I’m due to first meet Jack at a cafe in Dusit – an area of Bangkok I’ve never been before and one I’m not familiar with. I’ve come prepared, with the address printed, some instructions and google maps in hand (albeit in Thai), but as the taxi sails past gated army headquarters and austere government buildings, I’m not confident – and it seems the driver isn’t either. So, with no common language between us, I phone Jack’s friend, Lek, to translate and give directions.
From talking to the driver, Lek knows exactly where we are and clarifies – turn left ahead, then a right, then straight on. “It’s no problem”, she tells me confidently. As I check the street signs and map again, it’s not my lame sense of direction that has me bemused and embarrassed, it’s the fact that Jack and Lek are both blind and can navigate this taxi better than I can.
When I reach Jack and Lek they greet me with warm smiles. Jack has the look of a classic rock and roll dude – dressed in double denim and replica Dior sunglasses. With his sleek dark hair, he’s a little bit Roy Orbison, a little bit Nick Cave, yet his voice is soft, his manner shy, and his laughter frequent and gentle.
On the short walk to the cafe we link arms – with me guiding them past the hot woks and steaming trolleys of street vendors and over broken bits of pavement. I’m tentative and cautious, but for Jack and Lek this is nothing special – just part of life as a blind person in a big, heaving city like Bangkok.
Jack (Ronnayut Ingsa), 34, is a successful musician, music educator, computer instructor and festival founder. Originally from Loei Province In Thailand’s North East , Jack moved to Bangkok ten years ago to pursue a music career.
“I thought if I moved to Bangkok there would be more opportunities and I’d have a better chance of living my dream”, he tells me, nonchalant about the challenges. “To be honest, it’s easier here than in the provinces. Here, yes, the footpath is difficult, but there is also the bus and the BTS to get around. It takes time, but once you learn to do it, it’s really no problem. And people also help you a lot.”
Jack lost his sight at 14 years old, in a motorcycle accident. As a teenage boy, in the haze of a carefree and spirited youth, the moment was, of course, devastating and confusing. Soon after, he began a course in Braille, Orientation and Mobility, as well as a myriad of other life skills at the Christian Foundation for the Blind (CFBT) in Nakornratsrima Province.
..there were kids playing football … football! … I thought to myself, this is amazing!
“When I first went to the CFBT school, I wasn’t sure how I could live this kind of life’, Jack tells me, “it seemed impossible. I felt quite lonely and scared, which is a common feeling. But then I started meeting people and making friends and I started to see that life had some potential again. I mean, there were kids playing football … football! There was a stone inside the ball and it made a sound as the ball was kicked, so the players knew where to find it and kick it and they were playing a real match. I thought to myself, this is amazing! The school gave me the chance to see just what blind people could do, just the same as anybody else, so after this, I didn’t feel so bad any more.”
Later, Jack returned to mainstream schooling via an integrated education program.
It was during these years that music became Jack’s real passion. He practised hard for many hours, becoming more confident over time and eventually competent enough to consider pursuing it at University.
“My teachers warned me that it would be tough making a living from music and perhaps I would be better off studying law, which I had the grades for. They were also worried because the image of blind people and music in this country is not good. The only blind musicians most people see are the street musicians, which are like a novelty and they have no credibility within the mainstream music industry. But this just made me want to do it more. I wanted to have my own band and I wanted to change people’s attitudes, I wanted people to understand and accept blind musicians equally. So I settled on a music degree majoring in classical guitar”.
A few weeks later I visit Jack rehearsing with his band, I-onion, for an upcoming performance in Chiang Mai at the Blind Music Festival . The festival is yet another of Jacks initiatives – he is the Festival founder and Concert Manager – and attracts blind musicians from places as far afield as Sweden, Finland and Brazil, as well as Asia.
“One, two, one, two, three, four” Jack counts it in and taps at the reverb pedal, his Gibson electric slung low across his hips.
“I love you baby, and if it’s quite all right I need you baby, to warm those lonely nights, oh let me love you baby, let me love you ….. “ Ni, the lead singer, grunts and growls his way through the song, giving a heavy rock twist to a 70s classic. In this tiny windowless room, on the top floor of a sleepy back alley building, the sound is intense – all big guitars and crashing drums – yet the guys look laid back and in their element.
I don’t want to be known simply as a ‘blind musician’.
Jack and Den, the drummer, met at the CFBT school in their teens and formed I-onion together when they both moved to Bangkok around the same time. Ni joined them five years ago, while Arm, on bass, is a temporary member currently filling in for another friend. To date they have one album of original songs already released, with plans for two singles and a second album later this year.
“You’re just too good to be true, I can’t take my eyes off of you …. “ Jack and Ni croon in harmony.
As they rehearse, Jack coaches the others along, suggesting ways to enhance the performance – a little more emphasis here and there, a change in pacing, as well as jokes about how to perhaps coax the audience into a sing-a-long. The performance will be held on Valentines Day after all.
But it’s not just the gigging and performing that drives Jack, it’s the desire to change people’s perceptions and attitudes.
“If we are good enough and we get played on the radio or people buy our music off iTunes, then it doesn’t matter that we are blind, we can be as good as any other band out there. This is important. I don’t want to be known simply as a ‘blind musician’.
According to a recent news article, the challenges for blind people in Thailand are not just with day to day living, but an ingrained cultural belief tied to Buddhism, that any disabilities a person might have in this life – are a result of some karmic debt from the past. This can and does translate into a shortage of financial support, as well as a sense of shame and stigma amongst the community and within some families. Despite this though, Jack seems to bring out a softness in people and I witness many acts of kindness when I’m with him. From the security guard at his apartment building, to the woman running the cafe across the road serving his noodles, to the motorcycle taxi guys who ferry him to work each day, and the station attendants at the BTS stations. It’s quite beautiful to watch. Jack also makes it clear that his family have always been incredibly supportive and loving and that he could not have made this journey without them.
Losing my sight made me pay more attention and focus fully on what I really wanted.
Later, Lek tells me that Jack has also always been a very optimistic person, but with his strong sense of purpose, humility and grace, I’m not sure he realises just how exceptional he is. How inspirational.
“Losing my sight, very suddenly, it really tested me as a person. It was a life lesson that I either was going to pass or fail. Of course it was very, very difficult learning everything all over again from the beginning. And it’s not just the day to day things like washing, eating, dressing, shopping and taking care of yourself, but also achieving things is harder, following your dream is harder. But losing my sight made me pay more attention and focus fully on what I really wanted. Maybe I wouldn’t have been able to do it otherwise. Before I never thought so much about making the effort or trying hard, I just assumed I could have whatever I wanted. So, for example, to be a musician, I had to practice really hard, harder than I might have practised if I had my sight, just to be at the same level as a sighted person. But once I did it, every new challenge seemed smaller and easier to deal with. When I face new things now, I don’t worry. I know I just need to try and work for it and it will come”.
As well as his plans for the band, Jack is also in the midst of establishing Thailand’s first Blind Music Institute, a facility that is currently under construction, and of which, he will be the Director. Opening later this year, the Institute will offer tuition in music, programming and arranging, as well as a proper recording studio. In the future, Jack would like the Institute to also set up its own publishing arm, which can record and release the music of other blind musicians under their wing.
“Just like Grammy”, Jack laughs, referring to Thailand, largest and most famous publisher of pop and rock acts.
“Though I like performing’, he says, ” I also feel like it’s time for me to give back – to inspire others to achieve their dreams, and to help to provide them with opportunities, just like I’ve had. I hope I can be a good example, through what I’ve achieved, and be an inspiration to others. That’s very important to me”.
As the band finish rehearsals and pack away their gear, they banter excitedly – about last minute travel plans, the flight they will catch early the next morning and how each of them is going to spend their evening. Unlike the stereotypical, big ego, fractious rock group dynamic, there is a palpable sense of camaraderie and friendship here.
As I too make plans to go, I ask Jack and Lek if I can help in any way – but again Lek assures me, “It’s no problem”. And this time I truly believe her.