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The Kansas City Star

‘Listening Is Not Literacy'; Jose Feliciano Encourages Use Of Braille


January 9, 2004
Copyright ©2004 The Kansas City Star. All rights reserved.

Renowned guitarist and bilingual singer/songwriter Jose Feliciano still performs the oldies that made him a Latin crossover artist in the late 1960s, including popular covers of "Light My Fire'' and "California Dreamin'.''

He just doesn't dwell on them.

"People expect certain songs from the past, and we do them,'' Feliciano said from his 18th-century farmhouse in Fairfield County, Conn. "But, for me, it's good to let the people know that I am growing as an artist, that I haven't stayed in the bag that they expect me to be in.

"I don't plan my shows, really,'' he said. "I believe in being spontaneous. We talk to the audience. We communicate with them.''

When Feliciano appears Saturday at a benefit for the Children's Center for the Visually Impaired, it's fair to assume that the subject of blindness will come up. Feliciano has been blind since birth.

"One of the most important things I hope (CCVI) does is educate the blind literally,'' Feliciano said. "By that I mean we need more Braille in their lives, because listening is not literacy. I don't think society realizes that, if you don't teach a blind child to read Braille, it's like not teaching a sighted child to read print.

"Definitely, the government has cut out programs in Braille without realizing that they're taking the literacy out of blind children's hands. And that's something that I'm very interested in pushing.''

Despite his commitment to visually impaired youth, Feliciano doesn't see himself as a role model.

"I'm not a presumptuous type of guy,'' he said. "If what I do inspires children or anyone, I'm very happy about that. But to come out from the batter's box and say, 'I am a role model,' you know, I don't do that. I let the music and the things that I do speak for themselves.

Born in Puerto Rico, Feliciano found music at age 3.

"My uncle played the Puerto Rican instrument called the cuatro, and I used to accompany him on a tin can - I played bongos,'' he recalled. "At 4, I played the harmonica. At the age of 5, I came to New York, and at 7, I started playing the concertina. I was introduced to the ukulele at the age of 8. Then I started delving into the guitar when I was 9. And, thank goodness, I played it that early. Because, when you start late, you don't have time to woodshed.''

Feliciano became a folk music performer in the 1960s and began recording in Spanish in 1966. His landmark English-language album, "Feliciano,'' earned him the best new artist Grammy Award in 1968.

He continues to record in English and Spanish. And, yes, he would like to have another big hit. Yet Feliciano's original 1970 Christmas song, "Feliz Navidad,'' keeps him on the radio year in and year out.

"The song has caught on because it's easy, it's simple,'' he said. "It isn't trying to send any tremendous psychological message, except that everybody should be happy on Christmas and have a happy time. That's what it was all about.''

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