The thoughts and ideas expressed in this blog post belong to the author and are not in any way affiliated with American Music Abroad or the U.S. State Department.
Turkmenistan is considered by some to be the “North Korea of Central Asia”. My band Break of Reality traveled there as music ambassadors for the U.S. State Department. Here’s what happened:
When I received word that American Music Abroad, a U.S. State Department program, was sending my band Break of Reality to Turkmenistan, my immediate reaction was “Where is that?” Probably a common American response, as most of us are pretty unaware of the country, its policies and its culture. So I looked at a map. Turkmenistan is located in Central Asia and shares borders with Iran, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Afghanistan.
As I did more research, I became a little worried. Turkmenistan has serious human rights issues. Almost everything in the country is government owned, like newspapers and television stations. Speaking out against the President can get you in serious trouble. Being gay will get you thrown in jail. Many internet and social media outlets, like YouTube and Facebook, are not accessible. Things like “Asia’s Other North Korea” and “The North Korea you don’t know about” popped up in my Google search. Now, I was really worried.
On February 20th, my bandmates Patrick Laird, Meta Weiss, Andrew Janss and I flew into Ashgabat, the capital city of Turkmenistan to begin our music diplomacy tour.
City of Marble
A van pulled up to take us to our hotel. It was 3am, and before we could lift a finger, at least seven workers from the airport came outside to load our luggage and instruments into our van. Hospitality was a common trend in Turkmenistan. We were guests, and guests are to be taken care of.
“This Is Like Jazz!”
During our week in Turkmenistan, we traveled around the country to perform concerts and give educational presentations for music students. One presentation at a music school in Ashgabat is especially memorable.
We walked into a beautiful concert hall filled with music students from 1st through 10th grade, all dressed in traditional Turkmen gowns and hats. This was the first, and maybe the last time they’d see, hear, or interact with an American in their lifetime. As soon as we walked in, they all stood up in unison, and didn’t sit until we gestured for them to do so.
Our translator jumped in and said, “No, they don’t play jazz here.”
I suggested they improvise a song at their next concert, in a non jazz style. Our translator turned to me and in English said, “they won’t be able to do that, but I’ll tell them anyway.”
After our clinic, I asked our translator why these kids can’t improvise, who said Turkmenistan is all about control and order. I’m not sure how true this is, but a local said something to the effect of: “When a music student is not playing a piece “well enough” for a performance, music schools will sometimes play a recording of the piece and have the student (and accompanist) fake their way through the performance.” Lip sync. For them, this is a better alternative than showcasing a “raw” sounding student.
We were well taken care of too. We were escorted us to all of our functions and had translators everywhere we went. We even went shopping at a bazaar, where we bought traditional Turkmen things like carpets, silk, and jewelry.
We also visited a small local music store to rent equipment for our tour. This was the best music store experience I’ve ever had. The owner served us cakes, coffee and tea as we looked through his catalogue of equipment, and he even gave us a traditional Turkmen stringed instrument called a guijak before we left. (Guitar Center: STEP UP YOUR GAME!)
The speakers and drums from this music store would follow us around the country, as the music store workers were also our traveling roadies and audio crew. Despite our language barrier, we became fast friends with the crew.
The concert halls were beautiful in certain cities, but we also noticed some very poor regions during our travels. In some parts, houses weren’t really houses. They were more like shacks. It seemed like the complete opposite of Ashgabat in every way, except for the hospitality.
I couldn’t help but think about our five star “water droplet” hotel with 15 guests in it. I thought to myself, “Couldn’t the funds used to build that hotel be used for something better, like funding some of the poor regions we traveled through?”
An acquaintance told me “That hotel is not a water drop. It’s a tear drop that looks over the city.”
It made me sad to think about.
During our travels, we noticed men in black suits who were always around. I asked our crew who they were. “They are government minders; they work for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and are making sure everything goes according to plan.”
We nicknamed them the “Men in Black.”
MEN IN BLACK
The Men in Black showed up everywhere, accompanying us wherever we went. Black suits, white shirts, black ties. Turkmen versions of Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones. They were at sound checks, at restaurants, and even at our concerts. At first, I felt like we were being spied on, but after a while, we got used to having these guys around. In a weird way, they became part of our crew too. They helped with pre and post concert loading and unloading, drove us to dinners, and were perfectly cordial.
They would surprise us from time to time, though. For example, they showed up in Merv with two white mini-buses while we were sightseeing. They started moving all of our gear into these new vehicles and sent our drivers away. Someone decided the Men in Black should drive us the rest of the way, and so they did.
“They’re just doing their job–doing what they are told,” a local told us. Part of it was making sure everything goes smoothly for us. Again, that whole hospitality thing. And, that whole control thing too.
After a concert in Mary, things got crazy with crowd control. A large crowd of audience members waited for us outside of our tour bus and just went crazy. They wanted photos, autographs, hugs, handshakes, anything. I’ve done post show autographs before, but this was different. We were being pulled in all directions. Arms, hands, clothes; whatever they could could get their hands on. “Picture please! Picture please!” echoed throughout the loading area. It began to get even more crowded as people realized where we were, and more dangerous too. It was just too many people in such a small space.
I felt a sharp pain as one of the Men in Black gripped my arm and pulled me away from the crowd, towards the bus. All the band members were being pulled away too as police showed up to dissolve the crowd. Yep, police. It was that crazy.
The Men in Black did their job. They ensured our safety, and we were grateful. As our bus drove away, a group of teenagers began running alongside our bus, shouting, waving and taking photos. We opened the window, waved back and shouted, “Thank you!” A true rock star moment, in Turkmenistan of all places.
Our last concert in Turkmenistan was back in Ashgabat. It was one of the most memorable concerts I’ve ever played. We collaborated with a local orchestra and played a traditional Turkmen piece and some Break of Reality arrangements too. This orchestra was REALLY GOOD. Like, really good:
Back to the concert… The ambassador of Turkmenistan gave the opening remarks and introduced us to the stage. The crowd was beyond enthusiastic, and the hall was filled over capacity. There must have been 800 people in this 700 person hall. People were standing in the aisles for the entire show, a fire code violation in any American concert hall.
The crowd was unlike any I’d ever played for too. If they heard something they liked, they cheered and clapped, right in the middle of a song. The peak of a phrase, the end of a musical section, etc. They were completely into the music. It was special.
During our last song, many of the audience members took out their cell phones, turned on their flash lights, and started waving them in the air. The view from the stage was so beautiful, like a night sky filled with moving stars.
I’ll never forget that moment, and will never forget Turkmenistan. The people are beautiful, welcoming, and were sincerely thankful that we visited their country. Audiences love music. Every concert hall we played was filled to the brim. We learned so much from the musicians we taught and performed with, who seemed so grateful that we were there, and so eager to share their culture with us. It truly was an exchange of music and life.
Many of the things I read about Turkmenistan are true, and can’t be ignored. The human rights issues are there in plain sight. That’s why programs like American Music Abroad are so important. I believe these cultural programs can foster positive change in places like Turkmenistan, and also make Americans more aware of what is happening outside of ourselves. That is really important too, I think.
And maybe we planted a seed for improvisation for those high school musicians. Maybe they will improvise at a concert one day. That alone would make the whole trip worth it.
– Ivan Trevino, March 2015