Kyoto, Zambia, the Canary Islands — two women traveled the world before finding each other in New Orleans. Their friendship birthed the Mobile Music Box, an ethereal and unique way to bring music to the people during the COVID-19 pandemic.
It wasn’t so long ago — though it feels like a lifetime — that a young Polish woman named Anna Roznowska was working in a hostel in Japan made an unexpected request of her mother. Her mother was coming to visit for Christmas, and she asked if she’d be able to bring along that old violin of her grandfather’s; the one she hadn’t played since she was 13.
“I don’t know what my plan was … to play for tips under the bridges of Kyoto — anything!” She laughs when describing what her mom must have seen as a hare-brained scheme. And still, the violin made its way onto that flight.
Meanwhile, a young American woman named Sarah Grant was working to get a micro-lending non-profit off the ground in a small town in Zambia, where she’d just finished a three-year stint in the Peace Corps. The fundraising she’d done didn’t quite cover her own salary, so she split her time between Boston and Zambia, working a variety of Stateside jobs to supplement her income. She discovered pedicabbing to be a fun, flexible, and lucrative option.
In the course of this hustle, Sarah made a discovery that would shape her future over the next decade: “I had a friend who was killing it in the pedicab game so I decided to give it a try and it was like, yeah! This is pretty cool!”
Fast forward to 2016, by which time both women had found their way to New Orleans. Sarah visited the Crescent City for the first time in 2013 to get that Super Bowl pedicab cash and she knew she’d found her next home. Anna had arrived by sea following an eight-month ship-hopping adventure originating in the Canary Islands. Her musician spirit guiding her to this musical Mecca. Their paths crossed in a Jackson Square bacchanal and Anna complimented Sarah’s leather hip belt. A friendship was born.
“We can do what we do best!”
Fast forward again to March 2020. The COVID-19 crisis was becoming clear and New Orleans, like much of the country and the globe, was on the brink of lockdown. Anna found herself in a panic she attributes to hailing from a war-torn country and being the single mother of a five-year-old. She foresaw martial law and chaos and booked tickets for her daughter and herself to Oregon, where she has an off-the-grid friend and access to a vehicle. She packed their bags, but when the time came to go to the airport she found herself frozen. Something was holding her back, and she turned to her friend Sarah for guidance and reassurance.
They took a stroll along the bayou and Sarah quelled her fears. “We’ll be alright,” Sarah insisted. “We can do what we do best! Me, pedicabbing around, and you in the back with your violin!”
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It may have been offered as a mood-lightening joke, but the idea began to take root and grow viable in their minds. Though the licensed pedicabs were all locked away for quarantine, Sarah had a friend willing to lend them his personal rig (seeing as how he wasn’t going to have much use for it at music festivals in the coming months). Anna already had an elaborate, portable loop-pedal set up with an amp that she used as a street performer. They dubbed themselves the ‘Mobile Music Box’ and slapped some paper signs on the sides of the pedicab. Then they hit the empty, pot-holed streets of New Orleans, Sarah grooving along at the helm in her iconic angel wings, Anna sawing away over pizzicato backing loops to bring mesmerizing music to the quiet neighborhoods within a reachable radius of Sarah’s home in the Tremé.
They say they don’t really have set routes; they like to follow their hearts and the music to plot their course as they go, whether that be up the bayou, through the Quarter, or amongst the shotgun homes of the Seventh, Eighth, and Ninth Wards. Occasionally people will reach out to them to request they make a stop at their home or event.
“There was this time an older woman came out of her house, sat on the ground, and you could just see the tears start to run down her face. It was so… real,” Sarah recalled as one of her favorite moments. The moments when they feel those sorts of connections, when they can see that they’ve really touched or moved someone, are not uncommon. Anna says that she has her special version of the Birthday Song that people will request for their friends, often as a surprise, and that these birthday surprises have been among her favorite moments.
An angel in a pedicab
Since the early April days when Anna and Sarah began the experiment, the signs on the pedicab have been upgraded and they’ve also found new ways to use their particular set of skills. In late May they partnered with DMC NOLA to deliver 250 gift baskets to hospitality workers throughout the Quarter. More recently, they’ve partnered with the newly-organized New Orleans Revolutionary Front, setting a peaceful mood with the music and drawing people from their homes in the Ninth Ward so that NORF members can educate residents on the issues affecting them presently.
And it turns out, there is most certainly a place for an angel in a pedicab full of snacks, water, and masks at the large protest movements that have taken place in New Orleans throughout the month of June, following the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police on May 25. When our interview ends and they go to set up the rig for their evening ride, it is still full of protest provisions from the previous day’s rally. They collect tips (you can donate to them on Venmo and CashApp: @mobilemusicboxnola), but it’s not so much about the money right now— the bulk of their earnings goes toward the babysitter and provisions like these, and they’re okay with that.
I ask about the future of the Music Mobile Box, if they dare to make any predictions about the future in times like these. Anna explains that she’ll be visiting that friend in Oregon for a while this summer after all, so there will be a brief hiatus.
“This has been a really meaningful experience, though, for us as well as our community, so we definitely plan on picking the project back up and keeping it going in some form for as long as we can,” Sarah said.
With the snacks cleared out, Anna gets to setting up the cache of equipment required for her performance. Sarah straps on her wings and gets situated as Anna begins plucking out the loops that’ll serve as her backing band. It’s a hot, late-June evening and we’re all already sweating as Anna determines she’s ready to pick up her bow and improvise a melody. I get a few minutes of a private concert, where it’s immediately clear how one might be moved to tears in this uncertain, emotional time in a musical city that’s been starved of live music. I thank them and off they roll up North Roman Street, ready to bring their gift up the bayou once again.
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