Songs from a Silent World
story by Jamie Winpenny
photo by Brad Goda
With each swing of the pendulum during a spirited telling of Edgar Allen Poe’s classic, “The Pit and the Pendulum,” master storyteller Ed Chevy’s eyes grow wilder. His kinetic body language and facial expressions inspire laughter, apprehension and terror from the faces of his audience, young and old. Remarkable, because Chevy elicits such powerful reactions without uttering a word. Indeed, without making any sound at all: He, like many of those in his audience, is deaf. “It’s my favorite Poe story,” Chevy signs to me after his performance. “It has a happy ending.”
Chevy is one of Hawai‘i’s most respected storytellers, not because he is deaf but because he has the gift of capturing and riveting the audience’s attention. He raises American Sign Language to the level of a performance art, a dance, when telling Poe’s stories. Storytelling isn’t the only domain of the hearing into which Ed has made inroads. Ed’s also a rock starbass player for the all-deaf rock band, Beethoven’s Nightmare.
The child of deaf parents, Chevy grew up with ASL. His parents were supportive, so when he decided to start a rock band after seeing The Who in 1966, they gave their cautious approval. “The Who rattled my bones,” he says. “I knew immediately that I wanted to play music.” Forty years later, his band is opening minds in Los Angeles and other US cities with genuine American rock ’n’ roll remarkable not only for the novelty of an all-deaf band, but because the music is forceful and, most importantly, it’s in time. “We can all count,” Chevy smiles.
Chevy recalls the band’s first gig, where he and his mates stood before an auditorium full of people who didn’t know what to expect. Neither did the band. “No one in the crowd was moving,” says Chevy. “I counted us into the first song, and their toes started tapping. By the end, they were dancing in the aisles!” With an acute sense for vibration and the help of a hearing device, he makes music that impresses even the keenest ear.
Ed Chevy has devoted his life to helping deaf people overcome the challenges they face. He serves as a mentor at the Hawai‘i School for the Deaf and the Blind on the slopes of Diamond Head, is a certified ASL instructor and also teaches baby-sign to the parents of deaf infants. Chevy is intent on dispelling misconceptions about deaf culture, and through his storytelling and Beethoven’s Nightmare, he is out to break down the silent wall. He shares a birthday with Ludwig van, and when asked if he has anything else in common with history’s greatest deaf musician, Chevy grins sheepishly and signs, “I don’t play piano.”