On the first evening of the 2023 New York State Fair, hip-hop duo Salt-N-Pepa took the stage at Chevy Court to deliver what 16,300 fairgoers came to shake their hips to: smash hits like “Whatta Man,” “Let’s Talk About Sex,” “Shoop,” and “Push It.”
Halfway through their hour-long set, they handed the stage over to a DJ who kept the Gen-X crowd hyped with a mix of eighties and nineties hits before coming back to finish the show.
Despite the oldies radio vibe and the seat-rattling bass pumping from the speakers, it seemed at times as if Salt-N-Pepa were running low on, well, pep.
But you couldn’t help but notice a woman, stage right, gyrating on a riser with a shaved head topped by a magenta-tipped pompadour. Her hands flew in all directions as her face morphed through expressions faster than Jim Carrey on speed.
She gave perhaps the most riveting performance at Chevy Court that evening without uttering a single word. Her name is Amber Galloway-Gallego, founder of Amber G. Productions, a company that specializes in interpreting live music events for the deaf and hard of hearing.
Her mission: “To make sure that deaf people, and our community, are getting equal access to the experience of what music means,” she said.
Judging by the waving arms and ecstatic faces in the first three rows set aside for vision-impaired, deaf, and hard of hearing fans at Chevy Court that night, she succeeded.
You might already have seen one of Galloway-Gallego’s kinetic, slightly-off-stage performances online. A shaky video [NSFW] of her interpreting a Kendrick Lamar show at Lollapalooza went viral in 2013, earning her the title as the “Jay Z of hip-hop sign language” from Vibe magazine.
Since then, she’s interpreted on stage for more than 400 artists, including Snoop Dogg and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. She even rap battled—in sign language, of course—on Jimmy Kimmel Live! with Wiz Khalifa.
Galloway-Gallego performed at the State Fair last year, and she, or a member of her ten person team, is on stage for all 56 Fair concerts this year as well.
In addition to that daunting schedule, Galloway-Gallego coordinates sign language services for most Fair events, from the racing pigs to the Houdini act off the Midway.
Summer is Galloway-Gallego’s busiest time of year. She drove straight to Syracuse from the Lollapalooza festival in Illinois, her largest gig yet: 16 interpreters covering 65 performances.
“It’s a short time to prepare, but I have an incredible team and we couldn’t do it without each other,” she said. “We’re very supportive, and we’re just able to pull it off really, really well.”
The team stays in a rented house in Syracuse when they’re not at the Fair, which means they pretty much only sleep there. But they don’t sleep much.
“We just put the music on and take turns signing songs because music is so much a part of us,” Galloway-Gallego said. “We’re literally just like a family. We sign together. We fight together. We sometimes get on each other’s nerves.”
While working the Fair, team members meet throughout the day on the second floor of the Center of Progress building in “the craziest secret room ever,” said Galloway-Gallego, “across the hall from the mascots.”
The secret room is where interpreters can relax or cram for upcoming shows. They memorize set lists, lyrics, and familiarize themselves not only with a particular artist’s music, but their message, too.
After Julio Iglesias Jr.’s Chevy Court concert, a group of deaf fans stayed behind to thank two Amber G. Productions interpreters, Julian Ortiz and Sarah Grasso, for giving them “access,” a common word in the deaf community.
“It’s amazing to see deaf people come up and see a deaf interpreter on stage because it’s hard for deaf people to get access,” Ortiz signed. Ortiz is deaf; Grasso, who is not, interpreted for this story.
“What’s great is when you see a deaf person in the audience and they have a big smile on their face and you really know access is happening,” Ortiz signed. “As a deaf interpreter, it means so much to me. We’re doing it, we’re providing that access.”
Broadly speaking, access means being able to participate in events on the same terms as everybody else. Jennifer Yacketta, who is hearing impaired, drove down from Alexandria Bay to see Peppa Pig with her family because she knew interpreters would be on hand. Otherwise she would’ve stayed home, she said.
“It’s so that we can still be able to enjoy shows and not miss out on what everybody else is doing,” Yaketta said. “I’m able to get out and see more things and do more things and it helps a lot for everybody.”
One of the biggest barriers to access, Ortiz signed, is finding skilled interpreters. Gallego-Galloway expends a lot of effort “searching and scouring our whole community to find the best music interpreters,” she said.
Today, her company regularly works with about 30 interpreters scattered around the country. But demand is growing fast.
The Americans with Disabilities Act requires concert venues to provide sign language interpreters upon request. In the past two years, the number of requests her company fulfills has tripled, Galloway-Gallego said.
Choosing who among her staff interprets which show at a big event like the Fair “is almost like casting for a movie,” she said. “I cast the best people that are going to effectively show those artists the best—it’s just going to come off their hands better.”
Personal preferences also play a role. Galloway-Gallego let others have REO Speedwagon and Bret Michaels. She’s done them before. But despite interpreting his concerts “year after year,” she snapped up Herman’s Hermits because she adores lead singer Peter Noone.
“He’s such a riot,” she said. “He makes me laugh. He makes the whole audience laugh. He’s just really, truly an amazing entertainer and I just love artists that are entertainers like that.”
It’s no coincidence that most interpreters who work for Amber G. Productions have backgrounds in entertainment. Ortiz, who is from Texas, only started interpreting music two years ago. But he grew up in a “very musical family,” he signed.
“My grandfather was an opera singer and I grew up going to all the different venues,” Ortiz signed. “We would go to the theater, and we would see actors and I would try to emulate that. I want my signing to be the same way, because that’s what’s in my blood.”
“I was classically trained growing up,” said Grasso, who joined Amber G. Productions a year ago and works out of Queens.
“My grandfather sang on Broadway,” she said. “Music is definitely in all of our blood, and I think that’s what gives us that stage presence, of the dancing and feeling all the instruments and just having it course through our veins.”
A lot more goes into interpreting live music than using sign language to communicate lyrics, which is how things used to work before Galloway-Gallego helped reinvent the process.
In the old days, an ASL interpreter might stand in front of a stage signing a singer’s vocals, using just one sign for the actual music, a technique that has all the passion of a robo-call compared to Galloway-Gallego’s method.
A skilled live music interpreter must wholly commit themselves to the performance—in body, hands, and face—whether Peppa Pig is on stage or Salt-N-Pepa. Galloway-Gallego calls it “musicality.”
“Musicality means that your body, as well as your signs, is matching the bravado or tonality of the actual singer,” she said, “so that it becomes almost like a rhythmic dance.”
An interpreter with good musicality can sign vocals, interpret the music—including various instruments because each one has a unique “voice,” Gallego said—and express the impact of the music. They have to do all this simultaneously, in real time, without looking at the stage. And for deaf interpreters, without hearing the music, either.
When she’s not performing, Galloway-Gallego is always nearby, supporting members of her team by feeding them lyrics from an iPad, as well as signing to them details of the performance, like a thundering drum solo or a screaming guitar.
“My goal is always to make sure you can see the music,” Galloway-Gallego said.
Everything about Galloway-Gallego’s physical presence at the Salt-N-Pepa concert seemed calculated for maximum non-verbal communication: unobtrusive jewelry, except six rings which lent weight to her hand gestures; black half-sleeve shirt, trimmed in white, highlighting her arm and head movements.
Even her striking hairdo seemed less like a fashion choice than the most efficient style to draw attention to her expressive face.
“Deaf people love music,” Galloway-Gallego said, just like everybody else. When she interprets a show, she wants them to walk away feeling like it was a life-changing experience.
Because a concert is more than loud music, as anyone who’s ever been to one knows. It’s a communal event: strangers crammed together, bodies moving, voices rising, everybody vibing to the same notes, the same mood—and poof!—it’s over and all that remains the next day is a ringing in the ears.
It’s that ephemeral one-ness that Galloway-Gallego and her team try to create for deaf and hard of hearing people with every concert performance they interpret.
“It’s so much more than what my ears can do,” she said. “For everybody, for all humanity, it’s so much bigger than just the functionality of our bodies. It’s what our mind and spirit also connect to with music.”
Steve Featherstone covers the outdoors for The Post-Standard, syracuse.com and NYUP.com. Contact him at email@example.com or on Twitter @featheroutdoors. You can also follow along with all of our outdoors content at newyorkupstate.com/outdoors/ or follow us on Facebook at facebook.com/upstatenyoutdoors.