It's 9pm and the doors to a New Year's Eve rave in south London have just opened. Mihoko Yamamoto and her two friends are amongst the first in and they make their way downstairs to the gloomy dance room where the music is already pounding. They find a seat in a darkened corner and immediately get out a pocket torch and shine it at one another as they talk. They speak with their fingers, which dart in and out of the torchlight, casting shadows across their animated faces. Few words will be spoken tonight, though thousands of chat-up lines, jokes, pieces of gossip and intimacies will be exchanged. This is a rave for the deaf.
Mihoko and I communicate with pen and paper. "I can lip-read in Japanese but not in English because I've not had English lip-reading training, and it's different from Japanese," writes the 29-year-old student, who came to England three months ago to read deaf studies at Bristol university. "I think it's interesting to enjoy New Year's Eve with lots of deaf people. It's nicer to be with the deaf than staying at home. I've been to a deaf disco in Osaka, but it wasn't as loud as it is here! It was for the deaf to enjoy music, but most of the deaf prefer talking to 'listening to music'. I feel a little sick (my stomach feels strange) in such big sounds! I've never had such an experience." Mihoko, whose friends are also Japanese, can't hear anything of the music. "I 'feel' music. I feel it in my stomach, throat (I don't know why but it feels 'shaking') and my hip on the chair. It feels strange, but I like it!"
Upstairs, organiser Troi Lee is having last-minute panics. This is his third Deaf Rave, and by the end of the night around 850 people will have passed through the door. Around 150 of them will be from overseas, including Italians, Dutch, Swiss, Norwegians, Americans and Canadians, the majority of whom have traveled to Britain just for the event. Troi, 29, decided to start organising raves for the young deaf community after attending a house party in Hackney, East London, two years ago. "Something extraordinary happened," says Troi, who wears hearing aids in both ears. "We really, really jammed it to 150 people. It's not the sort of thing most deaf people do. It was an amazing night, everyone enjoyed themselves and kept asking me when the next one was." He staged his first event last May at a conference centre in Great Portland Street, in London. "It was a very successful night. I couldn't believe 700 people turned up. It was absolutely fabulous. I phoned many clubs, but they refused to open their doors to me. I don't know whether it was just that they had never dealt with people with this kind of disability before." The second took place last August at The Glasshouse, in the Mermaid Theatre, Blackfriars, to coincide with the Notting Hill Carnival. Around 900 people attended.
Tonight's rave is being held in the King's College student union bar rooms near London Bridge. Troi, who is unemployed, will give the proceeds to the British Deaf Association. Most people coming tonight won't hear any of the vocals on the tracks, largely a selection of R&B, garage and hip hop. "Some people will hear vocals, some people will hear bass, some people feel the beat, and some people feel high-pitched sounds. Vibrations are what we aim for," says Troi.
"The biggest experience for them will be meeting new friends and disabled people. A lot of them don't come out often because there's a lack of places where they can meet up. There's a lack of entertainment for our community. It's very rare that deaf people get together anywhere."
I ask whether Troi thinks that the lack of social activities for deaf people might be based on social prejudice; why, in fact, he finds it necessary to stage an evening exclusively for deaf people. Trio replies that though he does go to mainstream clubs, he has, on occasion, been refused entry because he is deaf. He becomes very reticent when I question why this might be.
Not long after, I see the building's resident security man talking loudly about the breasts of one the deaf helpers, who is standing just feet away from him. She has her back to him, so cannot lip-read his offensive comments.
Downstairs, lists of drinks and prices have been stuck on the bar to enable revellers to point out their orders. There is also a list of totals for the bar staff to refer to. Graham Welton, 39, a trainee bricklayer wearing a beanie hat, is drinking with his friends. "This is the first rave I've been to, and it feels like my own world," says Graham, who can lip read. "I can feel the music through the vibrations, and can hear the thumps. The music washes through your body. These events are really important to us. We rely on them." He adds that deaf people do not meet each other as much as they used to. "Deaf people use MSN [a web-based chat program] and text messaging like crazy. In the old days, they had to meet face-to-face to communicate. Technology has its pros and cons."
Over in the dance room an MC is standing next to the DJ uttering an incomprehensible patter into a microphone along to the music. While the majority of people in the room can't hear him, his presence adds atmosphere. The dance floor is full, but most people are standing chatting. You can see hundreds of conversations taking place. Anyone wishing to keep their chat to themselves will have to sign discretely.
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By the stage, two celebrities are causing a stir. It's the Ant and Dec of deaf TV, Memnos Costi, 27, a presenter for BBC 2's See Hear and Ahmed Mudawi, 28, who presents Channel 4's Vee-TV. They are due to perform a "rap" sign language battle in the style of the Eminem film 8 Mile, in which rappers try to out-perform each other. "It's a form of sign-language slang," explains Memnos, who was born profoundly deaf, as we communicate through an interpreter. "We look around and pick up new signs from the street. We don't follow the music, we follow the rhyme of the signs. It gets more sarcastic as it gets faster."
Up on the stage, cavorting to the music in ripped jeans and a diamanté Union Flag belt buckle, is Riccardo Weare. He, too, is surrounded by a crowd of admirers, having won the first-ever "Deaf Idol" in October last year. The finale of the competition, a signed version of karaoke, was screened on See Hear. Riccardo performed to Britney Spears, Hinda Hicks and Madonna, and won £500, a trophy and a music video of See Hear. "I can hear the voices in songs, but I can't hear the words," says Riccardo, who lip reads. He is training to be a hairdresser and describes himself as a "wannabe". "My next thing is to break into the hearing world with a single that I would sign and hopefully they would find someone who would do the voice-over. It will come true. I've got what it takes. I believe anything is possible."
We are approached by Hassan Mebarki, a 24-year-old electrician from Rouen, France, who has come to London especially for the event. Riccardo interprets for us, which takes some effort as Hassan is signing in French. With gaelic shrugs and downturns of the mouth, Hassan, who heard about the event through a friend, admits that he's a bit miffed, as he thought the drinks would be free. Nevertheless, he is enjoying himself, and likes the fact that the event is so multicultural. He also admires English women, he says, smiling, cupping his hands in front of his chest.
Jodee Mundy, an interpreter, starts a verbal countdown to midnight. Memnos starts signing the seconds on the stage. There is some confusion. Jodee wishes everyone a happy new year, but Memnos is signing that there are 40 seconds to go. It doesn't matter. People yell and embrace, and Troi wades through the crowd with a bottle of champagne.
Over in the bar room, where the music is less loud, Sylvanie Tendron, who has come over from France with nine other clubbers, is having a splendid time. The 23-year-old student from Bordeaux lip-reads as I speak in French. "A friend of mine read about it on the internet, and we decided to come," she says. "It's more like a disco than a rave, but I'm not disappointed. I think it's brilliant. It's nice to see other people with the same problems, we've all got a connection. Everyone's really friendly. We don't have anything like this in France on New Year's Eve. There are people from all over the world here, which I really like. We don't have the same signs. There are some which are similar, otherwise we mime." She demonstrates the English sign for France. It is like tweaking the end of an upturned moustache - a throwback, she says, to her country's facial hair fashions. We are interrupted by an Englishman who has taken a fancy to Sylvanie. But she is not interested in him.
Back in the dance room, it is time for the 8 Mile-style sign-off battle. It will be interpreted for the handful of hearing people in the audience by Robert Skinner (who works for See Hear) and Jodee. They are both slightly nervous. "The rhyme is in the speed and flow of the hand movements, and their size," explains Robert. "The extra challenge for us is to get it to rhyme in English."
But Memnos has had to go home suddenly, so Ahmed is challenging members of the audience to come up on to the stage to take him on. The contestants join him one by one to trade insults. Some of the language is unrepeatable. By waving their hands, the audience declares David Sands, an 18-year-old drama student, the winner. David's form of attack was taking the mickey out of Ahmed's performance in a film for the deaf.
It's now 3.30am, an hour-and-a-half before the event finishes, and few have left. Couples are now openly snogging. Making his way towards the dance floor is David Shannon, a 23-year-old care assistant who works with deaf people with mental health problems. David is hearing. Both his parents are deaf and he learnt to speak when he went to school. "When I told my friends I was coming to a deaf rave, they freaked out. They didn't know what it was. That's the main reason why I came, so I could say it's just the same as any normal rave - you just get really drunk. I love the deaf culture. I feel as though I'm a deaf person in a hearing person's body. I've had a ball. I love deaf people. Deaf people rock," he says.
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