Colorfully dressed and with a novel name, a group of mentally disabled singers and musicians from a day-care program in Northeast Washington is making a long-shot bid for a Grammy Award.
The group, known as the Inspirational Choir and Moroccan Ensemble, is composed of about two dozen adults with a range of mental and physical disabilities. They were brought together at the Art and Drama Therapy Institute, a day-care facility that receives money from the city to provide services for the mentally retarded and developmentally disabled.
"The majority of the group is nonverbal, and one is autistic," said Margaret "Muggy Do" Dickinson, 54, who co-founded the institute 12 years ago. "We haven't been able to reach them on any level but music."
Whether belting out "Oh Happy Day," "Shake Your Bootie" or "Let Us Fly," the original song they hope will win them a Grammy, the singers and band members are enthusiastic about the Grammy competition.
The group recorded the song in March. The lyrics are by Dickinson, the music by Broto Roy, an acclaimed musician from India. Chris Murphy, a veteran sound engineer hired to do the CD, calls it "a nice song with a positive message" and says he had "a blast" making the recording.
"I've worked with pseudo-stars who are a real pain, and I've worked with pretty untalented people who just have a lot of fun," Murphy said. "It's better to work with people who enjoy what they're doing and have a good time."
A voting member of the Grammy association, Murphy plans to nominate "Let Us Fly" this fall in the category of Best Original Song. Since there are likely to be 500 to 600 other nominated songs, the competition will be stiff.
Or as Dickinson puts it: "We've crossed the river, but the ocean lies ahead."
Regardless, the group is "very excited, and the more excited they get, the better they play," said Jason Walker, 30, who directs the Moroccan Ensemble. Its members use percussion instruments, mostly drums, although there is a keyboardist, who is mentally disabled and blind, and a staff member who plays bass.
Group members, who rehearse twice a week, "talk and learn from each other," Walker said. "When they do a song really well, they congratulate each other."
Choir and band members have to try out, just as for any other musical group.
"They're selected on the basis of if they can hold a tune, keep the beat, interact with others and follow directions," said choir director Darrion Gates, 39.
The institute, a huge facility located in a former bakery on S Street NE, was the dream of Dickinson and Sirkku Sky Hiltunen, a native of Finland. It combines traditional day care with immersion in artistic therapy. Nothing about the place looks institutional.
Moroccan rugs, masks, antiques and dolls representing foreign countries enhance many areas, and separate rooms are decorated to reflect different themes, including Native American and Hawaiian. The dining room is designed to look like a diner.
There is even a room dedicated to Sammy Davis Jr., who many years ago gave Dickinson a plane ticket so that the Catholic University grad could pursue her studies in England. Davis, she said, was interested in mental health issues.
The institute, Dickinson said, has 146 clients and receives about $114 per client from Medicare for each day people receive services. In addition to music therapy, it offers art, poetry, drama, ceramics and other programs and employs a 57-person staff, including a nutritionist, treatment specialists, behavior therapists and others, to address the needs of clients.
"We saturate them with stimulation and then challenge them to respond," Dickinson said. "They gravitate to different things and participate by producing their own artistic expressions. And this enhances their self-esteem."
During a recent choir and band rehearsal, members discussed the ensemble, on the condition that their last names not be used because of privacy concerns.
"We have a good choir," said keyboardist and singer Brian, 52, who taught himself to play piano and started singing gospel music in 1982.
Carla, 51, who lives in one of the city's group homes, enjoys all kinds of music. "I've always liked to sing, and they like to sing, too," she said of her choir mates.
Angela, 33, who has Down syndrome, has flourished since stepping in to replace one of the group's drummers.
"She was in a very depressed state, and they brought her back," said Angela's mother, Yvonne, who dropped in on one rehearsal and brought her grandchildren to watch her daughter play.
"I never knew she knew how to play anything," she said. "This program helped her socialize again. I'm just so thrilled I'm about ready to cry."