Sign language interpreters describe their experience with music

Indonesian sign language interpreters talk about their practice and how it feels to “perform” for the hard of hearing and deaf to create a more-inclusive performance.

Yohana Belinda

Yohana Belinda

The Jakarta Post


Inclusive: Koes Adiati said people with disabilities should be able to experience art like everyone else. (Courtesy of Koes Adiati) (Archive/Courtesy of Koes Adiati)

May 11, 2023

JAKARTAIndonesian sign language interpreters talk about their practice and how it feels to “perform” for the hard of hearing and deaf to create a more-inclusive performance.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow once wrote, “Music is the universal language of mankind.”

On the other hand, some people cannot “tune” to sound like hearing people can.

Data reported by the Indonesian National Commission on Violence Against Women (Komnas Perempuan) reveal at least 223,655 individuals are deaf in Indonesia, and another 73,560 are both deaf and mute, as reported.

Since 2014, Batam-based entrepreneur Rezki Achyana has been heavily engaged in assisting those who are disabled. In Riau, the 26-year-old runs four Sekolah Luar Biasa (SLB), or special schools for special-needs minors. And since 2019, Rezki has been looking for a sign language interpreter.

Joining the presidential campaign for President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo in 2019 gave him his first opportunity to work as a sign language translator. Although he had been recruited as an interpreter for the event, he had not previously known his duties would include translating a song. It happened immediately.

For the occasion, he remembered singing “Selamat Ulang Tahun” (roughly translated as Happy Birthday) by the band Jamrud, released in 2002.

Nobody saw that coming. Many deaf people around him seemed to be “singing” along with him.

Fulfilling: Winda Utami said she was happy to take part in the event as it was beneficial for everyone involved. (Courtesy of Winda Utami) (Archive/Courtesy of Winda Utami)

“Many hearing people have been misinformed that the deaf cannot appreciate music. However, if a sign language interpreter was available, they might attend,” Rezki said.

“They do know [Indonesian singers] Yura Yunita, Tulus, among many others,” he added.

Winda Utami is another interpreter working in Jakarta’s Indonesian Sign Language Bahasa Isyarat Indonesia (Indonesian Sign Language). She has been doing interpretation work everywhere. She has been interpreting for presidential contender debates. Still, her most noteworthy performance was for Indonesia’s Independence Day, when she interpreted the dangdut song “Ojo Dibandingke” (roughly translated as Don’t Compare) by Farel Prayoga.

She believed the only job that could fulfill her needs was working in Indonesia as a communicator for people who used sign language. In addition, she concurred with Rezki’s assessment that members of the deaf community could “feel the rhythm” of the music, one reason they enjoyed the show so much. Furthermore, many people should be informed there are different levels of deafness. Mild (21-40 dB), moderate (21-40 dB), severe (71–95 dB) and profound deafness (95 dB).

“They could hear the beat of the drum, from our [sign language interpreters’] expression and they could understand the lyrics,” Winda said.

In an article published by the University of Washington, entitled “Brains of deaf people rewire to ‘hear the music’”, Dr. Dean Shibata explained the deaf experience musical vibrations as if really hearing the corresponding sounds since the same area of the brain processes both.

Furthermore, he elaborated on how the brain’s adaptability was remarkable. Young deaf brains use the situation by repurposing brain regions usually used to process sound to detect and interpret vibrations.

Because vibrational information has many of the same properties as sound information, it stands to reason in the deaf, one modality may replace the other in the same processing region of the brain. Shibata explained the nature of the information, rather than its modality, was essential for the developing brain.

Beyond interpreting

Rezki and Winda agreed there was more to interpreting a piece of music into sign language than words.

As opposed to communicating in a normal conversation, interpreters typically have to match the lyrics and expressions to the tempo of the music to assist deaf populations in comprehending the song’s meaning. In addition, a sign language interpreter needs to be familiar with the song’s words to provide an accurate interpretation.

Expression matters: Facial expression is crucial for conveying a song’s meaning to the crowd during a live performance, according to sign-language interpreter Rezki Achyana. (Courtesy of Rezki Achyana) (Archive/Courtesy of Rezki Achyana)

Rezki expressed his desire that in the future, a greater number of performance organizers would offer the services of sign language interpreters to communities of deaf individuals.

Winda added there had been some improvement in the event organization, especially after Winds’s 2022 Independence Day performance. Naturally, interpreters like Rezki and Winda faced unique difficulties while preparing for the performance, particularly in cases where song titles were not included in the briefs.

“In the past, I made it a habit to inquire about the setlist before the concert began. As a result, when a song was played unexpectedly, it caused me great anxiety,” Winda said.

The mother of a 3-year-old child reflected on the time she sang “Ojo Dibandingke” at an Independence Day celebration in 2022. She has yet to memorize the lyrics, but she had heard the music so often on social media she can sing along with all the correct expressions.

“If you knew the song, it would at least help you on stage with the unexpected turns,” she added.

Since 2020, Koes Adiati, a producer from the event-organizing company Adia Project, has been collaborating with a sign language interpreter to stream live concerts of choral music worldwide. She explained she took the initiative to work with the sign language interpreter because she felt strongly the deaf community should have the same musical pleasure as the hearing community.

“It was a simple thing, as my friend said ‘happy birthday’ in sign language to someone, and it was fascinating,” Koes said.

“In 2021, we covered a song titled ‘Rayuan Pulau Kelapa’ in sign language, and in 2022, we did a concert with a sign language interpreter,” she continued, sharing why she became more aware of sign language interpreters in music events.

“It dawned on me the presence of a sign language interpreter at a performance is more than just a novelty,” she added.

Isro Ayu Permata Sari, a music lover from Tanah Grogot, East Kalimantan, explained how music helps her relax through sound that can be followed by body and mind.

“For the deaf community, more accessible options are critically required, because we can appreciate and comprehend the content and we are legally entitled to access it,” Isro said; she further expressed her desire to see more interpreters for the deaf present at musical performances.


Singing at performances has been one of Winda’s favorite activities, even more than helping people with disabilities.

“Of course, it was an honor for me to do some interpreting during events such as the police event, but interpreting for a concert is just different. I do enjoy it personally,” Winda said.

Rezki holds high expectations that in the future, more concert organizers will welcome the possibility of having sign language interpreters present at their events. He stressed the significance of everyone’s freedom to enjoy themselves similarly.

“Hiring us [sign language interpreters] is not too much money. Most people mistakenly believe hiring a sign language translator will break the bank. For a three-hour performance, however, you’d only be looking at shelling out Rp 1 million [US$65.36],” Rezki said.

There are even nations where it is standard practice for live-event organizers to employ sign-language interpreters for all performances.

For example, in the United Kingdom, the Royal National Institute for the Deaf found that 1 in 6 people have some hearing loss; however, few concert halls and festivals provide any accommodations for the hard-of-hearing audiences, proven by the rising number of deaf customers purchasing tickets for live music events.

Over 3 million deaf and disabled fans visit these shows annually. The demand for disabled tickets increased by 70 percent in 2016 alone, according to data compiled by the UK Live Music Census.

Wembley Stadium offered a British Sign Language (BSL) interpreter for every live concert.

“The deaf communities need and deserve equality. So, this [providing an inclusive space at a music concert] is what I can do to contribute a little bit. So that they can enjoy music in their own way,” Koes closed.


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