Many people see a deaf musician as a contradiction in terms. There are so few : Beethoven, Evelyn Glennie, Pete Townsend….melZebra! She was born deaf, but when she’s playing music, her hearing isn’t a problem. A prolific songwriter and professional musician, plays guitar / sax / percussion /vocals and has founded various bands, including melZebra and the Buffaloes, an all-women alt-punk rock band; African reggae group One Jah; Eastern European-flavoured 6-piece Gypskazz; and her jazz quartet, the Zebra Ensemble.
With a Royal Academy of Music-trained pianist / violinist mother and French-horn-playing scientist father, melZebra was born into a musical cradle that’s never stopped rocking: starting as a session saxophonist, she did a jazz post-grad in Edinburgh, where she also ran a Sunday afternoon jazz jam. The vibrant and idiosyncratic Edinburgh music scene inspired melZebra to start writing her own stuff – ranging from indie rock to post-punk to ska to jazz composition, which she played live in almost every music venue in Edinburgh, solo and in eclectic company. In search of new musical horizons melZebra then moved to London where she formed the appropriately-named Londinos, playing Trafalgar Square for the Paralympic Games. Having long been involved in direct action political activism, she went on to create punk-rock band ParaFernalia – with whom she recorded her first album, Weekend Anarchist – and joined One Jah, doing sax arrangements for songs of social justice and freedom.
While melZebra’s hearing impairment – 50% neuro-congenital hearing loss – means she can’t hear, for example phonics, as clearly as her non-deaf counterparts, she compensates with an acute sense of vibration and resonance. She loves bass and happily stands in front of the speakers in a club, feeling the vibrations running up her back. The ‘musical space’, that holy grail where the indescribable magic that creates great music happens, is accessed by a different sensory gateway when your route works differently from other musicians’. A no-less compelling pathway with the same ecstatic destination.
As a deaf female multinstrumentalist – including the more traditionally male-oriented electric guitar and saxophone – composer and songwriter, melZebra has come up against a fair amount of prejudice on the British music scene. Once she starts playing her saxophone, that fades away, at least for the duration of the set, but it’s persuading influential people to give her a chance in the first place that can be the challenge.
Listen to Born Deaf when it comes out early next year – you won’t regret it if you do, but you will, if you don’t.