Posts Tagged ‘ Istanbul

Holiday in Turkmenistan

This Thanksgiving, I took turkey to the extreme with a trip with the Clinton Curtis Band to Ashgabat, Turkmenistan to perform at the American Culture Days Festival organized by the U.S. Embassy. For those unfamiliar with the Central Asian steppes, Turkmenistan is a former Soviet state nestled between Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Afghanistan. It’s capital, Ashgabat, lies 10 miles from the border with Iran.

Clinton Curtis & Geoff Countryman visit music conservatory students in Mary, Turkmenistan

Things started getting exciting when we arrived at the gate in Istanbul for our midnight flight from to Ashgabat. We were greeted by a plethora of women in gorgeous Turkmen dress who employed some serious puppy dog eyes when asking me to carry aboard some of their (abundant) duty-free bags. We were careful to walk the thin line between offending anyone and inadvertently carrying contraband onto an international flight.

When we landed at 4am after about 24 hours of traveling, we were informed that Americans rarely fly in via Istanbul, because in the case of bad weather, the flight diverts to Tehran. My initial disappointment was supplanted by relief when we learned that Americans in Tehran without an official invitation are promptly jailed. Guess we dodged a Persian-rug-sized bullet.

Turkmen Ministry of Water building, shaped like a plunger

The city of Ashgabat is dotted with enormous, gleaming monuments, built since independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, and set against the backdrop of mountain ranges surrounding the flat desert city. The Ministry of Gas is designed to look like a giant Bic cigarette lighter, while the Ministry of Water is somewhat reminiscent of a plunger. The ornate “Palace of Happiness” is where newlywed couples go to register their marriages.

Portraits of their current president adorn the interior– and exterior– of most buildings and the national airline. Not only a dentist, he is an avid equestrian as well as a guitarist and accordion player. We were given complementary encyclopedic volumes that he wrote on “Medicinal Plants of Turkmenistan”.

Monument to former president Saparmurat Niyazov that previously rotated to perpetually face the sun

The trip was particularly special because we were able to experience a taste of Turkmen culture with companions, including the phenomenal bluegrass band Della Mae, the jazz virtuosi of Ari Roland Quartet, and New York breadmeister, founding owner of Sullivan St. Bakery and Co., Jim Lahey.

But the Turkmens’ response to us was also overwhelming. Volunteer students, seemingly from the upper echelons of civil society (many were ethnically Russian), flocked around us before, during, and after the concert. After gigs with Ryan Beatty and Ed Sheeran, I’m accustomed to how to act around starry-eyed teenagers (hey, I was accustomed to being one), but the distinctive element here was that we too were bubbling over to have been catapulted here halfway around the globe, meeting these people whose lives and experiences differ widely from our own but whose interests and aspirations are so familiar.

Clinton Curtis & Della Mae sport traditional Turkmen hats

Della Mae and Ari Roland’s group put on tightly calibrated, wonderful shows for a very receptive audience. We stepped on stage last, unsure of how an auditorium filled with dignitaries of conservative generations and students of arts institutes would respond to our overly cranked amplifiers and raucous posturing. Clinton is, of course, incapable of playing it safe. We opened with “Best You Can“, and tossed each other sidelong glances as he delivered ambiguous lyrics on Cat Stevens. As the set ground on, we repeatedly elicited unison clapping from the audience. It soon became clear that there were widely different factional responses, from hardened women in traditional dress with intractable scowls, to younger kids whose enthusiasm was contagious. Experienced in drawing some reaction, anything from a crowd, we quickly resolved to leave our everything on stage, do with it what they would. As we skanked through “Only Way Out”, Clinton left them with an impromptu screaming guitar solo worthy of Marty McFly. In that moment, I wondered how many Turkmen teens were developing plans of musical world domination like those that we in the band still nurture.

My own inclinations for the situation were perhaps a little bit safer, but once the gauntlet had been thrown down, I had to follow. “Riverside Hotel” tumbled into a drum and bass breakdown, but how do you communicate to an audience who may never have seen such explosive live drumming just what is happening on stage? I climbed onto the bass amplifier, unaware that it was perched precariously between two levels of the stage. 15 seconds of energetic wobbling could have ended in physical and diplomatic disaster, but somehow I managed to stick the landing right as Clinton and the band flung us into a double-time coda. Springsteen would have been proud. The Turkmen Minister of Culture was not as easily impressed, later requesting that I not repeat the stunt for our closing concert.

4 out of 5 of us discovered the hard way that many foreigners get sick the first time they visit central Asia and we spent several days bowing to the porcelain throne. In the midst of digestive troubles and band members dropping like flies, Clinton, saxophonist Geoff Countryman and drummer Drew McLean toured the city of Mary, once a major stop on the Silk Road, and put on a moving improvised performance there for local students and dignitaries. Fortunately, the rest of us were able to pull ourselves together for our final concert Sunday evening. After our performances, we were invited back on stage to join the native performers in a 15-minute disco clap fest. (By that point, half of the audience seemed to be on stage with us.)

We were also surprised to discover that the American Culture Days Festival was sponsored in part by Chevron, ExxonMobile and the Ashgabat-Alberquerque Sister Cities Foundation. According to Wikipedia,

Research conducted by the World Pensions Council (WPC) suggests that Turkmenistan’s political isolation ended remarkably in the years 2011-2012 as US, Chinese, Russian, Iranian and Turkish institutional investors courted Ashgabat, vying for a piece of the world’s fourth largest reserves of natural gas.[25]

On the way back, a few of us made a stop in Istanbul, which after a week of no sleep seemed rather like Valhalla. Istanbul is one of the most beautiful, enchanting, historically rich and cosmopolitan cities in the world– an onion layered with thousands of years of eastern and western culture.

Stepping into one of the scores of local music shops near the Galata Tower, constructed after the 1453 Ottoman capture of Constantinople, our noodling quickly sparked an impromptu jam session with passers-by. Not to be outdone, the store owner whipped out an Ottoman military double-reed called a “zurna”, which is easily the noisiest and least in-tune instrument you will ever hear. Gray Reinhard shredded on a bağlama sax, whilst Clinton Curtis and each I brought home a fretless “cümbüş” (pronounced joom-boosh), a hybrid instrument between a banjo and a rice cooker. You can expect the sweet smell of rice and some vaguely out-of-tune noodling at a Clinton Curtis show in the near future.

Here you can see even more photos from our trip – taken by Geoff Countryman and Clinton Curtis. Thanks to Clinton and Geoff for the generous use of their photos and videos in this post, and to the U.S. Embassy in Turkmenistan as well as the Turkmen government for making such a unique trip possible.