June 30, 2013

A signer of the times: Falmouth woman's rap hands go viral

A deft American Sign Language interpreter at concerts and music festivals has many fans of her own.

By Ray Routhier rrouthier@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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Holly Maniatty of Falmouth demonstrates her live music signing technique to the lyrics of Wu-Tang Clan’s “Protect Ya Neck.” Here she signs: "So what's up, man?"

Photos by John Ewing/Staff Photographer

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"Coolin', man."

Additional Photos Below

"He was very controversial at that time for what he was saying, for what he was wearing or not wearing on stage," said Maniatty. "So I needed to research and study him."

For some shows, especially rap, Maniatty has to translate profanity. As an interpreter, she takes pride in getting the full message to her patrons.

"It is not up to me to censor what is being said or sung," she said. "Hip-hop is a place where profanity is OK, and it often punctuates a message. So I have to include it to interpret with integrity."

Maniatty often interprets for the jam band Phish and will do so again in July in central Washington state. Those concerts are very different from a rap show, especially because Phish often fills big spans of time with instrumental improvs.

But Maniatty doesn't feel it would be fair to take a break at those points just because no one is singing.

"I usually have one hand doing the guitar and one doing the bass so I can let people know what's going on," she said.



Doing sign language at concerts is so physically demanding, Maniatty works out regularly at the Portland gym CrossFit MF, where she gets a mix of training that helps with strength, aerobics and body control.

At Bonnaroo, where she's been interpreting for six or seven years, she regularly does eight to 10 shows in a three- or four-day period. At an outdoor music festival in Portland last August featuring Mumford & Sons, she interpreted for all eight acts over a nine-hour period before more than 15,000 fans.

When doing the Wu-Tang show at Bonnaroo, she traded off signing duties with Abbott. Maniatty would sign for one rapper, then rest and take a breath while Abbott signed the words of the next rapper.

Although interpreting live music takes strength and stamina, the mental part of what Maniatty does is equally, if not more, important.

To prepare for Bonnaroo this year, she said she probably spent 300 hours watching videos and conducting research. She watches performers' body languages and habits, and listens closely to cadence.

She also does a lot of research on lyrics and the meanings of words used in different contexts. Sometimes she contacts deaf people in different parts of the country to find out if there are regional differences in signs.

For example, in preparing to interpret for Killer Mike, an up-and-coming rapper from Atlanta who performed at Bonnaroo, Maniatty conducted research about signs for the word "brotha," which is often used in rap to mean a good friend or buddy.

She found that in Atlanta a sign with that meaning would be made with two hands interlocked at the finger tips, forming a jointed fist touching the chest over the heart. But the sign in New York City for the same term would be one hand shaped in a fist, with the thumb touching the chest over the heart.

"Holly is so amazing with her understanding of music, she interprets as if she's telling us a story," wrote Aaron Ewing, 40, of Seattle, who is deaf and has seen Maniatty interpret at four concerts over the years. "She knows all the words. The audience really digs her awesome emotion."


Although the presence of interpreters at concerts is growing -- especially as more music festivals pop up -- most hearing people aren't very familiar with the concept.

The publicity Maniatty got for her Bonnaroo video has caused a lot of hearing people to ask questions about interpreting at concerts, including why folks who can't hear much, or at all, would want to go to a concert.

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Additional Photos

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"Chillin' chillin'"

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Holly Maniatty has made a name for herself as a sign language interpreter for live music concerts. “Everything I do is very strategic, to convey the emotion, the beat,” she said, mugging here with the sign for “camera.”


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