“Although we couldn’t afford piano lessons when I was in grade school, my mother bought me a John Thompson beginning piano book so I could learn on my own,” says Nawal Motawi owner of Motawi Tileworks in Ann Arbor, Michigan, recalling her childhood. “My mother also showed me the fingerings, bit by bit, for interesting popular melodies on our old upright. She loved to play music from The Sting and Broadway tunes.”
“I dabbled with guitar, blues harmonica, fiddle, and recorder during college, never with any formal training,” says Motawi. Her introduction to morris dancing in 1987 led to her discovery of the melodeon. “Its powerful, complicated, rhythmic, dissonant sound appeals deeply to me,” she says. “While I like its versatility, it is the guttural quality of the basses and minor chords that I find most compelling. Moving dancers and tunes along with a powerful rhythm, interesting bass lines, and a four chord in the right spot constitute musical nirvana for me!”
One of the things she finds most intriguing about the instrument is the different ways that advanced players work around its limitations. “My main melodeon has a D row, a G row, and another half-row that contains accidentals and reversals. The half-row makes it easier to play with a smoother style and puts those odd notes where I can reach them. I can vary the texture of my playing by choosing notes in locations where I have to change the bellows direction or not.”
“There is a limit to how well that works, however, and when the key gets too far away from D, the finger patterns become awkward,” she continues. “In order to play comfortably in my style I have acquired two more instruments in different keys: one in G/C and a custom made Bb/F.”
Who are your musical influences?
I love the English players: Chris Parkinson, Brian Peters, Doug Eunson, and Andy Cutting. Among people I know personally, I’d have to single out the playing of Bob Walser of Minneapolis, Minnesota. He articulates the notes very cleanly; uses chords and bass runs thoughtfully and creatively; and has a unique and effective rhythmic style.
Why do you continue to make music?
Playing is a complete joy and undeniable compulsion.
How do you continue to learn?
I listen to recordings by great players and attempt to imitate what I hear. I also seek out fellow melodeon players at festivals to jam and trade tunes with. I’ve attended the Northeast Squeeze-in a few times and recommend it highly.
What benefits have you found to making music?
Practicing quiets my busy business brain and seems to turn on a wavelength that is energizing, not draining. Music has given me solace during hard and lonely times. It has also been at the center of some of my happiest times.
How do you make time for music in your life?
I used to slip away to my detached studio in the evenings and practice for hours. I’ve divorced the studio and the need to slip away. Now music is at the center of my vacations!
What advice do you have for someone getting into music later in life?
Embrace the process. Do it for yourself. You don’t have to have a reason.
What is the best memory you have of making music?
One Sunday night at the Midwest Morris Ale a group of us were playing for dancing and improvising over a simple tune. The dancers loved it so much, they just kept doing the dance over and over until we wore out and dropped to the floor…still playing of course.