United Arab Emirates
UAE .. the "hollywood" of the middle east. The city of Dubai was simply astonishing. The city skyline was gargantuan and everything sparkled. Exotic luxury cars were frequently spotted on walks around the city. We were all surprised to learn that the majority of the population of the United Arab Emirates are expatriates from around the world, many of whom work for the oil industry. A relatively small percentage of UAE's inhabitants are actually native born "Emirati". We had the opportunity to perform with the US Embassy and at public events. Specifically, an afternoon playing for a group of young, disabled school kids was particularly rewarding. While in the UAE, we visited several Emirates, including Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and Ras Al Khaima.
Almost all women in who ventured into public spaces in Saudi Arabia fully covered themselves in the traditional Wahabi burka or niqab. While it wasa bit of culture shock, we eventually grew accustomed to the sight. In UAE, it was amazing to see the wide variety of different colors of burka and niqab on display; a stark contrast to the rigid dress code of all black that was omnipresent in Saudi Arabia.
In February of 2016, the Henhouse Prowlers traveled to Saudi Arabia to perform for the US Embassy's "Fourth of July" celebration in Saudi. Why was the fourth of the July celebrated in February, you ask? In February in Riyadh, the capital city of Saudi Arabia, the weather was already warm. Try to imagine how hot Saudi Arabia gets in the summer (regularly above 100 degrees Fahrenheit) and you'll quickly understand why an outdoor "Fourth of July" celebration in February makes perfect sense. Our trip to Saudi Arabia offered me my first experience being shuffled in through security checkpoints at US Embassies and Consulates, driving around in armored vehicles and being escorted by bodyguards. Despite the fear and uncertainty that naturally accompanied such an arrangement, every person we met here made us feel entirely at home and welcomed. Also, I absolutely love falafel and ate more than my fair share while in Saudi Arabia.
Also, another fun fact about Saudi Arabia. Until recently, live music concerts were banned. As of January, 2019, dancing is still frowned upon. During our time in Saudi Arabia we did not perform for the public, only at private, officially sanctioned performances at the US Embassies and Consulates in Riyadh, Jeddah and Dammam.
Traveling to Uganda offered me an opportunity to visit Africa for the first time in my life. While I was prepared with all the necessary vaccinations, visas, and plenty of bottled water, I was not prepared to be embraced by people in such a positive and welcoming way. If you have a moment, please watch the accompanying video to the left of this post.
After having my shirt painted by this street artist, you can hear him say "We love the USA". I reply "I love Uganda". I was at a loss for words, just being overwhelmed by gratitude at being able to experience something I never would have dreamed about. I really wanted to express to this fellow artist what a beautiful a thing it was for two complete strangers from two completely different parts of the world to meet each other, learn from each other's cultures, and exchange friendship, love, and kindness.
It was in Kenya where I had the most powerful experience of my life. In addition to local impromptu public performances and gigs at the US Embassy, we were given the opportunity to travel to the city of Dandora, a suburb east of the Kenyan capital Nairobi. It was there that the Henhouse Prowlers were going to collaborate with a local arts collective dubbed "Hip Hop City". Stepping out of our vehicles, we became quicklysurrounded by local children who had never seen a white face before. While this was not our first experience visiting an African slum, looking around, we were struck with all our senses by the depths of poverty that lay before us.
Dandora, the city, was literally built adjacent to and in some cases, on top of, a landfill. The smell of garbage was overwhelming. Walking along, we had to be careful not to step in rivers of sewage running through the middle of a street. We finally reached a community center in the town, less than 500 feet from the main dumping area. It was in this building, with no windows, finished floors, or plumbing, that we took our instruments out of our cases and began to make music with our new Kenyan friends. What shook me to my core was the ability of these people to rise above their circumstances and make music together, as collaborators showing each other equal respect and perhaps more, as a family. I realized here, in the most profound way, that no matter what, hope can never be lost. This was my most powerful reminder that the strength of the human spirit is beyond mighty.
By the time the Henhouse Prowlers visited the country of Kyrgyzstan, I'd already felt like an international traveling expert. Fortunately this trip offered me a challenge I was eager to embrace; armed with brand new sound equipment brought all the way from the US, I was in charge of recording all of our live performances in Kyrgyzstan and eventually mixing them and preparing for a live album. As this was going to be my debut album with the Henhouse Prowlers, I was especially excited.
To the left, you'll see the stage set for us at the Bishkek Opera house, our final performance of this tour. You might also notice the number 25 on the banners adorning the stage. Our performances were part of a celebration of 25 years of friendship between Kyrgyzstan and the US... that is... 25 years since the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War (Kyrgyzstan was a former soviet state).
We entered Russia at a unique, perhaps tumultuous, time. The 2016 US Presidential Election was behind us and the relationship between our newly elected President and the Russian government was being called in to question. Accusations about Russian election meddling had been tossed around. And so, off we went, undeterred, to perform bluegrass music for and alongside Russians.
If there was ever a reminder that people can learn to work together despite political differences, this was it. We did meet Russians who were intrigued, enthralled and excited by the election of Donald Trump, despite the controversy surrounding him, We also met people deeply skeptical of him. Once again we were reminded that music is a great human equalizer. Performance after performance occurred with no political agenda other than to relate to each other culturally and to find a way to make our traditional forms of music coexist and resonate with our audiences.
In Pakistan, we had our most rewarding collaborative effort to date. We met and performed with the Hamza Akram Qawwal band, which performs as part of 800 year old family tradition. Qawwal music is dramatic and unique and features singing similar in style to Eastern (Indian) classical music with a droning, powerful harmonium and tabla (percussion) section providing rhythmic backup. We were honored to learn and perform a song with them at a performance for members of the US Embassy titled "Dama Dam Mast Qalandar", or "I love you more each day".
Since our performance together in Pakistan, we've continued to stay in touch. In November of 2018, when the Hamza Akram Qawwal band had a night of from their tour of the United States, they came and visited my home in Chicago. We laughed, reminisced, ate deep dish pizza and reprised our jam from a year prior. Check out the videos and enjoy!