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Q&A with Punk Sign Language Interpreter Thanh Huynh

By August Edwards

Punk and DIY culture can thrive on subversive acts that are rooted in kindness. Someone who brings this to life is Thanh Huynh, who uses sign language to expand musical experiences. Currently, he is making a video series in which he signs along with songs. This series primarily spotlights bands that adhere to DIY ideology.

Thanh uses a mixture of American Sign Language (ASL) and Pidgin Signed English (PSE). A pidgin is “a simplified language derived from two or more languages.” So, Deaf people communicating with each other will mainly use ASL, while people whose primary language is English will use PSE. As Thanh is not Deaf or hard of hearing, he’s mostly learned from experience in translating music.

I first saw Thanh perform at Sister Bar during a Crushed!? set. Prior to that, I’d never seen a live sign language interpreter. The thing is, Crushed!? excels in live performance—I mean, hanging from rafters, diving into drum sets, spontaneous yet deliberate choreography, and sometimes a lot of blood. While they know how to put on a show, Thanh not only enhanced the band’s performance, but revealed to me what I want for the future of live music.

I implied that Thanh’s actions are subversive. This is because signing to live music disrupts normalcy for people who are not disabled. In instances like this, the hope is that one day it will not be considered subversive. I’d like to thank Thanh for his work and invite you to read what he has to share (also, check out his Twitter for video postings). Thanh’s video series includes Albuquerque bands Distances and Crushed!?, and California's Pity Party. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Thanh performing "How to Be Me" by Ren & CHINCHILLA.

ABQ GR: How’d you get started with sign language?

Thanh Huynh: I took an introduction course roughly ten years ago at a community college that was just for credits. But the final for that was a song that we had to sign. When I did the final, I was so interested in it that it pushed me to continue my lessons even though I did not take any more classes—just stay with sign language, and try to make music with it.

Why sign along with songs?

Music—art—is a way of expressing oneself. Whenever you express that to others, they may get a different interpretation of it. Music and sign language allowed me to express myself more in this way. Doing sign language to music, I was able to find my [own] interpretation, and that was a way of expressing maybe a different perspective than the artist. Also, [it allowed me to] get involved with the deaf community, for them to hear more of not explicitly-known music.

What does being a part of the Albuquerque music mean to you? Because you don’t play music in a band, right?

I really don’t play music. The music scene allowed me to see a wide variety of people. Each of us go through our own struggle, but we are able to assist each other because we are all accepted and welcome into the community, and we were able to talk and help out each other where we could.

Tell me about the series of videos you’ve been working on. Why did you decide to start this project?

With several of the current artists that I’ve been signing, it’s been with not underground, but not mainstream music. It’s not on radio, [but] it’s a song that I really like from them. The artists, they put in a lot of time and effort to make music, and to actually record it and mix it. I wanted to assist them in expressing their work through another medium. I’ve also just found a personal excitement through their music as well.

Performing "Broken and Weak" by Distances.

You’re covering a lot of local (Albuquerque) musicians, correct?

Local and DIY overall. I’ve been doing artists from the UK and USA, and it’s just been exciting exposing myself to different types of music. And also expanding my knowledge on sign language and also exposing their music to another audience.

Tell me about your first experience signing at a show.

Super nervous. During and after any live performance, I always know that I may have been late in a few signs, or maybe slightly misinterpret it. And I always apologize for that. But I’m actually really happy that my first experience was with Crushed!?, because their energy is so wild. I was like, okay, just be wild and as crazy as they are, and just go for it. Swallow my tongue and just do it.

So, what’s your philosophy on performing the music that you’re hearing?

Find your own interpretation for it. Find what it means to you, find the lyrics, practice the signs for it. Record yourself at first, or see yourself in the mirror, and then try to express what you are feeling throughout the song that you are signing. [A goal is] to make this accessible to anyone that’s willing to “listen” or watch.

Do you have any plans for the future, or an overarching goal for what you’re working on right now?

I’m really just doing it. Any artists that I find fascinating, I wanna hear more of their music. That gets me to spend quite a bit of money on their music, because I wanna support them. Any future plans? I do this for entertainment, and if anyone is interested or inspired by it, then more power to them. I want to get more individuals exposed to the music community, and specifically the DIY scene.

What’s so important about the DIY scene to you?

A lot of people do not have the means of going to a record company or getting the proper equipment to make music. But, many individuals I know, they make music in their own home. They have been able to mix, record, and communicate with their own connections. With DIY, yeah, it’s do-it-yourself, but with the help of those around you.

What do you wish people knew about sign language?

It’s very versatile, very open. If you don’t have the means of communicating vocally, you can use gestures. It’s helpful if you’re at a show, very loud, you can communicate with whoever you’re with, and be able to get your meaning across without having to damage your lungs or throat while trying to yell over music.

Is there anything you’d like to add or plug?

Uh, drink water.

A look into the video-making process. Left: Adam Smith's pyrotechnic prowess in "Wildfires" by Crushed!?. Right: Nik Vasko's pride after shoving cake at Thanh's face for "Concrete" by Pity Party.

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