follow the sound they liked best.

As their affinity with their chosen instrument mushroomed, Mr Alongkot introduced a braille system for the students to learn to read classical music.

Shown one-on-one how to position their fingers on their instruments, the children then memorise both the notes and the correct placement to make the right sounds.

Said Mr Alongkot: "It was hard because they cannot see the demonstration of where to put their fingers or hold the bows. But it was fun.

"Some people might not like their performance, but the kids are happy and have fun with it."

"Disabled people are the poorest of the poor," explained Mr Suporntum Mongkolsawadi, a Thai double amputee since childhood who now campaigns for improved rights.

"The belief in karma makes disabled people think they should just surrender and accept their fate," added the 48-year-old, who heads the Redemptorist Foundation for People with Disabilities.

As volunteers who can see prepare to lead the orchestra to their seats and instruments on the open-air stage, cellist Joe said he refuses to be held back by the notions of karma.

"I cannot see but I have good ears... that is my gift in music," he said.

"When we lose one thing, there will always be a substitute."

This article was first published on March 12, 2015.
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