Aaron Lewis ’05 has played his fiddle from India to Ireland, from the Georgia that’s on the Black Sea to the one on the Atlantic Ocean. A classically trained violinist who studied at Interlochen Arts Academy, since about the time he came to COA, Aaron has been playing down-home, traditional, old-time, and bluegrass music—along with some Dixieland, klezmer, and swing.
“It’s fun. It’s really fun. The main point is to connect with people and be part of an experience, not to show off and be complicated and technical. Even if we’re playing a performing arts center, it’s a party—this is music that’s made for social occasions and dances.”
The form also allows for individualism, he says. “It’s all about interacting, collaborating, innovating, improvising,” which is unusual within traditional music. Aaron recalls an Italian musician telling him that not a note of the tarantella he played had changed in five hundred years. American old-time music may be traditional, but it is not static. “Every generation, every individual, every region, is different. You might play it one way one week, the next week it might sound really different—it’s all about growing and changing.”
Music is Aaron’s life and his lifeblood. “I need to play and I need to play in front of people. If I don’t, I get some kind of muscle soreness of the soul. This is what I want to do, what I care about, what fulfills me. And it’s how I make a living.” For his COA senior project, however, Aaron collected sound, rather than making it, creating the CD, Sounds of Mount Desert Island, with recordings of wind blowing through trees, surf crashing against rocks, children playing, and diners at a lobster pound.
Aaron’s 2013 India tour, like the one in Eastern Europe, was sponsored by the United States State Department. Aaron and Lindsay created the Corn Potato String Band for that gig, which had them performing in small villages, at the home of the US ambassador, and at a Muslim university. There, they were told they couldn’t touch, couldn’t dance, and had to be sure no elbows or knees were visible. But as soon as the band started playing, “the whole room, packed full of students, began cheering. They cheered at the end of each song, at the beginning, and randomly in the middle. It was overwhelming—an amazing experience.”
The students had heard American music, but it was mostly mainstream. Aaron isn’t sure what it was that energized them, except that the music is fun, cheerful, and rather straightforward. “When you hear it you get excited, you want to tap your feet, dance to it.”
More complicated were the frequent requests that they collaborate with traditional Indian musicians. “We would meet people who play music that’s thousands of years old, and we’d have three hours to come up with songs to perform together. It was really challenging but just amazing because they were such sweet people.”
Among the musicians were Bauls, wandering minstrels from the Bengali mystical tradition. “Their music is a channel to the divine,” says Aaron. “Our music is pretty secular. But I could relate to them because music is my religion, it gives me all the satisfaction that I’m looking for in life—it gives me a path and a direction.” Besides, they’re musicians, and music “is made for people, to serve people. When you meet someone who plays music that’s completely foreign, you both know that you have something very important in common, which is that you care about music, about playing music.”
For more on Aaron Jonah Lewis ’05 and Corn Potato, visit www.cornpotato.com
Look for the band’s latest album, Put On Your Old Grey Bonnet, after May 1.
To read about Aaron’s India journey visit aaronjonahlewis.com/india-tour-journal.
And for his senior project Sounds of Mount Desert Island, visit cdbaby.com/aaronlewis.