Amber Galloway-Gallego — Music Sign Language Interpretation

 green day Amazon Music Live
Green Day — Amazon Music Live

Amber Galloway-Gallego has emerged as a trailblazer in the world of sign language interpretation, particularly within the realm of concerts and music festivals. Specializing in the dynamic genres of rap and hip-hop, she has become a household name and a passionate advocate for music accessibility at all levels of hearing ability. She has interpreted for over 400 artists, including Red Hot Chili Peppers, Snoop Dogg, Kedrick Lamar and Eminem as well as appearing on Jimmy Kimmel Live! with Wiz Khalifa.

In a virtual interview with ABILITY’s Chet Cooper and Lia Martirosyan, Gallego speaks on what inspired her to become an interpreter, frustrations within the interpreter industry, and developing her iconic signing style.

Chet Cooper: I was at the Amazon Music Live with Green Day, but I didn’t see you?

Amber Galloway-Gallego: I have pneumonia, so I haven’t been able to travel at all. I’ve been stuck at home for two weeks; it’s been killing me. (laughs) I didn’t get to go. But my team was there, and I was with them in spirit.

Cooper: I’m sorry to hear you have pneumonia, but I can’t get pneumonia, so I’m leaving.

(laughter)

Cooper: I didn’t see interpreters at Green Day?

Gallego: We’re on-site, but we’re in the side room. Because of the visuals of what they need to be able to make sure the signs are clear, we’re actually not in the concert’s actual venue, but we’re on-site in a separate area where we have all the cameras, the lighting, everything set up. We’ve been trying real hard to get into the venue, but there’s a lot of logistics that come behind that. (laughs)

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Amber back stage Amazon Music Live

Gallego: It started many years ago in my dining room. On Friday nights, I would have my Deaf Party jams, as we always called them. All my friends would come over and we would just hang out, play some Spades or dominos and have music on and we would all sign songs. This is all primarily Deaf people signing songs. At that time, I was still fully hearing, before I had gotten sick and lost my hearing later. I was training to become an interpreter—Which I didn’t even know what a career in interpreting was.— I was going to be a physical therapist. I had lived in a wheelchair. I had crushed my pelvis and I had to learn to walk. I had extensive physical therapy, so I said, “This is what my life goal is. This is what I’m supposed to do, be a physical therapist.”

But life had different plans for me. (laughs) So, while I was going to school to get my physical therapy degree, I saw some kids from my childhood. They were grown-up kids, and I was like, “Hey, I know you from when I was a child!” I started sitting with a Deaf group every day after class. They brought me into their loop. They taught me everything, like A to Z, literally, everything about deafness and Deaf culture. And I became pretty fluent rather quickly. We would have parties at my house and we would all be signing music. They would tell me, “I wish interpreters would sign like you,” “I wish interpreters would do this.” I was like, “What do you mean? What do they do?” “They don’t look like you.”

I eventually married one of my friends; we were in high school together. We attended a rodeo—In San Antonio we have a rodeo.—And I attended the rodeo and I was with my friends. There was a Deaf section, and we were all sitting together. These two interpreters started interpreting, and I was just appalled. I was so upset because of the inability to show the equality to the experience was lacking significantly. So, I was talking to my friends, and I said, “What is this? This is not what music is.” And she said, “This is the best we’ve got.” I said, “Well, that’s not good enough.” You deserve the best.” – hold on one second. Sorry, I might have to cough in between.

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Martirosyan: That’s okay.

Gallego: I’m still healing.— So I said, “That’s not cool. This band is amazing, and what the interpreters are doing is not giving you a full experience. Nobody should decide that for another human. You should give them everything. You deserve the best.” And they said, “This is all we have. Do you want to do something about it?” And I was like [grimaces], “I don’t know!” (laughs) I’m still a brand-new interpreter. I don’t even know where to begin. So, I started taking it back to the interpreter training program and talking about music. What’s funny is, again, you would think that they are people who aren’t going to be, I would say, oppressive, but it was.

In the interpreter training program I was going to, some of the professors said, “Deaf people don’t like music.” I was like, “Wait a second! At home, all of my Deaf friends are signing music, but you’re telling me that it’s not true, and I’m living and breathing in the Deaf community.]\

Martirosyan: How’d you decide to create this company and get into music?

I see what Deaf people are wanting, and you’re telling me it’s fictional?” There was always a disconnect of what the program was trying to teach versus reality. I just kept on saying, “I’m not going to listen to that.” (laughs) It was probably a nightmare for those teachers, because I was like, “No, we need to also listen to the community and what the community wants. There are community members who love music. Just like there are hearing people who love music, but there are also hearing people who hate music. There are also deaf people who don’t like music. Let’s not just make that blanket statement and decide for another human. Let’s open it up and have those opportunities for everyone.”

That’s where I started doing it. My friends were like, “Just do it! Just try!” I started researching on how I could do it, what I could do, and I also started to research in that process of interpreting music how to show instruments. Most of the time, interpreters will just sign the sign for music. [signs it] It looks like this. My hand is straight out, my other hand is going back and forth over it, almost like petting in the air, like petting a dog in the air, if that makes sense, visually. (laughs) I was just trying to self-describe it.

Martirosyan: It worked!

Gallego: But that’s not what music looks like. That doesn’t make any sense. It doesn’t translate. I started watching, of course going back to the Deaf community, watching Deaf storytellers and how they show sound. That’s where I started picking apart this 200-, 300-, 400-year-old language and taking parts of it and applying it to the different sounds of instruments. Because I want to never be in the place of that power and privilege kind of thing where I’m going to take something away from another human, I’m going to give you everything, and you choose what you want to take. (laughs)

Martirosyan: Mm-hmm.

Gallego: That’s what I do. So, I started developing this theory as well as this practice in how to incorporate all of the instruments. That is my style. That’s what I’m known for. That’s what a lot of people recognize the style in which I do the specific approach to interpreting music.

Martirosyan: For someone who’s not aware of this, when a new instrument comes on, you give the sign for the instrument that’s coming on? Is that what you mean?

Gallego: Correct. There are parameters within the language, ASL. There are non-manual markers that we can use. With the non-manual markers, we can show density. The way we show density is with our face [points all fingers to her face], as well as where we have the placement of our hands and arms [moves hands and arms up and down]. If there is a snare drum, my whole body will scrunch up [her whole body scrunches up] and then my face gets really tiny [ her face gets tiny, she pinches her checks with both hands] and then I do this, like, “Ch! Ch! Ch!” [makes that sound, holds both hands close to her face, thumb and forefinger touching, other fingers held up spread apart] mouth to show that snare. Then also, if there’s a piano, my hands will go up in the sky higher, and I’ll show—and again, it scrunches up to make the high-density sound, and I’m going to show you with my face squished up to show you that it’s higher-pitched [she does all those things]. If it’s a bass, my body will open up bigger and I will use puffy checks to show thickness and the sound of deepness, because that’s what those deep sounds are, and that’s one of the parameters in the Mouth Morphemes used in sign language.

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Martirosyan: Oh, that’s beautiful, I love it! I love the nuance, the heart of it! If you don’t mind, what caused the deafness?

Gallego: In 2002 I contracted spinal meningitis while I was working on a college campus and got really, really sick. I lost a significant amount of my sight as well as a significant amount of my hearing, I have about half my hearing, as well as a neurological disorder. I have severe tremors from that. I have to have specific medicines from that event. It took me a good eight months to get back to normal, as you would say normal, being able to sustain work for forty hours, where for months and months I could barely walk because of how sick I was from the spinal meningitis. I lost my hearing from that event. I feel like it goes away, and the neurologist told me that when there’s damage like that, especially as an adult, you never know what’s going to happen. My eyesight gets worse. My eyes no longer focus. They fail to focus. You know how sometimes if people take their glasses off and they can still try to figure out what’s on the paper? My eyes will not do that at all. It does not happen. Eventually I think it’ll be that I’m possibly Deaf/Blind when I’m older. I’m not sure. The neurologists said that they have no idea what damage happens in the brain and the swelling that occurs from the spinal meningitis.

Martirosyan: Oh! That’s deep! Where are you now?

Gallego: I’m in Austin, Texas, now.

Martirosyan: OK. How did you connect with Amazon?

Gallego: I believe they saw my work and some people pointed a couple of people towards me, and then I got an email and a call from a person named Sarah at Amazon. We started talking about what to do and how to do it. I said, “Can I give you all of my bucket lists of what I would love to have happen?” (laughs) Amazon has been such a huge champion in making this work and also making sure that one of my dreams came true: to have Deaf performance interpreters – Deaf people actually doing the work on-screen. Because it started from the roots of where I came from. It came from my dinner tables with my Deaf friends signing music, oftentimes better than a lot of hearing people. So, it’s full circle to where I can find and cast these incredible Deaf signers who do music very, very well and cast them to the artist and then they are highlighted here on one of the largest stages possible, with Amazon, and they are role models for future generations now. I can’t be more proud of this project and what we’ve been able to achieve as well as how much access is happening to music. I can’t even begin to explain how humbled I am by it, but at the same time truly making my dreams come true.

Martirosyan: So you did Eminem, or someone from your team?

Gallego: I’ve done Eminem several times before, yes.

Martirosyan: I can’t wrap my mind around how!

Gallego: My YouTube channel is full of different songs in all front genres, and those are all requests from Deaf individuals who have sent me emails and said, “Can you please interpret this?” Because they can see captions all day, but they’re not going to see the emotions and the intonation and the feelings of what the artist is bringing until it comes off our hands, until that actually is seen. I did Rap God, which is one of the fastest songs on the earth. It took me a month to pick it apart and to really memorize it and work on all the different parts of what I wanted to be able to show in that and to try to be as equivalent as Eminem and his genius brain.

Martirosyan: People don’t know that part. I didn’t know how long it took. All I’m seeing is this beauty, and I’m like, “How are you doing this?”

Gallego: It took a month. (laughs)

Martirosyan: Wow, that’s really impressive. Something just came to mind that I’d love to hear your opinion on. It’s not music-related, but lately in the news we have been seeing people who are sneaking into conferences and signing incorrectly. How do you feel about that? How is that even possible?

Gallego: A lot of times people who are not a part of our world will hire individuals who are not a part of our world, and they don’t listen to us. Deaf people often will request services, and they will tell you very specifically—I will tell you it’s very specific people that I want working for my access — as well as other Deaf people will say, “This is the interpreter I want for my access.” It will be either their voice or the voice they’ll see. And who knows it better than the people who live and breathe the language and the access all day long? But oftentimes, hearing people who have no idea about our community or what our needs are will hire the cheapest bid. When that happens, we get people who are the fake interpreters or the people who are not qualified to be there and who can be very detrimental to health and safety for us in our community. We see that happening. I think the best thing to do is to go to your community, or listen. That’s what I love about Amazon. Amazon listened. I said, “We have to do it this way because this is what our community wants.” And I always go back to the community and say, “What do you want? What can we change?” I do the best I can to open those doors for as many people as possible.

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Martirosyan: Wonderful! How many people are on your team?

Gallego: I believe right now I have 38, and I have four international as well in other countries that I have trained up. They’re also Deaf as well, Deaf interpreters.

Martirosyan: Internationally, are they doing ASL?

Gallego: No, we do International Sign. [broad smile]

Martirosyan: And this is music still?

Gallego: Yeah.

Martirosyan: Oh, how fun! You have French, Italian?

Gallego: I teach music workshops on how to show my style as well as how to be more effective. I also teach them advocacy as well as training up Deaf interpreters in different countries. I’ve had the opportunity to do it in the Ukraine, in Czech, in Switzerland, in Romania, a little bit in Russia before all of the Russian thing happened. (laughs)

Martirosyan: So, you had nothing to do with it! (laughs)

Gallego: Yes, it was many years ago. I’m innocent! (laughs)

Martirosyan: Are you the only person who started with the physical instrumental?

Gallego: I want to say I was, but I wasn’t because we didn’t have Internet when I first started. This is my 23rd year. Before the Internet, we’re not sure. There have been two or three bands that have interpreters, but I don’t think they’ve ever done it to the extent where I’ve studied and studied. I could write a book about showing instruments and using the parameters of the language to show all of the different layers of the music. I think that might be where I might be the first in talking about that and making sure that that’s happening, and it’s just known for my style. Most people will be like, “Oh, that’s the Amber G style.” There are people who don’t like it, and that’s OK. That’s totally fine. But I do it because the Deaf people who attend the concerts that I interpreter or who request me love it, and they want it and they feel connected to the music. I’ll continue to do that.

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Martirosyan: Wonderful! Is this something you’ve always had, this feeling with music, even before all of this? Or was it that all of a sudden it took over?

Gallego: I’ve always loved music, since I was little. If this dates me, I always thought I would be a Solid Gold dancer. There used to be a show in the ’80s called Solid Gold. I remember dancing and copying all the dancers. I always thought I would be a professional dancer, but I never really wanted to go to dance class. I was just going to be an artist or whatever. (laughs) But then I also feel deeply connected to songs because those songs mean something to me because it’s usually whoever brought me that music. I have deep connections with old country because of my grandparents. My brother taught me about New Wave and all of that. I grew up with my friends, and they taught me all about rap and hip-hop, so I have a deep connection with that. My dad connected me with Bob Seeger and E.D. Nix and Fleetwood Mac. It’s those connections with these people in my life and the love that I’ve experienced through those connections that truly drove me to make sure equality to the experience was happening. I know what music can do for your heart, your mind, and your soul, and a lot of times what I love is talking to my Deaf friends and asking them, “What’s your connection to your family and music?”

They’ll tell me different beautiful stories of how their hearing parents introduced them to a specific band, or they’re like, “I love Metallica because my dad always had a Metallica shirt on.” Or my ex-husband, he loved Arrowsmith because his brothers listened to it, but he’s profoundly Deaf, and he was like, “I can’t hear it, but they love it, so I love it.” He would always have it on or tell me to interpret it because he loved it because of that connection. And I think that’s the beautiful thing about music: it brings us together, from all different backgrounds, all different races, all different religions, as well as all different disabilities. It brings us together. It’s bigger than what our abilities are, you know? It’s bigger than that. So many people look at only what our abilities are and never highlight the disabilities and think outside of those disabilities, because my ears, yes, they halfway work, but that doesn’t mean that I deserve any less of an experience than any other human. We should always make sure that we are providing the best for all of those experiences. So, I’m always thinking and telling people, “Think outside of yourself. You are mostly limiting yourself and you’re creating the barriers for us.” Most of the barriers happen because other humans have created it, and we always have the burden to have to remove them, and that’s not cool. So how can we lift up humanity? Remove all the barriers.

Martirosyan: Absolutely. This is such a beautiful thing to expose the world to, really lovely. Is there something you’d like to share?

Gallego: If anyone is reading the article or seeing the article, if you’re creating an event, create inclusivity from the moment of inception. That means inclusivity. Think outside of yourself and welcome everyone to the event. Because the moment you don’t and you think only about your path and your walk, then you’re not thinking outside of other people’s paths and their journey and walk to where they need to be.

Martirosyan: Yes, absolutely! (laughter) I really appreciate it.

Cooper: When I heard you mention that people that are deaf don’t like music, I was thinking, they certainly like the music in dancing. I’ve been to Gallaudet University dances where it seems like everyone loves music and dancing. As you probably know they drop the speakers down on the floor and crank up the bass.

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Gallego: Yeah, it wasn’t me saying that, it was my professors. It was such a complex for me. It was against everything I’m seeing and living and breathing. That happens all the time with people who don’t experience or aren’t in our shoes to walk through what we walk through, to see what we see, feel what we feel, hear what we hear, don’t hear what we hear. It’s all those things about how people will limit based off of their worldview and what the worldview has told them about other people, instead of asking the community members or asking what you want or just simply asking, “How can I support you in whatever you may need to feel equal to this experience?”

It’s really important, I think, and we forget so many times to ask other humans, “How can I support you?” Even me taking off my glasses, everybody thinks, “Oh, glasses, that’s just normal.” But technically, if you think about it, it’s a disability. The glasses are a tool for my eyes not being able to work. These are all tools. So let me provide you with the tools instead of creating barriers, or instead of making it so hard to try to find how to request services. Why don’t we automatically provide them and make things so much easier? Because every day we have to start off with a struggle. There’s a struggle daily just for life. So, if I want to escape all of that and I want to be at my favorite artist, why is that artist not stepping up and saying, “You know what? I want to welcome the whole community? And by welcoming that, that means the inception of my tour, I’ll make sure that I have all of the accessibility needs, the platforms that are needed so all of our wheelchair users can go up onto the platform easily, readily available and easily, and not for everybody to be able to do that. Places for people to sit when they also have mobility needs, as well as having audio descriptions.” It’s even more than just Deaf and hard of hearing and an ASL interpreter. We have a whole group and culture of disabled folks who also deserve to have access to this entertainment, to get away from the trials and tribulations of life and be able to experience this thing of connection. That’s what I always feel is the most important, that connection with other humans. That’s where you experience it. Because music doesn’t discriminate, humans do.

Cooper: Let me know if you can hear this, and if you can figure out how to describe this instrument.

[sound of music playing]

Gallego: It’s a little broken up, but is it a guitar?

Cooper: No.

Gallego: It’s hard for me to hear and it goes in and out. It’s choppy.

Cooper: Yes sorry, it is choppy. I’m playing it off of a website. Lia was sitting next to Stevie Wonder at his house, and he pulled out this instrument that he was apparently learning.

Martirosyan: Oh, the harpejji?

Cooper: Yes. He was explaining the uniqueness of him playing that instrument. It was a trick question, unless you’d been hanging around Stevie Wonder.

Stevie strums harpejji
Stevie strums harpejji

Gallego: (laughs)

Cooper: It’s on the website. If you go to ABILITY Magazine and type in “Stevie,” you’ll see the interview that Lia did with him. There’s a link to that little section. It’s only about a minute long, of him playing that. What you didn’t know is that Lia is an opera singer. She’s quite into music.

Gallego: That’s awesome.

Cooper: The other thing I wanted to share with you quickly, because I know you’re under the weather, and thanks for doing this, even though you’re not feeling well. I know you know ABILITY Magazine, but I want to show you this. Can you see my screen?

Gallego: Oh, yeah, mm-hmm.

Cooper: abilityE is something our nonprofit built. It’s the largest database of talent with disabilities. It’s free for all at this point, even casting. If you put your own profile in there, it would give you another resource to tap into more potential clients on your end. All the major studios know about it. It’s a pretty cool thing. We also do this thing called the abilityE challenge, where people submit their reels. [one of the reels plays]

Gallego: Awesome!

abilityE a pipeline for actors with disability talent

Cooper: One other thing I’ll show you before you take off and rest is this: ABILITY Job Fair is also part of our nonprofit. This is the first online career fair that is face-based video, real-time captioning, but if you’re a person who happens to be Deaf and you need ASL, a third video appears and there’s a sign language interpreter at the ready whenever needed. Amazon is one of our clients––which I know is different from Amazon Music––Amazon’s been with us for many years, which we really love the fact that they’re doing that.

Gallego: That’s awesome too!

Cooper: I wanted to share that with you so you’ll know some of the back work we’ve done. We’ve worked with Gallaudet; we created their first accessible online career fair ever. We worked with Deaf Blind students as well, to connect to the Web, which was a really interesting feat.

Gallego: Thank you for sharing that. Also, can I self-describe as well? I typically do so.

Cooper: Sure, please.

Gallego: I am a plus size [signing], voluptuous (laughs), white-presenting female with a pink kind of mohawk. I have glasses, dark glasses, and I have a dark black shirt on with little dinosaur earrings and maroon lipstick. (laughs)

Cooper: What are the dinosaurs, behind you?

Gallego: I think they’re brontosaurus. They’re little tiny, itty-bitty––I love minis––so my son for my birthday got me these itty-bitty, tiny brontosaurus that hang down––little white brontosaurus. They’re about the size of a dime. 

Martirosyan: Cute. Thank you Amber. Have a beautiful rest of your day.

Gallego: It was so nice to meet you. Bye!

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