Wren Elhai was recently awarded the prestigious Watson Fellowship after being one of four students nominated by Swarthmore for the prize. With the fellowship, he plans to spend a year traveling throughout the world studying vocal traditions that use the voice as an imitative instrument. Elhai sat down with the Gazette to discuss the fellowship, his project, and what he plans to do next.
Daily Gazette: What is the Watson Fellowship?
Wren Elhai: The Watson Fellowship is a $25,000 travel grant that is given to 50 graduating seniors at a certain number of schools. It’s designed to let people who have some potential for leadership and do interesting things go out and see the world, see what’s out there. Generally, you pick a project that isn’t related to something you would end up making into a career. So for example, I’m a poli-sci major, and I’m doing a music related project.
DG: Can you tell us a little bit about your project?
WE: My project is specifically going to go to 5 different countries and study traditional vocal music that uses the voice in ways that we wouldn’t normally think of. It uses the voice as an imitative instrument, like percussive sounds, or imitates sounds found in nature.
Part of the impetus came out of the fact that I’ve been teaching myself to beat box for the past few years, since early high school. That kind of sparked the idea of looking at where that fits into a broader range of tradition, and how different cultures have different vocal styles.
DG: When did you start thinking about applying for a Watson?
WE: I had it in mind since at least last year. I knew a couple of people who had applied for it, and heard of a couple of Swatties who had gotten it, and read about what they were doing, and they had done some really cool things. Over the summer, in August, I was really thinking hard about what I would do with a Watson year. Basically, the idea of doing something with vocal music came pretty quickly. That’s something I’ve spent a lo of time doing, and something I won’t have much of a chance to do after college.
DG: How did you find out you won? Who was the first person you told?
WE: I was in the van coming back from Sixteen Feet’s spring break, and I got a call from Melissa [Mandos, Swarthmore’s Prizes and Fellowships advisor]. She was like ‘I wanted to congratulate you!’, and I actually hadn’t heard yet, so I was like ‘Whoa, that’s great!” I called my parents shortly after that.
DG: Where will you be going?
WE: I’m kind of doing some re-adjusting on my itinerary, but right now it looks something like this: I’m going to leave the U.S. in early July, go to Tuva in Russia, then to Beijing, and then I’ll fly into New Delhi in India. I’ll spend three months or so there, working my way down to Chennai, and from there I will fly to South Africa, and spend two or three months there. Finally, I’m going to go to the U.K. and finish in Hungary.
DG: Wow, that sounds pretty cool. How did you pick these countries?
WE: Basically started with finding traditions that had an imitative aspect to their music or had vocal percussions as an element in their music. The U.K. was one of the first places I looked because London is surprisingly the beat-boxing hub of the world. The International Beat-Boxing Convention is going to be in London when I am there. I’ve known about Tuvan music, which incorporates throat singing, when I was in high school and from when I saw the group here. In Hungary, I found that in Roma music, gypsy music– you think of gypsy music is violin or guitar, but at least among group of Hungarian gypsies, most of the authentic gypsy music is purely vocal. It’s some of the most fun music to listen to that I’ve heard.
DG: What are you most excited about?
WE: I gotta say Tuva. It is the first place I’m going to, and it’s kind of a very good time to be going there because it’s the Year of Khoomei, a year of celebration of this tradition of throat singing. Right when I get there in mid-July, there are going to be big festivals of Tuvan music in Tuva.. I read somewhere that they are planning to set the Guinness Record for most people simultaneously people throat singing, so that’s pretty exciting.
DG: Are you worried about language issues?
WE: Sure, they are kind of unadvoidable- Watson pushes you into that experience cause they make you travel to places where you don’t have experiences. I’ll hopefully get by [in most places] with English and Russian. Hungary is probably going to be the hardest. I’ll have to get along and pick up some basic Hungarian and Roma. We’ll see how possible that is. Part of it is to make friends who are bilingual. I’ve talked to people who have done a Watson before, and there is a lot of sign language going on, speaking to people with really bad English and attempts to learn the local language. You have to find people who can help you bridge the gap.
DG: What are your plans after you do a Watson year?
WE: I applied for the Watson so I wouldn’t have to answer that question…right now I’m a poli-sci major and Russian minor, and I’ve been wavering between taking the plunge and going to international relations grad school or joining the foreign service, working for an NGO, or being an international radio journalist. Any of these things are possibilities after the Watson, and hopefully part of the Watson will be to help me figure out what I want do to afterwards. I’ll be seeing a lot of interesting places, and I’ll have a recorder and a camera, and I’ll be able to practice some of my journalist skills.
DG: What will you miss about Swarthmore (if anything!)?
WE: The best thing I’ve seen at Swat is that you get to do a lot of things that you are interested in and do things you would never be able to do in the real world or at a bigger school. I just picked up swing dancing over the last four years, sang in an a capella group and did radio journalism. I had almost no experience in these things before I came to Swarthmore. I like the fact that you can come here and decide to try something new and just run with it. It’s what the small liberal arts experience is supposed to be about.
DG: This question has no relevance to this interview, but when will Sixteen Feet perform Swarthmore Girl? I’m dying to hear it live.
WE: (laughs) That’s sort of been lost in the sands of time. I’ve thought about re-transcribing it. It was one option at the Swarthmore mascot tryouts, but we found the fight song, so we did that one instead. But it’s a possibility, it’s out there. It’s certainly possible that it could re-appear.