Next up for Greenbelt Online’s Musicians of Greenbelt series – Didgeridoo player Tim Saurwein.
Where to See Tim Perform? With Kiva
Tim Saurwein currently plays didgeridoo, percussion, and sings with the band Kiva, which he joined in 2001. For 30 years now Kiva has performed its percussive, acoustic, worldbeat music celebrating nature and ancient bardic traditions. It’s music is inspired by many cultures, spiritual disciplines and musical styles, including celtic-folk, folk-rock, blues, big band, traditional chants and jazz. Kiva has been nominated for Washington Area Music (Wammie) Awards 14 times.
Coming up soon, Kiva will perform at the Greenbelt Green Man Festival the weekend of May 11-12, followed by their May 18 performance at Paint Branch Unitarian Church celebrating their 30-year anniversary.
Tim recalls that in 3rd and 4th grades he and his sister were required by their parents to take piano lessons, but that instrument didn’t feel right in his hands – an inauspicious musical debut. But then he attended a school program that introduced kids to a variety of instruments, giving them a chance to hear them and then play around with them for hours, and he “instantly connected with brass.”
So starting in 5th grade, Tim played in school bands, at first playing the trumpet. That changed in 9th grade when the school’s music director offered an A to anyone who’d switch to the tuba, and Tim jumped at the chance. And turns out, he played the tuba “very well,” he admits.
He went on to study with the tubist for the Fort Wayne (Indiana) Philharmonic, for which he became the only tuba player in its Youth Orchestra. He remembers their big performance included such memorable pieces as “Night on Bald Mountain” and “Ein Kleine Nachtmusik.” Hearing music like that from inside the brass section was such a thrill, it seemed to give him chills talking about it all these years later.
Tim says that experience was especially impactful because it meant getting to musicians from all over the city – kids with broader taste in music than the pop and church music he was familiar with at that point. He credits those student musicians with turning him on to jazz, which led to teaching himself the trombone over one summer, which led to joining his high school’s Jazz Ensemble as their trombone player.
And that led to Tim attending jazz festivals and competitions in the region and meeting even more really cool kids who loved jazz, and some cool band directors who did, also. The band director at his own school was also passionate about jazz and played the trombone well.
Though music was a huge part of Tim’s school experience through high school, when it came time to decide between pursuing it or his other love – engineering – in college, he choose engineering, majoring in it at Purdue and not performing again for about 20 years.
Well, he did play a bit during that time. For his work/study program at Purdue he worked at NASA Goddard all four years and while there, rehearsed with the Music and Drama Club and also played trombone with Rosebud Dixie Band.
But mostly he didn’t play any instrument until about 1996, when he was single had some time on his hands. His friend Dave Landis, who was in the band Kiva, bought a didgeridoo online for $50, thinking it would be a great addition to the band and that with Tim’s experience playing the tuba, he could play this thing. (If not, he told Tim “No pressure – I can just hang it on my wall.”) Dave’s hunch paid off because right away Tim could play it, loved playing it, and has kept at it for 20 years now.
Most of us know that the didgeridoo was first played by aborigines in Northern Australia, but from Tim I learned that it may be as old as 40,000, and that it’s made from eucalyptus saplings hollowed out first by ants, and then by humans. Traditionally it’s been used to tell the story of creation and other religious myths.
Asked what it takes physically to play this odd instrument, Tim says just good lung capacity, and the rest is awareness – especially of changes to the back of your tongue and soft palette, in order to move them independently. Though it plays a single note and seems simple, the didg uses all parts of the mouth and actually complex to play, with one’s lips acting as the reed and the long tube creating resonance.
How is it different from playing the tuba? Tuba players have to learn to breathe from their lower abdomen in order to hold a note, and while that’s not necessary for playing the didg, it still helps.
Playing the dig well also requires something called circular breathing, which allows the player to inhale through the nose while air is still coming out the mouth.
There’s more to life than music and Tim’s also a keen home-brewer, especially of English ales and Belgian-style beer. (He says he naturally gravitates toward weirdos and that Belgian beers are definitely for weirdos, though his friends seem to like it.)
He’s also a fan of Dungeons and Dragons and role-playing games generally, which he describes as games that combine community story-telling and improv. They’re making a comeback these days, a welcome opportunity for people to interact in real time (IRL).
Travel is also a great love of Tim’s, especially to the U.K., where he spent a month last year. His favorite spot is Glastonbury, a progressive and inclusive place that reminds him of the New Deal Cafe. He says he’d dearly love to spend every summer there, escaping Maryland’s heat.
Tim also enjoys time with his grown children – two in other parts of the country and a daughter in D.C.
Greenbelt Connections – Work and Music
Tim’s Greenbelt ties began during his work-study years at Purdue and Goddard (1981-1986), followed by his long career as a Goddard engineer. He says he loves Maryland for its proximity to the Chesapeake Bay and other waterways, and especially for the crabs.
In 2018 he returned to Maryland and settled in Old Greenbelt, where he had lived in the ’80s and where had a growing cadre of new friends through Kiva’s performances at the New Deal Cafe and the Green Man Festival. Many of them lived in GHI and its cooperative spirit appealed to him, so that’s where he and his girlfriend Dee Sweeney are making a home together. They’re excited to fix it up, especially creating a real garden (for Dee) and outdoor entertainment space for them both.