Uncanny hearing allows blind siblings to perform musical and navigational marvels

The perfect pitch of the brothers Otokiak

By JANE GEORGE

CAMBRIDGE BAY – Anthony Otokiak is known as "a human sonar" for good reason. When he walks around town, he claps his hands and listens to the echoes to find out where he is.

He's blind. But, with unusual sensitivity to sound, and a good memory, Otokiak, 29, is able to walk from home to the store or a meeting and back by himself.

Otokiak can even tell when someone has bought a new truck. New vehicles feel more smooth, he says.

The frigid winter winds in Cambridge Bay also help guide him. On breezeless summer days, he has a harder time knowing where he is.

His younger brother, Ashley, 26, is also blind. Both lost their sense of sight shortly after birth. Like many babies born very prematurely, they suffered from an illness called "retinopathy of prematurity," which affects blood vessels inside the eye and causes blindness.

This hasn't stopped both brothers from becoming accomplished musicians.

Ashley Otokiak plays violin, guitar, harmonica, keyboard and flute.

His brother, while less interested in music, plays keyboard. He's also an avid radio listener, and well-informed about current affairs.

The two often play at community events and church services with their father, Joe, also a musician.

"I played a lot of music when they were small, so they picked it up," says Joe Otokiak, who formed his first band as a high school boarding student at Yellowknife's Akaitcho Hall.

Ashley Otokiak's ear is so fine-tuned that he can listen to a CD a few times and then figure out how to play the songs.

On Sunday afternoon, father and sons play for a couple of hours in the living room of their home. They choose Charlie Adams' "Quviasuppunga" (I'm happy) and hymns in Inuinnaqtun, as well as songs from the Eagles, John Denver and Ricky Scaggs.

The words of "Amazing Grace" – "I once was lost but now am found, was blind, but now, I see" – or the lyrics of Ricky Scaggs' "Crying My Heart Out over You" – "I was blind I could not see that you meant the world to me" – take on new meaning as they play.

Ashley Otokiak's hands move gracefully along his guitar, which he lays flat across his knees to play songs by Jeff Healey, the award-winning blues-rock musician and ex-CBC radio host, who is also blind.

On the violin, Ashley's musical hero is Kugluktuk's master fiddler, Colin Adjun, whom he admires for his "big deep sound."

When Ashley Otokiak picks up a harmonica and accompanies his father on the guitar, his deft melodies put him in a class of his own: he communicates everything he feels through his playing.

In between numbers, he rushes to the keyboard and adjusts the sound for his brother.

Research has shown that blind musicians, like Ashley Otokiak, are more likely to have perfect pitch than sighted musicians. A 2004 study found that people born blind or who go blind early in childhood are better able to recognize differences in pitch than sighted people.

It appears part of the brain, usually used for processing visual images, may turn to sounds instead.

Sometimes Anthony Otokiak, shown in old family photos as a happy child with an engaging grin, would get lost as he walked around. His first solo forays around the community terrified his mother, Eva.

"I was so nervous when he headed off to school, holding the hand of a friend," she remembers. Even today, Eva ­Otokiak checks in with her sons to see how they are and what their plans are.

The loving determination of their parents enabled the brothers to grow up surrounded by family and friends in Cambridge Bay. They refused to send the boys to a boarding school for the blind. Instead, they lobbied for specialized teachers to come to Cambridge Bay.

These teachers taught the boys to read Braille, the series of raised dots for letters that allow the blind to read. Even the boys' Inuinnaqtun teachers would translate material into Braille notation so they could read it. Both graduated from Grade 12.

While most parents are free from looking after their adult children, the brothers still live at home because, despite their talents and independence, they need some assistance with daily life.

There, Eva Otokiak keeps a close eye on their health and particularly on their hearing, a precious lifeline in an otherwise dark world.

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