Ken Medema: The blind American pianist and Christian music pioneer

Saturday 1st February 1992

Former music therapist KEN MEDEMA believes he is still in the same line of work. Andy Butcher met the man

Ken Medema
Ken Medema

Any composer who has sweated for a few hours over just the right next note or the best rhyme for the chorus of their commissioned song would envy Ken Medema. He is paid to make them up on the spot. The blind American pianist has an uncanny ability to respond almost instantly to a sermon with an off-the-cuff song that mixes melody, comedy and a bit of edge to hammer home the previously spoken words. Over the years it has become so fine-tuned that these days some conference organisers hire him to do no more than spill out a short musical response to their main speakers. Nice work if you can get it.

While his name may be new to many British gospel music fans, Medema's music is probably more well-known than they realise; for example, one composition, "Mr Simon", has featured as the score for the popular Springs Dance Company for years. And those with good memories might even remember Ken's short appearance at Greenbelt a few years back, or his occasional one-off concert here and there. More regular visits to these shores have so far been precluded by "the right connection", but there is no shortage of them for other parts of the world. The well-travelled musician and his road manager/director Beverley Vander Molen - who acts as his eyes during each concert, talking him through the set via a headset connection - travel overseas extensively in the course of their 150-gig year.

While his "reflex reflections" have earned him the rather overused label of a prophet, the middle-aged former music therapist prefers to view them as a marriage between heavenly inspiration and earthly perspiration. Speaking during a recent, rare visit to the UK - to lead worship and offer his musical commentaries for the international Christian Media Conference in Sheffield - he observed: "It's a combination I think of gift, ability and training. I am convinced that most people can actually do this, but they are frightened to." Why? "Because, number one, making music is a mystery to most people. Number two, improvising on the spot is an even greater mystery to most people, so they shy away from it. Musicians shy away from it because they have been told all their lives that making music is a process of sitting down and very carefully arranging it. I call that thinking-up music. Because we believe we can't, we don't. That's not so in other cultures, necessarily. In the same way in our own culture in 18th and early 19th centuries it was just expected that when a pianist or a violinist or a flautist played a concerto that he would improvise a cadenza, that was just the way it was. So the orchestra would come to a pause, the soloist would take off and he would improvise a cadenza using all the themes of the concerto. There used to be these great contests about who could improvise the best cadenzas. And they used to go on for hours. It was a can-you-top-this show. French organists have kept that tradition, the greats of our century have all been great improvisers."

That Medema is able to tap into this ability is "largely attributable to the fact that early on I had teachers who told me I could. They made me do it; every time I learned a piece my teacher would tell me, 'Now you improvise in that style'. So music became like a second language. People have said, 'Oh Medema, you are a prophet' because they find these little hidden messages and they find them very helpful and very useful. I don't know that it is so prophetic as it is simply an attempt to be aware of what is happening and going on and to respond to that - just as someone who uses a spoken word would give us a caution for the week." In nearly every concert Medema tests his musical "reflexes" by calling for three words and three notes from the audience, and then weaving them together into an instant new song. In Sheffield he delighted and amazed audience and fellow musicians - from the accompanying Prom Praise Orchestra - alike with a mini-opera that managed to combine Bartok, Beethoven, Bach and the blues with "sausages", "radio" and "cat". Somehow they resulted in a humorous story-song that even sneaked in a little food-for-thought sermonette.

But he is clear to underline that he doesn't do this as a party piece. "Not at all. There are fun aspects about it, but in every one of these there is always an attempt in that to say something meaningful, what I am thinking about or hearing from people to us all. My sense of my role in worship comes from the view that if something is said, whatever happens next can either trivialise or make special the words that have been said. Now to take a simple story or an illustration that someone shares and to surround it with the medium of music makes it more important because you hit the thing again in a multi-media kind of way, with both the spoken word and the emotional impact of music. I try to take the concepts and the information and the stories and surround them with music so that people feel that they are important."

Ken Medema
Ken Medema

Despite the seriousness of the part he sees himself playing, there is a maverick sense of the humorous in him, too. So he is not above closing a solo freeform response or even a time of congregational worship with sung notices, announcing where to queue for dinner in grand opera style. "I have always been a rebel since I can remember," he admits. "Always been the one to poke fun at things sacred, to chuckle during church services more than I should. There is that streak in me I inherited from my father and I have come to believe that it is a very advantageous thing. For years I tried to play the role of the angry prophetic young musician and I am very tired of it. I believe with all my heart that the best way to bring folk together is celebration and laughter and so if I can provide an opportunity for laughter I am more than glad to do it."

Travelling fairly light with just two DX-7s and a Korg drum machine, a 16-track sequencer helps fill in any holes. His "classically trained, but pop-influenced" voice rings with a grand stage manner reminiscent of a confessed influence and hero, Danish musical-humorist Victor Borge.

On the serious side, many of his songs deal with issues of injustice and oppression - partly the reason for his marked absence from radio airplay in the States, despite an extensive discography of twenty plus albums, and a busy tour diary. "Christian radio either wants the pop cliche entertainment sound or the more traditional, hymnic gospel music kind of sound," he observes. "The subjects that they want to deal with are very simple - come to Jesus get saved. My music refuses to be pigeonholed like that. People don't know what to do with me."

His handicap has influenced the issues which concern him, and about which he sings. "I think I certainly have some sympathy for people who have been disenfranchised, whether they have been disabled or politically oppressed or whatever. For the simple reason that I have lived with some degree of being different all my life. My very early work with civil rights made me more sensitive to all kinds of work." He recognises that his blindness can be an advantage at times, creating a bridge between musician and audience that sometimes allows him to communicate in ways that deal with people deeply. "People figure I am safe and won't be looking what they look like; whether they are fat or thin, or large or small. There is a kind of sympathy, sometimes misdirected, that people have for disabled people that makes them willing to listen." For all that, it isn't something he trades off. "A long time ago when I was in primary school I had a teacher who said to me you live in a sighted world, find a way to get used to it. They and my parents were very hard on me about that, there was not one drop of sympathy for my blindness. I managed to find ways; I get people to describe to me what's on the screen..' to read to me...".

Perhaps surprising for someone who can just barely distinguish light from shade is the amount of visual imagery in his writing. Rich word pictures dominate his lyrics. "Not seeing is definitely a help," he explains. "One of the reasons is that I tend to use a lot of what everybody else refers to as visual imagery...the brilliant blue sky, and so on. People ask how can you do that. I say to them, it is precisely that I have not seen that my sense of visual imagery is so keen - because I have had to get all my visual imagery through listening, or by other senses. So I have maybe a deeper appreciation of what people see than even they do. The only difference between me and someone else is that I have to do a bit more work to catch up. Thank goodness I have plenty of energy and don't mind doing that. There are certain ways in which everybody is disenfranchised.

Somebody who doesn't speak English; somebody who has very good eyes but a lousy sense of smell." Medema cannot see the flicker of doubt over this interviewer's face, but surely this is stretching positivism a bit far...preferring smell to sight? Tell me more... "I consider the fact that I don't see and have a wonderful sense of smell a tremendous gift because to be able to catch the fragrance of all the people who walk into a room and notice the different colognes, the different body odours, the different smells of clothing. To me that is a world of colour that I would hate to miss." Sounds a little fanciful: show us what you mean - what colour does your interviewer smell like? "Actually, your colour is very even, like a fall colour but not, the leaves haven't quite turned yet. Somewhere between brown and green, not the desolate brown of the end of summer, it's very kind of even-mannered, nothing clashes, nothing sticks out, nothing. You don't attract a lot of attention to yourself. In some countries, in hot ones, they build houses that blend into the terrain, you almost don't know it's there. Your house almost blends into the terrain." No further questions, your honour, this jury is persuaded. CR

The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.
About Andy Butcher
Andy ButcherUK-born, USA-based Andy Butcher is an award-winning author, editor and journalist.


Reader Comments

Posted by Mrs. M & M--Cheryl in Bay Area, CA @ 20:29 on Oct 1 2015

Thank you, Ken, for providing such clever tunes & lyrics!
I teach Mr. Simon to my 4th grade choir to perform in church--we do it as a musical with bell ringers and a swaying choir! Love it so much!!
Thank you from my students, too! God loves all clever people!!!

Posted by Don in state of Delaware @ 01:00 on Sep 21 2011

I have this classic, sorta poppish style gospel album;
an early vet that still has kept up his muscial career into the millenium years. The lp title starts side 1, a great song what we would hear many years later by top ccm group The Imperials; on their lost album recorded in 1976, but not heard until 2006 on cd: Btw, the song "Son Shiny Day" starts of the Imperials recording also. I just love the way Ken arranged the old hymn "JESUS, Lover of my Soul"; great recording.
In spite of Ken's odds dealing with blindness; he sure has found a way to greatly overcome with GOD's help.
"Maybe If I Try" is a a commendable song; another fave. I applaud Ken on his piano playing and composing outstanding tunes that would start off the ccm genre. I love side 2 starter "Mr. Simon"; as well as "Symphony of Praise". The whole album is highly commendable; wtg Ken! You have truly shown what GOD can do with a life, no matter what! You have blessed lives and still do, Thank you! I really enjoy listening to this gemm. It's so hard to believe that this ccm vet will be 70 next year! GOD Bless Ken!

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