Burning Man’s Playa Pops Orchestra 2016

by Katy Tahja, October 12, 2016

I love it when a traffic jam of bicycles forms in Black Rock City not for a flaming piano toss by catapults, or a naked body parade, but for classical music performed by the most colorful musicians you’d ever expect to find on the Black Rock Playa.

Falling in love with the Playa Pops orchestra is easy to do. While techno/dub music may be the soundscape for 70,000 free souls who gather at Burning Man yearly there are those of us who love the old classical stuff. While there have long been small performances of acoustic, jazz. folk and chamber music in camps throughout Black Rock City it was only three years ago Playa Pops got organized.

Conductor Eric Yttri, known as “Dr. Fire Tuba” and violinist Laura Kaczmerak, “Pig Tails” wanted to bring traditional music on a big scale to Burners so in 2014 started with a string instrument orchestra and discovered the crowd loved them. In 2015 wind and brass instruments were added and this year I think every form of symphony orchestra instrument was on stage except a piano. There are some instruments that just can’t take the dry dusty playa conditions.

Musicians range from professionals with long careers to homegrown self taught performers. There are 90 musicians who have competed for the honor of bringing a beater instrument into the blowing dust, invented their own costume, practiced at home to perfect there music, and have two rehearsals before playing before thousands of folks.

This years program included selections from Dvorak’s “New World Symphony,” Mozart’s “Abduction from the Seraglio, “Handel’s “Water Music,” “Fire Bird,” from Stravinsky, “Space Oddity” by David Bowie, “Ode to Joy” by Beethoven, and a selection of tunes dedicated to pirates, “Buccaneer Country.”

The first night of their 2016 season, which lasts five days, at a location called Skinny Kitty Tea House, 800 people attended. While not an astronomical number for an event at Burning Man that was one heck of a crowd of classical music lovers. I caught them at a smaller location, Camp Frozen Oasis, where cellist Roger Wu M.D. hosted the event. First the floor filled with listeners, then anything that you could sit upon was taken, then the crowd stood 6 deep around the edges, finally people were sitting on each others shoulders and climbing atop solid structures to watch the performance.

Playa Pops were wonderful that afternoon, worthy of the standing ovation from the crowd. For their encore they tossed hundreds of kazoos into the audience. Believe me, you have not lived until you have played “Ode to Joy” on a kazoo with hundreds of fellow music lovers. I’m sure their performances over the next few days were equally wonderful. Upon exiting Camp Frozen Oasis the roadway was wall-to-wall parked bicycles. The music had literally stopped people in the street who had parked their bikes and come to see what was happening. It took five minutes to clear the road so traffic could resume.

Talking with orchestra members I found there is a musical brain trust that gets together every year and decides what to play at the Burn. Serious and silly are both appropriate. Solo performances this year included “Sweet Georgia Brown” played by a violinist and her guitar playing husband, and “Happy Birthday” conducted by a lucky woman named Rachel. When the conductor asked the crowd “Who has a birthday today?’ she stepped up, was handed the baton, and conducted the orchestra as best she could while hundreds sang the song to her.

I have to say something about the appearance of this orchestra on stage. Seldom will you see such sartorial elegance. On heads I spotted baseball caps, bowlers, sombreros, fez’, pith helmets, fedoras, feathers, and scarves. Everyone had goggles and facemasks at the ready if the wind and dust blew too hard. On upper bodies blouses, T-shirts, vests, corsets, and bras were worn and lower bodies were covered in harem pants, shorts, kits, slips, tutus, skirts, and sarongs. Feet were bare or had combat boots, high heels, sandals and tennis shoes. The conductor wore a short blue evening cocktail dress covered with a studded tuxedo jacket. He has also been known to wear black boxer shorts with little red hearts all over them. During the “Buccaneer Country” piece he was given a pirate hat to wear.

Behind the scenes Playa Pops core members work for 10 months organizing for perhaps a half dozen performances, choosing performers and alternates and finding venues big enough to seat their ever growing crowd of fans. These folks all have demanding real world jobs, but carve out a week a year to live in Black Rock City and bring a diversity of music to the playa. On behalf of hundreds, if not thousands, of their fans I say thank you!

There is music all over Black Rock City, besides Playa Pops classical offering. Bluegrass, chamber music, gypsy swing, ukulele jam sessions, a Hip-Hop Happy Hour, Regge, a Moroccan Drum Circle, and even Himalayan Singing Bowls to listen to could be found. If you liked to sing there was a choir camp, Drunken Disney Sing Along, a Grateful Dead Sing Along, Hippie Fest music, and 80’s classic rock. While people were dancing anywhere and everywhere there was Contra, Belly Dancing, Tap Dancing, Disco line dancing, hoop dancing, salsa, Aztec dancing, and a James Brown Tribute. My last night on the playa the 1973 tune “Dancing in the Moonlight” was the last thing I heard as I fell asleep.

You can’t talk about Burning Man without talking about food. Ever have someone hand you a snow cone of crushed ice with maple syrup poured over it on a hot dusty day? It was wonderful. Burners bring food with them and then discover Burners are giving away food all over Black Rock City…for free. Coffee, tea, champagne, mimosas, home brew beer, Bloody Mary’s, sake, infused Vodka, and iced expresso martinis got passed out. Need breakfast? Waffles, pancakes, muffins, Funnel cakes and French Toast were available. One camp was roasting a 60 pound pig, or you could go find grilled cheese sandwiches, falafels, French fries, a soup kitchen, spaghetti, bacon, ice cold pickles, a deep fry potluck, and most loved by all, fresh homemade bread.

As with every year there are workshops and events I want to attend and places I will avoid. As a senior woman I do not belong in the “Naked Run” around Black Rock City, nor do I want to know how to “Unleash Your Inner Slut.” I could take “Whip Cracking Techniques” after I attend a class on “Making a Flogger with a Bike Tire.” And there was a “Gathering of Wise Ones…Calling all Elders: Crones” for women over 50. What? I’ve been a crone for years and I didn’t know it?

Burning Man is the place to explore what makes you happy. Do not EVER think you’re too old to attend. The joy it puts in your heart lasts forever.

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