Signed Music in the Deaf Community: Performing The Black Drum at Festival Clin d’Oeil (by Jody H. Cripps, Ely Lyonblum, and Anita Small)

Presented as part of Music Festival Studies: Current Perspectives, Future Directions (Massachusetts Institute of Technology, July 30th, 2020).

In the spring of 2019, the first Signed Musical stage production was performed at Festival Clin d’Oeil – the world’s largest Deaf arts festival that brings thousands to Reims, France biennially. Surrounded by visual and performing arts, an invited delegation from Canada debuted The Black Drum, incorporating physical theatre, signed music, projection, and dance. Signed Music is a visual-gestural performance art that demonstrates musical elements by Deaf individuals who have explored creating musical performances with their hands and bodies. These performances operate according to a distinct artistic style, incorporating elements of signed languages, rhythmic hand, facial, and/or body motions, and media video arts. A commonly held misconception is that music is a ‘hearing thing’, and therefore cannot come from within Deaf Culture, therefore Signed Music is virtually unknown among hearing audiences. Counter to the phenomena of translated signed songs popular at performances where interpreters sign along with bands and rappers, Signed Music is composed by Deaf individuals without a previously existing auditory component. This presentation offers insight into the performers’ process and development of a Deaf created Signed Musical for an international audience; the ways in which Signed Music galvanizes community and identity through self-expression; and the impact of The Black Drum as performed for an international audience at Festival Clin d’Oeil. Through the use of ethnomusicological analysis and reflection amongst this team with perspectives as insider-outsider-mediator (Cripps-Lyonblum-Small), Signed Music has been researched by the authors and observed throughout the development of The Black Drum in preparation for its Canadian and European premiers. By investigating the impact of Signed Music as an art form that exists along a continuum of music and Deaf arts, scholars may consider the ways in which Deaf artists expand the current definition of music and their role more broadly within the performing arts.


Follow this link for more content on the definition and different features of signed music: What is signed music?


Jody H. Cripps is an Assistant Professor of American Sign Language in the Department of Languages at Clemson University. Dr. Cripps obtained his doctorate in the Second Language Acquisition and Teaching program from the University of Arizona. Dr. Cripps’ research interests primarily focus on universal design, signed music, signed language pathology, ASL-English literacy, and pedagogical methods. Dr. Cripps’ latest grant allows for conducting ground-breaking ethnomusicological research in Canada on the creative process and production of a signed music showcase titled, “THE BLACK DRUM”, performed by a signing musical theater troupe, the sponsorship funded on the behalf of the Canadian Council of the Arts via Canadian Cultural Society of the Deaf. This first of its kind musical incorporates Dr. Cripps’ signed music theories and was selected as one of ten acts entries chosen from more than 100 countries featured in a showcase at Clin d’Oeil Festival in Reims, France in July 2019. In addition to his teaching and research, he also serves as the Editor-in-Chief for the Society for American Sign Language Journal and the Vice President of The Gloss Institute, a non-profit organization providing educators and parents the necessary tools and resources to overcome the habitually low literacy (English) rates in deaf children.

Active as an arts and culture educator, Ely Lyonblum has directed documentary films and produced recordings for the British Library, the Smithsonian Institution, the MIT Media Lab, and CBC Radio 1. His kaleidoscopic passion for the arts has led to projects on American Sign Language performance art, West African storytelling through song, and spoken word poetry in maritime Canada. Ely completed a PhD in Cultural Musicology at the University of Cambridge in 2018, and is the Research Grants Officer for the Faculty of Music at the University of Toronto.

Anita Small M.Sc., Ed.D., sociolinguist, cultural mediator, educator and researcher, is founder of small LANGUAGE CONNECTIONS working with theatre companies, museums, broadcast companies, educational and arts institutions to co-create and evaluate empowering, award-winning productions, resources and organizational design engaging diverse communities. Co-Founder and past Co-Director of the DEAF CULTURE CENTRE, she is recipient of the United Nations World Summit Award (2013) for co-producing the TV series and website and the Kathy Dolby Award (2006). Dr. Small has raised over twelve million dollars in arts and culture grants, mentors organizations and artists in grant writing and has researched, published and presented on cultural identity and the arts, creating empowering educational and cultural environments, Deaf performing and visual arts, signed music and effective bilingual and literacy pedagogy.