MusiKaravan: Bringing Tunes and Human Bonding to California’s Countryside
A little red 1971 Volkswagen bus pulls up to the driveway of a farm in the countryside of California. Two violinists pop out. Theyâre exhausted from being on the road for hours, they need a shower, as well as a place to park overnight, but their eyes are sparkling with excitement.
Concert violinists Etienne Gara and YuEun Kim hit the road during the height of the pandemic, driving through our divided states, bringing music to farmers, winemakers and anyone they would meet along the way, including turkeys and even ostriches.
MusiKaravan emerged as a side project of Delirium Musicum, a Los Angeles-based string chamber orchestra. Gara is a French Hungarian violinist, artistic director and founder of Delirium Musicum. He recorded his “French Recital” CD on a 1714 Leonora Jackson Stradivarius, appeared on Leonard Cohenâs last album and was recently named artist in residence at The Soraya, a 1,700 seat state-of-the-art venue in Los Angeles. Kim is a Korean violinist, part of Delirium Musicum and an international competition winner with over 6 million views on YouTube.
Their mission is simple: to bring joy and human bonding through music. And in a time when our states are more divided than ever, they believe music can bring us a little closer.
âMusic is going to save the world,â Gara said. âWe all have the same dreams, we all have the same worries, we all have the same everything in life, no matter what political, social, religious background you have. And itâs about breaking that wall that we have, bond together and create stories.â
Becoming traveling musicians on the road was far from what the two violinists had envisioned back in March 2020. Delirium Musicum was in full swing. They were getting ready for tours, preparing for a recording session with a major record label and they were just about to play a concert at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills.
âWe were really looking forward to it,â Gara said.
Then the pandemic hit, and everything stopped. Concert halls suddenly went silent. Like other performers and musicians this past year, Gara and Kim found themselves without any opportunities for live performances. But they couldnât just stop making music.
âYou cannot stop life,â Gara said. âItâs like, I still need to create, otherwise I cannot live.â
From this isolation, and necessity to create, an idea was born: What if they could continue performing, but outdoors and socially distanced?
As part of Delirium Musicum, they created a courtyard concert series in April, where they would play in the center of their apartment building in East Hollywood every Sunday. The music brought people out of their homes. From the elderly to parents with children, all kinds of listeners stepped out onto their balconies to experience live music.
âWe realized it was so important for the people,â Gara said. âIt was like a medical cure for them emotionally and physically.â
Gara and Kim said they felt a sense of purpose in bringing music as a way to connect to people who were now spending their days isolated in their apartments. They started to think about how they could bring music to people all over America, not just Los Angeles.
Thatâs when Gara came up with the crazy idea to hit the road. Ever since he was a child, he said he always dreamed of traveling, and not being tied to a single place. Though Kim was hesitant at first, it didnât take long before she was on board, too.
âI never imagined that Iâm going to be living in a bus,â Kim said. âWhen he talked about this idea, of course, I thought, âItâs crazy!â â
Without a schedule full of concerts and tours, Kim agreed that they should take the opportunity to experience something different.
In June 2020, Gara and Kim started hunting for a vehicle. They scrolled through hundreds of buses and vans on Craigslist, stumbling upon some rustier than others, until they found the one: a little 1971 VW bus â a vehicle with personality, the third character to their story.
MusiKaravan violinists Etienne Gara and YuEun Kim after they bought their 1971 VW bus in Los Angeles. (Courtesy of MusiKaravan)
They spent about a month and a half working on the bus to bring it into shape. The metal plates of the chassis were rusted, there were bumps and scratches and the paint was faded, but after some mechanical repairs, a new set of curtains and a coat of bright red paint, the bus was ready.
âItâs extremely cute,â Gara said. âIt triggers imagination, it triggers stories because most people have a story about a VW bus about 50 years ago, and nobody can throw you out when they see this cute candy on wheels.â
They named him Boris. And finally, in August, they hit the road.
MusiKaravan violinists Etienne Gara and YuEun Kim in Paso Robles. (Lathan J.)
It was the start of their own great American road trip â two violinists from foreign countries, traveling across the states from one place to the next, trying to bring people together.
âI like being on the road, I feel good,â Gara said. âI never thought about it as me being French or not from here. I always felt that Iâm coming to people â they donât know my background, I donât know their background, but I see them just as people.â
Meeting people along the way gave them a sense of place in America, as they carried on this American tradition that is rooted in history. Their journey is reminiscent of the 1960s, the hippie era, when young people hit Route 66 searching for independence and their sense of identity.
âWhere do I belong? Am I French? Am I Hungarian? American? European?â Gara pondered. âWhere do I really come from? Where do I go? It became normal to be a foreigner, to be on the road.â
For Kim, being on the road helped her cope with grief. Her father passed away last year just as they had left Los Angeles and to start touring.
âBecause of what happened to my father, the beginning was really hard,â Kim said.
After receiving the call about Kimâs father, Kim and Gara immediately returned to Los Angeles. Kim boarded a flight to South Korea to visit her family and attend her fatherâs funeral, which ended up delaying their MusiKaravan plans for a month.
When she returned, still mourning, she said, âBut it was more helpful for me to travel and meet new people and [to experience] this crazy time on the road.â
Thereâs a kind of freedom in not knowing where the road would take them next. As Gara and Kim drove through cinematic landscapes, across deserts and forests, they experienced tall redwood trees in Northern California, the glistening of the sun rising in the mornings and snow-capped mountain tops. The scenery helped them see life from a different perspective.
âThis is so beautiful and stunning, and at the same time, Iâm so small,â Kim said. âCompared to this Earth, Iâm nothing. I really like that feeling.â
Living in a tiny and cramped bus is not easy. Gara and Kim said they can only afford to keep only the essentials inside of their bus, like their violins, filming equipment, a small sink, a water tank, propane and a small ice box where they store their food. Their driveway hosts also generously gifted them meat from their farms, as well as fresh organic fruits and vegetables, and bottles of wine, they said. They even butchered an old rooster one time, which they turned into coq au vin.
âItâs like a Michelin star restaurant just in the bus!â Gara exclaimed.
MusiKaravan violinists Etienne Gara and YuEun Kim in Oceanside, California. (Courtesy of MusiKaravan)
The bus has taken Gara and Kim to farms, groves, vineyards and even an Orthodox Christian monastery. Along the road, theyâve met all kinds of people. From Trump supporters to liberals to war veterans and hippies who traveled in VW buses years ago, people from all political, religious and social backgrounds have welcomed Gara and Kim into their homes.
âThey open their door no matter what,â Kim said. âThey hear our story, what weâre doing at this time, and they immediately feel that, âOh, I need to do something good, too.ââ
In Napa, Gara and Kim said they experienced a special moment of bonding between neighboring households. Their driveway hosts were pro-Trump, and they invited neighbors from a block away who were old hippies to listen to their garden concert.
âThey were both surprised to find themselves in the same place, but it was courteous, it was nice,â Gara said. âThey all enjoyed each other, and I think they saw that, you know, weâre human beings before everything.â
Another memorable moment was during the first month of their trip in Southern California. From Oceanside they drove north, through Ventura County heading toward the farms outside of Ojai, 80 miles north of Los Angles. They parked Boris between vast groves of citrus, walnut and olive trees, near the farm of the Ojai Olive Oil Company.
They met with Alice Asquith, owner of the company. Eight years ago, she gave up her job as a translator and artistic administrator of the Los Angeles Opera to help her son run the family business.
When Gara and Kim arrived at the grove, Asquith gave them a tour, shared her knowledge of olive trees and offered them a variety of olive oils to try. In exchange, they gave her live music. Behind the foothills, in a little canyon by a pond, Gara and Kim set up their music stands. They performed a concert for a little audience of five. Their program included their arrangement of Chopinâs “Nocturne Op.9 No.2” for two violins.
MusiKaravan violinists Etienne Gara and YuEun Kim performing in a canyon for Alice Asquith and friends at the Ojai Olive Oil Company. (Courtesy of MusiKaravan)
âItâs like somebody took them from some magical place and plonked them down there, there they were,â Asquith said. âAnd they could have been anywhere, you know? It was about the music, thatâs all it was, it was about music.â
And down at the grove, the workers could hear the music, too.
âEverybody stopped and listened,â Asquith said. âAnd they all said the same thing â it was like time stopped.â
Whether Gara and Kimâs audience is a full concert hall or just several people, they say their goal is the same: to have a direct, intimate connection with the audience.
âIf we play with our heart, then they will love it, whatever we play,â Kim said.
âSo, it gives [us] faith in humanity,â Gara said. âPeople are compassionate, people are respectful, people have dreams and when you put all this together itâs pretty amazing to be alive.â
Although MusiKaravan began as a response to a deadly pandemic, Gara and Kim said theyâre just getting started. Without the barriers of the pandemic, Gara believes MusiKaravan can go further, with more buses, bringing other musicians from Delirium Musicum, and possibly inviting dozens of listeners into their driveway hostâs backyard concerts instead of three people.
âIt feels like itâs in the continuity of what was meant to do,â Gara said. âI think it will be part of the Delirium experienceâ
The little red bus has taken Gara and Kim from Southern California all the way to the Canadian border this past year. But thereâs one thing that remains constant â the music and the power it has in bringing people together.
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