Travels With My Cello

  • The Cello Whore

     

    It was spring and I had been playing for almost a year when my friend Tanya came to me with the most amazing news, as well as a proposition.  She had been asked to play her violin at a Yemeni wedding—10 minutes of playing for $100!  However, she did not want to go alone so she asked me if I would be willing to go along and accompany her on the cello, for the very same fee.  I was completely dumbstruck.  10 minutes of playing for $100?  Of course I would do it.  Then I began to ponder the proposed scenario.  Tanya is a fantastic violinist, and she needed me to accompany her about as much as submarines need screen doors.  I raised an eyebrow and Tanya explained.

    Weddings are segregated by sex in Yemen.  One entire room would be filled with Yemeni women dressed to the nines, dancing, eating, and generally having a wonderful time together.  Another room (not necessarily in the same building) would be filled with Yemeni men, sitting around chewing ghat.  The bride would be secluded from most of the merrymaking in the women’s room, while the groom was free to carouse with his male friends and family in his room.  At the designated time, a horn would blast on the women’s side, the doors concealing the bridal chamber would slowly open, and in the glitziest bridal gown her family could afford, the bride would finally make her entrance.  After walking down a runway draped in silk and flowers, she would then take her place on an enormous love seat to watch the festivities.  Later she might dance, but mostly her job was to simply sit and look beautiful while the other women partied.  In another hour or so, a different horn would sound, announcing the arrival of the groom.  At this point the music would stop, and all of the women would run for the outer chambers to grab their baltos (long jackets Yemeni women wear to cover themselves) and headscarves.  When all of the women were appropriately covered, the groom would make his way to the front of the room where the bride was seated.  The bride and groom would then sign the marriage contract, cut the cake, and the groom would leave.  And viola!  They are married.

    Should Tanya and I have actually played the gig, our job would have been to play music while the bride walked slowly down the runway.  The bride-to-be had turned the job of selecting the music over to Tanya, and Tanya dug in with glee.  When I saw the play list, I couldn't help laughing.  All of the major (and somewhat corny) love themes of the 1970's were well represented.  Love theme from “The Godfather,” love theme from “Love Story,” love theme from…oh, you get the idea.  Russian musicians LOVED this stuff.  Back in the go-go Brezhnev days when Soviet music schools were cranking out junior Paganinis and Rostropovichs, they were all busily sawing away at “The Way We Were” (when they weren't getting their heads coshed in for missing notes).  Tanya had diligently rewritten all of it to include a very simple bass-clef line for me.  We began practicing and I have to admit, we sounded pretty good.  I had lots of long notes on open G and C, which blended nicely with Tanya’s virtuoso playing. 

    I was really beginning to enjoy myself.  In fact, I began daydreaming about starting a wedding business with Tanya.  Women get married about every 15 seconds in Yemen, and with Tanya’s connections we could make a fortune.  True, we would spend more time in the car and setting up our stuff than actually playing, but so what?  Tanya and I would be the only girl group (such as we were) in the entire country.  Given that men can’t play in the women’s chamber at Yemeni weddings, we would rake it in!  I began imagining the uber-sophisticated gown I would have made for our gigs—maybe even an Armani imitation, with a full skirt and a killer neckline.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      


    The lovely, talented Tatiana

    But alas, as with all get rich quick schemes, mine came to a screeching halt.  The flip side to the Yemeni appreciation for western instruments is the stronger and more prevalent belief that anyone—man or woman—who plays an instrument, is somehow low class.  In fact, for women, there is actually a sleazier word than low class, fanana, which is akin to calling someone a whore.  The assumption is that if, as a woman, you are out displaying yourself in Yemen, you must be available for sex, and only very low class women would do such a thing.  In other words, whores.  I first learned of this cultural perspective when Tanya rather sheepishly informed me that she wasn't going to tell her husband where we were going that night, although this was not entirely unusual for I had never really understood how Tanya’s marriage worked.  She was a very talented, classically trained Russian violinist.  Her husband was a Yemeni doctor, trained in Moscow.  When the Soviet Union fell apart, there were simply too many skilled musicians and Tanya couldn't find work as a violinist, so she joined him in Yemen.  However, their life together always struck me as sort of an intercontinental clash of cultures.  I couldn't fathom that she had to hide the fact that she would be picking up some extra cash in Sana’a, and truthfully, I was starting to feel a bit like Ethel and Lucy, sneaking out when Fred and Ricky weren't looking.  I encouraged her to tell him what we were doing, which she ultimately did, but he did not take the news well.  In fact, he flat out forbade her to go, thus bringing down the curtain on our moneymaking scheme.  Tanya looked fairly glum when she told me of her husband’s response and she proposed that I could go alone, which really made me laugh.  Although my husband didn't seem to mind having a whore for a wife (in fact, I think he secretly liked the idea), it’s pretty hard to play “Speak Softly Love” on open strings.


                                                                                                                                                                               

    Marianne Ide is an international schoolteacher and amateur cellist currently living in Chiang Mai, Thailand.  When not playing her Artist cello, she teaches government and economics.  She can be reached at nomadcellist@gmail.com.

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