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Percujam: "Art above autism"

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Translation by:

Alicia Hector

Music apparently soothes the mind. Percujam attributes another power to it, as music blurs differences when a group of autistic people and their educators come together to perform. Let's meet this unique group.

The percussions resonate. The guitarist and the keyboard player whip out chord after chord. The singers are clapping their hands. The lead singer extends his microphone to the delighted crowd. At first glance, it's a regular band moving about on stage at the Chorus festival, except that 8 out of Percujam's 15 members are autistic. For 17 years, this upbeat band has been performing not only for their own pleasure, but also to make others happy. With three albums, the group has caught the eye of several singers: Tryo,(for whom they performed as the opening act), Calogéro (with whom they recorded a music video), as well as -M- and slam poet Grand Corps Malade.

They've only just got off the stage and it's the day before a major concert at the Olympia, however, two members of Percujam fill us in on their crazy adventure. Here's the interview with the autistic artist Raphaël and Laurent, the educator behind this "sweet chaos". 

cafébabel : How do you feel after a concert like this?

Raphaël : It's awesome. It's a good feeling to indulge oneself and make people happy. I'm sometimes afraid before a concert, but once I'm on stage I'm no longer afraid, I'm happy. And then we see the people who are there. For us it's an honour, a source of great pride.

I think we did a very good concert today. There are a lot of people who eventually came to encourage us. It's quite touching to see that. We're working a lot at the moment because we'll be performing at the Olympia on Monday. It's a privilege! There are people who have already done it, but I've never had the experience. It'll be the first time and I admit that I'm a bit scared…

Laurent : You can handle it!

Raphaël : Yes, it will be fine! And I don't know if you agree with me, but it's an accolade nevertheless.

Laurent : Of course.

cafébabel : Did you expect such an impact?

Laurent : We didn't really set out for things to go as they did. In other words, we enjoyed it as it came. And it didn't happen at a snap of the finger. We progressed step by step. First, there's the autism, so it was necessary to take time to meet with each other. Then, there was the common denominator: music. Then there is a chemistry that was created among us. And after that, there were the people who were a bit crazy to support us.

cafébabel : So can you tell us more about the origin of this project?

Laurent : I created Percujam in 1999 in a centre for youths with autism. The place was run by Ms Allier, about whom I wrote a song. At the beginning, there were four young people and two or three educators. Every time new young people arrived who were also musicians, we would bring them into the group along with an educator. Little by little, we have become the current group: eight young people and six educators. When the youths grow up, they join autism organisations for adults, but we didn't want them to go waste their time after nine years of making music… As a result, we made a crazy bet to create an institution for musicians with autism, Alternote.

cafébabel : So nowadays the young people are dedicated exclusively to music?

Laurent : No. Basically, these youths do not really like a lot of things. Having autism means to be a bit withdrawn. I think that striking the chord they most liked – music – was what made them open up to other things afterwards. Nowadays they are engaged in a lot of other activities.

Raphaël : Yes, we go to Papotin. (Editor's note: a newspaper developed by autistic people). We interview famous people, such as Matthieu Chedid, Raphaël Mezrahi, Jacques Attali, Marc Lavoine and Anne Hidalgo.

Laurent : You do sport as well!

Raphaël : I did judo and then I stopped because I had an accident, but I had an orange-green belt. I also did athletics. I received medals in long jump and 100 metres. I also paint.

cafébabel : And what do you like about music?

Raphaël : That it's not sad. For me, I really like when it is happy and energetic, as well as a bit soothing.

cafébabel : Are there singers who especially influence you?

Raphaël : NTM! I really like underground rap… Wu Tang Clan, IAM. With respect to rock: Téléphone, Noir Désir

cafébabel : So groups that have rather powerful lyrics…

Raphaël : Yes, socially and politically aware. With respect to reggae, there is also Bob Marley. He is the guy who popularized this musical genre. After him, there were a lot of other artists such as Burning Spear and Peter Tosh. There are quite a few Rastas who have made an impact on me. Hey but I really like new things too! In fact, I like all types of music, and listening to music always makes me feel good.

cafébabel : And playing music?

Raphaël : Yes, of course. I love that!

cafébabel : What's your role in the group?

Raphaël : I'm a violinist, bass guitarist, drummer and singer.

cafébabel : And did you learn all of that thanks to Percujam?

Raphaël : No, I started playing the violin when I was seven years old. I was told that I had a better ear for music than the others. After that I played drums when I was fourteen. At first I had problems making progress, then afterwards I discovered Percujam. As both Laurent and I were left-handed, I was able to progress with him. And I also have a teacher who teaches me new techniques all the time. As for the bass guitar, since I have perfect pitch that helped me and I was able to recognise the notes. And as for singing, I used to be in a choir a long time ago.

cafébabel : So the educators weren't the ones who suggested to the young people to make music, but rather the young people since they already had an interest?

Laurent : They were the ones who showed us these skills. I would take my guitar, a young person would manage to follow along on the piano or singing, then others would join in as well. It happened in an alchemical, magical way. Nowadays, of course, we work a bit more professionally, with teachers.

cafébabel : How is the work organised? Who composes? Who writes the lyrics?

Laurent : I've been here since the beginning so I've written quite a bit. But these days and more and more, everyone adds their own special touch.

Raphaël : We run workshops in which we write the lyrics. We also compose a bit. They show me how to play a piece and then I know how to do it.

cafébabel : What messages would you like to convey through your songs?

Laurent : People don't speak much about educators, people don't speak much about autism, so if our group could spread this message a bit…  It's a positive way to be seen. On TV they speak about abuse, but that's not the only thing! There are also great projects with young people having loads of fun as well as motivated people behind all of this!

Raphaël : We'd like to say that we are artists first and foremost, that there aren't any differences.

Laurent : "Lutter contre les différences en portant haut le bouclier/ Elle n’est pas très jolie la France quand elle se met à se moquer" [Fighting against differences by carrying the shield up high/ France is not very nice when she makes fun of others], that's it: helping people to have fewer prejudices. There are also remarks that spectators make which allow us to see if it worked, for example, the one we used for our first album: "C'est lesquel les autistes?" [Which ones have autism?]. When we're asked this question, we've met the challenge. If people can no longer distinguish between us, that's quite good.

Cafébabel : So do you think that Percujam has been able to change the image of autism?

Laurent : In any case, I think it's being spoken about a lot more. Also because it is a phenomenon that we seriously need to take into account, because it is a reality that affects a lot of people. In addition, we need to understand that it is not an illness. People can live their entire life with it and do many things, like everyone else. 

Translated from Percujam : « Autistes, mais artistes avant tout »