Break of Reality in Turkmenistan

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.
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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

Ashgabat at night.
Ashgabat at night.
When our plane landed in Ashgabat, things were much different than what I imagined. I was expecting dry desert terrain, something I’d seen in Homeland. Instead, we noticed an incredible amount of colored lights, sculptures and buildings in the distance. It reminded me of the Las Vegas view from the desert. One far away building caught my eye. It was shaped like a water droplet, lit in various tones of blue, set on a hill overlooking the city.

The airport visa lobby was like a five star hotel, filled with luxurious furniture and spotless marble floors. The people there were just as nicely adorned. Men wore sport coats, nice shoes, were clean shaven, every strand of hair perfectly combed. Women wore nice jewelry and perfectly done makeup. The airport workers were hospitable too, treating us to complimentary tea and candy while we waited for our expeditor to help with our visas. He was a middle aged man who was kind and formal. He kept referring to me as “Mr. Trevino” instead of Ivan.

As we secured our paperwork, I noticed a large photo portrait hanging in the lobby of the airport. It was of a man in a suit.

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.

Driving through Ashgabat was surreal. It really was like Las Vegas, but much classier. Gaudy buildings, bright lights and beautiful parks at every turn. Each building was made of white marble, and I later found out that Ashgabat holds the world record for the highest concentration of white marble per square meter. It was breathtakingly beautiful.

There was absolutely no trash or litter to be found, anywhere. Later in our trip we would see street cleaners; women who swept the streets with large brooms. Literally people cleaning the streets by hand.

We pulled up to the water drop shaped building that I noticed from the airport. It was our hotel.

Two gigantic glass doors opened as our car pulled up to hotel entrance. Our driver, along with hotel staff, unloaded our gear as we entered. The hotel was exquisite, unlike any I’d ever seen.  A long, crystal chandelier hung at the top of the hotel lobby. It ran directly through a large spiral staircase that led to the second floor’s tea room, where we would later rehearse. The floors and walls were also made of marble, and everything from the floor to the ceiling was absolutely spotless.

We walked towards the reception desk past another set of luxury sofas, where I noticed the cover of a local magazine. It was the man in the suit. He was actually on the cover of three separate magazines and a newspaper, all lined up next to each other on a coffee table. I turned towards the check-in, and sure enough, there he was again. A 15 x 10 foot picture of the man in the suit hung above the reception workers, overlooking the hotel lobby. His name is Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, and he is the current president of Turkmenistan. His picture was hanging everywhere we went. On planes, in restaurants, and even on the stages of the concert halls we played in.

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Patrick, Meta and The President.

“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.

We began to play, and they loved it. They clapped and cheered after every song, were constantly filming on their smart phones, asked great questions through our translator, and even brought us huge bouquets of flowers. After our presentation, a group of six high school aged cellists performed some traditional Turkmen music for us, and we also heard individual performances of Popper etudes and Bach, which we didn’t expect. When our workshop was finished, we asked if they had any final questions before we left. One girl raised her hand and said one word, in English:

“Improvisation.”

We demonstrated and talked about improvisation ideas, and eventually improvised a song with them. Their eyes lit up. We could tell they had never improvised before. For me, this was nothing new. Some music students in the U.S. don’t improvise. But this was different. We talked about trading solos and one girl got so excited. She sort of hopped in her seat and said, “This is like jazz, this is like jazz!” It was really cute. “Yeah, this is kind of like jazz!” I responded. But then she got quiet. “We can’t play jazz.” “Yes you can! You just did!” Meta said.

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 shocked.

We realized our session made an impression on these kids, perhaps stirred some ideas or feelings they may not have experienced before. We realized how important it was for these kids to see us perform, improvise, make mistakes, smile on stage, etc. We realized right then why we were there.

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Meta and Patrick sharing a laugh with a student during our improv session.
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Our improv crew.
On a few occasions, we did some sightseeing. We visited the Silk Road city of Merv, ate in a traditional Turkmen hut, tried new foods with funny names (Grub, Male Salad, Herring with a Fur Coat), and even ate some familiar foods (Patrick doesn’t recommend the quesadillas in Turkmenistan). It was fun and we felt welcomed and safe wherever we went.

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.

Last Show

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.

Audience members wave their cell phones to the beat during the last song.
Audience members wave their cell phones to the beat during the last song.

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

4 thoughts on “Break of Reality in Turkmenistan

  1. This was a wonderful experience for the band and the people of Turkmenistan. I love that you had such a positive experience with the people and children, yet, you are humble enough to say that you learned so much from the musicians you played and taught with.
    Your music is a beautiful gift to be shared and cherished,
    Thank You,

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