A little red 1971 Volkswagen bus pulls up to the driveway of a farm in the countryside of California. Two violinists pop out. They’re 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.
MusiKaravan: Bringing Tunes and Human Bonding to California’s Countryside
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 Cohen’s 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.
“Music is going to save the world,” Gara said. “We 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 it’s about breaking that wall that we have, bond together and create stories.”
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.
“We were really looking forward to it,” 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 couldn’t just stop making music.
“You cannot stop life,” Gara said. “It’s like, I still need to create, otherwise I cannot live.”
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.
“We realized it was so important for the people,” Gara said. “It was like a medical cure for them emotionally and physically.”
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.
That’s 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 didn’t take long before she was on board, too.
“I never imagined that I’m going to be living in a bus,” Kim said. “When he talked about this idea, of course, I thought, ‘It’s crazy!’ ”
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 — a vehicle with personality, the third character to their story.
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.
“It’s extremely cute,” Gara said. “It 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.”
They named him Boris. And finally, in August, they hit the road.
It was the start of their own great American road trip — two violinists from foreign countries, traveling across the states from one place to the next, trying to bring people together.
“I like being on the road, I feel good,” Gara said. “I never thought about it as me being French or not from here. I always felt that I’m coming to people — they don’t know my background, I don’t know their background, but I see them just as people.”
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.
“Where do I belong? Am I French? Am I Hungarian? American? European?” Gara pondered. “Where do I really come from? Where do I go? It became normal to be a foreigner, to be on the road.”
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.
“Because of what happened to my father, the beginning was really hard,” Kim said.
After receiving the call about Kim’s father, Kim and Gara immediately returned to Los Angeles. Kim boarded a flight to South Korea to visit her family and attend her father’s funeral, which ended up delaying their MusiKaravan plans for a month.
When she returned, still mourning, she said, “But it was more helpful for me to travel and meet new people and [to experience] this crazy time on the road.”
There’s 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.
“This is so beautiful and stunning, and at the same time, I’m so small,” Kim said. “Compared to this Earth, I’m nothing. I really like that feeling.”
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.
“It’s like a Michelin star restaurant just in the bus!” Gara exclaimed.
The bus has taken Gara and Kim to farms, groves, vineyards and even an Orthodox Christian monastery. Along the road, they’ve 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.
“They open their door no matter what,” Kim said. “They hear our story, what we’re doing at this time, and they immediately feel that, ‘Oh, I need to do something good, too.’”
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.
“They were both surprised to find themselves in the same place, but it was courteous, it was nice,” Gara said. “They all enjoyed each other, and I think they saw that, you know, we’re human beings before everything.”
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 Angeles. 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. After 14 years working for the Los Angeles Philharmonic and LA Opera, Asquith moved to Ojai where she eventually got involved with 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 Chopin’s "Nocturne Op.9 No.2" for two violins.
“It’s like somebody took them from some magical place and plonked them down there, there they were,” Asquith said. “And they could have been anywhere, you know? It was about the music, that’s all it was, it was about music.”
And down at the grove, the workers could hear the music, too.
“Everybody stopped and listened,” Asquith said. “And they all said the same thing — it was like time stopped.”
Whether Gara and Kim’s 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.
“If we play with our heart, then they will love it, whatever we play,” Kim said.
“So, it gives [us] faith in humanity,” Gara said. “People are compassionate, people are respectful, people have dreams and when you put all this together it’s pretty amazing to be alive.”
Although MusiKaravan began as a response to a deadly pandemic, Gara and Kim said they’re 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 host’s backyard concerts instead of three people.
“It feels like it’s in the continuity of what was meant to do,” Gara said. “I think it will be part of the Delirium experience”
The little red bus has taken Gara and Kim from Southern California all the way to the Canadian border this past year. But there’s one thing that remains constant — the music and the power it has in bringing people together.
This story is part of a collaboration between The California Report and students of the Annenberg School at USC.