A group of visually impaired musicians are finding meaning in their lives and providing enjoyable entertainment for others after they formed a jazz band together to play in clubs around Taipei.
Walking into the Birds Cafe in Taipei’s Tianmu District (天母) recently, one could hear lively jazz performed by the Life Jazz Band, as its five members played next to the bar.
Playing the saxophone, drums, guitar, bass and keyboard, their music infused the cafe with its infectious groove.
When their set was over, assistants took the members by the arm to guide them, and only then did the audience realize the band was made up of visually impaired musicians.
The leader of the band is Wu Po-yi (吳柏毅), a 38-year-old saxophonist. Engrossed in music, Wu started the band with students from the Taipei School for the Visually Impaired in 2002, after he graduated from the school some years earlier.
One band member is a professional studio musician and the band has been invited abroad, touring Japan, the US and Europe.
Wu was born with only 0.03 vision in his left eye, and since childhood, he has had glaucoma, an inherited cataract condition and been blind in his right eye.
During his school days, Wu said he was not interested in books and mostly frittered his time away aimlessly, without any goal in life.
His life turned around in his junior year in high school, when he picked up a saxophone and learned to play.
“As I got into music, I found it became a focus in my life, and enabled me to work hard to achieve something,” he said.
Because Wu cannot see, he keeps diaries through music. He records his feelings in melodies, and has composed many songs.
One of his songs, Starlight, describes his childhood dream of looking up at the night sky full of stars and searching for a shooting star on which to make a wish. Due to his impaired eyesight, he could not see the starlight, so the music conveys how he imagined the beauty of the night sky.
His song Riding the Wind with a Pair of Wings has an upbeat, lively tempo to express how some small words of praise can be uplifting like a pair of wings.
After graduating from college, Wu joined the All In One Band (全方位樂團) led by Ricky Hsiao (蕭煌奇), a blind composer and acclaimed musician. Soon after the band broke up, Wu went to auditions and obtained a busking license for Taipei.
With much trepidation, Wu began his new career as a street performer.
“At first, I was shy, and it felt like begging. Then I thought, if I do not take the first step, then I will not be able to absolve myself of these feelings,” he said.
Wu headed alone to Taipei Railway Station’s underground concourse to play his music. That first day, disaster struck after he plugged his amplifier into a socket with the wrong voltage. After playing a few notes, the plug burned up and shorted out the outlet.
Wu laughs about that embarrassing incident now.
“That day, when I got home, I was still happy, because someone had deposited NT$15 in change into my donation box,” he said.
Wu soon settled into his new life as a street musician.
“One time, a man told me that someone there was crying, so I walked up to talk to the person who was crying. Then I found out that he was moved by my music. It was comforting him, calming his agitated emotions,” he said.
“Another time, a listener came up to me to shake my hand. He wanted to thank me for the music, which had imbued him with strength. That’s when I realized that music can be shared with others, not only to entertain them, but also to give a meaningful message to people,” Wu said.
“So if I did not try and did not take that first step, I would not have received so much in return,” he said.
This encouraged Wu to become more proactive and more willing to try new things, and that is when he started up the Life Jazz Band.
He also became involved in motivational speaking at various schools and companies. Encouraging students with his own life story and experiences, Wu told students to have courage, to pursue their dreams and to find their own values in life.
Wu often brought his band to play, so the students could see for themselves how the visually impaired musicians have such passion for music and enthusiasm for life.
“Many people can see that we are blind, but we can still live exciting, happy lives. This gives them encouragement,” he said.
After attending one of Wu’s “life education” classes, a high-school official kept asking Wu to teach the school’s music club students. Wu refused the invitation, citing his eye problems.
After the official promised to hire an assistant to help him teach the club, Wu told him the real reason for refusing: “I only have limited time. I want to use that time for those who really need my help.”
By those who needed his help, Wu meant the students at his alma mater, the Taipei School for the Visually Impaired.
He is now teaching music there, despite it offering much lower pay and requiring more time and effort than the other school. Some of the school’s students have emotional problems, while others have multiple physical disabilities, but he does not complain and is persistent in his teaching efforts.