NEWBURYPORT – Ken Medema finishes his solo, 90-minute concerts with three to five songs that are improvised on the spot, complete with rhyming, from stories he gleans from members of the audience.
And if that is not remarkable enough, Ken is blind. Nearing his 80th birthday, he plays the piano and sings with eyesight that can only distinguish light from shadows.
“He was born blind, yet ‘sees’ clearly and deeply with his other senses,” said long-time friend, Rev. Ross Varney, pastor at the Belleville Congregational Church. “The lyrics to his songs are deep and meaningful, with music to match and move emotions.”
Varney, who excitedly sits at a piano in the church to play a favorite Medema song, described Ken’s music as “powerful, victorious, triumphant, transformative.” He said he loves Medema’s music and lyrics. “He lights up my life,” Varney said. “His music heals the soul. I play his music for my own therapy.”
Thanks to their friendship, which includes cutting three CDs together, Medema will perform two free concerts at Belleville, 300 High Street, at 7 p.m., Saturday, April 23, and at 4 p.m., Sunday, April 24. He will also participate in the church’s Sunday morning service, where parishioners will join in singing one of his songs, “Enter the Joy.”
Medema’s fee and expenses are being underwritten by a sponsor, Varney said. Donations will benefit local Afghan refugees and the Perkins School for the Blind.
Varney said he hopes Medema’s concerts will “fill the balconies.” The church sanctuary seats 600.
Medema and Varney met at a church conference in California, where Ken performed regularly at the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove. Ross met Ken backstage and invited him to bring his talent to Belleville. Fourteen years ago, Ken performed for the first time at Belleville.
Born in Grand Rapids, MI, Medema as a blind child was not widely accepted. “I spent a lot of time by myself,” he wrote.
He turned to music, which became a second language. “I started banging on the piano when I was five years old making up crazy little fantasies on my mom’s piano. When I was eight years old, my parents got me a wonderful teacher who taught me the classics with Braille music and taught me to play by ear.”
His teacher also taught him to improvise. “Every time I learned a piece, my teacher would tell me, ‘Now, you improvise in that style’.”
Medema studied music therapy at Michigan State University and worked as a music therapist in Fort Wayne, IN, before returning to Michigan State for a master’s degree. He worked for four years as a therapist at Essex County Hospital in New Jersey, while writing and performing his own songs.
Under the record label, Brier Patch Music, Medema has recorded over 40 albums including his latest, Nothing Like the Rain, which is released in CD and USB format.
He chose the name Brier Patch, he wrote, because Uncle Remus’ Peter Rabbit “lived in a place not comfortable for anyone else, and we decided to follow him there.”
Under the Brier Patch label, Medema celebrates all aspects of the human experience, with an emphasis on spirituality and such universal concerns as peace, justice and the environment.
Varney said Medema’s music, which is “Christian with an expansive view,” relates to people who have been in tough, uncomfortable places. The songs lead the listeners to victory, hope and promise, he said.
“His metaphor for God is a song,” Varney said.
Medema and his wife, Jane, have been married since 1965 and live in the San Francisco Bay area.