‘Handicapped’ orchestra trumpets success at home and abroad

Tap Tap orchestra, photo: Dan Suchánek & Barbora Tůmová / official website of the band

In mid-February, Wenceslas Square in Prague will be hosting a special event – a concert of the Tap Tap orchestra. The Tap Tap has travelled the world, performed at the Prague Spring festival and sold out the Prague Opera House, but what makes this band truly unique are its members: most of them are handicapped.

Tap Tap orchestra,  photo: Dan Suchánek & Barbora Tůmová / official website of the band
The band’s shows are known for being fun and entertaining and if you have any doubts about the abilities of its members, be they blind, wheelchair-bound or mentally disabled, you should definitely see them performing live.

Undoubtedly the best known song by the Tap Tap Orchestra is Řiditel autobusu or the Boss Driver. It describes the real-life troubles encountered by one of the band’s members, who was not allowed to take his bike, which he uses instead of a wheelchair, on board a bus.

The song, featuring the popular Czech musicians Xindl X, Vojta Dyk and Dan Bárta, is regularly played on Czech Radio and the music video has enjoyed a record number of views on Youtube. It’s proof that over the 16 years of its existence, the Tap Tap orchestra has become a staple on the Czech music scene.

Over three million views for “Boss Driver”

Just a fortnight ahead of their big concert at Prague’s Wenceslas Square, I went to see the Tap Tap’s rehearsal at Prague’s district of Vyšehrad. The band was just brushing up the Czech national anthem and the band master and the Tap Tap’s founder Šimon Ornest seemed very serious about it.

I spoke to Šimon Ornest after the rehearsal, when he seemed much more at ease:

“I started to work in the Jedlička Institute some twenty or maybe more than twenty years ago. I used to play in several bands and I practiced several hours a day on the saxophone and clarinet.

“So I wanted to offer this music, which was very important for me, to my students at the institute. We started with rhythmical instruments, which you can still see around, and then it somehow snowballed from there and we have evolved into a professional band.”

Did you establish the band with the idea of becoming professional one day?

Šimon Ornest,  photo: Tomáš Vodňanský
“No, nobody could have expected this. But I had the feeling that if I could do some really good work with the band, which consists mostly of students with disabilities, it would boost team work. So I am glad that it has worked out.”

What kind of songs do you actually play? I know you play arrangements of well-known songs, but do you also compose your own music?

“We approached a few of our favourite composers and singers to compose songs especially for our band, so we already have a few songs written especially for us. I think it’s a good trend, because of course we want to have our own repertoire.”

One of your songs highlights the fact that public transport in Prague is still not one hundred percent barrier-free. How successful would you say you are in raising public awareness of people with disabilities?

“I think we are quite successful. Especially the song you mentioned, a good translation into English would be ‘Boss driver’, it has over three million views on YouTube.

“It was about our ex-drummer who used his small bike instead of a wheel chair and he wasn’t allowed to take it on board a bus. We contacted the Prague Transport Authority and he is now allowed to travel by bus.”

The orchestra travels all over the world. How difficult is that? I imagine it must be hard even for an ordinary band, with all the equipment and instruments. So who is behind the production and do you have some sponsors to help you out?

Tap Tap orchestra,  photo: Dan Suchánek & Barbora Tůmová / official website of the band
“We have established very good cooperation with Czech Centres and with the Prague municipality. Of course it is complicated but not as complicated as it might seem.

“We also have good ties with Czech Airlines. We need to cooperate with them, but everything is possible and people in wheelchairs are normal passengers.”

You performed at the Prague Spring, you had concerts in Israel, Moscow, and many other places. What are your future plans?

“We have been planning to go to the US for a few years now. But we had difficulties getting a good insurance. But now we found a sponsor, a big insurance company, so we hope we will make it in 2016.”

As a band master you seem quite strict with your musicians. What did you learn over the years of working with people with disabilities?

“I think it is normal work, like with anybody else. Eighty-five percent of people don’t want to get up early in the morning, if they don’t have to. So we focus on the work and everybody accepts that time is the most important commodity in the world.

“We have two basic rules our members have to follow: You must be on time and you must keep your promise. It is quite surprising, but for quite a lot of people, this is a problem, especially for those, who were never confronted with these rules in their lives.”

The value of positive stress

Tap Tap orchestra,  photo: Dan Suchánek & Barbora Tůmová / official website of the band
After the rehearsal, I also approached two of the members of the band. Ladislav Angelovič is one of the founding members of the Tap Tap and has been in the band since 1998:

“I work as a press spokesman for the Tap civic society and I am also the band’s speaker, so I present the songs at our concerts. I also play the electronic pad, which is something like the electronic piano, but it produces percussion sounds.”

Ladislav Angelovič says he enjoys the band’s concerts the most, since the rest is mainly hard work. I asked if he doesn’t find the bandmaster a bit too strict.

“I always say that we work in an atmosphere of slight, but positive stress. But I actually think it is the only way to reach any results and I believe the focus on the results is what makes us different from other similar bands.”

Jana Augustinová has been in the Tap Tap for thirteen years and in the meantime she has also started teaching her own rhythm classes. She is a singer and also plays the electronic percussions. When asked what she likes best about the orchestra, she doesn’t hesitate.

“Over the years, we have become quite a close group of friends. But of course the thing I enjoy the most is the concerts. Singing in front of a sold-out opera house is an experience that can hardly be forgotten.”

The Tap Tap band leader Šimon Ornest is hoping that the band’s upcoming concert will be seen as a good example of social inclusion of the handicapped, hinting at president Miloš Zemans’s recent statement that disabled children should not be allowed to study in normal schools.

The event “Už jsme dál” or “A step further”, featuring a number of guest musicians, will take place on February 22nd at Prague’s Wenceslas Square.