Local blues singer helps create the ‘Special Olympics’ of music
By Lonnie Burstein Hewitt
United By Music, a program based in The Netherlands that provides opportunities for talented people with developmental disabilities to perform onstage with professional musicians, was introduced to the San Diego area Jan. 31 at a reception at The Oasis in Sorrento Valley.
UBM founder Joris van Wijngaarden, CFO of a health-care organization that serves thousands of clients with developmental and physical disabilities, attended to spark interest in the nonprofit he started five years ago with local blues legend Candye Kane.
Van Wijngaarden, an avid blues fan, first met Candye in Belgium, during one of her concert tours. Between shows, he took her to see the medieval city of Brugge and she gave him a crash course in Real Life Blues Music 101. He ended up inviting her to perform in his hometown of Sliedrecht.
“I decided to organize a blues festival where I work,” he said. “It’s a community for intellectually disabled people, which means people with IQs under 70. I invited a number of musicians I knew, and included some of my special needs people who were interested in music.”
At a pre-show buffet, several of van Wijngaarden’s clients came up to Candye and spoke to her — in English. And when she heard them sing, she invited them onstage to perform with her.
“It was hard to believe they had disabilities,” Candye said. “And they were singing in English!”
van Wijngaarden picked up the story. “Everyone was so excited,” he said. “I had tears in my eyes. And afterwards, I said to Candye: I have an idea that together we can do a wonderful thing.”
UBM was born some months later, and Candye, who has lived a blues life herself, became its bandleader, mentor and coach. The blues seemed the right kind of music for people dismissed by society.
“Disabled people are historically chanceless people — like blues people,” van Wijngaarden said.
UBM was created to offer them chances. First, there’s the chance to come to an open audition. “It’s like a party,” he said. “Anyone can come, they’re all part of the event, and they all get to go onstage. And there’s an audience to applaud them, whatever they do.”
But only the best and most motivated are chosen, mentored, and given a chance to perform for the general public. For many of them, it’s the first time they’re looked at for something they can do. And for the professionals, it’s the first time they see how blurred the line is between “normal” and not. As one client wrote in a song: “I’m not special, I’m just like you.”
After four concert tours and 60 shows in the Netherlands, Ireland, Belgium, and South Africa, UBM has now crossed the Atlantic, under the direction of Barbara Hammerman, a Seattle-area resident and longtime friend of Candye’s who has spent 30 years in nonprofit fundraising and development.
Born in Louisiana, she grew up loving the blues. “We didn’t call it the blues there. We just called it music,” she said. She went on to serve on the National Blues Foundation in Memphis, and received the National Keeping the Blues Alive Award in 2009.
“Three years ago, when Joris wanted to expand into the U.S. and Canada, Candye told him: you’ve got to meet my friend Barbara,” Hammerman said.
Now UBM’s North American Director, she successfully shepherded UBM through a summer of concerts from Vancouver to Santa Cruz. She calls what they’re doing “the Special Olympics of music.”
The local event, featuring performances by Candye and Friends, drew a small but enthusiastic crowd of about 40 musicians, mental health workers, and prospective volunteers and donors. It was hosted by Martha Sullivan, a Del Mar resident who produces house concerts at The Oasis, an attractive space that doubles as a showroom for her online art, crafts, and book store.
“Candye performed at Oasis a year or so ago,” Sullivan said. “And then Barbara friended me on Facebook, and we met when I was up in Seattle. She told me about UBM and I said I was interested. And when they decided to introduce UBM here, I had the perfect venue, and a list of guests to invite.”
Van Wijngaarden’s visit also included a chance to see Candye’s autobiographical musical “Toughest Girl Alive” at Moxie Theatre. UBM sponsored the Jan. 30 matinee, which quickly sold out.
Want to know more?
Next month, UBM will be back, for what Hammerman called “a more in-depth conversation.” Interested? Contact Barbara Hammerman at firstname.lastname@example.org For more details on Oasis concerts, contact Martha Sullivan at MarthaSullivan@mac.com
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