The actions of Finnish deaf rapper Signmark’s sign language speak louder than words in many ways. The 41-year-old artist, who is preparing for his second performance in Hong Kong in November, is using big, bold gestures and animated facial expressions (just as he does in his concerts) to explain – through a sign language interpreter – how he experiences his own music without being able to hear it. I always had this dream to be an artist, but nobody believed in me. Everybody was saying, ‘You're a deaf man … you will not be able to do this’. That felt really bad. So, I decided I was going to show everybody that I can do this Signmark, Finnish deaf rapper “My family is deaf, but my grandparents are hearing, so they didn’t know any sign language.” Signmark, who was born deaf, says. The performer, whose real name is Marko Vuoriheimo, was about seven when he first became inspired to sign the words of a song. View this post on Instagram It was sooooooo wonderful to meet Linda. She is so sunny and lovely person! ️ Check it out how I met her! #svtplay #episode3 #semittsound @lindasundblad #lambretta #bimbo A post shared by Marko Vuoriheimo (@signmarkmusic) on May 10, 2019 at 3:21am PDT ‘Time machine’ musicians serve up smorgasbord of Nordic masterpieces by Sibelius, Grieg and Nielsen “My grandparents were the people that got me in contact with music – and the language of music – for the first time through Christmas carols,” he says. “I watched as my grandfather was playing the piano and my grandmother was singing. I began lip-reading what she was singing and then I started signing it to my parents. They got involved and realised that music is something that connects people. “Then I translated hundreds of songs into sign language; different artists’ songs, for instance those of Bon Jovi, Michael Jackson and Metallica.” A sign of success With his fascinating life story and vibrant personality, it is easy to see why Signmark – who has devoted his life to making signing musical while working with collaborators who voice his rap words on recordings and in concerts – has gripped audiences around the world. “In sign language, if I want to use higher pitches, then I raise my hand: that kind of indicates the pitch of the volume,” he says. “And then the bass is more down [low], so that’s how I make it visible. When your loved one hurts you: ‘Autumn Sonata’ goes from big screen to grand stage to tell of estranged mother-daughter relationship “The most important element for me to how I ‘hear’ or sense music is the touch. I can sense the vibration and bass and so on. So that’s the most important thing for me.” Signmark also observes the facial expressions of musicians and uses his facial expressions to add to his performances. “For instance, if you are playing the violin, I can see 90 per cent or 95 per cent of violinists have the same facial expressions when they are playing – eyes closed and really emotional-looking,” he says. My grandparents got me in contact with music – and the language of music when I was about seven. I watched as my grandfather was playing the piano and my grandmother was singing a Christmas carol. I began lip-reading what she was singing and signed it to my deaf parents Signmark “So, even though I can’t hear the music, I can kind of imagine what style of music they’re playing through their expressions.” Signmark began making music at the age of 20; at least that was when his musician alter ego was born. By working alongside hearing collaborators as he signed his songs, the budding rapper began building up his portfolio. The formula proved to be a success when he was among the artists vying to win the chance to represent Finland at the 2009 Eurovision Song Contest. Performing with Finnish singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Osmo Ikonen, he finished second in the qualifying competition with 41.2 per cent of the votes. Finnish artists – including ‘Jimi Hendrix of accordion’ – express human connections and contradictions through sound and movement That was enough to attract the attention of Warner Music Group and secure a record deal – the first deaf musician to do so. It spurred his ambitions to go international. “We started discussing that maybe I should change my sign language to American Sign Language, and also the singing would be in English,” he said. “So, that’s the change we made.” I ‘hear’ or sense music through touch. I can sense vibration and bass … I also look at facial expressions … 90 per cent or 95 per cent of violinists have their eyes closed and are emotional-looking. I can sort of imagine what style of music they’re playing through their expressions Signmark Songs for Chinese audience American Sign Language, commonly called ASL – which uses a one-handed, finger-spelling alphabet – is the biggest sign language in the world and has a well-defined grammatical structure. Yet there is also the international signing, which Signmark says is roughly equivalent to Esperanto (an artificial language devised in 1887 as an international method of communication, which is based on the roots from the chief European languages). After making his second record in ASL, Signmark decided to broaden the scope of his audience with his third album in 2014, which contained six songs in international signing and four in Chinese Sign Language. How much of a disaster is climate change? Let Nordic indigenous peoples tell you, says Finnish actor-director “Why did I choose to do these four songs in Chinese Sign Language?” he says. “It was because in 2012, I got a lot of fan posts from China. People were [saying] that it’s really hard to travel abroad to come to another part of the world because of the economic situation or visas and passport problems, and so on. “I decided that, OK, just for my Chinese fans, because it’s so hard to come to me and see me perform, I will make the songs for them.” Shows have international appeal Signmark’s global ambitions have led to more than 1,000 concerts around Europe and tours to the United States and Asia. He will make an appearance in Hong Kong on November 3 at a concert titled “Impossible is My Thing”, followed by a sharing session. The event is part of the city’s World Cultures Festival: The Nordics, showcasing music, theatre, dance and multimedia programmes from Finland, Norway, Denmark, Sweden and Iceland. It will be a proud return for Signmark after his previous visit to the city in 2010. “I remember the last time I came to Hong Kong to perform,” he says. “I’m about 192 centimetres [6 feet 3 inches] tall, and my buddy at the time was 2 metres [6 feet 6 inches] tall. Even people who don’t know any sign language, if they are looking at me they will know what kind of feeling I’m trying to convey to them Signmark “All the people in Hong Kong were trying to take our pictures [because of our heights]. It was a fun experience.” For his 90-minute performance at Ko Shan Theatre, Signmark will team up with one of his frequent hearing collaborators, Nigerian-Finnish artist Chike Ohanwe, to present songs from his album that are known for their piercing, relevant and uplifting messages that speak to a broad audience. “Even people who don’t know any sign language, if they are looking at me they will know what kind of feeling I’m trying to convey to them,” he says, adding that Ohanwe is more of a “stage performer” and the concert is expected to have an element of drama to it. The signature “can do” spirit of Signmark’s raps songs seem to have been inspired by his own experiences. “One of the most important things that really got me started doing this was when my angst and frustration started building up,” he says. “I always had this dream to be an artist, but nobody believed in me. “Everybody was saying, ‘You're a deaf man, what's the point? You will not be able to do this’, and that felt really bad. So, I decided that I was going to show everybody that I can do this.” Needing to find one’s voice is a struggle many people share. Signmark has shown, by example, how to do it – loud and clear.