Things We Can't Forget
Last winter I spent six weeks on tour in South and Central Asia with my bluegrass band Della Mae. Our American Music Abroad tour was sponsored by the U.S. State Department. Our purpose: diplomacy through music, sharing our American culture through personal interactions in foreign places. In 44 days, we traveled through Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. We collaborated with local musicians, performed public concerts and workshops, and spent time with children in schools and orphanages.
The “stans” are so different from one another, and each has a unique and rich musical heritage. Every place offered hospitality and generosity. We jammed and collaborated with local musicians in every city. Most musicians played their own traditional music. Despite the inability to speak a single word of a common language, we shared music for hours. It was fascinating to see how easily American music traditions blended with theirs. Bluegrass has been passed on orally through the generations and is based in songs and fiddle tunes, and the music of these regions is passed down in the same way. Folk songs often focused on topics similar to ours, and they had a strong foundation of instrumentals similar to fiddle tunes.
In Pakistan we collaborated with the talented Natasha Ejaz, in whose culture female musicians are rare. It was inspiring to learn what she has endured so she can share her voice. She and Pakistani bands joined us for concerts in Islamabad and Lahore. In Pakistan, as rare as it is for young women to play music, it is just as uncommon for young women to see live music. We played at two women’s colleges in Pakistan and have never before been received with so much excitement and anticipation. Ejaz is applying to study at Berklee and has become a dear friend of Della Mae’s.
We spent Thanksgiving week in Turkmenistan, celebrating the first-ever cultural collaboration between the United States and that country. As we walked into the performance venue, we witnessed them raising two massive portraits: one of President Obama and one of Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow. This was the first time that the Turkmen government had allowed another president’s portrait to hang alongside its president’s. It was an honor to witness that moment in the country’s history.
In each country we toured, we visited schools and orphanages. The children would usually perform a few songs for us and then we would play for them. In these remote areas, it was amazing to see the lasting influence of the State Department Jazz Ambassadors program that ran between the 1950s and the 1970s. During that period, one of the touring musicians was Louis Armstrong. On the album that he coproduced with Dave Brubeck, Real Ambassadors, he sings:
The State Department has discovered jazz/
It reaches folks like nothing ever has. /
Like when they felt that jazzy rhythm, /
They know we’re really with ’em. /
That’s what we call cultural exchange.
On the other end of the spectrum were the orphans and refugee children that we played for. We visited orphanages in nearly every country and spent time with Afghan refugee women and children in Pakistan and Tajikistan. We let the children play our instruments. To see joy and light come into their eyes as they strummed a guitar string or held a fiddle for the first time was beautiful. For most of them, it was the first musical instrument they had touched in their lives.
There was one moment in Tajikistan that I will never forget. It was our last program and we drove out of the capitol of Dushanbe to an orphanage in the countryside. We arrived and watched as a few five-year olds gathered snow in teapots to take to the kitchen for water. It was a bitter cold Sunday afternoon, and the orphanage was quiet. As we walked through the cold cement halls to the meeting hall, a horrific odor came wafting from the bathroom areas and filled the entire building. The children’s rooms were heated with coal and the few hours of electricity that the government allowed them each day were confined to the kitchen. As we set up our instruments children began to trickle into the room, helping one another in wheelchairs, little ones on their laps, a few using adult walkers to support their polio-crippled bodies. The only thing we had to share with them was a glimpse of joy, our hope was to help them forget the cold, hunger, and physical pain, even if just for a brief moment. It was difficult to watch these children without tearing up. As we began to play and sing, a few children came to the front of the room and began twirling and dancing around with one another. Smiles slowly emerged on their faces and light returned to their eyes.
As we finished and said goodbye, a seven-year-old girl clung to me. Looking me in the eyes she took out her sparkly purple hair barrette and pressed it into my hand. She gave me her single earthly treasure, something that made her feel beautiful, to show gratitude for the small thing that we had given her. There was silence in the van as we drove back to Dushanbe.
After 40 days of traveling and sharing our music we had gained a lifetime of memories and a new perspective. That precious little girl gave me a gift I’ll always remember.
We can’t forget that music is a gift in so many ways. Too often, we rob music of its immense power to communicate, getting caught in the whirlwind of ego and self-promotion. If we let it, music can help heal us and others around us. It can communicate love and peace beyond language or borders and become the common bond between us. But, we have to let it.
I would encourage anyone interested in the State Department program to apply. Applications for the 2014–2015 season are due in January. For more information, visit the American Music Abroad site at http://amvoices.org/ama/. It could open the door to a life experience you’ll never forget.
Colorado native Courtney Hartman is a guitarist, singer, and writer, currently touring with the bluegrass quintet Della Mae.