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Moyindau at Pik Lenin, Kyrgyzstan, (from left to right) Susanna Mendlow (cello), Ryan Ptasnik (drums), Alex Kreger (piano), Kevin Bene (sax)

Listen to our music!

June 29, 2011

"Tajikistan is easy"

Describing the complexities of the Uzbekistan visa application process in comparison to Tajikistan's, I told our host Jim in Istanbul, "Tajikistan is easy."  He laughed and it became a sort of joke that was brought up again and again.  "Just remember that when things go wrong, etc," he said, and I tried to imagine what could go wrong--any number of things.  Now, getting ready to leave Dushanbe and head to Uzbekistan tomorrow, I can say that we had plenty of difficulties, but they didn't come close to overshadowing the many wonderful experiences we've had here.

Our flight arrived in Dushanbe at 3:30am and we waited in line to apply for our visas, but it was the wrong line, so then we entered a room where foreigners were applying for visas, and we had read up on the requirements beforehand so we were prepared.  Even still the process didn't go as planned--the consul officer wanted to know why we didn't have a letter of invitation from the US embassy if they were funding our trip (we had one from the Shahidi Museum instead).  He tried calling the embassy and Munira Shahidi but of course at 4am he didn't get through.  So he made us wait longer, questioned us as to our reasons for visiting Tajikistan and asked Ryan three consecutive times if he had been in the military, to which Ryan replied 'no' each time.  Finally he issued us "service" visas for almost double the cost of a tourist visa.  We later found out that we had to register these visas, which was an additional $50 each.  Luckily we were getting support from the embassy.  Our host Kirill was waiting for us after this whole process and he drove us back to his place, where we found our beds and crashed.

Dushanbe is hot.  We spent a lot of time just hanging out at Kirill's place, in the garden.  His house is actually two separate buildings, with a beautiful garden space in between.  Ryan and I had one of the buildings to ourselves, and there was a piano in our bedroom so I practiced and we rehearsed as a group there.  Mette stayed in her own room in the main building.  Kirill is from Tashkent, but he's lived in Dushanbe for the past few years, bringing great music to the city through his job as music director of the Bactria Cultural Center.  Bactria is a wonderful organization that offers language courses in English, French and German, and organizes film screenings, concerts and other events that bring international culture to Dushanbe.  In addition to organizing our concert, they've collaborated with the French embassy to bring a French jazz group to town.  They will perform tonight outside of the opera house--I'm excited to see it.  Kirill's wife Siyma is from Istanbul and works for UNICEF in Dushanbe.  They have two kids, Asya (4) and Pamir (2 I think).  Asya speaks Russian, Turkish and English and wants to learn Tajik...I'm impressed!  The nannies that take care of the children during the day are also super nice and I try to practice speaking Russian with them. 

Our first event in Dushanbe was an informal concert/party organized by the US embassy at James Callahan's house (temporary public affairs officer).  Mette got sick that day (probably food allergies, unfortunately), so we went to play as a duo.  Many Tajik musicians came, and a drum teacher from a local music school brought a few of his students.  I had fun playing with each of them, and one of them challenged me to improvise Tajik dance music in 7/8 while everyone danced.  Ryan and I played "Sitorai Man", a beautiful melody by Ziyodullo Shahidi that has turned out to be a really excellent vehicle for improvisation.  Later on that night I met a lot of foreigners living in Dushanbe--one British student who had been learning Farsi in Tehran for 3 months before the Iranian government kicked him out and he relocated to Tajikistan, an Iranian filmmaker who was finishing up a documentary on Dushanbe's heavy metal scene before he planned to move to Berlin, and an American backpacker who had begun his trip in China in January and who we'd meet later on at a hostel in Khorog.

The next day we played the big concert at Bactria Cultural Center.  Mette was feeling better, but Ryan had gotten sick with a stomach bug.  We played some new compositions and arrangements for the first time--"Shunidam" and "Sitorai Man" by Ziyodullo Shahidi and a folk song called "Kashkarchay Savti Chorgokh" that I'd transcribed from a youtube clip that's since been removed.  Everyone sounded great.  I learned a lot about my own playing, and saw many possibilities for future directions.  Hopefully someday we'll have time to work through more music with this group.  The fifty or so people in the audience, mostly local Tajiks, received it very well.  We recorded it, so those of you who chose the "CD of live Central Asian performances" reward on kickstarter will get to hear it (as will everyone else...I'll put a track up on here as soon as I can).

The next day was our show at the Ziyodullo Shahidi Museum.  I had been corresponding via email with Munira Shahidi, the daughter of the famous composer, since December, and it was great to finally meet her, as well as her daughter who is also a fine composer living in Montreal.  Unfortunately, Munira's husband had passed away only two weeks earlier, and instead of presenting a concert we were invited to perform at his memorial service.  Several people spoke, and Tajik musicians presented some of Shahidi's songs (including Shunidam!).  Everyone brought their memories and their sadness, and I felt saturated with the power of their deep emotions, their solemn faces, and the beautiful music that within this family was so personal, yet also spoke for an entire country of people, and had spoken to me back in America.  We did our best to respect the atmosphere and offer our own, honest musical contribution.  Mette came and played the melodies with such care and tenderness even though she was once again sick and had been lying in bed all day.  Just this evening I met again with Munira and we discussed hopes for future projects involving Tajik and Sufi music, the songs of Shahidi, and contemporary/improvised music.

The next day we left for Khorog, in Badakhshan.  It took a full 24 hours to get there, with frequent stops for meals, car breakdowns and repairs, and even random roadside dance parties.  When we finally pulled in to Khorog, Ryan and I wandered down the main street until we discovered a poster with our pictures on it!  Two Tajiks were examining it and we walked up to join them.  They glanced at us, and back and the poster; recognizing it was us, they smiled.  One of them lent us his phone so we could call our contact, while the other offered us a place to stay.  We went to the theater and set up, having given up hope of sleeping before the concert.  Then we waited--the show began more than an hour late.  We had a good, very enthusiastic crowd of 150 people or so.  They cheered wildly when the curtain was opened, and during the performance whenever we did something flashy or in unison.  The sound engineers turned the volume way up.  Ryan was playing the only drumset in Badakhshan, and I was playing a 60-something key keyboard without weighted keys, and with no pedal.  So musically, it was far from ideal, but we managed to present our music and the audience enjoyed it.

The following three days we spent in Dasht, a small village just outside of Khorog, surrounded by mountains.  Just adjacent to town is the future site of one of three University of Central Asia campuses (the other two are in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan).  Right now it is just an empty plot of land, but soon it promises to be one of the most beautiful university campuses in the world.  Our host in Dasht was Musi, a 20 year old English student at Khorog State University.  His father was a driver in the Pamirs, and he has a younger sister Anisa, in 8th grade.  His family adopted us, fed us, and we got to experience their daily life in Dasht village.  On our first morning there, I felt sick, but a bunch of kids from the village came over and we played music together with my keyboard and Ryan's cymbals.  The young kids taught me some Pamiri rhythms, some of which are quite challenging.  Later that day we saw a rehearsal for a holiday celebration that would occur the following day, honoring the Aga Khan, the Ismaili people's Swiss-born spiritual leader, or imam.  The efforts of the Aga Khan Foundation pretty much single-handedly saved Badakhshan from starvation during the Tajik Civil War of 1993-97, and since 1995 they have been devoted to him.  In every Pamiri house there is a picture of the Aga Khan that they recognize and honor upon entering.

That evening we played volleyball with the village kids.  It seems that volleyball is the game of choice, at least in Dasht, and some of the kids were very good at it.  The younger ones watched and cheered from the sidelines.  Musi told us that they played volleyball like this every evening from 5 or 6 until dark.  We noticed that their volleyball was deflated and broken so we decided to go to the store the next day to buy them a new one.  It turned out to be pretty cheap (by our standards) so we bought a soccer ball too!  In the evening then we got to see the holiday celebration, all the children in their traditional dress, the dances, and little skits that the kids had worked out that delighted the audience with jokes and parodies.  As we walked back to the house that night, the starts shone brightly in the sky and illuminated the mountains on all sides of the village, which was completely black--we had to use a flashlight to show the way.

The next day Ryan and I said goodbye to Musi and his family and sat in Khorog's Central Park to discuss our past experiences and future plans.  We were starting to miss having daily contact with our instruments, and we were both hungry to work out new ideas and challenges.  By the end of the day we had made some big decisions...but I'll have to write more about that later because I'm tired right now and tomorrow we are leaving for Uzbekistan!