Violinists Etienne Gara and YuEun Kim usually perform for crowds of several thousand in renowned venues and concert halls. The classically trained artists studied together at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. Gara is the founder and artistic director of Delirium Musicum, a Los Angeles-based self-conducted chamber orchestra, where Kim is also a core member.
The couple had plans to spend their summer recording Delirium Musicum’s debut album and touring internationally when COVID-19 changed everything last March. To continue performing, Gara and Kim knew they would have to take their music out of the concert hall and into the community.
“We started with ‘Courtyard Concerts,’ where we would play in the middle of an apartment courtyard and people would listen from their balconies,” said Gara. “When we saw how music could comfort people during this period of isolation, we thought, ‘We need to take this to the road.’”
Together, they restored a red 1971 Volkswagen Westfalia and founded MusiKaravan, a part of Delirium Musicum’s “Projects Without Borders” series. The goal: To share the power of classical music. In 2020, that meant uplifting essential workers.
“We wanted to honor essential agricultural workers,” said Gara. “When we buy food at the grocery store, we don’t always think of where it comes from, but there are thousands of people working every day to make sure we can all eat healthy food during the pandemic. We wanted to say thank you.”
Starting in San Diego, the couple researched organic farms and wineries along their route and reached out to see which locations would be open to an impromptu, socially distanced outdoor concert — even if it meant playing for just one or two people. After a few weeks of their journey, though, they abandoned planning and embraced spontaneity.
“We can never predict what is next on our trip,” said Gara. “We might take a different route to look at a scenic view, or hear from a worker about another farm up the road and drive there. The bus helps us stay flexible and perform wherever we are welcome.”
The Westfalia also helps call attention to their arrival and performance. When he and Kim arrive at a new location and exit the bus with violins in hand, they are always well-received.
“We don’t always call in advance, so it helps that we have this friendly-looking car,” said Gara. “A Volkswagen bus represents positive memory for everyone. They are welcoming and capture the spirit of what we’re trying to do: create a human connection through music.”
He said that people regularly share memories of when they owned a Volkswagen bus, or who are curious to see one up close: “It’s rare to see a bright red Westfalia driving down the road, so it creates something really special. It makes people happy just to be around it.”
At a time when few people in the country can experience live music, the duo is dedicated to keeping the music going. They have spent five months driving from the border of Mexico up to Canada. Along the way, they have played for dozens of farms and other outdoor venues in California, Oregon and Washington.
The couple plans to expand their journey into other states, where they can continue to meet new people, try new food and see new parts of the country.
“I am from France and YuEun is from South Korea, so we would love to take the bus to other countries, too,” said Gara. “We fell in love with this 50-year-old bus, but our ultimate dream is to drive a caravan of ID.Buzz vehicles with the entire orchestra and tour the world together.”
In the meantime, the couple is continuing to express their gratitude for essential workers across California and the West Coast.
“What’s so special about this journey is that it really democratizes our music,” said Gara. “We are used to playing in major concert halls for people who know classical music well and pay for a ticket to listen to us. Having the chance to play for people who would not typically have access to live classical music has been profoundly meaningful.
“Art is what brings people together in both good times and bad.”