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The relationship between blindness and musical talent

By  Fred Zindi

Although it has long been observed that children who go blind at a very young age develop musical talents, scientists have reported that visually impaired people are up to 10 times better at discriminating between pitches.

However, this only appears to be the case if blindness occurred before the age of two, and the results showed a clear correlation between musical talent and blindness.

We all know of world-famous blind musician, Stevie Wonder.

He was the youngest person to have a US number 1 hit at the age of 13.

He has had over 100 million albums sold, over 30 US top-10 hits, 25 Grammies, 10 US number-one hits on the pop charts, a Lifetime Achievement Award, an Oscar, and is inducted in both the Songwriters and the Rock and Roll Halls of Fame.

On top of being recognised as one of the most successful artistes of our era, he has also been blind since birth due to premature retinopathy.

Another blind musician who also became successful in the industry is Ray Charles.

Such inspirational stories of high-profile blind musicians overcoming their physical obstacles to make their mark in history have long caused people to ponder whether there is a special relationship between music and blindness.

After all, research shows that 57% of blind musicians have perfect pitch, compared to less than 20% of musicians who do see.

But another equally important reason is that blind people tend to be more sensitive to sound than people with normal sight.

These reports seem to indicate that besides a stronger sensitivity to auditory cues, blind musicians perhaps utilise many other parts of the brain in understanding music that were previously believed to be unrelated, such as the frontal lobe and parietal lobe.

Hence, it is not surprising that a lot of research also indicates that blind people have also a greater propensity for language and memory.

However, we must not forget the numerous challenges the blind face in order to function normally in society.

Blind people have to deal with the inability to perceive the world by restricting their movement and contact with the world.

Most also have a tendency to become over-protective on a daily basis in order to avoid dangers that people with sight don’t have to deal with.

They also have to cope with the emotional awkwardness amidst the presence of sighted people.

They have to work harder in life to accomplish even the most basic things of life, such as gaining employment.

I was in contact with a totally blind student who was asking me to lend him US$50 to travel to Hwange.

I said that I would give him. I then took out a 20 bond note and gave him.

He started to laugh, then exclaimed: “Prof, I could be blind, but I am not stupid! This is 20 bond and not 50 US dollars.”

I then gave him the US$50 note which he said was genuine. I told him that I was only testing to see if he could tell the difference.

I am still trying to figure out how a totally blind person could distinguish between the two notes just by touching them with his fingers.

It boils down to both passion and extra sensitivity which those who can see do not have.

Thus, think about how much more determination, hard work, talent and passion one must acquire in order to become a great musician.

In Zimbabwe we have had situations where great musicians such as Munyaradzi Munodawafa have emerged among blind people.

Also think of those who were based at the Jairos Jiri Centre in Bulawayo and became members of the Jairos Jiri Kwela Kings band. The list is endless.

I will only look at those that became more prominent in Zimbabwe.

For instance, blind vocalist, saxophonist and guitarist Fanyana Dube turned out to be a brilliant musician.

Although blind, he performed to ecstatic audiences as if he had no visual impairment.

In 1958, when blind Fanyana was 12-years-old, he formed Sunrise Kwela Kings with a group of friends.

In 1974, Fanyana moved to Victoria Falls and joined Combination (Submarine) for a year.

He went back to Bulawayo where he played with the Cantos Quartet led by Never Nevado Ndlovu (of the 1950s’ Cool Four).

In 1978 he was performing with The Elbow, led by Bheki Khumalo.

The group played at the Federal Hotel, a social focal point of the 1970s.

When they disbanded, Fanyana formed the Jobs Combination and the group heightened his popularity.

He wrote compositions which were popularised by Lovemore Majaivana.

When Majaivana left the group, Fanyana performed as a vocalist, guitarist and saxophonist.

He recorded the hits Ngidhingi Imali, Isimanga, InyamaYembongolo and many others.

Always on the move, Fanyana had a stint with another group, the Champ, at the Federal Hotel.

In 1989, he travelled to Canada to perform alongside other disabled musicians.

It was a great moment for him as he met several and diverse artistes.

He bought himself a house from the proceeds of the trip.

Back home, he teamed up with Andrew Chakanyuka (a guitarist of note), and Tony Makwavarara at the Southern Night Club.

He then moved to Dete and paired up with a renowned musician of the 1980s, Solomon Sikhuza.

In 1992 he settled in Mutare where he performed in a hotel.

Fanyana decided to make Mutare his home.

He occasionally visited Harare to perform at jazz festivals where he was popular with fans.

Fanyana fought odds to stay in the music business.

“Blindness is not a disability, I can do anything, it’s only my eyes which cannot see,” he once remarked somberly.

Sadly, Fanyana is no more.

Another blind musician who made the headlines was Paul Matavire.

Born in 1963 in Rutenga, Mwenezi area, Matavire, lead singer with the Jairos Jiri Band, developed glaucoma at the age of six which exacerbated his failing eyesight.

A year later, he was totally blind. Undaunted, Matavire taught himself to play drums, keyboard and the guitar in 1982.

On completion of his secondary schooling, Matavire joined the Jairos Jiri Association, an organisation looking after disabled people, as a social worker.

He was so impressed by the group that one day Matavire asked if he could become a member. His wish was granted.

When his parents heard that their son had abandoned social work to follow this risky career, they protested.

Matavire continued as a musician and in no time at all, he released two controversial hits Tanga Wandida and Dhiabhorosi Nyoka.

These songs dominated the radio airwaves throughout the country for almost a year, thus winning Matavire the title ‘Dr Love’ as he wooed the hearts of many women through his rich Shona  language lyrics.

Matavire’s music gained popularity due to his humour, the use of rich and deep Shona lyrics, and his willingness to tread on what many regarded as sensitive societal issues.

With his blindness, he was indeed a sensitive man. His songs touched on anything from religion to marital issues, but still retaining the humour that made them ever so popular.

His hit song Dhiyabhorosi Nyoka stirred controversy at its release by its reference to the Biblical Eve, and women in general, as the root cause of every man’s troubles, while at the same time acknowledging the pivotal role women play in society.

Surprisingly, Matavire’s music has remained popular even among the youth in Zimbabwe years after his death.

He is also remembered for his willingness to experiment with the Shona language in his songs, coining phrases that have remained part of everyday conversation among many Zimbabweans.

Later, other hits such as Ma U released in 1988 established Matavire as one of Zimbabwe’s finest commentators on social issues.

As if commenting on topical issues was not sufficient, Matavire found himself in trouble in 1990 when he was alleged to have raped a visually handicapped woman from the Jairos Jiri Association.

All evidence led to the fact that Matavire had indeed raped as the victim had torn a piece of Matavire’s shirt she kept as evidence despite his denials.

Before the court had reached its verdict on the matter, Matavire had released a record entitled Joke of the Year in which he pleaded innocence on the matter.

This brought about even more controversy regarding the case.

As Matavire argued, “If one has a talent, it must be stretched to the limit”, he certainly did.

Matavire later served a one- year prison term after being convicted of rape.

On release in 1991, Matavire released a single entitled Back from College which was a recapitulation of his prison experiences.

His last release in 2003 was Zimbe Remoto. With such a full life, Matavire demonstrated to us that disability is not inability.

Matavire died in 2005.

  • Feedback: frezindi@gmail.com

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