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Elizabeth Kinder
Photo: Sophie Ziegler

The Elusive Ethnomusicologist

Elizabeth Kinder’s monthly column

I read somewhere that Mo Farah has an espresso before running the marathon. Inspired by the Olympics to get off my bum and to actually achieve something, anything, I tried it. I downed two one morning, because obviously I’m not as fit as him but still only managed a stroll round the park. Actually I could have done with a few espressos just to watch the Olympics. All those extraordinary feats of human prowess are a bit knackering, plus there’s the determination and discipline and the sacrifice involved in actually getting there. It’s enough to make you think you might use your time a bit better so I was glad when the Olympics drew to a close and I could stop worrying about under-achieving.

But then it got worse. The Paralympics popped up on our screens setting the bar even higher. So Usain Bolt, you can run faster than the speed of sound with no performance-enhancing drugs, but could you run really, really fast with no legs? Ditto Charlotte Dujardin, you might have won gold for the Dressage, but try doing that with cerebal palsy and no feeling from the knees down (and incidentally with a first class Masters degree in Maths) like multiple gold medal winner Sophie Christiansen. Honestly it gets to the point when paralympians look completely able-bodied, that you think they’re cheating. Oh yes and what odds have you overcome to get there?

It’s a short hop, skip and a jump to considering all those extraordinary artists who overcome insane odds to get their music out there (and that’s even before coming up against the mainstream music business). It’s a long list, you’ll no doubt have your own. And all of them have to play on the same level field as their able-bodied counterparts. The music they put out is either good or it isn’t, so all musicians have to be judged on equal terms. No-one says “You’ve got to listen to Robert Wyatt, his songs are brilliant because he’s in a wheelchair”. But the fact that he is and they are might prompt Spinal Tap’s deepest thinker David St Hubbins to comment on perspective.

So stop moaning Phil Collins, and think about Rick Allen. Def Lepard’s legendary one-armed drummer who lost his arm in a car accident. And though in many other cases musicians’ physical and mental impairments might be entirely due to self-medicating with drugs that are the opposite of performance-enhancing, this does not detract from the indomitable spirit that keeps them playing.

And talking of indomitable spirit I come again to my friend Al and the fact that you don’t have to be an Olympian, or an artist, to be inspirational. Al is totally paralysed from the neck down with MS and reliant on 24-hour care, so it’s a complete palaver and extremely painful for him just to leave his house. Against medical advice he took a trip from West London to Iona in the Scottish Western Isles to realise his dream of seeing the island and his old friends once more. He not only survived, he said the journey made him feel that life held possibilities once more. It’d be rude for us not to try and make the most of ours. So I’m off now to grab another espresso and get going.

Elizabeth Kinder


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