Back in late December, I got a call out of the blue from saxophonist Rulon Brown. He invited me to join his new quartet, featuring himself on sax and flute, Paul Rucker on cello and electric bass and Jeff Busch on drums and assorted percussion. This exciting prospect was made all the more so by the fact that we’d be debuting at the sixth annual Nicaragua International Jazz Festival.
I love touring and I love traveling, especially to places outside developed nations. Given what I do though, I hadn’t ever considered playing music in developing nations because it is, typically, difficult to find a scene that’s interested in music that is as “out there” as I tend to get. Now, granted, I would be playing standard guitar for this project and not my prepared guitar chaos, but I was still cautious.
I was also cautious because I don’t play jazz! I wanted to make this absolutely clear to Rulon. He knew this and, as happens to me from time to time, this is exactly why he asked me – to bring in a different element. I have been invited into similar situations to do what I like to call “f..k up the jazz”. I am very grateful that Rulon had the confidence in me that I seemed to have trouble finding. He was clear that he wanted this band to be what this band will be. If that wasn’t amazing enough, when we would encounter difficulties with my knowledge and abilities, he accepted them totally. This enabled us to build on what we did have in common to create some really fun jazz/rock hybrid music (note my refusal to use the other f word – fusion). I can still hear Rulon inculcating “we’re not a jazz band!!”
In any case, I set about learning as much as I could in the two months I had before the tour. I must say, I learned a lot! At least enough to be passable in the areas where I had little experience. After a rigorous rehearsal schedule, we were ready to take it south, warts and all. We were equipped with a bunch of Rulon’s music from his album “Restless” and a bunch of standards. This tour was set up through the US State Department and they had requested that we have some standards ready to go.
I say warts because I really feel that I was the wart! Rulon, Jeff and Paul all have an amazing amount of knowledge and experience working in this world. I’ve worked with Paul for years in a number of his amazing projects so he knows where I’m at. I was new to Jeff and Rulon but they are both so open that my lack of knowledge never became a factor. This was hugely important in helping me feel, not only comfortable, but actually confident in what I was bringing to the table.
So off we went. Our schedule consisted of three shows and three workshop/master classes. We were met at the airport by festival Organizers, Ramai Das, Prabhupada, Angeles and Lissette Gonzalez (who would be our constant companion, handler, pathmaker, culinary guru and dear friend). Her tales of living in the jungle with AK-47 in hand fighting during the Sandanista uprising are absolutely riveting!
We had no obligations the first day there so we spent the night in beautiful Granada. It’s a lovely place with rich colonial architecture and flanked by volcanos and lipid azure lagoons. Lissette’s brother Alberto, a local ecologist, volunteered to take us around so most of us clambered into the payload of his pickup and we were treated to an insider view of the natural wonder around Granada. Despite language difficulties (except for Jeff and Rulon who had respectively good grasps of Spanish), we became fast friends. That night we took in some of the International Poetry Festival that was happening. Unlike just about every other country I know of, Nicaragua lauds poetry as one of the highest art forms and it attracts audiences the size of which rival sports in other nations.
The next day we headed back to Managua for our first workshop. This is when we met our other handler, Alison Griffith, who, with Lissette, would become our dear friend and travel companion. How lucky our band was to have the most beautiful roadies in the country! This is also when we met our fearless driver Ivan, our friend who would faithfully usher us to wherever we needed to be.
In addition to the workshops, we had a very tight media schedule, with numerous appearances and interviews on television and in print. And between all that, a band’s gotta eat. Oh, and eat we did!! I’m an armchair gourmand and love to find as many exotic local specialties that I can. I had done a little research prior and had a decent list. Lissette was our guru here. I say “vaho” she says, “I know the town that has the best, we will go!” Not the best restaurant, but the best TOWN!! What Nicas can do with pork is simply amazing. The culinary aspects of this trip could be a book in itself! Everything I had was simply delicious except for one thing, a national staple –Sopa de Mondongo. Known in English as cow stomach soup. This soup takes 24 hours to prepare and the diner is treated to a rich broth filled with whitish slabs of stomach. Not being too “organ oriented”, I found this one difficult. In defense though, Lissette observed that the Mondongo we had wasn’t that great. Will that inveigle me to try it again? – probably.
And then there were the gigs themselves, each different and with it’s own set of complications and rewards. Touring is tough enough in developed nations. In less developed places, it’s all the moreso. Whether it is having none of the gear you requested, or gear that kind of worked sometime, outside gigs on windy dusty roads and no way to keep your sheet music from sailing away, national theaters that don’t have any tools when you need a wrench, bitter stage crews being unfairly forced to work for free and fallings out between entire countries because of underhanded dealings by a corrupt government and their controlled media outlets. The last gig we did was plagued with international intrigue that ended with the US Ambassador to Nicaragua refusing to appear and us boycotting our appearance on the government run national TV station. Another band had a story about being forced to eat food locals wouldn’t even touch while the hostess gorged on haute cuisine in front of them, only to abscond with all the money put up for the visiting band when they turned around.
It is hugely important that I make a distinction here between the government of Nicaragua and the people. The above woes had absolutely nothing to do with the absolutely amazing, kind and beautiful people that came to workshops, shows and that we met along the way. The only connection is that these people live, stifled by a government that promised liberation and has only brought the same dirty politics, corruption and control. It was only in private that people felt even remotely comfortable expressing discontent without fear of reprisal.
All in all, I think we played well and even though the older crowd politely dug it, despite it being not traditional jazz, the younger people loved it. It was hard not to be moved on so many levels by their ability to find joy despite duress and enthusiasm in the face of what we, as Americans, would consider diminished options. I like to feel we may have given some of Nicaragua’s up and coming musicians and artists a notion of coloring outside the lines. I would be proud if there were people in Nicaragua who were as transformed by us as we were by them.
After our return we hit Gravelvoice Studio in Seattle and cut four tracks with engineer Scott Colburn. The beginning of what will, hopefully become a release in the future. Additionally, a film crew documented gigs, workshops and related mayhem so hopefully there will be some video soon too! In the meantime, here is a video (albeit poor quality) that someone posted after our last gig at the Loma de Tiscapa Historical Park. The first part is “Nicaragua, Nicaraguita”, the countries unofficial national anthem. We were encouraged to learn it at the last minute and man, are we glad we did! From there it rolls into one of Rulon’s fiery compositions. Here it is, warts and all:
Big kudos to Rulon for handling the difficulties of a band in an unusual set of circumstances with all the pitfalls (and more). I truly developed an admiration for this guy as I got to know him through this experience. I’ll end here with an excerpt of something I posted on facebook when I got back (which Lissette so kindly translated into Spanish for me)
I want to thank everyone we met along the way: Lissette Gonzalez (our high-heeled hero) and Alison Griffith (a picture of grace, humor and tact) for being the best tour managers, coordinators and handlers a band could ask for; Ivan our fearless driver (who was awarded “safest driver of the year” at the US Embassy awards during our stay -Congratulations Ivan!); Alberto Gonzales for his time, knowledge and generosity; The NIJF crew – Prabhupada Plazaola, Angeles Rosales and especially founder Ramai Das for devoting his life to bringing the music to the people and the people to the music under the most difficult circumstances. Additional thanks to Audrey Huon-Dumentat, and Thomas Hamm at the US Embassy and of course Madame Ambassador Phyllis Powers and Deputy Chief of Mission Charles Barclay.
And the biggest thanks of all to the beautiful people of Nicaragua – everyone that came out to shows, workshops; who played with us and everyone we met along the way. You have shaped a new place in my heart for Nicaragua. And of course, thanks to Rulon, Paul, and Jeff for rolling with the myriad punches a rugged tour threw our way with consideration, humility, a pro attitude and a lot of humor!