(Updated on 21 Oct 2022)
True Colors Festival THE CONCERT 2022, which will be held at the Tokyo Garden Theater on 19 and 20 Nov, was originally scheduled to take place alongside the Tokyo Olympics in 2020.
But after two years in limbo, about 100 of the world’s top performers, musicians and dancers, will finally get to deliver a new sense of values from Japan to the world – diversity and inclusion.
And as part of its commitment to being accessible, THE CONCERT 2022 featuring Katy Perry will be livestreamed free and a suite of accessibility features will be provided to enable as many people as possible to experience the
concert, whether live in Japan or via the livestream. These include Japanese Sign, International Sign, real-time subtitles, audio description and personnel on standby at the venue for all guests in need of assistance.
It will be the first time so many accessibility features are being included at a TCF event.
Singapore rapper-beatboxer Wheelsmith tells TheHomeGround Asia that it is surreal that he is finally going to Japan to perform.
“It is the moment that we have all been waiting for and I’m glad we get the opportunity to showcase our craft, showcase our vision and what we’ve been doing for ages. … It is exciting because people are beginning to realise that there is a lot more that we can do for our community, and from our community. For more than 90 artists worldwide to come together is monumental and speaks volumes,” he says.
Called the world’s largest performing arts festival of diverse artists, the long-running True Colors Festival celebrates diversity and inclusion, and embraces the One World, One Family motto through the arts as its platform.
Executive producer Audrey Perera says, “You can’t change society with one festival, or even five editions of one festival, but you can raise consciousness. And when our consciousness is raised, our behaviour changes, whether we know it or not. … It makes us act or think or feel differently about something that’s in front of us. For us, this is really what it’s about – getting people to experience this event, whether it’s live stream or live.”
Concert started to empower people with disabilities through arts
The True Colors Festival started out as the International Festival of Artists with Disabilities, a part of Japan’s Nippon Foundation’s overseas programs for supporting people with disabilities.
The Nippon Foundation in Japan, a large philanthropic foundation that focuses on empowering disability. It has been working in areas including education, employment issues, training schools, and accessibility tools.
At a press conference in Japan last month, Executive Director of The Nippon Foundation and Senior Executive Producer of True Colors Festival Ichiro Kabasawa told reporters, “You will be surprised, you will laugh and cry but at the end, you will be able to go home with a full heart.”
The foundation’s chairman Yohei Sasakawa said it is no exaggeration to say that the concert is the ‘Performing Arts Paralympics’. It will be the world’s largest concert created with artists with disabilities. Its theme ‘One World, One Family’ expresses the philosophy that we at The Nippon Foundation hold dear in our activities. Performing arts have the power to directly appeal to the sensibility of things that are difficult to convey in words.”
Reiterating that sentiment, Ms Perera says, “One of its pillars was to use the arts to give a stage to artists with disabilities, so that they will be seen as performers first and not be defined by disability. It was also a way to break barriers between the community of people with disabilities and audiences who may never see them in that light.”
In Asia, people with disabilities are often seen as needing charity and public exposure for those with talent is limited so the team at True Colors Festival is determined to change that mindset. Its “journey” began in 2006 with the first Festival of Disabled Artists in Laos and moving onto Cambodia, Myanmar and Thailand.
“It was leading to Singapore before moving to Japan in 2020, the year of the Tokyo Olympics and the home of The Nippon Foundation. That was the plan. But when COVID-19 hit, the festival went online, releasing original music videos and documentaries, film festivals, panel discussions and some hybrid events,” Ms Perera adds.
She came on board in 2016 to direct the Singapore edition, and “True Colors” was one of the names she mooted to move away from using the word “disability”.
What’s in a name?
“I knew (the name of the festival) needed to be catchy, sexy, something that people can understand, whatever language it is in,” she says.
One of the first lessons she learned was that disability communities have the different preferred descriptors. “You have ‘differently abled’, ‘special needs’, ‘deaf’, ‘hearing impaired’. And I learned very quickly from people in these communities to stop saying things like ‘hearing impaired’, for instance, ‘Just say I’m deaf’. Which was wonderful because you’re sort of given the permission to do so,” Ms Perera says.
“I used to say ‘disabled artists’ until we had to come up with the subtitle for 2018, and because it was Asia Pacific, we had to be sure that it was acceptable around the world. We couldn’t call it the festival of disabled artists, not in 2018. We needed to try to satisfy every stakeholder. That was when we decided to follow the United Nations naming convention. They use the term ‘persons with disabilities’. So we use ‘artists with disabilities’. One of the first few pieces of positive feedback was from an artist in France who appreciated that we recognised her as an artist first. … It was a penny drop moment,” she adds.
So in the naming convention, Ms Perera says the team learned to be mindful of the words and language used. “Singapore artist Wheelsmith once said, ‘There’s no such thing as diabetes reggae or blind jazz. There is good music and bad music’. And he’s told people off before because they described his music as disabled music. He said, ‘No, my music is perfectly fine. I have a disability’,” she says.
So when she came up with the name, the foundation liked it so much that they decided that henceforth, all the activities would be branded with the True Colors Festival name.
The show must go on
As the Performing Arts Paralympics, the crescendo of True Colors Festival THE CONCERT 2022 was supposed to have been in 2020 alongside the Tokyo Olympics, but it was postponed due to the Covid-19 pandemic and restrictions imposed.
The festival then moved itself away from the Tokyo Olympics.
“We were actually scheduled to be between the Olympics and the Paralympics. We delinked because we couldn’t wait until the last minute to know what the decision was. The Tokyo Olympic Committee needed to wait till as late as possible to confirm … but we couldn’t put ourselves or our artists in that position. So we delinked and that became very comfortable. The chairman decided okay by November 2022, surely we will be past Covid-19 and it looks like he was right,” Ms Perera says.
This time around, American singer, songwriter, and television judge Katy Perry is able to join the festival as its special guest.
“She champions the cause of diversity, inclusion, fairness, and we felt that we really wanted to get someone of her stature who believes in what we’re doing. When she responded positively, of course, it was fantastic because her message to us was that she completely sees what we’re trying to do, and wants to lend her voice to it,” Ms Perera says.
And perhaps the biggest challenge, particularly for creative director Sydney Tan, was rehearsing for the event through Zoom and WhatsApp platforms.
Dr Tan told reporters at the press conference in September, “This journey has been all at once incredibly challenging, exciting and inspirational. … It’s no fun communicating, rehearsing, and recording over Zoom and WhatsApp. There were multiple time zones throughout the day. The morning for Brazil, the afternoon with Japan and at night with Europe, US and Canada. Then there was using Google Translate for real time translations – Portuguese and Japanese to English. We were doing all this in the midst of a worldwide pandemic.”
He added that even though it was “incredibly challenging, his thoughts went to performers Rachel Starritt from Wales, Johnatha Bastos from Brazil, Sparsh Shah from the US and other artists with disabilities.
“To them, this isn’t work. This is hanging out and meeting friends; and then it becomes exciting and inspiring to me,” Dr Tan says.
Citing Welsh pianist Rachel Starritt as an example of inspiration, Dr Tan said, “As part of our collaborative conversations, I suggested her playing ‘Chopin’s Revolutionary Etude Opus 10’ In the classical repertoire, this is a piece that’s considered to be very difficult from the viewpoint of technique and musicality. Rachel said she didn’t know the song but was willing to learn it. I was a little worried because it usually takes anything from four to six months to learn.”
Not long after the conversation, Starritt sent Dr Tan a text with a video of a practice session, saying, “Okay, I’ve learned it.”
“In the video, she’s killing it … and the amazing thing is that she has learnt the entire piece entirely by ear, memorised it all in a matter of three weeks,” Dr Tan added.
Herein is one of the biggest lessons for the creative director. “I’ve learnt in my time with True Colors that it’s about my limitations that I need to look past and instead, learn to see and to be amazed by incredible levels of talent and ability,” he said.
For full details, line-up and more visit truecolorsfestival.com. Check the LIVESTREAM tab for regular updates.