Meet The Deaf and the Musician, the Utah duo redefining ASL interpretation

Salt Lake City coffeehouse duo aims to bridge the gap between the deaf community and the hearing community.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Cindy McAllister and Ben Brinton, The Deaf and The Musician, performing at RoHa Brewing Project in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Oct. 13, 2022.

At one point in her life, Cindy McAllister said she gave up on music entirely — enjoying it in any shape or form.

”I hated concerts, I hated when music is the activity,” she said. “I wouldn’t listen to music.” Small things, such as a Pandora playlist on at someone’s house, became frustrating to McAllister, who is deaf.

She gave away all of her CDs. Except for one from a friend: Ben Brinton.

The two have been friends for decades, but only started working together during the COVID-19 pandemic — with Brinton playing guitar and singing, and McAllister signing his songs in American Sign Language. That’s how The Deaf and The Musician started.

It started, Brinton said, from a simple conversation, about the idea of McAllister interpreting his original songs.

“It became this sort of performance that we do: This really interesting display of sign language,” he said. “It touches on songwriting, art, the deaf and hard-of-hearing cultures.”

It’s a different way, he said, to communicate the poetry of movement.

McAllister said that when she’s attended Brinton’s shows over the years, he would make small signs for her from the stage. She says she would light up, and it was different than her other concert experiences in Utah — a state, she said, that has a definite lack of ASL interpreter services.

“Concerts I would go to in Salt Lake, I would always be the one that you saw off to the side, [watching] the interpreter,” she said.

Hearing people, she said, don’t understand that interpreters “have to shift and hurry up and explain, with perfect timing for sentences, to let me know ‘hold on — we are stepping outside the show.’”

It’s information — pauses from the performer, interactions with the crowd — that McAllister said she needs to understand what is going on at a show, outside the actual music.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Cindy McAllister and Ben Brinton, The Deaf & The Musician, performing at RoHa Brewing Project in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Oct. 13, 2022.

The experience of being deaf at a concert

“I’ve never really had good experiences with interpreters at concerts,” she said, adding that she prefers not to have them when she attends shows. “I don’t know what’s going on, but I feel like I can watch the stage and not be spotlighted [as the deaf person].”

To hearing people, McAllister said she has discovered, an ASL interpreter can be a distraction. She cited an example that prompted her phase of disliking music.

Once, McAllister said, she wanted to go to see the rock band Tool at the Maverik Center. She called in advance to make sure an ASL interpreter would be available, but didn’t get a response. When she called closer to the show, she was told there wasn’t enough notice. Eventually, an interpreter arrived.

Then came another obstacle: Part of Tool’s act is playing songs whose lyrics are unknown to the audience before they’re played. The interpreter, in this case, was able to understand and sign lyrics for the two new songs on the spot.

But, McCallister said, her seats were hidden, and the lights that were shining to make the interpreter visible were a bother to other concertgoers.

“There’s ways in which they can show up to a show and interpret it, and it sounds easy enough, but it’s usually mixed with more difficulties,” Brinton said. “They just show up and do their best. … Sign language is very direct because you need to be efficient to say your point and keep moving, any pause has a way of not only slowing it down but stunting it.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Cindy McAllister and Ben Brinton, The Deaf & The Musician, performing at RoHa Brewing Project in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Oct. 13, 2022.

Chemistry while performing

Both Brinton and McAllister said they’re aware that sign language interpretation of music isn’t anything new; under the 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act, “concert venues and production companies must provide interpreters upon request,” according to a Colorado Public Radio article. But what sets the duo apart is their ability to work together.

At a show last month at RoHa Brewing Project, the duo’s chemistry was on full display: Brinton’s crooning voice matched by McAllister’s poignant signing. Brinton signs too, along with her, from time to time.

When they perform, their eye contact is so constant that it almost feels as if the audience is intruding — yet it also feels like a natural part of the performance.

“Having this direct contact, and being right next to him on the stage — we’re not seeing anybody else do that,” she said.

McAllister does get the audience more involved during their three-hour set, teaching them the signs for colors and swear words.

McAllister said her favorite part of the act is having direct access to Brinton’s lyrics.

Brinton agreed. “That’s part of that value that we have, there’s more thought that goes into what we’re trying to perform or sign, a little deeper thinking,” he said.

For example, there’s a song where Brinton sings “make no mistake, the cityscape is not my muse — and he and McAllister had to have a conversation about how to sign it, because the word “muse” can be signed differently as a noun and as a verb.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Cindy McAllister and Ben Brinton, The Deaf & The Musician, performing at RoHa Brewing Project in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Oct. 13, 2022.

Bridging the gap

Working with McAllister, Brinton said, has made him more aware of the obstacles that deaf and hard-of-hearing people face when trying to enjoy music. It’s also made him more conscious of how sign language can help him in his daily life, such as at a loud bar.

Sometimes, someone signing can be seen as a novelty. While being interviewed for this article in a downtown Salt Lake City coffee shop, McAllister’s signing drew the stares of a man at a nearby table.

Working together has also allowed Brinton to give McAllister cultural references with music that most in the deaf community can’t always access — like the context of a song you’ve heard a thousand times.

“If I start talking about Mick Jagger, that creates more and more of a gap between” the deaf community and the hearing community, Brinton said, “because who is Mick Jagger to someone who doesn’t hear his voice?”

When performing, McAllister said her favorite moments come when they play some not-so-popular songs — the “cult classics,” as she called them — and one person in the room lights up with recognition.

She said she also enjoys interactive passages with the crowd, like when they perform Lorde’s “Royals,” which features a good call-and-response section.

The duo is always learning, they said, by having other interpreters watch the show and offer feedback. One said Brinton talks too much, which is when they decided to have McAllister interact more with the audience.

They said they still don’t get much feedback from the deaf community — and McAllister said she knows why. “Even if it’s interpreted, it’s still a hearing activity,” she said.

“We’re trying to figure out how to give that experience to someone who can’t hear it,” Brinton said. “In order to understand the humor or magic of the moment, there is a sound that needs to be communicated. It’s more than just words. It’s the expression stuff.”

It’s a sensitive process, Brinton said, of trying to make deaf people interested in music but in the end, they both agree: It’s about being better together.

The duo has more performances in the near future (go to benbrinton.com/gigs for a schedule), and is working on teaching ASL classes, using music as the medium to make it more accessible for all. But ASL itself is constantly changing, in a community way and individual way; for example, Brinton and McAllister came up with their own sign for COVID-19.

For now, though, McAllister said working with her friend has brought back her love of music, exponentially so.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) The audience applauds in American Sign Language as Cindy McAllister and Ben Brinton, The Deaf & The Musician, perform at RoHa Brewing Project in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Oct. 13, 2022.

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