For so many reasons, traveling with musical instruments can be the bane of existence for any musician. For example, when traveling by plane, one’s instrument suddenly becomes more important than anything else. On long international flights, I am lucky if I remember to carry on a toothbrush and an extra pair of underwear in case I get stuck somewhere without my checked bag. If I happen to remember these two things, they are certainly tucked in my violin case. You’ll find them wedged somewhere between my shoulder-rest and an extra set of strings.
When flying, a well-traveled musician cares little about leg room but is prone to high anxiety when it comes to assuring that extra cubic inch for his or her instrument. In my many instrument-laden travels, I have been known to purchase 50 kilos of luggage when I only needed 30, just to be sure I could carry on my violin. I have paid for two seats on a practically empty bus across Finland to be certain my small backpack wouldn’t hinder the possibility of keeping my violin with me inside the bus. Once, upon being told by a flight attendant that I would have to gate check a newly purchased, acoustic guitar because the overhead bin wouldn’t close, I removed the guitar from its case, which had added an extra inhibiting inch to the width of the instrument and then gently and successfully placed the guitar, barebones, into the overhead bin, triumphantly gate checking the empty case and keeping the guitar with me in the plane. Call me crazy. Or, if you’re a musician, chime in with your personal anecdotes.
These issues that we “small-instrument” musicians deal with on a regular basis are just the beginning for our larger-instrument cohorts. Compare these woes to what cellists, bassists, and harpists have to consider in order to travel. And what musician doesn’t travel? It is practically a prerequisite of the profession. From purchasing airplane seats for instruments to making decisions about what kind of car (and even home) to purchase based on your instrument of choice: the larger the instrument, the more complicated the logistics.
Well, here in Kaustinen, home of the Kaustinen fiddling tradition, I have been teaching marimba. In case you were wondering, the origins of the marimba are not from around here, nor anywhere nearby. A musical exchange between Kaustinen and Johannesburg, South Africa has existed for some 10 years, and during a Näppärit exchange in South Africa two years ago, the visiting fiddlers from Kaustinen noticed something that, amongst many differences, reminded them of home. The South African students and teachers were taking part in a pedagogical program that encouraged the practice, preservation, and continuation of a longstanding, local musical tradition: arguably some form of their Intangible Cultural Heritage. The South African students were learning about the marimba tradition in a similar way to that in which Kaustinen students learn about the Kaustinen fiddling tradition.
The idea was developed to continue this cultural exchange in three parts, with the initial Näppärit trip to South Africa as the first part in 2016. The project has been assisted by three different grants and the second part of this project took place last year, when marimba players and teachers Michael and Onisimus Sibanda came from South Africa to Kaustinen to build 20 marimbas. The plan was that these marimbas would then stay in Kaustinen, diversifying and enriching the musical lives of these young, blossoming folk musicians. This year, the marimbas are being integrated into the Näppärit method, as the students learn about the living musical heritage of another part of the world all while practicing the preservation and continuation of their own cultural heritage.
As I rode along with Mauno to my first Marimba session, the sky was blue and ice still covered the ground—and we were dragging a trailer full of marimbas behind us. And here commences my rite of passage into the large-instrument world. When I signed up for this, I had not taken the time to consider that these marimbas had to be set up. (naïve violinist, perhaps?) We arrived and began to unload, and I marveled as Mauno and his daughter Siiri each took hold of a gargantuan wooden keyboard (also known as “bars”), carrying them one-handed into the school gymnasium. When they returned for the second load, I was still trying to figure out how to get both of my arms around one set of bars.
After setting up a gymnasium full of marimbas—two basses, two baritones, four tenors, and four sopranos, the first group of students began to file in, peering and whispering at the instruments. Throughout the morning, Siiri directed four workshops with the young marimba novices, accompanied by demonstrations and support from Mauno, Teresa, and myself. Although I didn’t understand much of the instruction in Finnish from Siiri (though I could count to four by this point!), I heard the word “Maleta” loud and clear whenever Siiri referenced the mallets that are essential to making this instrument sound. That linguistic hint alone was enough to remind me these instruments were quite far from “home”.
And speaking of just how far the marimbas really were from home…
…Last week I was inquiring further about the marimba project with the chair of the Näppärit association. During our conversation, I found out that “Marimba Project Part II” not only brought the Sibanda brothers from South Africa to Kaustinen to build marimbas—it also brought many of the parts to be used to build the instruments. Huge wooden keys and plastic gourds for the sound pipes underneath were among the parts to be, somehow, transported from the southernmost part of Africa to the northernmost part of Europe. My jaw might have dropped a bit before asking however on earth they accomplished this task. “Well, that’s another story” he began, chuckling…
I have since assisted with many other marimba workshops and have successfully figured out how to carry some of the smaller marimbas on my own. Loading up the trailer again after the first workshop, Mauno, whose subtle sense of humor I hadn’t yet begun to grasp, commented to me as we were contorting our bodies around the enormous instruments: “I wonder what the musicians’ union would have to say about this,” he said, chuckling. “Sorry?” I replied, not yet realizing what he was referring to. He was referring to the fact that the “hired musicians” (players/teachers) were also lugging all of their own gear, in addition to accomplishing the main goal of the gig, something which, under musicians’ union regulations, would be prohibited.
I have since helped, hauled, and strained my back on a few more marimbas, along with some harmoniums (pump organs used in the Kaustinen fiddling tradition). But I’ve watched Mauno do it even more. In fact, I think he hauls instruments every single day. I’ve observed him do this so much that I’ve often neglected to remember that his main instrument is among none of these. He is, first and foremost, a fiddler.
I watch this, I think about flying those marimba keys and pipes from one end of the world to the other, and I remember the times I’ve been stuck overnight in an airport without a toothbrush or an extra pair of underwear. And I remember that music might be a hobby, or it might be a profession, or it might be both. But it is always and most definitely, a labor of love.