Bach and the Masai
by Peter Contuzzi
I believe in the power of music, in its unique ability to build bridges across enormous cultural chasms.
When I was younger and more adventuresome, I traveled around the world with my fiddle, busking my way through Europe, trading strolling violin services for room and board in luxury hotels in Africa and Asia, jamming with local musicians. Music enabled me to have many extraordinary experiences during those travels. But one in particular shaped my belief more than any other.
I was in Africa, watching the huge herds that roamed the Masai Mara preserve, along with their predators, the lions & cheetahs. I wanted to somehow celebrate all of them with music, and so reached for my violin. Focusing my eyes upon the animals covering the horizon, I began some Appalachian fiddle tunes.
I heard sounds from behind me – some Masai tribesmen were approaching. The Masai are an ancient nomadic people; they build temporary mud huts on their ancestral lands and tend their cattle. Modern life has had little impact on them. They smiled as they formed a small semi-circle in front of me. When I finished the tune, the oldest one spoke – just one word, heavily accented and very drawn-out, but I recognized it: “Niiice.”
I responded in English but no one understood. That one complimentary word, however, plus the mixture of curiosity and interest in their expressions encouraged me to play on. I launched into a rhythmic square dance tune. Its steady beat set heads bobbing in time with the music.
When I finished, the same man spoke, again just a single word: “Gooood.”
I smiled, grateful that the music was providing me not only with an imagined link to the animals beyond, but also with an observable link to these good-spirited people directly in front of me. That’s when Bach entered my mind.
The violin and Western classical music were not known in this part of Kenya. I could tell that my audience liked the American folk tunes I had fiddled; but what would happen if I were to play some Bach?
I began a movement from one of his solo pieces. The Masai at first responded as before. But then I noticed that their expressions were changing; they became very quiet. Some leaned closer toward me. Their eyes in particular displayed an intensity of concentration that seemed to grow as Bach’s music spun out its rich patterns and lovely melody.
When I finished, their spokesman took a deep breath. Again he spoke a single word. But he seemed to choose it more carefully this time, saying it slowly and with deep feeling: “Beeyootiful!!”
And then we all smiled together.
The wild animals I saw roaming the Kenyan plains were truly striking. Their grandeur dominated my thoughts the whole time I was there. But reflection has given me a different perspective. On one day, the most impressive animals were clearly the human ones – a musical master from 18th century Europe and the timeless Masai of Africa, joined together across extraordinary boundaries of culture and time, thanks to music.
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