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The Mindful Bard

Every Day We’ll See the Dust (Too much, the Sahara Bus)
Wanda Waterman
Volume 22 Issue 09 2014-02-28

Film:The Piano in the Sands(Le Piano Des Sables)

Director: Arnaud Petitet

Genre: Documentary

“I can assure you that there is a real beauty of the human being—there is sheer refinement. Man is really immeasurably big and beautiful, and he doesn’t always know it.”
- Marc Vella

Hey, let’s put a baby grand on the back of a bus and tour the Maghreb. What could possibly go wrong?

Marc Vella, a piano virtuoso, has been doing this for more than two decades, visiting more than forty countries in the process. All in a mission to “celebrate humanity” as a participant in International Decade for the Promotion of a Culture of Peace and Non-Violence for the Children of the World, coordinated by UNESCO. And in this case, aside from getting stuck in the sand a few times, very little goes wrong. In fact, a whole lot of things went deeply, meaningfully right.

I was beside myself. Here was a man who was not only the perfect example of the kind of artist/social activist that the Mindful Bard adores. He’s been exploring the same musical geography that I’ve been obsessed with for years: the long trade routes through the Sahara that for centuries connected musicians from a host of different tribes and lead them to merge and create the genres that helped spawn American jazz and blues.

I’m not disappointed. The bus follows the same route taken by slave traders centuries ago, but in reverse. Thus, we’re able to follow certain habits of instrumentation, rhythm, vocalization, and modes back to their fountainheads of inspiration. But it’s when I hear the moors of Mauritania singing and playing their traditional stringed instruments that the connection between the Sahara and the Mississippi becomes truly palpable.

Now, as then, the life of the nomadic musician in the Maghreb is precarious. Vella arrives in Morocco to discover that the country has decided to spend a month of mourning for Palestine and so all his concerts there have been cancelled. But he’s cool with it. He sets up his baby grand on a cliff at the edge of the Bay of Tangiers and starts playing. Soon he’s surrounded by people of all ages, some even sitting beside him and playing his piano while he coaches them.

He’s playing piano music in the western classical tradition, and even though it’s very different from what these people are used to hearing, they’re mesmerized, obviously overjoyed at this unexpected and compassionate outpouring of music. No one is checking smart phones, yawning, or chitchatting.

It’s all a blast from the past, a revolutionary initiative with a sixties flavor, right down to the transportation. Marc was given a tour bus that he painted in bright, cheery colours and labeled “Piano Bus Sahara.” With it, he and his crew tour Morocco, Mauritania, and Senegal. They stop at odd places for impromptu concerts and collaborations. Sometimes he just plays the piano perched at the end of the open bus, playing for the children who chase the bus through narrow streets, surrounded by the typical Maghreb traffic of pedestrians, cars, buses, scooters, and donkeys.

He plays for Amazighs, desert nomads, lepers, orphans, and street people. He plays piano duets with the bendir, oud, kora, djembe, tidinit, and tbal, not to mentions scores of gorgeous voices who just happen to show up and want to sing.

It’s not completely haphazard; he also picks a few specific targets. He plays outside a jam factory in Tangiers, to the delight of the female workers. He sets up his piano in the legendary Jema El Fna Square in Morocco and plays his piano accompanied by Sufi musicians. He plays for abandoned children at an SOS village.

The social activist mission is commendable, but it’s also very much about the art. “My dream was to play the piano in the desert,” says Vella in the film, “in the dunes, in the silence . . .” These artistic pipe dreams generated by an excitable muse obviously don’t preclude opening one’s heart to humanity. Nor do they justify “art for art’s sake.”

It’s beautiful to observe how Vella’s piano interprets the different maqams, melodies, and rhythms of the region. But the music is not all that inspires him. We see him playing alone beside the sea while the waves crash against the pocked rocks. He contemplates the dramatic movement and sound and watches the foam slowly ooze back down the rocks.

He’s also clearly inspired by every person he encounters on this long, strange trip. His puckish grin, boyishly tousled curls, and readiness to hug everyone in sight belies the dark reality that his life’s mission addresses: the fact that he is wandering through a vale of tears, a world of misery, inequality, injustice, fear, and terrible suffering. His music ministers to people who face hopelessness and danger every day.

The camera doesn’t flinch or gild the lily; we’re shown sights of a world totally unfamiliar to North Americans—lepers, ruins, and the rotting hulks of great warships slowly sinking into the harbor in Mauritania—and yet it all seems so startlingly familiar.

As the bus moves from the greenery of northern Morocco to the golden dunes, cliffs, and canyons of the Sahara, it feels like a primordial dream filled with beautiful people still dressed in the traditional nomad garb. Whose singing and musicianship must surely draw the envy of angels.

The Piano in the Sands manifests eight of the Mindful Bard’s criteria for films well worth seeing.

It’s authentic, original, and delightful. It poses and admirably responds to questions that have a direct bearing on my view of existence. It harmoniously unites art with social action, saving me from both seclusion in an ivory tower and slavery to someone else’s political agenda. It provides respite from a sick and cruel world, a respite enabling me to renew myself for a return to mindful artistic endeavor. It inspires an awareness of the sanctity of creation. It displays an engagement with and compassionate response to suffering. It renews my enthusiasm for positive social action. And it makes me appreciate that life is a complex and rare phenomena, making living a unique opportunity.


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