Czech orchestra of disabled musicians gets world attention

PRAGUE, Czech Republic — It’s an unusual orchestra, one that has played in London, Madrid, Moscow and Jerusalem. Its next stops are New York, Washington and Chicago.

The Tap Tap, created 18 years ago to give students at a renowned school for the disabled in Prague an extracurricular activity, has become a major musical operation that has drawn millions of fans, first at home and gradually abroad.

You can’t tell from its professional, typically rhythmic sound that many of the musicians are in wheelchairs with serious disabilities. And that’s just what its director wants.

Band leader Simon Ornest believes that often the disabled aren’t challenged enough and people tend to be too solicitous of them.

“My goal from the very start was not to do it as a therapy but as a band with everything that it could involve,” Ornest said. “(Those) around 18 to 20 years old are confronted in our band for the first time with a situation where we really want something from them. We insist on it.”

Ornest said he had a feeling the concept was viable but has been astounded at its success.

“I wouldn’t believe it would be possible to develop it as we have done. It’s an elaborate system with hard work behind it, unexpectedly hard work,” he said.

He said the band’s strength is based on its two essential rules.

“We come on time and we do what we promised among ourselves to do. It’s a pretty good basis for any teamwork,” he said.

In the beginning, The Tap Tap started with cover versions of their favourite songs. Today it produces music of its own, with help from local musicians, and lyrics that target the world of the disabled.

“We try to sing about the people with disabilities in a sensitive but also humorous way,” Ornest said.

Their recent hit, “The Bus Director” is about a bus driver who prevents a disabled man from boarding the bus with his bicycle. The song has had over 6.9 million views on YouTube — quite an accomplishment for a song sung in Czech in a country of only 10 million.

“At the beginning, people were more curious about what we are, about what the disabled can perform,” said Jana Augustinova, a The Tap Tap singer. “And then (came) pity, wonder. Now, we have fans as any other band. They like our music and they don’t consider us a band of disabled kids but as a real band.”

Today, the 20-member ensemble plays about 60 concerts a year and has been preforming a musical at the National Theatre in Prague. Despite all the difficulties of going on the road, The Tap Tap has played a number of European capitals. This year it is crossing the Atlantic to put on concerts in New York City, Washington D.C. and Chicago.

The orchestra’s next project for next year is to perform in Czech prisons together with inmates in concerts that will be broadcast live by Czech public television.

“What the people just released from prison and the disabled have in common is that the public doesn’t expect much from them,” Ornest said.

Ladislav Angelovic, the band’s master of ceremonies, said The Tap Tap is ready to face a whole new level of challenges.

“We started as an extracurricular activity and it got out of our hands a bit,” he said. “In fact, we are a professional ensemble now.”

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