A young music prodigy’s ability outshines his disability, writes Elena Koshy

Jose Andre Montano Baina

THE applause dies down and a palpable silence falls as all eyes follow the trail of the spotlight in the darkened hall.

A diminutive figure in a wheelchair is slowly pushed to the centre of the stage where a lone grand piano stands. Guided to the piano bench, he seats himself quickly while eager hands immediately reach out to touch the musical instrument without any hesitation. He’s impatient to perform.

Like greeting an old friend, his fingers find the ivories and the 3,000-strong spectators are swiftly transported into his world where music rules and everything else is eclipsed in its wake – including the ubiquitous wheelchair which transported him on stage and the fact that this incredibly talented musician is blind.

Welcome to the world of Jose Andre Montano Baina.

The 12-year-old jazz prodigy and Bolivia’s finest rising star was here recently to perform at the Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre for the Global Transformation Forum. Playing a selection of jazz melodies comprising his own compositions and his interpretations of jazz favourites, Jose, or fondly known as Josecito by his family and friends, has been wowing audiences all over the world since he was 5.

Performing at the Kennedy Centre for the Performing Arts in the US in honour of Pope Francis’ visit to the nation’s capital.

BOY WONDER

He asks for my name first. Repeating it to himself, he’s careful to address me by my name and takes care to pronounce it properly. Then with all the curiosity of a precocious 12-year-old, he interviews me before I can even begin to ask him questions.

“What do you write about? What paper do you write for?” he asks and I explain to him, hemming and hawing because I’ve never had to explain that to anyone before.

“Oh that’s good!” he responds with genuine interest, despite my awkward explanations.

Gauche introductions aside and despite the fact that he’s just come out of a performance and has already been through a round of interviews, Jose is jovial and eager for a chat. “I started playing when I was 3½ years old,” he says. “Now I’m 12, so I’ve played the piano for nine years already.”

He initially picked up the drums at an early age, but quickly moved on to the piano with remarkable ease. “I like a lot of instruments like the drums, bass and the guitar, but I like the piano more because it’s a beautiful instrument that can transmit what I feel.

“And the noise is beautiful… it really touches my heart,” he explains, his face lighting up as he describes his favourite instrument.

Rattling off luminary jazz pianists such as Michel Camilo, Herbie Hancock, Keith Jarret, Chick Corea and Oscar Peterson as his inspiration, it’s clear that Jose is an old soul with a taste for jazz. “But I do like everything else – blues, tango, bolero even heavy metal!” he says, grinning. The child prodigy is able to play anything with ease and style, which adds to his rather impressive resume – something many seasoned musician would spend a lifetime acquiring.

Wowing audience during the recent Global Transformation Forum at the Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre.

THANK YOU, MALAYSIA

Born in Cochabamba, Bolivia, Jose taught himself how to play the piano at an age when most children were barely grasping the alphabets. In an interview in 2012, his father Roberto Montano said: “I didn’t know jazz before, he got me into it. It’s as if he was born with a jazz chip inside him. I don’t know how to explain how it came about.

“Once he got a hold of it, he didn’t want to give it up. He can play any music you want, but he’ll never stop playing jazz …jazz is his passion.”

It’s easy to forget that Jose is only a child. He is articulate, speaks three languages and he rarely needs any help in parrying with journalists like myself. However, his parents are there keeping a protective eye – a reminder that he’s only a child – but nevertheless, one with such an incredible talent that has got him playing and wowing audiences at some of the top venues in Bolivia and around the world.

Yet there is the fact that he has a disability and Jose is candid about it. There was nary a dry eye during his performance at the Kuala Lumpur Conventional Centre moments before my interview with him.

Before playing a recently composed piece which he named “Thank you, Malaysia”, he relates a conversation he had with his father: “Last week I had dinner with my dad, and I asked him ‘Why does everyone want to take photographs with me? Why do people want to give me a hug? And why do reporters want to interview me?’”

He continues, while softly playing on the piano: “He said, ‘I’m going to tell you something I never told you before. When you were born, the doctor told me ‘Your child is not going to see, walk, talk and hear.’ But my dad said to the doctor, ‘We will not stop dreaming and what we dream, we will have.’ And I’m here today in Malaysia, and I’m enjoying life.”

Jose Andre Montano has been playing the piano since he was 3.

ORDINARY BOY

It is that dream that has gotten Jose traversing the world and playing to appreciative audiences all around. “I first started playing on stage at 5. I’ve always wanted to play for people from the time I was three years old. I always dreamt of being on stage!” he confides.

He’s gone on to take the Bolivian music scene by storm and has been performing on stages all around the world ever since. His most memorable stage performance? “Brazil!” he says without missing a beat. “I remember playing a song, Aquarela do Brasil, a very popular Brazilian song that’s almost like the national anthem of Brazil, and everyone started singing and dancing as I played. It was such a fantastic moment. I’ll never forget it.”

And he’s an avid football fan too. “I love the Barcelona team,” he shares, enthusiastically before adding that he Messi, Suarez and Neymar as among his favourite footballers. “I love going to the park and playing soccer with my friends,” he continues with a smile. “I love playing games on myiPad, I’ve loads of games stored in it, and I love catching up with my friends over the phone.”

In many ways, Jose is just like any 12-year-old boy. I remember his mum’s words before the interview, requesting me to keep my questions simple: “Sometimes people forget that Jose is just a boy.”

Performing at the Kennedy Centre for the Performing Arts in the US in honour of Pope Francis’ visit to the nation’s capital.

EXTRAORDINARY TALENT

Still, it is when he’s at the piano that Jose has found his own little perfect rhythm. “I’m happiest when I’m playing. The music that comes out takes my breath away,” he confides. Jose does best what is he is born to do – opening our eyes to his brand of joyous music played in his own inimitable style.

World Bank country manager for Malaysia, Faris J. Hadad-Hervos, who’s a close friend of Jose and his family, puts it succinctly in an introduction before Jose’s performance just days earlier at Sasana Kijang, a learning centre established by Bank Negara Malaysia which also houses the World Bank group. “It’s true that Jose is born with certain limitations. But listening to him, talking to him, hearing him play — you realise that he’s not on stage because of his limitations but because of the vast potential he possesses.”

It’s easy to recognise that “vast potential” watching him perform at the Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre. The entirety of his performance encapsulated within his head bursts forth in jazz improvisations and original compositions that have his hands fluttering across the keyboard in jaw-dropping virtuosity.

And the audience couldn’t have enough of it. He was more than happy to play an encore after receiving a standing ovation. “Music is good for me,” he confides in me later.

He has this message for young people: “Don’t fight each other. Love each other. Be happy and be with God.”

He adds after a pause: “Oh, and share with each other too.” Before he’s wheeled out, he shakes my hand and thanks me politely before telling me: “Make sure you put ‘Terima kasih’ from me, in your paper.”

I promise him I will.