With Flying Colors

Published on 28 February 2018

The True Colours Festival, the first-ever Asia-Pacific celebration of artistes with disabilities, showcases the exceptional talent of individuals who excel at being different.

By Pamela Ho

Credit - Metropolitan Youth Orchestra of Hong Kong

When 33-year-old Canadian violinist Adrian Anantawan was in fifth grade, picking a musical instrument to learn in music class entailed a little more exploration. “At the time, all my classmates had to play the recorder, which wasn’t an instrument I could adapt to my particular need, so I had to look into some different options,” explains Anantawan, who was born without his right hand.

“One option was the trumpet because you could hold it with one hand. The problem was that it was too loud for my parents,” he says with a chuckle. “I started thinking about the violin because my dad played the violin when he was younger, and I watched an episode of Sesame Street where a violinist called Itzhak Perlman, who grew up with polio, became a great violinist.”

At the age of nine, his parents gifted him with a violin and had an adaptation made for him so that he could grip the violin bow. “I think I knew the violin was the one, probably in the first week or so, when I could play better than my dad who had been playing for several years,” he says with a smile. “Being able to try something and be able to learn so quickly, and to know that I had some type of talent with it, was a real discovery for me.”

While an adaptation allows you to play an instrument, Anantawan says the most important thing — in terms of developing a sense of identity as a musician — is a will to be able to translate what you hear and feel into your technique in order to express yourself. “This process of being able to form a technique is the universal thing, regardless of whether you have two hands or an adaptation. I was very lucky my adaptation didn’t prohibit me from expressing whatever I wanted to.”

His humility is humbling, considering the fact that he graduated from the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music, Yale University and Harvard Graduate School of Education; performed at the White House, the United Nations and at the opening ceremonies of the Athens and Vancouver Olympic Games; and has played for the likes of Pope John Paul II and His Holiness the Dalai Lama.


MASTER’S TOUCH Singaporean pianist Dr Azariah Tan may be losing his hearing but his natural flair on the ivory keys has been recognised internationally. (Credit - Azariah Tan)

For 26-year-old Singaporean pianist, Dr Azariah Tan, his natural flair on the ivory keys also did not go unnoticed. He graduated with first-class honours in music from the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music, and went on to pursue a doctorate in piano performance and a double master’s in music from the University of Michigan.

He has clinched first prize in international and local piano competitions, performed at renowned music festivals and is the recipient of multiple full scholarships. He impresses, even without people knowing that he was diagnosed — at the age of four — with congenital bilateral sensorineural hearing loss and will one day completely lose his hearing.

At the age of five, Dr Tan started learning the piano. “But it was around the age of 12 that I began to read extensively on music and the theory behind music, in addition to listening to more recordings. I fell in love with music. This added further impetus to my musical journey,” he recounts, adding that his parents have always been tremendously supportive of him through the years.

“They are loving yet firm. They stuck to Bible principles and were consistent, hence I always felt secure, even though it wasn’t always a bed of roses,” he reflects on his parents’ philosophy in raising him. “It was what I needed and I cannot thank them enough for the love, support and perseverance they’ve shown. They never gave up, even though I had many challenges.”

His hearing is now down to around 10 per cent. “When it comes to music, distortions caused by the processing of the hearing aids sometimes leads to inaccurate perception of nuances. When this happens, I have to rely on feedback from others, a knowledge of proper piano technique, and working closely with the audiologists to fine-tune the aids,” he says matter-of-factly, as he continues performing, doing accompaniment work, and conducting masterclasses and lectures. He has also begun teaching and is looking to grow his list of private piano students.

In his musical journey, Dr Tan has crossed paths with Anantawan. That was some seven years ago in the United States. He is excited to collaborate with him again this month, as they take the stage together in Singapore at the True Colours Festival, the first and largest gathering of artistes with disabilities to perform in an event in the Asia-Pacific region.


Presented by UNESCO and The Nippon Foundation, and produced by Very Special Arts Singapore (VSA), the True Colours Festival sees the convergence of some 20 exceptionally talented artistes with disabilities from across the Asia Pacific, as well as three international guest artistes — Anantawan (Canada), the Drake Music Scotland Digital Orchestra (United Kingdom), and all-star breakdance crew, ILL-Abilities (International) — in a showcase like we have never seen before.

Festivals celebrating artists with disabilities have previously been held — at a local level — in Laos and Vietnam (2006) and Cambodia (2008), and at ASEAN level in Myanmar (2014), as part of The Nippon Foundation’s mission to empower persons with disabilities (PWDs) to live lives to their fullest potential. The momentum generated from this Asia-Pacific festival held in Singapore will pave the way for a global festival timed to coincide with the Tokyo Paralympics in 2020.

“Our narrative is simple: to celebrate exceptional talent, and to see the ability before the disability,” says festival director Audrey Perera, founder of WOMAD Singapore, an international outdoor world music festival and a pioneer of its time. On her creative team are artistic director Hossan Leong and music director Dr Sydney Tan, both respected creatives on the Singapore arts scene.

About 120 submissions from all across the Asia Pacific — from Southeast Asia to Australia, the Cook Islands to Micronesia — were received. The artistes were found by tapping on the networks of UNESCO, The Nippon Foundation, the Asia-Pacific Development Center on Disability (Bangkok), reaching out to high commissions and embassies, as well as through personal recommendations, online research and advertising on Facebook and Google.

The artiste selection committee then reviewed each submission, based on a set of criteria to ensure the line-up was geographically diverse, that it represented different genres of performing arts, different types of disabilities, had gender balance, age variation, and most importantly, merit.

Says Dr Sydney Tan, who has served as musical director for many high-profile events, including several National Day Parades and the 2015 SEA Games held in Singapore, “I’ve worked in this field for over 30 years and I’ll tell you there are some very exceptional talents coming! The genre spread includes classical, swing, pop, hip-hop and even filmic repertoire. There are original compositions as well as familiar music through the eras of Rachmaninoff, Chopin, John Williams, Louis Armstrong, Sammy Davis Jr, Michael Jackson, Bruno Mars, Justin Timberlake and even The Chainsmokers.”

Credit - K K Dundas Royal Conservatoire of Scotland
Credit - Ben Li
THE GREATEST SHOWMEN Taking Singapore by storm are Drake Music Scotland’s Digital Orchestra, international breakdance crew, ILL-Abilities, and Canadian violinist Adrian Anantawan (Credit - Credit Metropolitan Youth Orchestra of Hong Kong)


BREAKING NEW GROUND ILL-Abilities, an all-star breakdance crew comprising some of the world’s best dancers who are differently abled, creates works that are visually mind-blowing! (Credit - Valerie Boulet)
Credit- Tom Hoyle

These diversely talented artistes not only excel at being different, they’re also sharing something of their own experiences of living that can enrich ours. For Canadian breakdancer, Luca “Lazylegz” Patuelli, being born with arthrogryposis — a condition affecting his bones and causing stiffness in the joints — simply meant finding his own way of doing what he loves.

“I started breakdancing when I was about 15. Prior to discovering breaking, skateboarding was my passion. But after a surgery on my knees, I could no longer skate. A friend introduced me to breaking and I fell in love with it right away,” he recounts. “There is a special energy, I can’t really describe — the music, the culture, the challenge of discovering movement based on your abilities — these are all things that captivated me, and still do, to this day.”

In 2007, Patuelli founded ILL-Abilities because he wanted to create an all-star breakdance crew comprising some of the world’s best dancers who are differently abled. “I wanted it to become an international movement and it’s slowly becoming that. I wanted to bring something different that has never been seen before and I wanted to share it with the world. The amazing thing is when we started the crew we barely knew each other and today, we are brothers. ILL-Abilities is a family!”

Lazylegz (as he is known) is a crutch dancer who is constantly improvising and finding his own way of doing things. He lives by the motto ‘No excuses, no limits’. “In today’s society, we put so much pressure on ourselves to perform like others. For me, everything I’ve ever had to do, I’ve had to do differently: when I was skateboarding, I was skating on my knees. I drive a car with hand controls. To take my daughter out, I use a wheelchair,” he shares. “I believe once you can learn to do things your own way, you start building confidence in yourself, and others around you will start believing in you. And once you have the encouragement of others around you, the possibilities are limitless.”


For Rodney Bell, a motorbike accident in 1991 left him paralysed from chest down. While he represented New Zealand in wheelchair basketball, it was dance that captivated him. “I’m forever grateful to Catherine Chappell, artistic director for Touch Compass Dance Trust, who planted the seed of dance in my soul. When I danced with her, I realised immediately that dance was my element. I simply needed to trust myself and let the dance journey begin,” says Bell, who co-founded Touch Compass, New Zealand’s only professional inclusive dance company.

Bell, who is known for his work in physically integrated dance, as well as the unique way he infuses his Maori culture into his art, will be creating a new work specifically for the True Colours Festival with dance partner, Brydie Colquhoun. As a wheelchair dancer, his style and approach hinges on his unique relationship with his wheelchair, which he describes as a “constant duet”.

“We are always negotiating space together, climbing and conquering obstacles regularly, teaching others awareness around access, and partnering in dance. We mutually need each other to be on point in any given situation, and I feel we work together to make possibilities possible,” says Bell, who is currently working on a new piece, commissioned by the Commonwealth Arts Festival in Australia, which will premiere in April during the Commonwealth Games.


Credit - Aliénette Coldfire
NOT MISSING A BEAT Being diagnosed with muscular dystrophy hasn’t stopped Danial Bawthan from playing wheelchair rugby to beatboxing and releasing his debut EP this month. (Credit - Isabelle Lim)

When Alienette Coldfire (below; her real name is Katchry Jewel Golbin) was asked how she ended up on France’s Got Talent, the spunky 26-year-old with the voice of an angel, replied, “It was my passion that led me to France!”

Growing up in a small town in the Philippines, she had several musical influences. “As a kid, I was fascinated by Celine Dion’s vocal prowess and strained every nerve just to be able to sing like her. As a teen, my world was all about Lea Salonga because I was exposed to Broadway musicals. Later on, there was a French singer who influenced my music and my life, and that singer is Edith Piaf.”

Enraptured by Piaf’s song, ‘La Vie En Rose’, she decided to pick up French. “The first step in learning French was loving the language, and music was the main reason I learnt — it drew me closer to the language. I would listen to a lot of French songs, even without understanding, just to familiarise myself with the language structure and patterns,” reveals the daughter of a taxi-driver father and clerk mother. Born blind and with limited access to Braille books and publications, she made it to college, where she enrolled in a French class as a course elective.

Almost every night, for about three years, she would diligently practise speaking French with Facebook friends until she became fluent in the language. It was her French friends who connected her to people who got her on the show. From learning a whole new language from scratch to flying thousands of miles to France and clinching second runner-up on the 11th season of France’s Got Talent, her journey has been fuelled by unbridled passion. And this passion — which didn’t go unnoticed by the True Colours team — will see her taking centrestage in Singapore this month. Brace yourself!


SING LIKE SINATRA Australian crooner Tony Dee, vocal star of the viral Rio 2016 Paralympic music video, We’re the Superhumans, will be belting out jazzy tunes at True Colours his month. (Credit - Rock This! Photography)

When 23-year-old Singaporean, Danial Bawthan, first started mimicking the drums, he didn’t know what beatboxing was. “I only found out when a friend showed me a video of [pro beatboxer] Felix Zenger,” says the wheelchair-bound artiste, who was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy when he was four.

While he has always been drawn to music, it was the drums that fascinated him. “Due to my physical limitations, it was impossible for me to play it. But beatboxing allows me to ‘play’ the drums with my mouth. I started out learning from YouTube videos, but I learned a lot more when I joined the ITE That Acappella Group and was mentored by my seniors and peers.”

Bawthan, who graduated with a Higher Nitec certificate in Information Technology from the Institute of Technical Education (ITE) College West, now works part-time as a sound engineer and is a rapper, beatboxer, hip-hop artiste, songwriter and producer. In 2015, he won Best Producer at Enter the Void Deck, a rap/hip-hop event; the following year, he performed for the President’s Star Charity.

At the True Colours concert, he will be performing ‘I Know’, a song from his self-produced debut EP, The Roll Out, which will be released this month on Spotify. “All the songs are originals. The genre is rap/hip-hop, with elements from my own style and sound signature,” he discloses, adding that he feels honoured to perform at the festival. “Sharing the stage with such amazing talents is a lifetime experience and something money cannot buy. The feeling is golden.”

On a more reflective note, he adds, “In music, there is no genre called blind jazz or diabetes reggae, it’s just good music or bad music. When you put on your earphones, you can’t tell whether this guy has lost a limb or not. In that ‘zone’, I’m equal with everyone else.”

ECLECTIC MOVES Award-winning dance company, Dazzle, sees performers with physical and mental disabilities collaborating to tell stories inspired by Japanese culture, movies, video games and manga. (Credit - Takahiro Iino)

Each performing artiste has a unique story: from crooner Tony Dee (Australia), star of the 2016 Rio Paralympics trailer, We’re the Superhumans, to members of Drake Music Scotland’s Digital Orchestra, the world’s first disabled youth ensemble that creates new music using inclusive music technologies. Then there’s DAZZLE (Japan), an award-winning dance troupe whose eclectic style is inspired by Japanese culture, movies, video games and manga. The artistes’ abilities overshadow their disabilities, and their talents only scratch the surface of what they are about.

“For me, my strength as a musician comes from my unique experiences in life,” reflects violinist Anantawan. “If you grow up living with a disability, you just see the world, hear the world and experience the world in a unique way. And it is our perspective, our diversity, our understanding of the human condition and what binds us, that is so important to share.”


He adds that platforms such as the True Colours Festival serve a purpose bigger than showcasing talents. “I work a lot with youth now, and part of what I want to do as a musician is not just to perform, but to be able to inspire the younger generation of not only musicians, but also children with disabilities, to achieve their dreams.”

Festival director Perera believes that the arts play an important role in changing perceptions. “One festival can’t change everything, but I hope that at least it helps everyone look at disabilities differently and to stop defining individuals by their disability,” she shares. “I also hope that it helps people see talent — just pure talent — never mind what you look like, whether you’re in a wheelchair or have no legs. The arts can do one thing that all infrastructure and funding cannot do: it can touch people and make them think, make them feel, and that’s why you must have the arts in the mix.”

The True Colours Festival is on from 23 to 25 March. For the full programme or to book tickets, visit www.truecolours.sg.


There’s more to the True Colours Festival than the concert. Here’s what else you should check out!


This free outdoor event features screenings of short films about disabilities; Ask Me Anything (where you can meet and ask PWDs any question); Dialogue in the Dark; Paralympics try-outs, and interactive booths by various organisations.


Jointly organised by the National Arts Council and VSA, this one-and-a-half-day conference covers topics such as developing leadership in the disability arts sector, innovation in artistic practice, inclusive community engagement, and more. Enjoy 20% discount for group packages! Sign up at adic2018.sg where more details are available.


This campaign enables the public and corporates to buy and donate tickets (via the True Colours website), which will go into a common pool and be redistributed — through the various associations — to PWDs who cannot afford them.

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