Mocha. Mocha?

7.29.18

There’s nothing like a long car ride to get to know a person better, especially when you hardly speak the same language and you're heading up to the Sierra Nevada mountains to stay in a log cabin at 7000 feet with no cell service and only the moths and the moonlight for company. 

When I first started planning a tour with Venezuelan cuatrista Jorge Glem, I knew I wanted to give him an authentic taste of California. Over the past year we’d gotten to know each other mostly through music and limited conversation; so I felt a responsibility to give Jorge a more flavorful experience of my home state than what was possible with my pre-school Spanish vocabulary. When the opportunity came up to play a potluck concert in Bear Valley and stay overnight at Uncle Phil’s cabin in the woods, it seemed like an appropriately adventurous way to introduce Jorge to the Golden State and kick off our weeklong tour. 

Uncle Phil—for those of you who don’t know the “Powder Bear”—is the de facto roadie for young folk bands visiting California. He’ll pick you up at the airport in his giant, prehistoric camper van (license plate says "rnt-a-rdy") and drive you wherever you need to go. He loves to say, "all I need is some level ground to park my van at night, so I can sleep out on the mattress in the back." Phil has been a mainstay of the Bear Valley ski community for some forty odd years and has developed a reputation for his love of good music, his thorough directions, and his big heart.

Right before I picked up Jorge at the airport, I nervously brainstormed a list of conversation starters for our car ride into the mountains. How do you get a good rapport going when you’re mostly limited to three verbs in the present tense?

I needn’t have worried. With the frequent aid of Google translate and wikipedia, we quickly fell into a comfortable rhythm of conversation on the same topics musicians always talk about on long journeys: food, music, food, politics, food. Winding around the horseshoe bends of Highway 4—from the parched Gold Rush country up through the towering Jefferson pines—we munched on our chocolate pastries, listened to old Joropo and Merengue recordings, and equipped each other with an arsenal of delicious colloquialism in Spanish and English: ¡Arrechissimo! Hella- ¡Coño! Hyphy!  

A marvelous creativity is unlocked when your normal fluency of language becomes limited. Metaphor reigns supreme. Complex statements are reduced to absurdist haiku. Understanding becomes contingent on long chains of synonyms, and all attempts at explanation only raise troubling questions. Why is a knock knock joke funny? Is a "sea lion” best described by a lion in the sea or an aquatic dog with small wings? Is "feel full" the true inverse of “fulfill?" 

Anyone who has ever travelled to a foreign country knows the feeling of trying to convey a simple concept while lacking the vocabulary or syntax to do so. It can be frustrating and exhausting. (I can only imagine what it’s like to live full time in a country that requires constant translation.) But if you are able to establish the right type of trust with another person, then there are hilarious, profane, and profound nuggets of gold at the top of every lexical ladder. “Mocha” in California means the chocolate espresso drink that Jorge loves; “mocha” (pronounced "mo-tcha”) in Cumana, Venezuela apparently means a girl with no arms or legs.

That first glimmer of comprehension between two people struggling to communicate is like a ray of sunshine breaking through the dreary San Francisco fog. It turns out Mark Twain may never have actually said, “the coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco,” but that doesn’t make the aphorism any less true, or any easier to translate when you’re trying to explain to someone from Venezuela why they should bring a down jacket to San Francisco in the middle of July. 

Up in the mountains the weather was hot and dry. We pulled off the highway onto a dirt road and followed Uncle Phil’s extra-thorough directions (no GPS) around to the back of a picturesque, alpine meadow lined with trees. A small stage was set up with twinkly lights, and a crowd of about sixteen locals and weekenders had gathered to watch us perform—more than enough, considering we had had no prior time to rehearse. Jorge picked up his cuatro, strummed a chord and I watched people’s jaws drop. We grinned at each other and I knew then we were going to have a hell of a week. 

It was very dark when we finally headed back to the log cabin. We missed our turnoff the first time because we were too busy joking about how bad it would be to get lost in the woods. After realizing our mistake, we hastily turned around and drove in nervous silence for a short eternity, until we miraculously found Uncle Phil’s van waiting for us by the side of the road. A sigh of relief is universal. 

It was already late but we sat up for a long while in the kitchen with Phil, trading videos of folk musicians on our phones, eating cold Round Table pizza and talking about home. 

Around the World with an Accordion

2.15.18

Whenever I need to remind myself why I’ve chosen the nomadic and financially rickety career path of touring musician, I return in my mind to a night in Beijing. My band and I had been on stage in front of 800 university students, trading licks with the Mongolian rock group Haya. The song was an anthem in a language I didn’t know, but everyone in the audience seemed to understand well enough to sing along. I droned away on my accordion, smiling ear to ear and imagining that the sound in the room would never end. When we finally walked offstage, Haya invited us to a late-night feast to celebrate.

We pulled up in front of an unassuming restaurant and climbed the stairs to the second level. A table was laid out for 25 people with an entire roasted lamb spinning slowly in the center. The largest Lazy Susan I’d ever seen rotated yak butter, lamb soup, noodles, mysterious cheeses and vegetables. The Mongolians poured shots of baijiu, the clear Chinese grain liquor that gives you a hangover before it even touches your lips. Someone pulled out a guitar and we passed it around the table, trading American and Mongolian pop songs. Everyone drummed on bowls with chopsticks and joined in on the choruses in English, Mandarin, Mongolian, Kazakh and French. It was almost morning when we said goodbye and staggered back onto our bus, while the Lazy Susan kept spinning and the music ricocheted behind us in the hazy Beijing dawn.

More than practicing, recording, or performing, it’s these moments of exploration and discovery that I value most in music. Most aspects of tour life are unglamorous — flight delays, endless car rides and life away from family — but every now and then, an unexpected musical connection fills me with wonder at the enormity and mystery of the world.

A certain amount of wanderlust has always guided my musical and academic interests. When I first got to the College I was intent on being a jazz pianist. Through my American studies courses, I quickly became obsessed with Woody Guthrie and Jack Kerouac ’44. I picked up an old accordion that had been in my parents’ basement and began playing folk songs at parties, standing on top of couches with my friends Justin and Eddie, singing Hank Williams tunes in three-part harmony and wearing matching Western shirts. After years of careful training on the piano, playing country songs on the accordion felt a little like a joke, but it was also liberating. Now I could travel with my instrument on my back and move around on the stage. Standing up and facing the audience, I felt a connection to people through the accordion that I’d never experienced.

The summer I graduated, my nascent folk trio — born out of those guerilla couch concerts — embarked on a monthlong odyssey to the West Coast and back. It was our first taste of life on the road, and we relished every grungy minute. From dive bars to sailboats, gas station back rooms to teepees and rockabilly festivals, we played just about the best, worst gigs in the country. Everywhere felt as far removed as possible from the swanky jazz clubs of the Village or the antiseptic practice rooms of the College music department. When we got back home, we vowed to our girlfriends never to tour again.

That promise was short-lived. In 2014, I was on a plane to Phnom Penh, Cambodia. The same group that had gotten its humble start in America’s seediest dives had evolved into a more official outfit and been selected by the Department of State to be ambassadors of American music abroad. On our first trip we traveled to Cambodia, China, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam. That memorable night in Beijing was one of about 40, each stranger and more delightful than the last. I returned home with a serious travel bug and a distinct sense that the accordion could be my entry point to the rest of the world.

Since then, I’ve performed in several other countries through the State Department’s program and on my own. When I’ve traveled as a tourist, I’ve often felt that my presence has been defined by being a consumer, but touring as an artist provides a unique opportunity to give as well as take. In our role as “musical ambassadors,” our political impact has been relatively minor — we are not delivering aid, resolving armed conflict or building housing infrastructure. But the more I get to travel and perform, the more I become aware that robust diplomacy begins with a simple gesture of mutual understanding. Music provides the initial spark that can ignite a long-lasting, fruitful relationship.

Recently I’ve grown interested in facilitating this type of diplomacy at home as well as overseas. For the past year I’ve been working with Venezuelan cuatro virtuoso Jorge Glem. When I first started going to Jorge’s apartment in the South Bronx, he spoke very little English and I spoke even less Spanish. Our sessions consisted almost entirely of playing music. If one of us really wanted to communicate something, we’d type it into Google or call a friend to translate. Despite this, we found enough common ground through the accordion and the cuatro — and healthy doses of arepas and beer — to begin performing together.

It’s not easy working with someone when you don’t share a language or background. However, I’ve come to value this challenge as a great opportunity. Standard education stresses fluency as a prerequisite for communication. But so often in music, limitation itself provides the most fertile ground for collaboration and discovery. I never thought I’d play the accordion — which is a far more limiting instrument than the piano — but the damn thing has taken me all around the world.

gerund

5.17.17

thirty-one-thousand feet above the appalachian mountain range, hurtling down through sunset in a tin can, guts full of gumbo, ears ringing with the rhythm of the meters, funkier than ever in their old age, closing out the festival to thousands of sunburnt pilgrims, moving as one.

descending turbulent into laguardia, wings rolling from side to side, feeling that familiar surge of anticipation and anxiety in my stomach. indigestion from the parkway po-boy i ate for lunch? or else the beautiful mad new york city rush that sometimes sends you running away to hide in a bayou forest and then lustily draws you back for more.

buckled into the backseat of a taxi, racing and breaking through traffic, neighborhoods flying by in the rain: astoria, long island city, bushwick, williamsburg, bedstuy and finally crown heights, the great trees of eastern parkway beckoning me on.

the future spreading before me like the hasty cursive of spring, reaching and curling in every direction, leaving green question marks hanging on branches, painting brick walls with creeping conjunctions, unfinished sentences bursting through cracks in the sidewalk.

james baldwin saying history is not the past, but the present. drinking in greedily the brooklyn i love: reverberating with old songs, challenging all boundaries, swimming in smells and sounds from distant places. discovering strange words and stranger friends. making impossible plans and racing after runaway trains.

pulling onto crown street, thoughts settling back into saturday night, which is cool and rainy for so late in may, but comforting anyways, a final cadenza to spring, gently rattling the windows of my quiet living room, where my lover waits for me.

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

7.7.16

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. 

72 hours of Raki, Race Cars and Rock and Roll in Istanbul

5.31.16

The sun was just rising over the rooftops and mosques as our 1980’s Mercedes sprinter van sped across the Bosphorus. Blurry-eyed and still drunk on Raki from the night before, we were on our way to Ataturk airport to catch the next flight to Baku, Azerbaijan. As Istanbul disappeared behind us, I tried to wrap my throbbing head around the whirlwind 72 hours we’d just spent on the continental divide. 

Silver City Bound travelled to Turkey in order to collaborate with Country For Syria, an Istanbul-based band that plays a mix of American and Arabic folk music. Fronted by an American accordionist, Owen Harris, Country For Syria includes musicians from Syria, Kurdistan, Iraq, and Turkey and is focused on raising awareness about the refugee crisis. 

Our joint concert was held Saturday night at a vintage furniture store & cafe called Atolye Kafasi, full of refurbished tables and Turkish hipsters drinking tea and eating chocolate cake. Considering the absence of alcohol at the venue, we’d prepared a slow-burn concert setlist and expected a pretty mellow night. We were wrong. From the first note of music, the place turned into the most ranging sober dance party we'd ever witnessed. Young Turks and expats hippy-danced and sang along to country songs. More and more people arrived and we kept the music rolling late into the night. 

 

On Sunday evening we helped Owen and his girlfriend Başak carry the instruments and equipment from our hotel back to Owen’s apartment on the Asian side of IstanbulHauling a full-sized, 30-pound accordion on my back on a ferry across the Bosphorus and then up the winding, rush-hour-jammed streets of Kadıköy, put my usual commute from Brooklyn to the Lower East Side into new perspective. 

We dropped off the gear and met the rest of the band at one of their favorite local spots. Six Americans, Two Syrians, a Kurd, a Palestinian-American, an Armenian-American, and two Jewish accordionists sitting around the table eating eggplant and drinking Raki. The conversation careened from lighthearted to serious, from cosmopolitan to intensely personal. The young Syrian guitarist Bashar talked about how much he missed the food back home in Aleppo. Attar, the Kurdish videographer, was trying to convince Owen’s American friend from home to go with him on a yoga retreat the next weekend on the Mediterranean, but she wanted to accompany Owen instead on a trip to play circus music for orphans on the Syrian border. The night ended with another round of drinks and promises all around that we would see each other again either in Turkey or the USA. It’s amazing how quickly you can grow close to people you only met the day before. 

By the time we left the bar, the return ferries were no longer running. Because of widespread rioting from a soccer match earlier in the day, the city had closed one of the two bridges and taxis were refusing to drive to the European side. We took a public bus back across the Bosphorus and then hailed a cab. The driver who stopped to pick us up had some kind of death wish. His arms were covered in mean scars and he drove like a formula one racer—never breaking, only down-shifting, and furiously dodging between highway lanes whenever possible. At around three in the morning we collapsed in our hotel rooms, alarms set for two hours later. I fell asleep with the sensation of still being in motion and the echoes of Turkish heavy metal, car horns and drunken voices reverberating up from the streets below. 

To travel is to exalt in the feeling of things being both strange and familiar—to search for the experiences that make you suddenly awake to the enormity of the world. The more we travel, the more we become addicted to these small moments of adventure and genuine human connection.