iN VIDEO: Homeless piano man lifting spirits in Kamloops
Bryan Rabie can often be found hunched over a piano at a local shelter.
He's 62, homeless and addicted to drugs. He has frostbitten hands and a spinal condition that gives him a bent over posture.
He also plays the piano, almost daily, for the cold and hungry people passing in and out of The Loop centre for food and warmth.
“I really enjoy having his music in the background,” said Loop volunteer Shane Mulholland. “It is quite nice and helps create a community feeling here. He definitely has a talent.”
Rabie grew up in Lethbridge and later Salmon Arm. His drug use problem began when he was 18. He later spent 11 years at a violent prison in Winnipeg for attempted bank robbery.
It seems no matter where Rabie went, or how tough things got, music went with him.
“I give all the credit to the creator for my musical gift, whatever I do with it,” he said.
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Sitting at a table at the shelter during a quiet part of the day, Rabie tucks into a bowl of ice cream while volunteer staff bustle around in the background, cleaning. Rabie’s voice is soft and slow as he talks about his life.
He nods off several times mid-sentence and apologizes for it repeatedly. His neck is permanently bent so he looks up from an awkward angle to make eye contact. His eyes look tired and friendly.
“I’m sorry, I’m drowsy,” he mumbles. “Sometimes I go off in all different directions. I don’t know why I do that.”
In stops and starts, he talks about his passion for the piano.
“I was around six years old and I was at school,” he said. “There was a piano and I started playing the A&W root beer song, from the commercial. I have an ear for music. My teachers and family noticed and put me in piano lessons.”
Rabie continued lessons into his teenage years, learning music theory and composition.
“I hear the compositions in my head and can write them down with pencil and paper, including other parts for the string section.”
He takes long pauses trying to remember things and is distracted by the movement around him, people going in and out of the front door talking to cold people trying to get in. Bryan is one of the only ones allowed inside when the centre is closed for cleaning. He’s quiet and calm.
He is also very candid.
“I started using drugs when I was 18, started with cocaine,” he said. “I regret it. I still use but I try to keep it down. I have serious untreatable neck and back problems, it is painful. The drugs take the pain away. They make me drowsy, I don’t like it.”
Rabie went to Stony Mountain Institution in Winnipeg for attempted robberies in 2001.
“There was violence there,” he said, shaking his head. “I saw too much violence, it gives me anxiety. I have PTSD. Sometimes I still have nightmares about it.”
He became a music coordinator there.
“I arranged music and played songs when everyone in the institution went on a retreat to a chapel every month. I credit the creator I was able to do something good with my music.”
It was there Rabie learned to play hymns from several different religious denominations that he still enjoys playing today.
“I like the hymns, there is meaning to them,” he said. “They are like poems.”
Rabie finishes his ice cream and closes his eyes for a minute. It takes some convincing and encouragement from volunteer staff members to convince him to shuffle over to the piano bench.
Once he starts playing, it seems like he doesn't want to stop filling the small space with classical pieces and church hymns, hardly pausing in between songs.
“This past Thanksgiving was magical with Bryan playing happy music,” said Danica Fletcher, volunteer worker at the Loop. “If you listen, he quite often plays well-known hymns busting out How Great Thou Art and sometimes others hum along.”
The pianist has frostbite injuries on his hands from his life on the streets but he doesn't let it get in the way of the thing he loves the most.
“It is the bite that keeps on biting and it makes it hard to play sometimes,” he said. “Music is the biggest part of my life. It brings people together with a natural language everyone can understand.”
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