They’re Trying to Kill Us With Cheese: Dispatch from Baku, Day 5

They’re trying to kill us with cheese. And if it’s not the heaps of white Georgian string cheese, or the salty yogurt drinks, or the pizza-like Khachapuri cheesy bread, it will be the free and bottomless top-shelf liquor that the hotel forces on us each evening at 7:45. We’ve been drinking Hennessy and Laphroaig for five days straight days and my tolerance has reached impressive heights. Add that to the mountains of kebobs, “plov” (Azeri for “pilof”) and all the compulsory dairy, and my stomach feels like it’s full of crude oil. 

I’m sitting in the hotel skylounge just below the bar, waiting for the rest of the band to return with their instruments. The jazz quartet that was playing for cocktail hour left most of their gear in the corner, so we’re going take advantage of the empty room and wallow away the wee small hours of the morning drinking cognac and playing beautiful ballads on the 8-foot grand piano.

My mind right now is teetering on the triple-edged point between clarity, romance, and total incapacitation so it’s probably a good time to sketch some of the highlights of the last few days:

It was the third morning of our tour in Azerbaijan, and we were headed to Quba (pronunciation somewhere in between Cuba and Gooba), a small town about three hours north of the capital. Our tour bus crawled like a determined beatle out of the windy city of Baku, winding its way between striking futurist architecture and crumbling, soviet-era housing developments. Eventually the tall buildings shrank to low lying suburbs and then fell away entirely, giving way to a stark, unforgiving landscape. On our left, the green-capped Caucasus mountains rose defiantly from dry plains. On our right, thin agricultural fields sloped down to the Caspian sea, sparkling like a salty, blue diamond.

Having previously toured the hinterlands of Cambodia, Laos, Burma and China, we’ve come to expect that the more remote the village, the more surreal the reaction to the presence of four sunburned Americans touting guitars and accordions and playing rock and roll. This particular concert was to be held in an outdoor amphitheater called the Green Theater with a capacity of 1,500. Two hours before the concert, the place would be packed with screaming children, teenagers, local officials, and an entire battalion of infantry soldiers who arrived in armored trucks and sat looking annoyed in the best seats in the house. 

On our walk from our bus to the venue, we were tailed by a crazy man who was audibly muttering to himself. All of a sudden, he started yelling loudly and made a run at us but was immediately taken down by our local security escort who put him in a headlock and dragged him off. No one said anything and we kept walking.

We were led up the steps of a grandiose, columned building and escorted to the office of the local government official for our requisite meet-and-greet. The official turned out to be a friendly, youngish woman who proudly to told us about the ethnic diversity of the region. I mentioned that I was Jewish and that I hoped to meet with the Mountain Jews (a tribe of culturally and linguistically distinct Jews who fled Persia many centuries ago and have been living in the Caucasus mountains ever since). Her eyes lit up and she walked out of the room. When she returned she was holding a jumbo box of matzoh. She handed it to me and said, through the translator, “the Jews presented this to us for the Seder, but I don’t know what to do with it. I would like to give it to you.”

I had no choice but to accept. Our good friend, Nigar—the embassy attaché who was assigned the challenging task of tour managing the band for the week—was excited to try it even though I told her that stale matzoh was a health hazard. The box stayed in our tour bus for the rest of the week despite all my best intentions to destroy it. 

Lunch was cheese. And kebobs. 

The scene leading up to the concert was surreal. Incredulous adults, excited teenagers, and rambunctious children streamed into the theatre, the mood only slightly damped by the presence of the military. Fifteen minutes before we were supposed to play, three different local bands arrived backstage and announced that they were going to open the show. This sent our stalwart and saint-like sound technician, Nasib, into a mellow rage. A hefty middle-aged Russian man with an unquenchable thirst for Red Bull-vodkas, Nasib had woken up at the crack of dawn in order to arrive three hours before us and singlehandedly set up a sound system fit for an arena. Something about the local power grid was already making the entire stage feel like an electric time bomb and last thing he needed was to have to add even more microphones and cables to the stage. 

Miraculously everything went without a hitch. The opening acts only took about a half an hour. (A strange man with a plastic sequined suit and skin the color of beef tartar acted as emcee and walked on stage after each band had played for five minutes to get the audience cheering and force them offstage.) Nothing exploded. The army men stayed in their seats. The only disturbance was the young kids in the back who spent most of the show horsing around and flipping us off. 

After the show we were mobbed by throngs of young teenage girls who wanted selfies with the band. Back home in the States, it’s easy to get used to playing to one or two apethetic drunks in an empty bar. If only they could see us now, I thought, looking like the Beatles come to America. What the hell—every part of being a musician is weird. Instant fame feels great until the muscles of your jaw start to ache from smiling like a lizard for four hundred photos. 

We loaded out and got back on the tour bus. They took us through the town of Quba and across a dried up river (essentially across the tracks) to the Jewish quarter where we eventually pulled up at a 150-year-old Synagogue. 

Three old men were milling about in the parking lot. Three totally normal-looking old Jewish men. Expecting them to speak only some exotic dialect, I addressed our translator dramatically: “Can you please inform them that I am Jewish and we would love to meet them and look inside their synagogue?”

In perfect English, but with a classic old-Jewish-man accent, the oldest and most grizzled guy responded, “You are Jewish? Where are you from?”

“We’re from Brooklyn,” I responded, embarrassed at my own presumption. 

“Brooklyn? My son… he lives in Brooklyn. I visit often.” 

I quickly realized my fantasy of meeting some uncontacted tribe of Jews was a false hope. The old men led us into the building and gave us yamakas to wear. The Synagogue apparently was built in the middle of the 19th century and then repurposed into a factory during the Soviet era. After the Russians pulled out of Azerbaijan, it was returned to its original state. Inside it looked much like other temples I’ve seen: high stained-glass windows and rows of seats facing the Bimah, which was a circular, raised pulpit in the front center of the room.

We poked around for a few minutes and then I got my accordion from the bus and played a Klezmer song. The men said they often had music performances but hadn’t heard any of the songs I knew how to play. I gave up playing Jewish music and Justin and I sang the Stephen Foster song “Hard Times.” They seemed to like that more and said that if we ever came back, we could play at some weddings and Bar Mitzvahs. We thanked them and said that we planned to return for a grand musical tour of the Caucasus mountains and that we’d be in touch. Some things are the same no matter where you are.

Back on the bus, we ate matzah and drank warm Xirdalan beers as the sun set plaintively over the mountains to the west. I closed my eyes and imagined the growling hum of the road melting into the drone of Azeri accordions. I was in the middle of an endless Mugham concert, cameras flashing brightly around me. A man in white spirit robes with piercing eyes stared deep into my soul and sang, his voice rising higher and higher. And I was lifted up as he sang, up into the cool air above the green Caucasus peaks, flying through the clouds. I reached out to touch one and it came apart in my fingers like curly white hairs. Home is never really that far away and heaven is made of Georgian string cheese.