The musicians arrived breathless at NYU Abu Dhabi's Saadiyat Campus. Having just finished a performance for hundreds of local schoolgirls at the Rosary School, bluegrass band Della Mae were visiting the University as musical diplomats, invited by the US Embassy in the UAE to hold a masterclass with a group of eight NYUAD students.
The band, originally from Tennessee and comprised of Celia on vocals, Jenny Lin on mandolin, Kimber on fiddle, Courtney on guitar, and Shelby on double bass, began by explaining the development of bluegrass music, which originated in the Southeastern United States as a mixture of Irish and British folk music that also incorporated African-American elements of jazz. As we listened, Shelby was busy assembling her custom-modified double bass, folding out the neck from inside the body and attaching the bridge and strings. "Easier to fly with," she explained.
We were then given a live introduction to the bluegrass style by the Grammy-nominated band and heard for ourselves the speed, complexity, and extraordinary instrumental dexterity that typify the genre. For the remainder of the class, Della Mae coached us through singing, playing, and improvising with the classic song "Sow It on the Mountain" on the eclectic mix of instruments we had brought with us: electric bass, cello, violin, ukulele, flute, piano, harmonica, and vocals.
The unforgettable night wound down with conversations about songwriting, travel experiences, styles of banjo playing, and the development of the band itself. In the end, the few students lucky enough to experience the infectious passion with which the band members play and speak about their music walked out of the master class with new friends and a new (or renewed) appreciation for American folk music.