Traveling the Rhythm Road

October 19, 2011

Tim Armacost, Paul Beaudry, Bennett Paster, Tony Jefferson

In 2006 I was privileged to travel and perform with my band Grupo Yanqui on behalf of the US Dept. of State as part of their Rhythm Road: American Music Abroad program, administered by Jazz at Lincoln Center.  From Sept 29 until Oct 23, 2010 I’ve enjoyed that honor again, this time as part of a wonderful new band: Paul Beaudry & Pathways.  The band features Paul Beaudry (bass/vox),Tim Armacost (tenor &soprano sax/alto flute), Bennett Paster (piano or keyboard) and Tony Jefferson (drums/vox).

In September and October 2010 we visited Trinidad, Suriname, Nicaragua and Honduras, playing instrumental and vocal jazz and original music, teaching masterclasses and doing cultural exchange.  Like the last tour, this one was a transformative experience for me, both personally and musically.

We’re also excited to have been selected to participate in the 2011 Rhythm Road program.  Throughout October and into early November we’ll be traveling to Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Bangladesh and India to share our music and to engage in cultural exchange.

Our debut self-titled recording was released in 2010.  For more information, or to hear some of it, visit:   www.myspace.com/paulbeaudry  or  http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/PaulBeaudry.

And, in May 2011, we recorded our followup album for audiophile label Soundkeeper Recordings.  Entitled “Americas,” the date features a collection of traditional and folk music from 9 different countries in North, Central and South America, plus the Caribbean.  We recorded live to 2-tracks in super-hi resolution audio quality and the album will be released both as a standard CD and as DVD-audio (96/24) and additionally as full-resolution wav files at 96K and 192K, all with no compression or limiting.  The recording days were amazingly fun- this promises to be a great record.  The label plans to release the album in February, 2012. Stay tuned to this blog for my tour diary and editorials that I’ll call:  Further Ruminations from the Road.

If you want to read the posts in chronological order, scroll down to Kazakhstan (2011 tour) or  Trinidad and Tobago (2010 tour) and read that first, then work your way backwards. There’s also a table of contents at the very bottom of the page.  (Sorry, I can’t figure out a way to make the posts in reverse chronological order…)

Inspirational India

December 6, 2011

As I sit at my desk on a calm fall day in Brooklyn, the heat and bustle of India seems at first thought a world away, even a universe away.  But as I write, the memories come flooding back in vivid color, sound, smell sound and taste.  (Oh, what I wouldn’t give for a plate of the fresh biryani take-out lunch we had in Hyderabad- enough to feed an entire family of 5 people for about $2, and it was amazingly tasty with fresh roasted and ground spices…)  It’s impossible to prevent one’s mind from developing preconceptions about what a new, unseen place will be like, but with India even my preconceptions seemed intense, almost scary.  When we arrived, I found many of the things I imagined- throngs of people, crazy traffic, life in technicolor and super-spice, but instead of the rampant poverty which dominated my misconception we saw a culture that was exploding with development, promise and hope.  Yes, India has poverty and we certainly saw at least the surface of what I know is a deep problem but in our visits to 4 of the country’s largest cities we didn’t see any huge slums like in the opening scene of “Slumdog Millionaire.”  Instead, we saw new modern airports, ubiquitous construction of  “flyovers” (freeways) connecting these airports to the city centers, gigantic office parks primarily dedicated to IT (Information Technology) along with “new cities” full of high-rise apartments to support the employees, malls full of Western brand boutiques and people full of energy and excitement about the new India.  Home to over 1.3 billion people (the USA has only a piddly 330 million in comparison), India’s economy is exploding at a nearly 8% annual growth rate!  The middle class is growing steadily and people are flocking to cities all around the country to get in on the growth.  The Indian dream is alive and well.

It was amazing to be somewhere that’s got such a strong, unique culture that’s so totally different from the USA, but where the majority of the educated population also speaks English (and certainly another language or two).  This lack of a language barrier gave us access to the country and the culture in a way that was much more direct than in the Russian speaking countries where we’d recently been.  We could easily go almost anywhere without a translator and buy clothes or souvenirs, food or explore tourist sights.  We could walk down the street immersing ourselves in the local culture, but still not feel alienated and scared as in a place where the language barrier is so high.  Hindi and English are the two languages that help unify the diverse people of India, but there are over 30 distinct languages spoken by at least a million people each.  We did have some occasional problems communicating but in general, both for our work and our tourist activities, language was not a problem.  Interestingly, though English is the language of the British colonizers, people there seem to have embraced it as the international language of business.  It may have been forced on them against their will, but it’s also been their ticket to joining the modern global economy.

The US Embassy and all of the consulates of India expressed strong interest in having us come to their cities.  In fact, we were told that they would’ve been happy to program us throughout the country for an entire month.  But our Rhythm Road program restrictions mandate that we may only be gone from the US for 30 days at most.  We had only 9 program days remaining for India.  Rather than stay in one or two regions or cities they decided to book us 4 concerts in major cities in different regions of India.  Unfortunately, with the associated travel times- each city was a 2-3 hour flight from the next- we had no time for any educational workshops, only concerts and a day off or two.  We did get to see 4 diverse cities, each in a unique region of India, each with it’s own culture, but we didn’t have enough time in each one to develop a profound understanding of each regions identity.  And I really missed teaching the educational workshops.  They tended to be the times when the most actual cultural exchange transpired.  From my perspective, this trip was an “introduction to India.”  I’m thankful for what we learned and I certainly want to return to further explore this diverse country, but I wonder how our trip would’ve differed if we’d stayed in one or two cities and gotten to teach some workshops and drive to some less urban areas.  Next time.

Diwali in Hyderabad

Tim in the bangle district

We started in Hyderabad, a city of over 14 million people in central southern India.  The city, we were told, is the IT capital of India (though we heard something similar in each of the four cities we visited…) and as mentioned above, the site of new, modern IT city between the airport and the main part of the city was a surprise to us all.  We drove mostly on the new flyover into the heart of the city and fought our way through traffic to our first of three Taj Hotels we’d be staying at in India.  An Indian-based luxury hotel chain, Taj has expanded to have holdings all around the world, including the famous Pierre Hotel in NYC.  The Hyderabad Taj, one of the chain’s oldest, was beautiful with marble everywhere- floors, bathrooms, walls.  We were placed on a “Taj Club” floor with a private check in area and a private dining/sitting room: fancy schmancy!  At each of the successive Taj hotels, the properties got nicer, but the one constant throughout was a ridiculously high level of service, even perhaps over-service.  Every employee smiled at us and asked how we were enjoying our stay and volunteered to carry our bags, no matter how big or small.  They seemed offended that I put my “Do Not Disturb” sign on my door and asked if they could come in to clean the room, turn down the bed, or leave fresh chocolates or pastries in the evening.  Honestly, I found the level of service, while totally amazing, a bit overbearing.  Sometimes, I just prefer to be left alone unless I ask for help.  Not at the Taj…  it took some getting used to.

BP overlooking a Hyderabad Market

We were in Hyderabad during the final days of Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights.  Functionally, this holiday is their Christmas- it’s common to exchange gifts and there were huge sales at all retail establishments, and the day after the festival’s final day is traditionally spent with family and friends.  The most popular and flamboyant tradition associated with Diwali is the lighting of candles to celebrate the triumph of good over evil, but this has also been translated into what the Indian’s call “cracker bursting,” the lighting of fireworks.  The residents of Hyderabad take their cracker bursting seriously… the city was ablaze with fireworks from 5pm until well after midnight.  They were ubiquitous and virtually non-stop.  From my room on the 8th floor of the Taj, I could see explosions over half the city.  It was quite a sight to behold and one I’ll not soon forget.  We’re told that in some residential neighborhoods the streets are full of people celebrating, but things in our more commercial neighborhood were relatively quiet- it would’ve been fun to go into the fray, but exhaustion and common sense mandated that we stay in.

Crackers Bursting on Diwali

Our gig the previous night was at an amphitheater called Rock Heights in a scenic public park about a half hour from our hotel.  Built on highlands overlooking the city at a site of a former fort, the theater had (attractive) fake rocks set behind the stage and a majestic lawn held over 600 temporary seats.  The staff at the Hyderabad consulate had gone all-out with the promotion and set up for this show.  Huge yellow billboards and archways adorned with stylized graphics based on our promo photo were posed around the site and throughout the city.  I’ve never seen promotion for a concert like this in the US, particularly for a jazz show.  Admirably, one of their goals in presenting this free performance in a public park was to attract a wider, more diverse audience than would otherwise get to hear us if we were, for instance, playing at a formal concert hall or a fancy 5-star hotel.  Since our show unfortunately coincided with the second to last night of Diwali (think Christmas eve) attendance was somewhat short of the 600 people that the consulate had hoped for, but people assembled as we played, and those that were there were treated to a nice evening of music.  The setting was lovely, the weather was perfect and other than Tony, who was unfortunately quite sick that evening, we all had a nice time playing.  To his credit, Tony gave an amazing performance in spite of feeling so horrible- he really dug deep that night.  We took my tune “Harmonia Mundi” to some wonderful new places that evening- I can still remember the chills I got as we explored superimposing harmonies over the A pedal during the tunes outro.

A sign outside our gig at Rock Heights in Hyderabad

Interestingly, Hyderabad was one of the few regions of India that was never conquered by the British Army.  Historically, it had long been independent; in modern history ruled since 1724 by a munificent series of princes called the Nizams.  On our day off in Hyderabad, we visited the Chowmahalla Palace, their seat of power.  The palace grounds held a spectacular series of buildings; the main greeting area featured a great marble hall adorned with chandeliers where the Nizams held important political functions and also entertained visiting dignitaries from around the region and the world.  The educational material at the Palace portrayed the Nizams as kind, generous Princes who cared about their subjects’ education, health and well being.  I enjoyed seeing the buildings and grounds, but also the costumes, china, cars and fascinating old photos of the NIzams.  They ruled for over 200 years during a time of prosperity, only falling to the Indian Army a year after India declared it’s independence from the British in 1947.  After our hour and a half at Chowmahalla, we shopped in a bustling market area around the palace on a street lined with bangle shops.  Shiny, bawdy, colorful bracelets reflected and refracted the shop lights- the street was mobbed with people preparing for Diwali, shopping, milling about and rushing to and fro.  We were the only Americans I saw all day, and as such we were approached on the street by countless vendors and beggars alike.  This was more the India I expected, but being New Yorkers, we managed to navigate it skillfully and with out incident.  After purchasing some bangles and a some traditional Indian long shirts called kurtas, we returned, exhausted, to the hotel to enjoy an evening of cracker bursting glory.

Pathways live at Rock Heights, Hyderabad

24 hours in Kolkata

Our next destination in was Kolkata (aka Calcutta), another huge city of 14 million people located in the Bengali region of Eastern India.  Kolkata’s culture is largely Bengali, so it shares more in common with Bangladesh then to the rest of Northern and Southern India.  Unfortunately, our trip to this city was a “hit it and quit it” affair: we stayed only long enough to check into our hotel, play our performance there and then check out and leave the next morning.  I wouldn’t say that I personally got a feeling for what makes this region different from the rest of India, but we did have a truly memorable and moving experience playing in this city and interacting with the jazz fans and musicians who came to hear us.

Kolkata from my window

Since this show was at a 5-star hotel, attendance was limited to guests of the Consulate.  But Kolkata is often called India’s “Jazz Capital” so the fans and musicians who came to hear us really seemed to already have a point of reference that many of our other audiences during this tour hadn’t.  One of the Consulate employees had arranged for us to meet and interact with a well-known local musician and composer named Deb Chowdhury who sings and also plays several different string instruments popular to Indian classical and Sufi folk music.  We met with Deb at the soundcheck a few hours before our performance and got the opportunity to craft several fusions of his music and ours.  We learned a song from his repertoire that had a bassline that seemed very reminiscent of 70’s American funk, so we connected it to a version of Herbie Hancock’s hit “Watermelon Man,” in attempt to draw connections between the two different genres.  We played his song through our stylistic lens and the resulting music sounded like an imaginary acoustic track from a 70’s Bollywood Blacksploitation flick…  It took some time for us to learn to communicate with Deb on the bandstand- he didn’t seem as accustomed to fusing such disparate music together to create something new as we were, and I don’t mean this as in insult.  His level of musicianship was extremely high and his vibe on stage was experienced, professional and relaxed.  But it he seemed to want to really try everything a few times in rehearsal to believe that it was going to work, whereas our “jazz attitude” made us trust without playing it through that the music would work.  Deb and Tim managed to trade melodic lines over the song’s diatonic vamp in a very seamless way, while I plied extended harmonies beneath that changed the context of their notes.  All the while, Tony and Paul simmered beneath with a groove that seemed mostly funk, but with a good dose of country “train feel” too.  Considering how little time we’d had to prepare, the tune went well and the audience seemed to dig it too.  Deb also joined us on our rendition of the popular Surinamese tune “Maria” which was consistently one of our best-received tunes on this tour.  His “big ears” allowed him to learn the melody quickly.  He integrated himself into our rendition quite readily, even as he contributed vocals from a Sufi folk tune amidst the improvisation.  This mash-up of styles was truly indicative of what Rhythm Road program is all about.  I’m disappointed that this was our only opportunity on this tour to explore it so directly- in retrospect, perhaps we missed some others, especially in Kyrgyzstan where the bands that played before us were so talented.  But we were all moving so fast from place to place and trying hard to focus on making every show memorable and often playing brand new music, so it’s understandable why we didn’t have more time to focus on more collaborations.  Again, I say next time…

New construction in Kolkata

Before our show started, the consulate showed a short film about the life of Daniel Pearl, the renown Wall St. Journal journalist and musician who was killed while on assignment in Pakistan in 2002.  During the month of October many US Embassies and consulates around the world participate in Daniel Pearl World Music Days, sponsored by the Daniel Pearl Foundation, a non-profit formed in his memory to further the ideals that inspired Daniel’s life and work. The Foundation’s mission is to promote tolerance and understanding internationally through journalism, music and dialogue.  Both on our 2010 Rhythm Road tour and on this trip we’d been mentioning this foundation and their Music Days and we’d been dedicating a song to the memory of Daniel Pearl and his ideals.  But viewing this video which contained much personal footage from Pearl’s wedding (and other home videos) really reinforced the blunt reality and utterly pointless tragedy of his death in a way that really affected me profoundly.  Instead of starting with our usual set-opener, Paul’s “84-14,” an upbeat, fast swing blues, I suggested that, in light of the heaviness of the situation after the video, we start instead with our usual second song, my composition “Harmonia Mundi” (translated: ‘world harmony’ or ‘world peace’).  The song usually started with a solo piano introduction, but that evening I cued the whole band to start with me and we improvised a flowing, rolling opening that seemed to really capture the vibe and weight of the situation and transform that serious energy into a joyous celebration of the power of harmony and music.  I hope we succeeded in reaching that goal and I trust that Daniel would’ve been proud.  I felt deep pride that we could participate in Daniel Pearl World Music Days as we celebrated the confluence of ideals and methodology between their Foundation and our Rhythm Road program.

The audience in Kolkata was perhaps the most ebullient and effusive crowd we played for on the whole tour, and that’s saying a lot as we were well received virtually everywhere we went.  The show was in a rooftop courtyard at the Taj Bengal hotel and the setting was hiply lit and decorated like a giant outdoor jazz club that seated 500.  The place was packed and the energy was great.  Unlike our Hyderabad show, this audience was all invited guests, many of them very knowledgable jazz fans and some also jazz musicians themselves.  Almost immediately after I walked down from the stage, three men approached me.  They each shook my hand and held it for a long time, then they wanted to hug me!  One remarked that he could tell that our music was really felt in and delivered from the heart, and that it had reached him directly in his.  Another said that he wanted to touch to feel the source of this beautiful musical energy and to share it.  We were used to signing autographs and posing for photos as well as receiving complements, but these guys had really felt our music deeply and their response was personal, moving and heartfelt.  They had really become part of the music as they listened- this is something that jazz at it’s best strives for: bringing the audience into the creative process and making them feel at one with the music. I realized what a privilege it is to be in a profession where people can have such a visceral, positive response to what I create.  I’m not sure what it was specifically about Kolkata that made that particular audience’s reaction so joyously expressive, but I’ll long remember the warmth and positive energy that they demonstrated.  It will fuel me through some of the other times where I wonder just why it is that I struggle in this demanding profession.

Construction of the New City in Kolkata

Later that evening in the hotel bar we got the privilege to hear a duo of musicians, voice and piano, who were in residence at the Taj Bengal.  Sonia Saigal, the singer, was the daughter of two fellow jazz musicians (and also self-professed jazz fans) from Kolkata.  She had a rich, mellow voice and had truly internalized the elements of the jazz vocal style.  Her repertoire was deep- she sang many obscure standards from the Great American Songbook- some tunes that many American singers wouldn’t even know.  We could tell that Sonia had put in the time listening to and internalizing many jazz recordings and that she had been honing her craft for years.  But I couldn’t help but wonder if she’d listened to too much jazz!  She had more elements of style than she had personal expression in her singing.  I wanted to strip away the ornaments and just hear her deliver the songs simply.  I wanted to hear what was really her voice, her perspective on the music, not just hear her sing the “right” notes and riffs.  This is one of the most challenging things about learning jazz: there’s a massive tradition of jazz style and language that one must learn to even begin to be fluent in the music.  But to transcend mere fluency and get to where you’re transforming the music into something truly personal and new is amazingly difficult and, I find, almost impossible to teach.  In my opinion, musicians either find their inner voices or they don’t- you either synthesize your influences into something new or you don’t, and there’s no rhyme or reason as to why.  We really enjoyed listening to her- Sonia is a very accomplished singer in a very foreign style- but I hope that, as she proceeds on her musical journey, she’ll transcend her influences, rendering the true essence of her style left.

The pianist, Harmeet Manseta, was also a wonderful player, similarly comfortable and fluent in jazz.  He and I had a long discussion after the performance about how Indian and American musicians fuse their music together.  He told me that he’s often called upon to play in Indian/fusion settings, essentially American smooth jazz or pop-fusion with an Indian “spice” thrown in on top.  The feeling I got from him was that this music largely doesn’t work for him.  The two root styles are so fundamentally divergent in their approaches that he thinks the “ethnic” players often only bring something superficial from their style to the table- just a flavoring, not an authentic recipe (my analogy not his).  Jazz and Indian classical music are both so profoundly deep and difficult on their own, it’s almost impossible for one person to understand them both fully, and few do.  Unfortunately, he felt that instead of just doing what they’re best at, that most musicians he knew, when placed in this fusion setting, simply tried to adapt their style to the opposing one, losing the depth of approach along the way.  (Interestingly, he considered himself only a jazz and pop keyboardist, not an Indian classical player, though he has been around that music for his whole life.)  Miles Davis, he suggested, never changed what he did when he played with his bands; rather he changed the setting and musicians around him to make his music different.  He always played like Miles, with a stark and thoughtful approach and a characteristic use of space.  In fact, Miles was among the first jazz musicians to integrate Indian Classical music into his fusion bands in the the early 70’s, and to Harmeet, he did so very successfully.  I asked him, fearfully, what he’d thought of our fusion with Deb Chowdhury during our performance that evening and he answered that he truly liked it since Deb and we’d both stayed true to our approaches.  He noted that I hadn’t been harmonically restricted to the notes in Deb’s ragas, rather I played chords that put his notes in new context, and Deb hadn’t been held back by our more complex chord changes, he utilized the phrasing and note choices that were part of his music’s “rules” and simply superimposed them over our music without regard for the changes.  While I know that our collaboration with Deb that evening had been a small step towards what we might do given some real time to practice and develop a concept, I was grateful that Harmeet had found it authentic and enjoyable- that validated our efforts.

A glimpse of roadszide squalor in Kolkota

Awake the next morning, it was already time to leave Kolkata for Bangalore.  It was difficult to leave the site of perhaps our warmest reception on the tour, especially considering that we didn’t get to see anything beyond our hotel or the windows of the cars driving us to and from the airport.

Fabu in Bengaluru

Set in the center of the southern Indian state of Karnataka, Bangalore (or Bengaluru as it’s now known) is another massive city of over 8 million people that, like our other destinations, is also a center of IT, aerospace, telecommunications and defense.  It’s nickname is the “Garden City” and we found out why when we arrived at our next fabulous hotel, the Taj West End.  Started as a boarding house in 1887, the property became an inn for upper-class English people visiting India.  Taken over by the Spencer empire in 1912, the property expanded to become an elegant, luxurious hotel set on 125 acres of old-growth forest.  The forest, more of a jungle to my eyes, was full of gigantic tress, some over 150 years old, in varieties unfamiliar to me.  Our rooms were expectedly comfortable but the grounds were truly amazing, giving me an idea what the terrain there must have looked like before millions humans were living there…  It was more like staying at a country club on a nature preserve than being at a hotel.  Compared to the other urban center hotel sites we’d seen on our trip, this place was a relaxing, refreshing change.  Considering we’d not gotten away from work much in India it was refreshing to be amidst the greenery, however genteel the setting.

The grounds at Taj West End in Bangalore

There’s something special about the second-to-last performance of a tour.  In my experience, it’s often among the best shows, whereas the final show can be a bit self-conscious since I aware that it’s my last chance to play this music for awhile (or some times for ever).  We were very comfortable with the set of songs we’d been playing during most of this trip.  That comfort led us to try to find some new ways of approaching the old material and it also inspired us to change up a few of the songs on our setlist.  That evening, for the first time, we added and opened the concert with “Transe en Danse,” a tune I particularly like by a Haitian friend of Paul’s named Buyu Ambroise.  I don’t have a lot of specific memories of this show, but I know it was an easy and fun concert: one where I didn’t think too much, where the music soared to new places and where we played with a collective mind.  I had a feeling that, during the final show in Delhi 2 days later, it would be harder for me to put the end of the tour out of my mind- we were to go to the airport to return home immediately after the show- so I cherished each moment of the Bangalore show and tried to let the music flow.

Backstage in Bangalore

We did have a day off in Bangalore so we hired a driver to take us to see some sites and to do a bit more shopping before our imminent return home.  Unfortunately, the driver spoke very little English and more unfortunately, it took us awhile to figure this out.  We asked him to take us to a few popular sites and he nodded his head and started driving.  It was only after driving almost an hour and not arriving anywhere or stopping that we realized that he was driving us around without any apparent destination.  He managed to phone a friend who did speak some English who managed to translate a few basic destinations and our intentions to him.  After another 45’ in the car we arrived at the Nandi Temple (aka “Bull Temple,”), a well-known local Hundu Temple and landmark.  The temple’s entryway has a colorful, ornate tower (a “vimana”) that was constructed in the early 20th century, but the main attraction is a large stone Nandi Murthi (bull sculpture) carved in 1537 out of a single massive granite stone over 15‘x20’.  The Nandi is blackened from hundreds of years of oil and charcoal rub-downs which help preserve the stone.  We got an informative interview from a young attendant at the temple who was eager to show us around and encouraged us to take pictures.  At the end of the tour he solicited donations and, in one of the most quotable lines of the tour, asked us for donations in US dollars telling us that “collecting them is my hobby.”  “Funny you should mention it,” I responded, “it’s mine too…”

Tim and BP at the Nandi Temple

The Tower at Nandi Temple

Also of note was a park adjacent to the temple that featured many more large natural rock outcroppings similar to the one that the Nandi must’ve been carved from.  We wandered the park admiring the landscape and flora and were particularly fascinated by a colony (yes- that’s the correct word… I looked it up) of bats hanging from the trees above, sleeping in broad daylight.  They were large, perhaps twice the size of typical NYC pigeons.  Mostly the bats just hung out (yuk yuk) sleeping, but on occasion, something would stir up some disquiet and we could see the grandeur of their wingspans as they flapped, squawking all the while, from one treetop to another.  At one point a group of kids (who seemed as fascinated with us as Americans as we were with the bats) pointed out that a small monkey was climbing the trees towards the bats.  There was a flurry of activity on the branches as the bats flapped away and the kids giggled in delight.

A park near the Nandi Temple

Bats!

As we left the park we stumbled across a traditional South Indian wedding band performing at a local wedding.  Comprised of two women playing shehnais (a popular local double-reed instrument), two men playing double-headed indian drums (I’m not sure exactly which) and, improbably, another guy playing alto saxophone.  They played as the bride and groom emerged from another nearby temple and marched with them as they paraded down the street.  Their music was exuberant and brash, and all involved seemed to be having a wonderful time as the golden light of the low early evening sun shone down upon the happy couple and their families.  Ironically, this chance encounter was one of our few run-ins with local music in India. We stood for a long time watching and listening to some strangers’ wedding just so that we could be part of this authentic Indian experience.  No one seemed to mind; the musicians just looked over at us, having no idea who we were or why we were there, and smiled.

A spicy lunch at the mall

Our communication breakdown with our driver continued once we returned to the van.  Somehow we managed to get him to take us for some handicraft shopping, then we headed for some food at his choice of venues, the food court at the local mall!  As in the other cities we’d visited, Bangalore had huge chopping centers with major Western brand stores and boutiques as well as many Indian stores, both chains and independents.  We eschewed the shops for a 5pm lunch- we were starving.  Tim and I headed for a little vegetarian place at the end of the long row of food shops.  I ordered chana bhatura, a dish I’d enjoyed many times in Cambridge, MA at “Tandoor House” where I first learned about Indian food.  The chick peas were super fresh and the spices were almost more than I could take.  The puffy, ghee-fried bread was amazingly tasty, but afterwards I felt like I needed a shower inside and out- I was sweating and my belly was on fire.  It was a heck of a tasty lunch for less than $2.  I extinguished the fire with a few scoops of ice cream, including a flavor called kulfi, made with cardamom, saffron, cinnamon and other spices.  It was among the tastiest meals we ate in all of India, but I must confess there was a late-night reckoning that made we think twice about eating more street food.  Luckily, (and in spite of many warnings) none of us in the band got truly sick from a food-borne illness during our visit to India.  (There’s always next time…)  Hoping to find a shopping area that had eluded us (or at least or driver) all day, we fought our way through atrocious traffic and finally gave up and persuaded the driver to take us back to the hotel.  We were all angry, exhausted and totally done with being cooped up in a vehicle.  The most important thing I learned that day was, at any cost, make sure the driver speaks English, otherwise I might again feel like I wasted an opportunity to see more of place I may never be again.

Delhitful Delhi

Delhi was our final destination on this 2011 Rhythm Road tour.  While in Delhi’s grand new airport, I marveled at some of the interesting architectural decor.  In one of the terminal walkways stood a giant statue, or rather a series of statues , each one a life-sized portrayal of a person in the different incremental stages of the yoga series “sun salutation.”  The figures were mounted on a giant ring that was skewed so as to not be parallel with the ground.  The visual effect was that the characters seemed animated in sequence and the psychological effect (on me at least) was to make me really want to practice some yoga to help stretch out my tight muscles and hamstrings, aching from so many consecutive flights and van rides.  India is the home of yoga, which I’ve practiced more or less for over 10 years, but alas, there would be no time for more than an occasional stretch in the hotel room, certainly not a week at the ashram (which, let’s be honest, might be a bit much for me).  My other favorite area of the Delhi airport was the international passport control area.  As you descend the escalator into the waiting area you enter a 6 story tall grand lobby flooded with natural light.  One wall is covered with giant copper discs, some concave, others convex and protruding from between them are giant (15 feet, perhaps?) sculpted hands, each in a different “mudra,” a gesture that traditionally guides the energy flow and reflexes to the brain.  The mudra hands were welcoming and warm and, from our first steps in India, they reminded us that we were in a part of the world with a very different spiritual energy.

Mudras extend from the wall at the Delhi Airport

New Delhi is India’s national capital and it’s layout seems similarly civic-minded, with long grassy malls flanked by stately government buildings.  Surrounded by greater Delhi, New Delhi is an autonomous region with it’s own government with a complicated relationship to the state and federal government as a whole.  It’s a similar setup to our nation’s capital, Washington DC.  Again, I regret to say that we only got to experience the civic sector of the city from our van, but my impression was of an open, vast area dotted with the myriad edifices of government.  We drove past the majestic India Gate, India’s national monument, a sort of arc-de-triomphe structure surrounded by flowers, then into a section called embassy row with neatly manicured lawns and blooming rosebushes in front of heavily guarded and fortified structures beyond.  As we exited the spacious civic neighborhoods and entered the edge of Dehli our hotel came into view, behind a high wall and rows of mature palm trees.

A government building in New Delhi

India Gate

The Imperial lived up to it’s name- it was a British colonial-era grand hotel which was, even more so than the Tajs, flanked with marble floors throughout, including every inch of my guest room!  The place reeked of elegance and stodginess in a cool, historical manner.  It was a style of hotel I’d never choose to stay in, but actually rather enjoyed.  (I prefer a modern “boutique” style lodging experience.)  The building was a gigantic series of interlocking rectangles connected with a series of straight halls, all identical at first glance.  It was easy to get lost in the building- by this time on the tour we’d been in so many hotels I couldn’t even remember my own room number anymore.  Only the ornately framed historical prints of British military campaigns, mounted tiger hunts and similar colonial imagry which lined the walls reminded me where I was in the building and helped confirm which room was mine.  And, of course, we didn’t have much time there, so it didn’t much matter, but I enjoyed wandering the halls and exploring the grounds.  Breakfast on the splendid patio was amongst the nicest on the whole tour and I cherished every moment knowing that it would be my last breakfast buffet until further notice.

Nighttime at the Imperial

Paul, Tony and I did have time for a bit of shopping the afternoon we arrived and after a 2 hour nap, I left the hotel not entirely awake, in a mild hallucinatory daze.  Just outside the Imperial was one of Delhi’s main shopping drags, lined with tchotchkes shops (what’s the hindi word for tchotchke?), jewelry stores, clothing and handcraft booths and tons more.  There were people everywhere and we were approached by countless people on the street trying to sell us anything.  In my haze I couldn’t deal with stopping anywhere- the whole scene was just a bit overwhelming.  We just kept walking until we succumbed to a “friend” (really a stranger) who volunteered to take us to a “cottage industries” shop.  These state-sponsored merchants sell “better quality” merchandise than one might find on the street, so we wanted to have a look.  We split up to see what was on offer.  After a short gander (and a few free bottles of water) we felt that this “better” merchandise was really just more expensive and we set back out into the fray.  Our “friend” mysteriously re-appeared outside and tried to guide us further, likely towards shops where he thought he could get a kickback or a percentage of anything we bought.  We thanked him and explained to him that we didn’t need his “help” anymore, but he wouldn’t leave us alone.  (He wasn’t threatening, just wicked persistent.)  Eventually we dipped into a KFC (they’re ubiquitous in India!) and when we came out he was finally gone.  My sleep-deprived (or induced?) fuzz had mostly cleared and, after downing a liter of water, I felt coherent again.  We did manage to find some gifts, shirts and curios on the way back to hotel.  I got some colorful silk scarves, beautiful hand-painted boxes and an amazingly cute set of kurtajamas (my newly minted word for pajamas with a kurta top) for my toddler; Tony got a statue of Ganesh and Paul got something too.  My suitcase was getting quite full by this time- it really was time to go home.

Shopping in Delhi

The next day we awoke and prepared for our final concert at the Delhi International Arts Festival.  This prestigious festival features music, theatre, dance and even literary events and it was an honor for us to be a part of it.  When we got to the theatre none of the gear requested in our rider was set up and many of the things we’d requested weren’t even there at all!  We asked for the items we still needed- some amps and a keyboard stand- and a heated discussion about responsibility and expense broke out between our staff from the embassy, who had arranged the technical aspects of the show and the festival staff, who had signed and agreed to our rider.  Somehow they resolved it and agreed to gather up the remaining items we needed.  We agreed to go back to hotel for a few hours while they got the stage set up.

Well, at least we intended to return to rest, but Tim and I got caught up doing some last-minute shopping at a store called FabIndia, for which we’d been searching for several days.  Their website explains: “Fabindia is India’s largest private platform for products that are made from traditional techniques, skills and hand-based processes.  Fabindia links over 40,000 craft based rural producers to modern urban markets, thereby creating a base for skilled, sustainable rural employment, and preserving India’s traditional handicrafts in the process.”  The result was an amazing collection of clothes, scarves, jewelry and more made from the astoundingly beautiful materials.  I couldn’t help but get a few more gifts (and perhaps an item or two for myself- a linen shirt and a rich, blue kurta).  On the bright side, I wouldn’t have to do any holiday shopping upon my return home, and almost everyone on my list will get something unique and exotic for lands afar.

Our stage backdrop at the Delhi International Arts Festival

When we arrived back at the venue, all was in order and we set up our gear and did a proper soundcheck.  Lacking sufficient time to return to the hotel, I fell asleep on a banquette in the dressing room for a short hour.  I woke up feeling sort of better, sort of worse, with my neck hurting, but it was showtime.  One granola bar and a bottle of water later, I was ready to rock.

Months before our departure Tim had contacted the Delhi embassy personnel with a suggestion that we use our performance at the DIAF to honor Soli Sorabjee, a well- known national politician who was a key player in introducing jazz to India.  He started Jazz India, and is a key organizer of Jazz Yatra and Jazz Utsav – two big festivals.  Tim’s seemingly simple idea was met with nothing but resistance and passivity from the embassy staff.  After many emails trying to make it happen for several months, Tim abandoned the idea, frustrated.  Well, imagine our surprise when we got up to the stage area from the dressing room when we found Atty. Sorabjee on stage, being honored!  We weren’t invited to participate in the ceremony; in fact we weren’t even told that it would happen or who had arranged it.  This was a most counterproductive way to make the event happen, but nonetheless, Tim was delighted that it did happen- his main goal was to homor Atty. Sorabjee, not to get the credit.  Tim had lived in Delhi over 20 years ago for a year,  While there he had studied tabla and Indian rhythms with the renown Vijay Ateet.  Mr. Attet was also able to join us at our performance that evening, which was a special treat for Tim and an honor for us all.

Pathways plays our final concert clad in Kurtas!

We took the stage for our final performance in front of a sold-out crowd of around 600 people, including our honored guests.  I resolved not to be distracted by our immenent return flight home which departed the next morning at 3am (and for which we had to leave our hotel by 11pm, immediately following the gig).  I suspect we played a good show, but I had trouble focusing that night.  Somehow, it wasn’t as easy to get lost in the music as it had been on previous nights.  I find it essential to remain in the moment when I’m improvising.  Anything that pulls the mind away from the music is an unwelcome distraction and the music usually suffers.  That evening I was tired, a bit nervous and not totally centered.  It got better as the performance progressed, but it wasn’t my easiest show.  Listening back later (on youtube) to “Yeh Dosti” from that performance reminded me that things often sound better than they feel.  I need to continue to develop my ability to stay focused and remain un-distracted.  After 12 shows and (many classes too) in 30 days, that muscle was stronger, but it was also tired.  I did the best I could to stay in the game.  When the show was over, I felt a palpable sense of relief (it had been a long month), but also a profound sadness that, short of 2 US shows in December, the musical portion of this Rhythm Road tour was over.

After a last shower and some repacking back at the Imperial, it was time to begin the long trip home.  Nearly 24 hours later I was back in Brooklyn. My body thought it was the middle of the night, but the low November afternoon sun shone down upon the marshy reeds in the Jacob Riis park, just off of the belt parkway and reflected, glistening off the water, hurting my eyes as if to remind me I was home.  Here, halfway around the world from where I’d started, it was still daytime.  Manhattan was visible in the distance reminding me that life in the Big Apple had continued to go on while I was gone, just as it was simultaneously transpiring in each of the places I’d visited on this trip.  Each place is it’s own world with millions of smaller individual sub-worlds within.  Traveling the Rhythm Road helps me expand and connect these circles and reminds me how, in spite of national or cultural differences, we’re all living (and loving music) in the same world.  Participating in this program 3 times during the past 6 years has taught me what I love about America, illuminated many of the things our country does well (and some it does not), and it has also reminded me the importance of learning about the world, experiencing it and being open to it’s vast differences.

Back at JFK airport in NYC

Joyously, and seemingly unbelievably, I reunited with my wife and son and prepared to make that sudden jarring transition from Bennett Paster: “professional musician” and “American cultural ambassador” to “Daddy” and “dude, can you play at the 55 Bar for $75?”   It was good to travel, but it was great to be home.

Dhaka Bus with a smile!

After 6 hours by air to Karachi, Pakistan, an hour layover, then 3 more hours inflight, we reached Dhaka Bangladesh.  The second half of our Rhythm Road tour, now in South Asia, had begun.  Hot, humid air assaulted us in the jetway as we deplaned and the smell in the terminal reminded me of other hot places I’d been in the region: Thailand, Cambodia or the South Pacific.  The airport was much more humble than Istanbul’s modern European behemoth.  (Turkish toilets, anyone?)  As we walked out into the main terminal with our bags the air grew still hotter and there were throngs of people everywhere. Bangladesh is one of the worlds poorest and most densely populated countries- this was reflected from our windows as we drove the 45’ from the airport into the city center to our hotel.  Traffic was horrible; streets were packed with cars with extra metal bumpers on both ends, thousands of motorcycles, some with 2-4 passengers, colorful, run-down public busses crammed with people that were completely scraped on both sides from hitting other cars, green and yellow motorcycle rickshaws with metal cages for passengers, bicycle rickshaws with festively decorated, retractable hoods, each pedaled by sweaty, skinny men who looked not to be over 120 pounds, and there were even some ox-drawn carts and occasional livestock in the street.  Everyone seemed to be jockying to get ahead.  Lane designations were pointless- it was a general free-for-all, a melée on wheels.  But because there was so much traffic, no one was going very fast and it all seemed safe enough- everyone honked whenever they passed another vehicle.  Drivers had to keep their wits about them and watch every angle at every second, but all seemed used to the crazy pace.  Along the road we saw shacks made of found wood, plastic and metal, old, run-down buildings, but also newer, modern buildings, especially as we entered the city.  We saw people defecating on the train tracks, but also passed people in fancy suits or bright, decorated saris (dresses made of a long piece of fabric, wrapped around the body) riding expensive motorcycles.  We passed green, polluted lakes where women were washing clothes, but also the local private golf course.  The juxtaposition of the first, second and third worlds in such stunning proximity was astounding.  This world was technicolor, loud, odiferous, vivid and constantly churning.  Somehow we made it to our hotel.  All I can say is that I’m glad I wasn’t driving because there was just too much to see, too much to take in.

Cable management, Dhaka style

Unlike the local hotels we’d inhabited in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, our hotels for the rest of the the tour were part of international chains and they were all 5-star.  At the Westin Dhaka, we were met by a greeter, with a fancy, groomed beard and a maharaja outfit, plus 4 other bellmen to help with our luggage.  There were military guards quietly carrying machine guns, ever watchful.  We had to go through a metal detector each time we entered the hotel and all our luggage had to be x-rayed for security.  Once in the lobby we could’ve been in any Western hotel- Dhaka was outside the window, but it wasn’t much inside, short of the employees costumes and the hotel’s styling.  Admittedly, I was relieved to have the comforts of a modern hotel room.  The bathroom was particularly opulent and comfortable.  But inside I knew that as I lay on the king sized bed with the supple sheets, someone not far away was sleeping on the ground in a shack; as I showered in the marble and glass enclosure, others were pouring buckets of water over themselves from a spigot.  I’m not sure how to completely reconcile with the guilt that I have about the economic advantages that most Americans have over a majority of the world.  Certainly we deserved to stay somewhere comfortable so that we could be rested to do our important musical and cultural ambassadorial work, but could we really get to know these people, this culture, from the confines of the Westin?  As the population of the world surges past 7 billion people, we’ll need to find a way to more equitably distribute the wealth and provide for the less-advantaged: our planet simply cannot support 7 billion the way that we live in America.  And, ironically, even though we in the States have so many advantages, our distribution of wealth gap continues to widen between the rich and formerly-middle-class and now almost poor.  Even from the other side of the world, the protests of the “occupy Wall Street” movement around the US resonated with us, perhaps more than they would’ve at home.  Throughout the rest of the tour, both here in Bangladesh and in India, these issues would always be on our minds as worlds collided in front of our eyes.

Pathways radio interview in Dhaka

Our stay in Bangladesh was short- just 4 days including travel.  We had time for a radio interview, two performances and one class.  The gig set to be an outdoor performance for 1500+ people in a courtyard at the International University of Bangladesh.  The embassy there had made massive preparations for such a large concert.  Unfortunately, as the date drew near, it became clear that the weather would not hold and it would be a rainy evening.  Somehow, they managed to get the entire space covered beneath a giant tent, supported with bamboo poles in time for the performance.  An event staff that must’ve numbered in the hundreds dried every chair and put white covers on them.   We had a huge stage and PA- this was our largest event of the tour.  It’s very hard to explain to a foreign sound engineer who hasn’t heard jazz before what it should sound like.  Their point of reference is usually pop-music, where the drums (and everything else, for that matter) are really loud.  After much discussion and a long soundcheck, punctuated by occasional mosquito-wrangling, we managed to get our sound together.  At every performance, this crucial moment of communicating our sound-needs was always among our greatest challenges; it required crafty negotiation, patience and vigilance.  Although the venue had a loud echo on account of parallel surfaces, we managed to get a sound we could live with.

Colorful Bicycle Rickshaws

"I Love a Rainy Night" (not the Eddie Rabbit tune...)- our show in Dhaka

Our concert was, unfortunately, somewhat under-attended.  The huge venue was about half full, likely on account of the rain.  Though from another perspective, 7 or 800 people is a pretty good audience for a jazz concert under any circumstances- it’s hard for us to get this kind of a crowd in the US!  Throughout our performance on this sticky, smarmy evening, we weren’t really getting the kind of positive feedback from the audience that allows us to transform a good performance into a great one.  People would applaud after each song, then stop abruptly as Paul approached the mic.  We were quite far away from the crowd too; in the glare of the stage lights we couldn’t see them to properly gauge their reactions to our performance.  Cultural responses are different everywhere- we’re aware of this and we’d all talked about it together- but still, in the heat of battle, it’s hard to perform when we don’t feel the energy of crowd coming back to us.  We did learn a local pop song “Sadher Lao,” said to be Bangladesh’s first universally popular modern pop song, and people seemed to like it.  Although we left the stage unsure of how well we had communicated our music and our message, once we got out into the crowd an mingled a bit, it was clear that people had loved the concert.  The people were effusive, asking for autographs and photos with us.  One crazy young guy even told us he was “the most popular guy in school” and that he got “all the girls.”  Curiously, at the moment, there were none hanging around him…  hmmm.   He then told us he was a singer and that he wanted to make it big in America.  At first I encouraged him, suggesting that he contact the American Center in Dhaka to discuss opportunities to study in the US, but the more we talked, the crazier he seemed.  He kept asking us if we knew Brittany Spears, U2, Linkin Park and other rock bands, and suggested that he could set up a big concert for us in Bangladesh with Linkin Park as the opener.  It was time for us to go back to the hotel… would someone please usher this nice (delusional) fellow out?

Feelin' good at Hurdco International School, Dhaka

Students at the Hurdco Intn'l School

All questions about whether we were reaching our audience in Bangladesh were answered the next day when we taught and played at the Hurdco International School for an eager, well-behaved class of 9-10th graders.  The students, in their crisp blue and white uniforms, were fluent in English and had some thoughtful questions for us.  From the second we walked in the room their positive, youthful energy inspired us- it was the energy we had been missing the night before, but we were thankful to have it now.  Without introducing the song by name, we played “Sadher Lao” and they immediately rose up and started clapping, singing and smiling.  Whenever we got to the melody’s catchy refrain, it was like a party in the classroom!  By playing, arranging and improvising over local songs that are familiar to our audience (instead of originals or “jazz standards” which even most Americans don’t know anymore) we are able to clearly show how our “jazz approach” transforms a familiar song into something new, different and creative.  The kids that day really seemed to understand this and, perhaps more importantly, they had a great time and enjoyed the music.  Mission accomplished!  After the performance, the school’s director invited us to her office to enjoy some take-out Bangladeshi Chinese food.  It was spicy and delicious and we all hoped we wouldn’t later regret eating it as it’s source seemed somewhat questionable.

Our final evening performance was at the brand-new American Center in Dhaka.  A modern facility with an English library, study center, internet cubicles and educational counseling, the center was directed by a tall woman named Lauren.  In a strange coincidence, she and I had been at Tufts together over 15 years ago- she was a harpist and we’d been casual friends.  Reconnecting half way around the globe reinforced what a small world it really is…  Our small audience was invited guests, drawn largely from high-level government workers, diplomats, high-end business people and NGOs.  On previous Rhythm Road tours, I’d done some by-invitation-only concerts like this, but this was our first on this tour.  The American Center transformed their assembly hall into a jazz club with tables with table cloths, fancy lighting, open bar and passed hors d’oeuvres (I hate spelling that word…).  The intimate environment was refreshing after so many large shows.  We could see everyone in the room and it was easy to guage their response to the music.  We had a great time playing and seemed to renew our love of performing.  Mingling with the guests both before and after the performance and realizing that they were all “heavy-hitters” in their respective fields reinforced how effective artists can be to help enact positive change and foster friendly relationships in international relations.  What I had thought would be simply a cocktail party, had proven a useful stop on the Rhythm Road.

Sunburst over a small part of the vast Dhaka skyline

Our time in Bangladesh was short.  I feel like we only begun to understand the people and the culture.  But they were warm and welcoming, open and interested, in their own way.  After some brief, inexpensive pearl shopping and a trip to the custom tailor for a suit and few shirts (Bangladesh has a huge garment manufacturing and tailoring industry- look at the labels on some of our clothes and you’ll surely find some made there), we had to pack our bags and leave again for the airport to India.  Further adventures surely awaited there.

Interlude: Istanbul

October 31, 2011

The Blue Mosque in Istanbul.

I don’t understand why so many flights from Central and South Asia depart for destinations west well after midnight, but our flight to Istanbul, Turkey was one of several on this trip that left after 3am.  For some logistical reason, we had 36 hours off in Turkey, even though it was a 5 hour flight west of Bishkek, our departure city, and a 9 hour flight (including a stop in Lahore, Pakistan) back South and East to Dhaka, Bangladesh, our destination.  We arrived in Istanbul around 6am, bleary-eyed and broken.  As we walked towards Passport Control we saw hundreds of Muslims, maybe more, camped out in the airport halls, all virtually identically dressed in white, clad in headscarves.  They were mostly camped out on the side of a long hall area.  Some were sleeping, many praying, others just milling about.  It wasn’t apparently clear to me who they were or what they were doing, but we later realized that they were Iraqi pilgrims on their way to Haj, a pilgrimage to Mecca that is one of the fundamental tenets of Islam.  This area of the airport in Istanbul was full of diverse-looking people from around the world, but I was particularly struck by the diversity of Muslims there.  Besides these humble pilgrims, there were secular (or at least non orthodox) ones- the women had no headscarves or wore them loosely, the men were dressed in Western style clothing.  Others were in traditional robes or gowns, the men with long beards and woven skullcaps, the women in tight scarves, and still others where the men looked like sheiks and the women were in hajibs with only a slit of their eyes showing.  Most surprising for me was seeing what appeared to be upper class, rich women who were wearing the latest in Italian fashion, totally dolled-up and carrying expensive name brand pocketbooks and wearing opulent jewelry.  My neighborhood in Brooklyn has many different people from around the world including many different Muslims, but I’d still never been in a place where the diversity amongst one religious group was so great.  I’m embarrassed for having assumed that Muslims would be different than anyone else; this diversity is certainly the case with Jew in NYC, for instance.  Live and learn- that’s one the best things about travel.

After checking into the hotel, drinking an airborne (vitamin supplement drink) and a munching on a granola bar I’d been dragging around from home, I promptly crashed for 4 hours and woke up feeling somewhat refreshed and somewhat worse.  Funny how the body really doesn’t respond all that well to significant schedule and time zone changes, plus erratic waking/sleeping hours, frequent air travel and unfamiliar and ever-changing food.  But that’s the deal with being on the road- the world is a big place and you’ve got to get to the places you’re going.  Luckily my body was holding tough, considering the considerable strain I was putting on it.

Istanbul Skyline.

We managed to salvage an evening out from the wreckage of the day.  We traveled by cramped taxi for nearly an hour from our airport-area hotel into the heart of ancient, historic Istanbul.  We could see the colorfully-lit bridge that connected Europe on one side to Asia on the other.  We were really in the middle continents, in a place where many cultures and worlds all intersect and overlap.  We passed ancient mosques, churches, a huge university and countless other sites we didn’t recognize as we entered the heart of the over 2500 year-old city, rich with history but brimming with the energy of the 13 million people who live there now.  Thousands of vivid red Turkish flags, each adorned with crescent moon and star, hung down over the streets, suspended from wires overhead- it almost looked like we were in a festival.  (I think they were there because of upcoming elections, but I’m not sure…)  The city was full of people, students, folks out for an evening on the town, tourists and more.  It was strange (but wonderful) to be back in Europe again after having been in post-Soviet Central Asia.  Somehow it felt just a bit closer to home.  Suffice it to say, we had a great time eating fresh fish, mezzos (Turkish appetizers) and salads.

Tony, Tim and Paul with the bridge that connects Europe and Asia in the background.

After dinner we wandered to a nearby jazz club where Freddie Cole (Nat “King” Cole’s brother) was playing with his quartet.  Our drummer, Tony, had played with Freddie for several years in the past, plus we all knew the guys in the band- they lived in NYC.  So we poked our head into the large and tastefully decorated club, adorned with a beautiful grand piano and state-of-the-art PA.  We schmoozed with the owner a bit, who gracefully let us all in for free, enjoyed the band for awhile, then crammed back into a cab for the hour trip to the hotel.  Seeing other musicians who we know on the road, thousands of miles from home, is always a surrealistic treat.  Our short visit with the guys in Freddie’s band reminded us how lucky we all were to be playing music for a living and seeing the world doing it.  Amen.

Determined not to squander the next day, Tim and I motivated and took the subway back to the center of Istanbul and did a bit of sightseeing.  He had a long-standing dream of seeing the Blue Mosque, so that was our destination.  (I knew nothing about the city, so I was happy to just tag along to see anything.)  We managed to navigate both bus and train successfully and hopped off at the Blue Mosque stop.  Istanbul sits on a relatively thin stretch of land between the continents, and the city is built on a series of hills.  It reminded me of San Francisco in it’s topography- at times we could see over hills and down to the water, or on to more hills beyond.  The city sprawled out gracefully, rippling into the distance as far as the eye could see, ending only in blue water or blue sky.  On one side of us lay the Blue Mosque, on the other, the neighboring church Hagia Sophia; each was majestic and grand and both had similar architectural elements including the signature towers, or “minarets,” that make them both so famous.  The Byzantine Orthodox church, once the Greek patriarchal cathedral of Constantinople and also once the largest Christian church in the world, was constructed from 532-7; the mosque was built much later, completed in 1616, but the buildings seemed to be brothers, each with a different worldview, but somehow they co-existed peacefully.  This was a city where history was alive.

The Hagia Sophia, with archeological sites in the foreground.

Turkey’s population is 99% Islamic, though it’s still the world center of the Orthodox Church.  After centuries as a chruch, the Hagia Sophia had served as a mosque from 1453 to 1931, after which it was secularized.  We didn’t get to see the inside, though if we’d had more time, we would’ve loved to.  But the inside of the Blue Mosque was even more spectacular that the outside.  Checking our shoes at the door since the site is still a functional Mosque, we wandered slowly inside the cavernous space.  Elaborately painted high arches towered far overhead, adorned with colored Islamic designs that reminded me of the Alhambra in Spain.  Simple chandeliers with clear incandescent bulbs hung low partially obscuring our view of this holy place.  It was easy to see how, upon entering a space as majestic as this, one could find spirituality.  It was as beautiful and inspiring a place as I’ve seen in a long time.  The power of good architecture is not to be underestimated. Would that we had more time, but with a midnight flight to Dhaka looming, we headed back to the hotel knowing that we had only scratched the surface of one of the world’s truly amazing cities.  And, we’d not gotten to hear any local music, nor play any of ours.  Hopefully life will bring us back to this magical place.

Interior of the Blue Mosque.

Post lunch in the sun, with the Blue Mosque looming large behind.

Kyrgyzstan: Big in Bishkek!

October 28, 2011

The second we saw Bishkek by morning light, we could tell Kyrgyzstan was very different from Northern Kazakhstan from where we’d just come.  But getting there, though it was fairly close, wasn’t without a few hiccups.  After a 2 hour flight from Astana to Almaty, we had a four hour layover, then a 45 minute international flight which landed in Bishkek around midnight.  Upon arrival, we were met at the bottom of the plane’s stairs and whisked into a private VIP van.  Nice!  In the airport’s VIP waiting area we relaxed at the bar, got to know Kamila, our Cultural Affairs Assistant from the US Embassy in Bishkek and our translator, Elita and enjoyed the free wifi.  Our luggage eventually appeared at the security area, but the main part of Paul’s bass was missing!  The airline looked into the situation- it turns out the bass had been on our flight, but they left it in the cargo hold and, the plane had just returned to Almaty.  And, the next flight back wasn’t for 3 days.  We had our major Kyrgyzstan concert the next day.  Bummer.

The Opera House in Bishkek

Bass issues aside, Bishkek was beautiful.  Compared to Astana’s new, soulless gloss, Bishkek was all old soul; there were a few small new buildings in the city, but nothing like we saw in Kazakhstan.  I was particularly fond of the many Soviet-era apartment buildings- they were concrete, but with unusual geometrically shaped windows and some almost ornate decoration.  Though somewhat run down and patched up haphazardly, they were rich with character.  Unfortunately, I was unable to stop and get pictures of these buildings, but I dream of doing a photo-essay of these unique buildings that paradoxically looked modern, yet curiously outdated.  Kyrgyzstan doesn’t have any of the gas, oil and mineral reserves that Kazakhstan has and as such the standard of living there is considerably lower than the Kazakhs.  But the Bishkek we saw was not struggling.  The city was full of modern supermarkets which were all well stocked with fruits, vegetables, meats and fish and dry goods from around the world, people were driving German and Japanese cars, not just Russian ones.  And people on the street and in the stores looked stylish and connected with the modern world.  TVs were on everywhere, mostly playing flashy, annoying music videos of Russian hip hop or pop.  There were small shopping malls, a few chain stores (again a Benetton).  Our further explorations out of the city would show us a Kyrgyzstan with a foot in the second world, but also one in the first.  More on that later.

Our hotel in Bishkek, the Ak Keme was joint venture between the Malaysian and Kyrgyz businessmen.  Built in 1967 in the height of the era of Soviet control, it was a very large hotel, and at 9 stories perhaps the highest building we saw in Bishkek.  With a huge outdoor pool, tennis and basketball courts, a casino and a huge restaurant, it would seem that what was once Bishkek’s grandest hotel hadn’t been refurbished since 1967 and it was showing signs of wear.  It’s styling and service frozen in time, it didn’t reflect the conventions of modern hotels.  But on the other hand, the service was good and the building was well constructed, unlike the new hotel we’d just left in Astana which seemed poised to come undone any second.  With it’s pink trim and bedspreads and harsh CFC bulbs, the room took a day or two to get used to, but as with all hotel rooms, once you spread out your stuff and get used to it, it feels like home (or close enough).  Staying there did seem a little bit like time travel, like visiting a Bishkek that never imagined leaving its Soviet control.

Big in Bishkek!

Similar to Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan also gained it’s independence from the Soviet Union in 1990.  But with the breakup of the Soviet trading bloc and considering their relative lack of resources, the country had been struggling economically ever since.  The government is a functional multi party democracy, but when we asked Elita about the candidates for the upcoming presidential election there, she simply said it was a choice between bad and worse.  Tim cynically noted that politics are the same everywhere and we all had a good laugh.  But joking aside, it is a functional multi-party democracy.  Kyrgyzstan has had a particularly rough year.  In April 2010 there was a violent revolution that lead to the overthrow of the elected government.  A provisional government was established which is still in office, but all indications are that next month’s election will be successful and non-violent and that a peaceful transition will occur.  There was also some inter-ethnic violence in the Southern part of the country in June of this year, but we didn’t feel any tension or see any signs of racism; quite the contrary, we felt quite safe and really enjoyed our time in this beautiful country.

Students clapping on beats 2 & 4- now we're swinging!

Our first event was a workshop at the a local conservatory, which was another beautiful old building (pre-Soviet) with huge wood doors and grand halls.  The venue was a small concert hall lit by antique chandeliers.  Portraits of Russian and Kyrgyz composers- many wearing fur hats of various styles- lined the upper walls.  Rimsky-Korsakov never looked so good…  The stage, the provided tubby-drums and rickety Estonia concert grand piano and the hall in general could be best described as shabby chic.  It was old, rundown and totally cool all at the same time.  We had fun playing and the students and teachers at this predominantly classical institution had some basic questions for us, but nothing too profound.  As always, we got them singing and clapping along.  We had fun, they enjoyed the music and learned something about jazz.  We signed autographs, took some pics and headed to lunch.

Mmmmm... Lagman- a Central Asian Noodle Classic

Lunch.  Ah, lunch- always one of my favorite times of day when traveling.  (And at home, for that matter.)  Elita and Kamila took us to a place called Arzy that serves traditional Central Asian food from a cultural group called Uyghurs (they’re Turkic-speaking, Asiatic Musilms).  Turns out the owner moved to NYC a few years ago and they’ve got a sister restaurant in Forest Hills, Queens.  It figures- if there’s an ethnic neighborhood in NYC that I haven’t heard of, it’s probably in Queens.  The food in this country was great.  We learned about our first of many favorite dishes Lagman- homemade noodles, stretchy, soft and divine, with a tasty meat and diced peppers & onion gravy.  It was somewhere between Chinese Lo Mein (the names have similar roots) and a stew.  And it was dee-licious and a much needed change after a week of mostly Russian eating.  Hold the borscht, please.

Through no small amount of hard work, logistics and driving from cars at both the Kazakh consulate and the Kyrgyz embassy, we managed to get Paul’s bass delivered to our venue in Bishkek just in time for that evening’s show.  We were so thankful to the staff at both locations for both prioritizing this and for actually making it happen.  The show was on!

Bishkek Opera House, built by German POWs after WWII

Our performance that evening was as part of the Bishkek International Jazz Festival at the Bishkek Opera House.  With a grand pillared facade, the inside of the opera house was a grand, two tiered, classic Russian concert hall.  Modeled after another famous Opera house in (I think?) St. Petersburg, the building was constructed by German POWs after WWII as part of their penance and “rehabilitation.”  Nice.  Though the hall was beautiful, the real pleasant surprise of the evening was how good the two bands who played before us were.  “Salt Peanuts” was a quartet with alto sax, piano, bass and drums and they played modern straight ahead jazz with convincing vibe, swing and conviction.  This was the first jazz that we’d heard since leaving the States that really sounded authentic.  These guys had an interesting repertoire including a favorite Ron Carter Tune “Check Please” and a great arrangement of the Deep Purple classic “Smoke on the Water;” we enjoyed them thoroughly.  The second band was more of a fusion outfit, with electric keyboards and a frontline of 4 horns they generally rocked the place.  While their electric, groove music wasn’t to my taste that evening several of the guys could really play.  A quartet version of the same band opened for our show in Karakol a few days later and they showed their diversity and breadth, playing more straight ahead and acoustic music with great arrangements including one of my favorite Beatles tunes “Fool on the Hill.”  Though slightly irked by the travails of dealing with a soundman who didn’t really know what acoustic jazz was supposed to sound like (and who had mostly forgotten the progress we’d made in soundcheck since there were two bands before us) we managed to play a good show.  As in Kazakhstan, we’d learned a local folk song “Izdeim Seni” and the arrangement clicked on the first try.  The melody was ripe with emotion and the crowd clapped throughout as Tim wailed it on the highest reaches of his tenor sax.

Tony and the Cats, swingin' at Bishkek's American Corner

Our next workshop was at Bishkek’s American Corner, an American cultural center open to the public and frequented by youths and students interested in American culture, English language and studying in the States.  The questions the students asked at this workshop were quite philosophical, really quite thought provoking.  One asked “Do you ever get inspired by animal sounds?”  Another wondered “What do you think about when you compose?” Our discussion was quite intellectual, which we then punctuated with the performance of a few tunes.  I’m not sure why the music students at the previous workshop weren’t inspired to ask better questions- perhaps they just wanted to learn by listening to us play.  Both events were successful, but they were so different that they left us thinking about how to continually improve our classes by balancing the amount of speaking, playing and participatory exercises in each one.

Bye Bye Bishkek

The next day we piled into the van for a four hour drive to the resort town of Cholpon-Ata to enjoy a part of our day off on the the shores on Lake Issyk-Kul.  Once out of the city we could begin to get a sense of just how big the Tian Shan mountains, essentially the Northern ip of the HImalayas, really were.  After an hour on the plain with the mountains encroaching, we entered into a canyon.  The road was two lanes, sometimes only one, and it was in various states of disrepair, though we could see construction projects all along the way.  The Chinese are investing heavily in Kyrgyz infrastructure so that they can bring their products to market in Bishkek and throughout the region and indeed, this road construction was their project at no charge to Kyrgyzstan.  It looked like they had a long way to go with this particular stretch of road which is the only way to the Lake Issyk-Kul region, an extremely popular vacation area for people from Bishkek.

The Tian Shan mountains in the distance

The landscape and the mountains and particularly this canyon reminded me a lot of the drive from Española to Taos, New Mexico, where I’m from.  Though the vegetation was different, I saw a high-desert brotherhood between the two distant different lands.  The mountains were a lot bigger, with peaks rising above 6000 meters, already capped in snow in early Fall.  Coupled with the typical Kyrgyz fried bread which was reminiscent of the sopaipillas of home, I was feeling very comfortable here.

After an hour of twists, turns, bumps and shakes, we emerged from the canyon and soon the shores of Lake Issyk-Kul were in sight. LIK (as I’ll abbreviate it from now on) is the second largest high mountain lake in the world, behind every 6th grade Spanish students favorite place, Lake Titicaca, which borders Peru and Bolivia.  Approximately 113 by 37 miles, LIK is an endorheic body of water- it’s fed by streams of run-off from the mountains and also by streams, but it has no outlet.  The only way for the water to escape is for it to evaporate slowly.  Over geological time, this has resulted in the lake having a slight salinity of .6% (the ocean is around 3.5%).  The lake’s name translates as “hot lake” in Kyrgyz since, on account of the salinity, it never freezes. Vast and placid, the lake shimmered in the afternoon light.  Surrounded by huge mountains and with a plain of several miles ending at the shores, our drive through the fall foliage, amidst apple trees full of red and yellow winter apples and sweet, tiny pears was beautiful and peaceful.   Now I see why they wanted us to spend our day off here instead of in busy Bishkek.

The towns alongside the road were noticeably less well off then the general level of living that we saw in Bishkek, but people were’t profoundly poor- it was just simple country living.  We saw a lot of traditional Russian houses with the ornate, blue wood trim and tin roofs.  Vendors were selling fruit or dried fish or giant bags of onions by the side of the road.  As we reached Cholpon-Ata, the capital of the North shore of LIK we entered a larger town with more modern stores and buildings.  We stopped for lunch at a delicious fish restaurant, though none of us dared try the local lake fish which were reputed to be bony.  Lunch was Lagman again and it was even better than the previous plate we’d had, plus the local bread lapioshka came out of the oven piping hot.  One of life’s great joys is eating around the world.  The food wasn’t fancy, but lunch was again a joy to behold.

"The Band the Eats Lagman Together Swings Together"

Our accommodations for the evening were the Caprice Resort.  An armed guard and huge wall and gate was our first cue that we weren’t going to be staying in a banged-up lakeside motel.  And sure enough, the Caprice was a walled community with at least 60 villas of different sizes, plus a large hotel with thoroughly modern rooms.  It was the off season, so the place was dead, but a walk around the campus revealed that in the summer, this place must be hopping!  There was a workout gym right next to a huge pool, all situated next to a lovely (if not natural?) beach on LIK.  There was a kids play area with a playset, a billiards room and a variety of water activities, all shut down for the cold season.  Note to self- return to the Caprice in the summer to enjoy a “Scottsdale in Kyrgyzstan” vibe.

Sunset over Lake Issyk-Kul

My favorite part of our rather short remaining day off was a trip to the Russian sauna at the resort.  Halfway down a very long pier lay a little sauna house with the sauna itself, plus an area to sit just outside the heat with tea and water, plus traditional pointy Kyrgyz hats to protect my judeo-gringo head from the crazy heat.  We were invited to the sauna by the Christian, Press Attaché from our embassy in Bishkek who had come to LIK with his wife and kids, plus his sister and brother in law.  We had a jovial hang and enjoyed meeting some new Americans- we’d barely spoken at length to any besides our helpers from the embassy.  We punctuated bouts of sweaty heat with jumps in the frigid lake, then hot tea inside the shack.  After 4 rounds and a few hours I finally felt like I had actually enjoyed a day off in spite of having been crammed in a van for 4 hours.  Mission accomplished.  Tim and I closed out the evening with a game of Russian Pyramid (or Russian Billiards).  Their tables are huge, the balls larger than the British ones we’re used to in the US and the pocket openings are narrow, making for a really hard game.  it was particularly difficult since we didn’t know the rules and the fellow from the hotel who was assigned to watch us (we were the only ones in the billiards room) was trying to explain in Russian and we only surmised about half of the rules.  After a frustrating 45’ game, we played a game of 8 ball on a smaller table with British balls as a nightcap.  Good fun was had by all, except perhaps the hotel employee who had just watched us butcher his game.  Oh well, we tried (and at least he got to watch the Simpsons, dubbed in Russian, of course).

Outside Karakol Drama Theater

The next morning we continued beyond the shores of LIK another 3 hours east to Karakol, a town of about 50,000 people situated in a valley beneath the majestic Tian Shan mountains.  It was a scenic little place that, judging by some of the information at our hotel, often serves as a base for trekkers into the mountains.  After yet another tasty lunch, we did some quick antique shopping at a local favorite shop that Christian knew about.  He’s a collector of vintage Soviet-era watches.  He found a few more to buy to augment his collection of nearly 80, plus some interesting watch bands.  Tim found a watch that he bought, too.  The tiny shop was chock full of Soviet memorabilia, antique clocks, old radios, jewelry and various other knick-knacks.  I could’ve looked for an hour, but all we had was 10’- we had a concert to play.

Our show that evening was a bit anticlimactic.  It was a monday evening, not a typical night out in Karakol, and the theater which probably seated 500 was only about 2/3 full.  The audience didn’t seem overly enthusiastic while we played, though at one point, just as Tim finished a sax solo, an adorable little girl walked up on stage, mid-tune, and bestowed upon him a fragrant bouquet and the crowd cheered.  They also visibly enjoyed Tony’s singing.  We’re so accustomed to getting positive feedback from audiences who are familiar with jazz- it’s customary to clap after each solo and at the end of each song.  But this crowd had likely never heard any jazz (that’s why we were there, after all) and they didn’t clap too much ever!  Even though we understood that they didn’t know the customs that we’re used to, we still weren’t getting the energy and positive feedback that helps transform a good show into a great one.  Ironically, at the end the crowd did show their appreciation by asking for an encore, reminding us that we need to always focus on playing our best no matter the response of the crowd.  The festival promoter for our two Kyrgyz shows invited us and the opening band to dinner and we all visited, got to know each other and enjoyed some much-needed cultural exchange over a tasty array of local food.  They clearly appreciated our efforts to play so far from our home- it was nice way to end the evening.

Our seven hour return drive to Bishkek was subdivided by one final student workshop back in the resort town of Cholpon-Ata.  Unlike our very first world experience at the Caprice resort almost across the street, our class at the C-A Children’s Music School rooted us in real world Kyrgyzstan.  The building was old with low doors, worn floors and chipped, glossy paint.  The “bathroom” was behind the building- a rustic wooden outhouse with a simple hole in the ground- there was no sink or washroom.  (Thank goodness for hand sanitizer.)  Our class was in their concert hall, a room about 20×30’ with a low ceiling and a small stage.  Surprisingly, there was a grand piano, though it’s condition and tone were not ideal.  70 students and teachers packed like sardines into this little room to hear us talk and play and they seemed to delight in every note.  When we asked if they had any questions they just said “please play more- we’ve never heard anything like this music and we love it!”  So, we mostly played and answered the usual questions about how we met and where we were from.  Again, our rendition of the local folk tune was greeted with the loudest cheers of all proving that people always love to hear a song they know played in a new, unique way.  (That axiom was starting to become one of the fundamental approaches of Pathway- it would prove true and work well throughout the tour.)  After we finished our presentation several students played for us, one on a local 2-stringed lute called a dombra.  He was young, but his playing was soulful and funky; his technique was fascinating as he used all parts and both sides of his hand, plus all his fingers to vary the way he strummed and articulated his strings.  An older gentleman played a pottery ocarina (clay flute), a chopo choor, and the school’s director played a mouth-harp solo on a single prong of metal also known as a jaw harp.  She got an astounding variety of sounds, colors and overtones ins spite of the single, solitay pitch her instrument could make- it reminded me the importance of really listening to the sounds we make on our instruments and striving to maximize our palette of timbres.  After the class, the administration thoughtfully presented us with a gift of a chopo choor of our own (which Tim started jamming on immediately, trying to play the local folk song) and a small bottle of the local liquor.  After signing autographs and taking photos, we piled into the van as the students and faculty stood at the door of the school waving goodbye to us until we were out of site.  We’ll not soon forget their warmth and enthusiasm- we we’re renewed again.

A young student jamming on his dombra

On the drive back to Bishkek we stopped to purchase some apples and pears at a roadside stand, really just some buckets of fruits set up next to the side of the road.  The old Russian women who sold them to us looked like characters out of a fairy tale with their wrinkled skin, warm smiles and stylized outfits.  They must’ve been delighted because, between the lot of us including our driver, we bought everything they had on display, at least 7 or 8 buckets of fruit, plus they brought out a few more from the back including the sweetest little pears I’d ever tasted.  At less than $2/bucket it was a bargain.  Christian said he was going to make apple pie- it looked like he was going to start a pie company with how many he bought…  Midway thorough the ravine, (and as were were watching a DVD of Pirates of the Caribbean 4- ugh- to kill some time) our van blew a tire.  Thank goodness we weren’t going particularly fast on this dangerous stretch of road.  We pulled over safely and our driver changed the tire expediently.  We pulled out onto the road back to Bishkek for a short night of sleep before our overnight flight to Istanbul (5 hours in the wrong direction from our next tour destination, Dhaka, Bangladesh) for 36 hours off.

The apple lady arriveth!

We had fallen in love with Kyrgyzstan- the people, the cities, the lake, the mountains, landscape and of course, the music.  In spite of their limited resources, the country and the culture seem hopeful and happy.  Their central location on the road between China and Central Asia leaves them perfectly situated to become a crucial part of the regional economy.  As their infrastructure gets developed I hope more people will discover this splendid part of the world.  If life allows, I’ll return to Kyrgyzstan, perhaps in the winter to enjoy some Lagman and skiing…

Giant Steppes: Kazakhstan

October 19, 2011

Ah yes- it’s time again to head back on the road with Paul Beaudry and Pathways.  Time to say goodbye to friends and family and to suspend the way I’m accustomed to living in Brooklyn; time to forgo comfort in place of exploration and education, familiarity for foreignness and time to open myself up again to the beautiful diversity of peoples, places and sounds I’ve never heard.  In short, it’s time for another Rhythm Road: American Music Abroad tour.  Thanks to The US State Dept’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and Jazz at Lincoln Center for making it happen with such grace and professionalism.

Bayterek Tower and the Mall in Astana

Our first few days were mostly travel- we left NYC late Tue PM and arrived in Astana, Kazakhstan after two long flights late on Wed.  We then checked into a hotel, slept 4 hours and got up again and flew to our first program city, Aktobe.

Kazakhstan’s culture reflects it’s location- it’s a mix of Asian, Slavic and Russian influences.  Unexpectedly, the majority of people really look more Asian than anything; everyone speaks Russian and and most also speak Kazakh and a bit of English here and there.  The country has been independent from the Soviet Union since 1991 and they have significant oil, gas, minerals and other natural resources so the standard of living here is relatively high compared to the other “Stans.”  On account of the resources there’s also lot of international development and investment here, Chinese, Russian, Western and more.  We’ve seen a surprising number of English speakers, mostly American businessmen, in our hotels.  (One told me he worked for the “evil empire,”  General Electric…)

The government in Kazakhstan is technically a democracy, but it’s dominated primarily by one political party which holds 97% of the seats in parliament and the presidency.  The government is quite centralized and they assumed ownership of the majority of the large businesses when the country gained it’s independence.  As such, they’ve got money to invest and invest they have…  Astana is Kazakhstan’s new capital city.  By decree, the President Nazarbayev (with the parliament’s approval) moved it from Almaty 10 years ago, citing that the old capital was too crowded and in an earthquake-prone zone.  (Plus, we learned, it was viewed as a way to solidify claims to the Northern part of the country to prevent potential Russian expansion.)  It’s a show-city full of disparately modern new buildings and monuments designed by well-known international architects including Norman Foster.  Though the current population is around 800,000, the city layout is planned for an eventual 3 million people!  The new central governmental district was planned by Japanese architect Kisho Kurokawa.  Loosely inspired by our National Mall in Washington DC, it’s flanked with modernist buildings.  Within a decade a modern city sprouted up out of the flat, grassy steppe and swamp lands.  As a friend said, the city is “built on a dream” that brings Kazakhstan roaring out of it’s dreary Soviet past straight into the the modern first world.  (I overheard another person said that it’s a city built on a the President Nazarbayev’s delusion… Dream or delusion, I guess it depends on your perspective.)

The Mall in Astana, looking towards the "Big Tent"

The city is strange and beautiful; it’s disparate architecture sometimes blends together pleasantly and other times fights for your eye.  It really looks like nowhere else in the world that I’ve ever seen.  It’s shiny on the outside, but from the inside it’s clear that many of the buildings were not built to the highest construction standards.  The hotel where we stayed, likely only around 5 years old, showed significant signs of wear- there were problems with heat and plumbing, peeling wallpaper, cracks, drywall issues and much more.  Another major apartment complex was built without insulation on the exterior walls in spite of the winters that reach -40F.  Stairs aren’t always even. It will be interesting to see how the city develops and wears in time.  It’s still got that “new car smell,” but some other smells are wafting around too and they’re not as pleasant.

Pathways outside the Aktobe Philharmonic,site of the Aktobe International Jazz Festival

Two hours by air east of the capital city is Aktobe, a city of 300,000 where we spent the first 3 program days of our tour. It still retains it’s classic Soviet-era feeling with it’s large, concrete block apartment buildings, but there’s a lot of development going on there too.  We saw a new central area of town with sculptures and a brand-new Russian Orthodox Church and super-modern Mosque, but short of a a few chain stores (Benetton, Sisley, etc) the majority of town looks unchanged from 50 years ago.  The concert hall where we played our first show reminded me of the places where we played last time I was in central Russia in 2006.  It was the town’s Philharmonic Hall with about 450 seats.  We opened the show for the Aktobe International Jazz Festival.  The day we played was really mostly local acts, except for a Dutch pianist Mike DelFerro, an old friend of our sax player Tim who he hadn’t seen in 20 years.  But, they had a grand piano and the place was packed,  standing room only.  The band came out swinging- it felt good to play some music for the first time in three days after leaving home.  We played a short set (35′) and that was it.  The crowd loved our set and seemed to want more, but there were 5 bands after us, and we were quickly ushered off stage.  We would’ve been happy to play all night, but there would be plenty more playing to come on this tour.  We also got to hear (and see- their fur hats and traditional costumes were as great as the music) a well-known Kazakh folk ensemble playing traditional folk music and also arrangements of some jazz and contemporary tunes.  The instrumentation included some upside-down-looking violins, several plucked string instruments, drums and ocarina.  (At one point they went into Ob La Di Ob La Da as part of a medley…)  They were strange and wonderful and I could’ve listened to them all night.

Tony "Flykiller" Jefferson ready to swing

The next day we drove a bumpy hour out of town and played at a school for orphans with developmental disabilities.  The second you leave the city limits, the standard of living goes way down.  The road was rough but not impassible, certainly better that our drives in Nicaragua and Honduras.  The villages on the steppe were humble and poor, though again nowhere near as poor as what we saw in Nicaragua last year.  The school was a charming, well-maintained, if old, complex of buildings surrounded by plots of flowers.  Seeing the kids, smiling and playing, first warmed my heart, they were adorable, then realizing that they had all been abandoned by their parents, broke my heart.  They seemed happy and the teachers seemed loving and compassionate.  None of them had ever heard any jazz before.  Two of them sang songs for us, both with karaoke accompaniment.  The students sang well, but they were both really shy on stage.  I’m told that this gentle shyness is a typical Kazakh cultural trait.  We did a short presentation for them and got them singing, clapping and participating in improvisation games.  After some time, they opened up to us, laughing and having fun.  I’ll not soon forget that hour with those kids and I hope some of them will remember the Americans who came and showed them how fun it can be to improvise and make music.

Outside the Orphanage

Our workshop at the Orphanage

Students at the orphanage

We enjoyed a much-needed day off back in Astana, during which a local teenager who had been an exchange student in the US gave us a great city tour.  Somewhat refreshed, the next morning we taught another educational session, this time at a new, private school in Astana.  The campus was walled and gated with a guard.  Once inside,  it was almost indistinguishable from some private schools I’ve seen in Connecticut or Massachusetts- a broad lobby with high ceilings featuring artwork by the students, information about college applications and flags of the world.  The students were well-dressed in uniform-like outfits.  They were alert while shy, but some were coyly willing to interact and participate in our improvisational exercises.  Several clearly had both real musical talent and training- two girls sang back exactly the riffs Tim played on his sax during our call and response.  In the US nothing about this class would’ve been out of the ordinary, but juxtaposing it in my mind to the orphanage we’d just been at I couldn’t help but be shocked by the differences in such close proximity.  The two groups of kids seemed to be on opposite sides of the spectrum of opportunity- among the most fortunate and the least, yet we saw raw talent in both places.  I’d like to have seen a typical public school to see what the middle of the spectrum looked like.

The students at the private school in Astana

Flying again, we headed to Pavlodar, another city of around 300,000 northeast of Astana.  Like Aktobe, Pavlodar also has a strongly Soviet feeling- it’s relatively close to the Russian border.  Our clinic at the American Corner here was typical of the others we taught. We spent the first half of the class talking to a classroom full of mostly middle-school and high-school aged kids, most of them female.  They were all studying English and had some interest in American culture.  For many we were the first and only Americans they had ever met.  Most had heard little or no jazz.  (Perhaps 2 or 3 hands would go up after we asked “who’s heard of Louis Armstrong?”)  But they listened to our explanation with rapt ears and had some interesting questions about our backgrounds and music and what life was like in New York.  Then we played a few short tunes, (though with no piano and no space to set up my big keyboard I had to watch…).  Of course, they loved the music more than the talking and wanted to hear more, including our interpretation of their Kazakh folk music (more below).  After class, as after the concerts, we were surrounded by kids asking for autographs and pictures of us.  We were big in Kazakhstan!  My impression of the American Corners was very positive- they give the kids a safe place to study and practice their English; they provided a useful library of English books and they helped connect kids with opportunities to come to the US to visit or study.

Workshop at the American Corner, Pavlodar

Pavlodar Street Scene

We learned a local folk tune, “Kamazhai,” upon our arrival in Kazakhstan and spent some time before our first show re-harmonizing and arranging it.  Our first try at it in Aktobe hadn’t gone too well…  The arrangement didn’t work as well as we’d hoped.  After some revamping, we managed to improve it and our performance in general in Pavlodar.  The band was starting to get our groove on again.  It was nice to have a full 90’ set and the piano was better than the one at the previous show.  We played a solid concert and started exploring the music in new ways.

A cover idea for our imaginary "Astana Road" album

Back in Astana again the next day we played our “big show” that night at Shabyt, the National Academy of Arts. The building itself is an unusual shape- like a giant cone with a hollow cylindrical center and the top cropped off on a plane at an uneven angle.  Tim said it was his favorite building he’d seen in the city.  The performance hall was a striking modern venue with colorful trim and curtains with traditional Kazakh designs on it and large, throne-like chairs for the audience to sit regally.  It was perhaps the smallest hall of the three we played in Kazakhstan, but it was packed- they brought in extra chairs and people were standing in the aisles.  This was undoubtably our best show of the tour to date.  Though I initially set my keyboard, it turned out there was an sweet Yamaha piano that I was able to use which I found particularly inspiring.  The music came alive, especially Kamazhai, which, after further arrangement tweaks, seemed to strike a chord with the audience.

The side of the hall at Shabyt

Our final activity before leaving was to teach a class back at the school where we’d played the evening before.  This was our first chance to get to hear, play and interact with some of the local jazz students.  Out of 50 or so students at the class, we heard two tenor saxophonists who could really play some jazz, but they were completely different.  One had a solid foundation in modern jazz vocabulary- it sounded like he had done a lot of transcribing and studying recordings.  The other had a really deep connection with his inner voice.  He played with  a spirit and soul that his comrade didn’t seem to have, but he didn’t have nearly the vocabulary of his friend.  After we heard them play, Tim said almost exactly what was on my mind- with their strengths combined the two would make one great saxophonist.  He explained their differences to them and suggested that they should practice together, just the two of them, so that each could learn from the other’s strengths.  There were also 3 drummers who had good foundations, one of whom also had a believable swing feel.  Nice!  And, we heard a little bit of three singers singing “Summertime” all of whom seem to be on their way, but their teacher wanted to get in on the action of playing with the American jazz musicians, so she “cobra’d” the situation and sang several choruses herself.  I wasn’t too pleased with her behavior- we were there to work with the students.  All in all, we left quite impressed with the students, the facility and the potential for some great musicians to grow and come out of this program.

Norman Foster's Palace of Peace and Reconciliation (Pyramid of Peace), Astana

In spite of their only nominally democratic government, Kazakhstan is working hard to give their citizens truly first world opportunities and to be a player in the global economy.  Fortunately, they have the resources to potentially make it happen.  On the outside they are doing a lot of the right things to foster this dream.  Hopefully the government’s totalitarian tendencies won’t stand in the way of the real positive change that their people want and deserve.  (Speaking of which, hopefully our country can also find a way to more equitably distribute our wealth- things seem to be going the other way these days…)  I, for one, am looking forward to seeing what happens in Astana and throughout their beautiful country on the steppe in coming decades.

A traditional Kazakh ensemble, in Aktobe