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Blind Guitarist Sets the Pace in Dragon Boating

By Randy Pinsky

If you’ve ever seen a dragon boat race, you know how intense it is- coaches bellowing out directives, paddlers fiercely battling the waves. A sport for the visually-impaired?

Ioana Gandrabur thinks so. 

An internationally acclaimed classical guitarist from Romania, Gandrabur has paddled with Caravela – Montreal’s first dragon boat team for people who are blind or partially sighted –  since 2017.[1]

The team has made quite the name for itself. Paddling in all types of weather, Caravela challenges perceptions about ability through their commitment to the sport, team cohesion, and collection of medals.

It All Started With a Piano

Gandrabur was born prematurely in Bucharest, Romania and developed retrolental fibroplasia due to too much oxygen in the incubator. Being the only blind child at a sighted school however, did not faze her in the least. Gutsy and adventurous, Gandrabur has always been independent and willing to try everything.

It was music that was her first love. “Ever since I have memories, music has been there for me,” she observed.

From playing tunes on toy instruments, to starting piano lessons at age 5, music was a way she could connect with the world. At 12, her piano teacher recommended she switch to the guitar due to it being “an intimate instrument you can feel with your whole body as you play.”

After only two years of lessons, Gandrabur won the prestigious Romanian National Guitar Competition in the adult category. To date, she is the youngest winner in the history of this competition, “becom[ing] a national star very quickly,” noted sister Simona. Gandrabur’s affinity with the guitar is evident in how she plays, effortlessly strumming out intricate arrangements.

Coming Into Herself

Becoming a classical guitarist helped me find my voice…and provided a way for me to connect with other like-minded people,” shared Gandrabur. “My identity became inextricably linked to the guitar and I am grateful for the ability to touch others through music.”

In addition to winning several prestigious competitions, Gandrabur performs internationally both as a soloist and with various orchestras, and is a sought-after motivational speaker as well as instructor of master classes (the Austin Classical Guitar school confided, “we’ve been dreaming about this [visit in 2018] for years”).

‘Seeing’ Music Differently

In 2022, Gandrabur (who speaks six languages), was featured on an AMI (Accessible Media Inc) Télé series called “Voir la Musique Autrement” (“See Music Differently”) featuring blind or low vision musicians worldwide.

While a Baroque girl at heart, Gandrabur has also been known to launch into Beatles favorites. She maintains however, “classical music is something that gives you a sense of continuity and a sense of what has happened before – You can travel with music where you couldn’t possibly go.”

Musician, Athlete- Ambassador?

As a blind musician, she believes artists of all abilities should be held to the “same standards as you would anyone else.” To her, disability is merely a detail such as height or hair color (“I am a blond guitarist and I am a blind guitarist,” she quipped).[2]

A particular pet peeve is when people make special note of her condition. “I have always hoped to be known only as a great musician, nothing else.”

In order for people to gain sensitivity to visual impairment, her concerts often take place in complete darkness. “This paradox creates a rich space for introspection…[to] cultivate a musical environment of understanding and appreciation.”

For differently abled people, “We are ambassadors whether we like it or not,” she commented when interviewed. As the perpetual teacher, she good-naturedly responds to questions about being blind and having a guide dog on a daily basis.

Ioana and her guide dog Cheerio.

Musician by Day, Paddler by Night

“[Ioana’s] rigorous discipline and sheer determination allowed her to face obstacles that one could arguably have deemed impossible to surmount. In the actual guitar world, her name is synonymous with artistic integrity, courage and personal success,” observed famed classical guitarist Oscar Ghiglia.

Yet this description could also apply to her as a paddler with Caravela.

Though she prefers the camaraderie of dragon boating to the competitiveness, Gandrabur is an accomplished athlete. The team epitomizes how with some accommodations (ex: the drummer hitting the side of the boat so the rhythm reverberates to keep all in sync, and speakers amplifying the coach’s directives), everyone can paddle.

As reiterated by Caravela Captain Josh Simmonds (and former Program Director for Dragon Boat Canada’s ParaDragons National Team) who himself has night blindness, “You are not a ‘vision-impaired paddler.’ You are a paddler who happens to be vision-impaired.”

Caravela in action.

Feeling the Connection

Interestingly, it is the lack of vision that contributes to making the team glide so well as a unit. Senses attuned, the team feels the power of a properly executed stroke, when the paddles are lifted in unison, hearing the water dripping as the boat surges ahead.

In fact, paddling blindfolded is a technique some coaches use to develop cohesiveness and concentration. It can also be done in solidarity for those with visual impairments, such as with  Vancouver-based team “Eye of the Dragon” in Florida’s Battle in the Bay Dragon Boat Festival in 2011.

Linking Her Passions

For Gandrabur, both music and paddling take intuition, commitment, and a desire to improve. She noted that it is much like playing chamber music or singing in a choir; one has the joy of being part of something bigger than yourself.

“Whether in the boat or on stage, when you’re ‘on’, you’re ‘on’,” she commented. “You let go to the present moment” and give it your all.

Gandrabur is a testament of an indomitable spirit who is unwilling to let challenges get in her way.

Caravela in action.

After the long pandemic, Caravela’s first race back was the Quebec Cup, on a cold and drizzly day. She recalled, “We felt, ‘wow, if we can do this, we can do anything.”[3]

As Gandrabur looks forward to practices resuming, her attitude to new adventures – whether on stage or in the boat – is guided by the belief; “What I don't see doesn't scare me, and I will only worry once it hits me.”

[1] “At first, I was intimidated by the waiver describing the possible dangers, dismemberment, etc” she laughed. “I kind of asked myself- do I really need this?”

[2] She now works at the Center for Equitable Library Access (CELA), testing the accessibility of new delivery options. “I am combining my lived experience with blindness with my geeky side and love of technology,” she laughed. On a more serious note, she reflected, “While for a long time I wanted blindness to be just a detail, I came to fully embrace it as part of myself, with the insights and hurdles it brings. So taking a job with CELA was a natural development.”

[3] The Darkness Fighters is Hong Kong’s only dragon boat team composed of visually-impaired paddlers as a means to fight depression and loneliness. Their mantra is “Challenge the Impossible.”

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