Blind lead blind to rock stardom

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A group photo of Dust. Clockwise from left: Xu Haozhi, Chai Zeqi, Wu Xuebin, Liang Tao and Che Binbin. [Photo: Courtesy of Che Binbin]

Over the years, 22-year-old Xu Haozhi has learned to maintain a good sense of humor about things – indeed, as a blind person, he's come to believe it's necessary not to take life too seriously. One very serious moment, however, occurred recently, when the rock-n-roll band he founded with his fellow classmates – all blind or near-blind – was invited to perform at a welcome ceremony for a disabled persons' federation from Macao.

The invitation came after the group won the third place in the final round of a huge battle of the bands hosted by Tianjin-based instant-food-and-beverage giant Tingyi (Cayman Islands) Holding Corp in Jilin Province on Friday.

In addition to the honor, the band won 2,000 yuan ($309) in the competition, which will mainly be used to upgrade and repair their instruments, Xu said.

"I'm overwhelmed," the sophomore acupuncturist major at Special Education College of Changchun University in Jilin Province, told the Global Times. "Not only were we the only blind band in the competition, but everyone else's equipment was light years ahead of ours in terms of quality – just one of their guitars, for example, was worth two whole sets of our instruments."

Make them happy

The band, dubbed Dust, was founded in December 2009 under the notion that "dust is everywhere in the universe – though it's tiny, it's essential," said bassist Wu Xuebin, 26.

The five boys, who are majoring in acupuncture studies at the college, all had basic training in music from primary school, and when they found each other at university, they forged an instant bond.

Che Binbin, 24, the band's lead singer, is the only one among the six with weak eyesight, enough to see things in close reach, while the other five are totally blind.

Lacking instruments at the very beginning, they raised 3,000 yuan to buy a second drum set and a new electric bass, and borrowed an electronic organ from friends. They then set about perfecting the melodic power-pop styles of their favorite Chinese bands, including Power Station, Mayday and Zero.

"We want to play encouraging songs that can cheer people up," Wu told the Global Times. "Life has too many difficulties as it is – why not give the crowd something that'll make them happy for a while?"

They turned to writing original materials not long after hitting their stride with the covers, though they admit that writing is a whole different beast than merely playing.

"The progress can be achingly slow," Wu said. "We're not professionals – we're just writing based on our feelings. Sometimes the songwriting sessions will last so long that we'll skip lunch and dinner without even realizing it."

It also goes without saying that as blind people, the boys of Dust don't have the benefits of scores, sheet music or fret diagrams to guide them, but must rely on their ears and hands to reach the right consonance.

"We just have to feel around until we get it right," Xu said.

Incredible feedback

Unsurprisingly, the school hasn't seen much rock-n-roll activity in its history, meaning that Xu and his band often face a major struggle finding a place to rehearse, migrating from the school conference room to the warehouse to the classroom and most recently to the dorms, where Xu said he had to practice his electric guitar stylings "silently" so as not to disturb his roommates.

After persistent discussion with teachers and administrators, they were recently given an empty dorm room on the first floor of their building, though they were warned they'll likely have to move again when the next term starts in September.

"All the moving really gets on our nerves," Xu said. "Sometimes we're moved to buildings without any power outlets, for example. In addition, it's hard to progress when you can't stick to a normal practice schedule."

Frequent relocating even forced them to cease practice for about four months last year, he said.

Still, Xu says that they give it their all when they do manage to practice. "People may think we're sacrificing our studies in order to work on our music, but that's just not true," he said. "For one thing, playing our instruments helps us with our tactile sensitivity, which is crucial in acupuncture. In addition, we're just happier, more engaged students when we've got music in our lives."

"We've gotten incredible feedback from everyone," said 20-year-old drummer Liang Tao, also boasting about a solo concert they held at the school last June which drew a crowd of 300 eager listeners.

"But I know we're nowhere near the peak of our abilities – we still have so much room to improve."

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