Local musician Rachelle Caplan recently received a $10,000 People’s Liberty
grant to turn a vintage van into a mobile music discovery studio, or Caravan
. The Ford utility van was gutted, painted with a vibrant mural by artist Jen Warren and rebuilt with comfortable couches, tapestries and an assortment of unusual instruments for any visitor to pick up and play.
The idea for Caravan came out of Caplan’s experiences as an organizer for Ladyfest Cincinnati
, a local music, art and activism festival based in Northside. As part of the event, organizers put together an interactive pop-up music lab for children.
This session was the first opportunity many of the children had to play an instrument. Through this, Caplan learned that lack of access to musical instruments was a huge barrier to entering the creative community.
“Caravan was just like writing a fantasy grant," Caplan says. "I thought if I could do anything, I’d buy new instruments that no one has seen before, pack them in a van and have everyone learn with me. And now that’s what’s happening.”
The instruments in Caravan originate from all over the world. Some are electronic like the theremin or the Korg Kaossilator, a digital pad that was popularized by '90s rave music. Others are acoustic, such as a copper Hapi drum that Caplan says makes a sound like a steel drum mixed with a Tibetan singing bowl.
Many of the instruments are rare or exotic, such as an African Kalimba thumb piano with an amp pickup, or an electronic Indian drum machine from 1972. Caplan has amassed a collection of 13 instruments, but only a few of them are available at each public appearance of Caravan.
Caplan aims to make music accessible to everyone through Caravan. “If you’re old enough to hold something to make sound, that’s awesome. I had a 3-year-old be completely fascinated by the guiro, a giant frog you run a stick over. He was jamming so hard that his parents joined him. I am trying to target something across age. I had my 77-year-old grandmother at a session, and she loved it.”
Caravan isn’t just an opportunity to make music in the moment. Each session will also be recorded and will go on the Caravan website to stream for free. These recordings will be minimally edited, serving more as field recordings than complete songs.
Caplan has ideas to take the recordings made at these sessions and turn them into additional works of art.
“I got really floored by the idea of taking some of those soundscapes and giving those pieces to visual artists,” she says. “The recording could be the prompt for another piece, a platform to create from.”
Caplan also plans to share the recordings with musicians, who will help build the original recordings into finished works of music.
Caravan’s official debut is Friday at this year’s Ladyfest. From 7 to 8:30 p.m., Caravan will be parked in the lot across from Northside Tavern on Hamilton Avenue, and will be open for any curious passerby to come in and pick up an instrument.
Caplan aims for Caravan to be approachable for people who don’t have musical experience, but she also invites musicians to jam and help facilitate sound exploration at each session.
“Typically I have two or three musicians sit in,” she says. “I really want to have the spontaneous feel of organic creation as it manifests.”
Her “partner-in-crime” Daisy Caplan, of the local bands Lung and formerly Foxy Shazam, is at each session. Local musician and artist Warren, who painted the outside of Caravan, will also be there for the launch.
Caravan will be visiting festivals, craft fairs and other local events all over Cincinnati through spring 2017. To stay up-to-date on upcoming appearances and dates, visit Caravan's website
or follow them on Facebook.
People interested in bringing Caravan to an event are encouraged to reach out to Rachelle Caplan directly.
Twice per year, eight grantees are chosen per grant cycle to prototype solutions to civic challenges. Project grantees are supported with $10,000, a launch event and access to People’s Liberty’s workplace and mentorship. Stay tuned to
Soapbox for profiles of this year's 15 other grantees.