Thursday, January 27, 2011

Wherever I May Roam

DAY 27: (Danny) When we landed in Malaysia, we were met by Chew and Nick from the U.S. Embassy and the Kota Kinabalu City Council. They hung welcome beads around our necks and told us how happy they were to have us in their country. They understood how tired we were and how we must have felt traveling so far to our last country on the tour. We told them how excited we were to experience a place we knew so little about. I had eaten at a few Malaysian restaurants in New York City, but otherwise, I knew nothig about the country or its culture.At our introductory meeting and briefing, we met our embassy liaison as well as the SPARKS performing arts organization/team led by the president, Cheong Kok Ann. They do such a great job of bringing culture and art to Malaysia. Cheong would prove to be very generous with his time by showing us many cool places in the city, including an indoor archery range where we acted out our Robin Hood fantasies. After our security briefing, we needed some rest because it looked like we were on the verge of a very busy schedule. I had to eat before I slept so I wandered down to the lobby and scored a big plate of mee goren noodles. After, I wandered around the lobby and found a great vocal group in one if the hotel’s lounges. They were doing a mix of classic rock and pop. I later found out that a lot of vocal groups from The Philippines travel to Malaysia to perform. I applauded their polished sound, choice of material and sexy dresses!The next day, we went to the University of Malaysia SABA to do a workshop and an evening concert in one of the most beautiful concert halls we’d been in on the tour. There was a grand piano for Johnny, which made him very happy, and set the tone for a great show. Before we got started, we went to the campus radio station to do an interview and play some tunes. While we were there, we did a fun station promo, something we got really good at during the tour.

The workshop was so much fun as we continued to break down the walls between the audience and our music. We discovered some fine young musicians in attendance including some singers, a jazz violinist and a melodica player. After, we rehearsed with a great guitarist and new friend, Rodger Wang. Rodger had been contracted to get us around and integrate us into the musical community. He brought in an arrangement of a Malaysian popular tune that had a similar message as New York State of Mind. He was accompanied by a great young singer and saxophonist. At the rehearsal, we read down the chart and added some Johnny Rodgers Band sound to the music. Rodger already had a great arrangement and charts so the rehearsal went well. He’s a great composer and runs his own studio in town.After the concert, we found out he had won an award for best international song from the Malaysian music Grammys. Members of the City Council took us out to an incredible dinner at a local restaurant later that evening.The next day I took a walk to the waterfront, which was basically across the street from the hotel. The esplanade was filled with open air booths of merchants selling fresh fish, shells, peppers, seaweed, conch, bananas, colorful fruits and jewelry.The sights, sounds and smells were overwhelming and intoxicating.There’s an island in the bay inhabited by illegal immigrants who have claimed it as their own with an established island government of their own. It is said that even the Kota Kinabalu police don't try to enter the island because it would incite extreme violence. Yet, the inhabitants of the island come over in boats to trade and work in the city.Somehow, between all the ethnic and religious diversity in this city, everyone gets along working together, side by side. They share the same beautiful Malaysian sunsets and the bountiful, diverse food from land and sea. Maybe in this sharing of nature and culture, a silent bond is formed, a communion of community.

Next stop: Sandakan Malaysia.

Friday, December 3, 2010

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

DAY 25: (Danny) Hospitality, snacks and song are the mainstays of everyday life in The Philippines.

Also, Christmas decorations and songs start at the beginning of September and continue through the 6th of January. Easter preparations start soon after, then Saints' days and festivals to carry you into Spring. By Summer, you’ll need a new bathing suit because the food is too good to pass up. And, you'll have a bigger and better voice because all the festivities involve everyone singing Karaoke.

Filipinos are the second largest immigrant group in the United States after Mexicans and we’re lucky to have such a beautiful, cultural addition in our country. The family and extended family is ever present at holiday gatherings and because we were in Manila for Thanksgiving, the circle widened to include us.We played a Thanksgiving Day gala at the American Embassy for the Ambassador and his guests. The menu pared our music with great wine, and of course, a multiple-course Thanksgiving feast prepared by the Embassy’s chefs.It was amazing to play and tour the grounds of this historic building perched above Manila Bay. It was a piece of WWII history and the trial of the captured Japanese general was held in the ballroom in which we played.The embassy staff, Joe, Jomar and Jenny, took such great care of us.The Ambassador was from Queens, New York and was a New York Met fan so we got along immediately. We also were invited to the home of the Public Affairs Officer for Thanksgiving dinner. Our hosts, Rick and Pinky, graciously invited us over to their beautiful home where we dined with their extended family and friends including a top designer, an art historian, a model and the Southeast Asia NCAA champion basketball team. Everyone had a great time and the food was a mix of traditional Thanksgiving fare and local favorites.

Shopping is a big part of the culture in the city and malls are a source of pride and bragging rights.These malls are like small cities and if you make a wrong turn, you could end up in an alternate universe where everything looks almost the same. Some of the largest, award-winning mall designs are in Manila and the surrounding provinces so it was no surprise that our two main concerts were on mall stages.We played three Master Classes at St. Thomas, FEU and Loyola Universities. We loved working with the students and they treated us to some great performances. We're looking forward to staying in touch with everyone and have been answering Facebook requests and mail daily.We enjoyed talking with everyone, taking pictures and signing CDs after the concerts.

I would love to come back someday and see more of the islands and the beaches where, I'm told, the sand is as white and fine as sugar.

I feel so blessed to have had this experience in The Philippines where I received multifaceted gifts: a sense of renewal, holiday spirit, family and the joy of song. As we moved through these countries (six in 30 days) at lightning speed, it was hard to process and put into words the emotions and events in real time. Now that I'm home and I slowly decompress, I know that out of the stillness will come a river of expression. I hope I can put that down in this living and ever expanding journal. For years, I've meditated and prayed about playing music around the world on instruments from around the world with people from around the world. And this trip has been a manifestation of those prayers.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Shine On

DAY 27: (Brian) As soon as we drove into Phnom Penh from the airport, it felt like we were far from home - almost no signs of western culture or multinational corporate brands. I didn't see a McDonald's, KFC or an Exon sign anywhere. Just local, small businesses and food stalls mostly housed in old-style, French-built apartment buildings from the late 1950s and open-air street marts. There are crazy unspoken driving rules like “largest vehicle has right of way” at intersections where your driver would just push through a sea of thousands of young people and families on scooters and motorbikes, swerving every which way into any lane. It wasn't uncommon to see up to five people on a bike with little children riding side saddle without helmets! I kept thinking how this city seemingly has no public safety laws whatsoever and my fears proved not unfounded in the terrible tragedy that immediately followed our departure.

Our time there, however, seemed magical. From the warmth and dignified respect we received from everyone we met from the incredible U.S. State Department staff and local employees to the student musicians we mentored and, of course, the warmth of the audiences in Kampong Chom and Phnom Penh.The children of Cambodia had a big effect on me as I am missing my own so much during this month away. There were so many I saw working during the school day, selling food (including bugs of all kinds), fruit, or dancing for tourists. We were told by locals that some go to school in the morning and some in the afternoon. I can only hope this is true because we saw so many young children in the country drive to Kampong Chom working and panhandling during the day with their even younger siblings on their backs. Makes me especially thankful on this Thanksgiving for my three healthy and happy kids: Holden, Liv and Max.

We did see happy kids with their caring parents and giggling school girls who gathered and seemed thoroughly entertained by just watching us set up and sound check.Our shows were magical as well and a true exchange of cultures as we jammed with local Gamelan master musicians, Pu Klaing the Cambodian rapper and pop star Meas Soksophea of Cambodia, incorporating their sounds and ours into a wonderful mélange of true “world music” at both of our two major shows. Not to mention the professional sound, lights and staging! It's not every day one gets to perform on the double bass with pyrotechnics exploding all around!We had decided that on our last day in Cambodia - our day off - it was a must to go see this county's wonder in Siem Reap, the 12th century temples of Ankgor Wat. Missing that would be like missing the pyramids of Egypt. Exhausted though we were, our excellent guide, Mony (he’d been guide to both Hillary and Bill Clinton on their visits there) made our visit informative. He took us to see the three best temples in our limited time. The scale and detail of the bas relief carvings and sculptures left us awestruck, each depicting different Hindu and Buddhist legends. Some were so modern looking and well preserved that it seemed as if they could have been done yesterday.We left Sunday for Manila, The Philippines, after playing the wonderful opening concert for the Water Festival in Phnom Penh on the Friday evening before. We could not have imagined the terrible tragedy that would unfold at the final day of the same festival on Monday. More than 400 people were crushed to death and more than 500 injured in an apparent stampede and panic as one of the city's small bridges across the river swayed while overcrowded with festival revelers. Our deep condolences and prayers go out to the families of the men, women and children lost in this horrific event.It's a terrible lesson about public safety that Phnom Penh has had to learn the hardest way, but I know that these unbelievably strong people and this fantastically rich culture on the cusp of a modern day renaissance will surely endure.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

The Circle of Life

DAY 25: (Danny) In Cambodia, we played two big concerts and conducted a Master Class. Most of our days were quite busy - sometimes 16 hours long. So, on our one free day, we woke up early and left our hotel at 6:00 AM to fly to Ankor Watt to see the great temples and ruins. The flight from Phnom Phen was about 45 minutes long and a lot shorter than our other flights (with a lot less gear). Our liaisons, Michelle and Pekaday, were kind enough to set up the flights and arrange for a driver/guide. Mony is a friend of the Embassy and one of the most knowledgeable guides in the area. He was assigned to show the Secretary of State around just a few days before he was scheduled to show us around. And he had done the same for President Clinton so we knew we were in great hands and would learn a lot about the history of the temples. We got our passes to the Ankor Watt Eco Park for about $20 (U.S.) and proceeded to the first stop: Angkor Watt.

There are water filled moats surrounding the temple. The grounds are lush and expansive. We saw some funny monkeys by the entrance who were entertaining us and begging for bananas. Mony called them “tourist monkeys.” Our guide knew so much about every detail of these temples, I understood why he was chosen by the State Department to guide us. It was a bit overwhelming to hear all of the history at once and reminded me of touring the Vatican and cathedrals of Europe, except it's easier for me to wrap my head around the Christian history. We were all really tired and the heat was pretty intense but we made it through the grounds. Mony took us to lunch at a great open air restaurant where we had an amazing meal and purchased some gifts. After lunch, we went to see the famous temple filmed in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider.Nature had taken over the temple and the tree roots were growing through and over the rock. We took some great band shots and learned so much about this ancient culture. Pu Klaing had told me to pay attention at the temples in order to understand the Cambodian people and their history. He said to take it all in and someday, to try to put it into a song for all the world to hear. No easy task, but one that is inspired. We hit one more temple on the way back to the airport which was called the Smiling Buddha temple (look at the picture and you'll know why). I had to sit this one out and relaxed on the stone wall outside the entrance, where I observed the structure from the outside. I realized there are some things that can only be felt and are not possible to describe in words or intellect. I was overwhelmed by a sense of impermanence when I saw the crumbling stone and felt that just like these temples, all structures are unstable and pass one day back to the nothingness from which they were formed. This ancient city of temples was once home to millions of people who lived and died within the shadows of the temple walls. Their voices echo in the ruins and are a reminder that we are the awareness in which all life unfolds.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Silent Night...

DAY 22: (Joe) I was just preparing my first blog post in several days about our tour in Cambodia when I received news of the terrible tragedy which took place at the end of the Water Festival in Phnom Penh. We played last Friday night for an audience of 3,000 at Veal Preah Mehru, a park near the National Museum in Phnom Penh, as an opening concert for this festival. It’s difficult for us, as a band, to comprehend such a horrible ending to such a wonderful event. As a band, we send our deepest, heartfelt condolences to all our new friends in Cambodia. We were so well received and are so thankful to the Cambodian people for the wonderful experience and love they brought to us and our music.Cambodia is not what I had expected. I could write a huge blog post on what I saw and learned but I think for now, because of the pace we’re keeping in The Philippines, I’ll give the short version of something that touched my heart. I’m very sensitive about filming or photographing the pain of people who have suffered great losses in their lives. It's a bit voyeuristic, I feel, and nothing positive can come of it. However, on the entry path to Ankgor Wat, we passed a group of musicians playing traditional Cambodian music on traditional instruments.It all seemed normal to me, you know, the Cambodian version of street musicians. Upon closer view, I realized they were land mine victims from land mines left behind over the course of three decades of war. The fact that they were land mine victims wasn’t as striking as the spirit of the music they played. One of our main messages to students who attend our Rhythm Road Master Classes is to never give up one’s dream.These musicians are the living example of the power of the human spirit. Cambodia itself is proof of such a spirit. The most impressive thing about young Cambodians – more than 60% of the population is under 30 – is their forward-looking spirit. How do a people, whose recent history is so tragic, whose culture was all but destroyed, who lost by various estimates one quarter to one third of their population, how do these people maintain such a positive outlook on the future? I’m amazed by the Cambodians I met in my short stay. As an American, I feel a bit spoiled. We speak often of the dark cloud of slavery in our own county’s past and how the music we play is the silver lining of that dark cloud – all of the American music which finds its roots in slave songs, gospel and the blues. It seems we are about to see a cultural rise in Cambodia descending from the pain and suffering dealt by the Khmer Rouge reign and civil war. The people of Cambodia seem on their way to building a new Cambodian culture out of the ashes of the past.In our concert at Veal Preah Mehru, we invited a guest ensemble led by Keo Sonankavei, a professor of music at the Royal University of Fine Arts (RUFA) to perform. Keo brought a couple of very special instruments that he, himself, created based on traditional Cambodian instruments.These new instruments are based on the chromatic scale rather than the older traditional Cambodian scales. The modern versions of Cambodian instruments and the Cambodian musicians fit right into our ensemble jam session at the concert. For me, this was a wonderful cultural bonding experience, one that only happens when musicians share the thing they love: music. I have quite a bit more to say about this land of gentle people and great hope.But, for the moment, for myself and the rest of the Johnny Rodgers Band, we again send our deepest condolences for this recent tragedy at the Water Festival.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

In Your Eyes

DAY 21: (Danny) I've mentioned before that it's always bittersweet when we leave one country and travel to our next destination. This time, I feel especially sad to leave Cambodia and its lovely people. I’ve made so many friends in Cambodia and wish I had more time to spend with all of them. Even though only 1% of the country's population has Internet, I was amazed that almost everyone we’ve met is on Facebook. I'm looking forward to staying in touch and sharing pictures and videos.

We were so busy in Cambodia, we didn't have time to write or post many pictures or accounts of our time. We worked 16-hour days for almost the whole time. Driving, loading, unloading and of course, sound checks and performing. We love it all and the music is why we came on this trip but meeting all these people and the sharing of cultures is what’s changing our lives. I was constantly blown away by the youth of the population! 60% of the population is under the age of 30 and although the reason for this is unbearably sad, the resulting youthful population seems poised and ready to catapult into the future. Humble, kind, beautiful, warm, smiling faces greet you at every turn and there is a spirit of peace which permeates the air.

The day after we landed, we conducted a Master Class at the Ministry of Culture. There was a mix of western classical and traditional Cambodian music students and faculty.We had the singers improvise over the blues and had a great question and answer session.After the class, we rehearsed with some local artists who were to join us in our two big concerts. Meas Sok Sophea, a local singer who has the top song in the country and the great Cambodian rapper/MC, Pu Klaing, brought their artistry and flavor to the table. We rehearsed with the Ministry’s traditional percussionists and a great young band called Blackwood. This short rehearsal was all the time we had to put together a multifaceted and bi-cultural show to perform in Kampong Cham and Phnom Penh for more than 3,000 people at each concert.We had the chance to visit the U.S. Embassy and to meet with the Ambassador, Carol Rodley, which was both an honor and a thrill. We’ve had the pleasure of meeting three U.S. Ambassadors on this trip and always enjoy seeing the Embassies.

The drive to Kampong Cham was a three-hour journey through the artery of Cambodian life outside the city.The road was bordered by lean-to shacks and stilt houses that sometimes doubled as stores and sleeping quarters. There were no gas stations so there were stands on the side of the road selling gas in coke bottles for the scooters.The traffic thinned out some and the scooters gave way to bicycles as we got into the smaller towns and most of that traffic was school children coming home from the first shift. The students either went to school from 7:00-11:00 AM or 2:00-5:00 PM. The early shift seemed preferable because the temperatures weren't as high. We saw rice fields, Cambodian white cows, chickens, little horses and lots of dogs. We stopped for our first rest stop at a conglomeration of roadside stands and as soon as we stopped, young girls and children mobbed the van, trying to get us to buy their fruit and bananas. Each of the teenage girls had live tarantulas on their shirts and one gave me one to hold. I saw a giant basket of fried tarantulas and crickets at a nearby stand.

The drummer from Blackwood convinced one of the girls to let him have a tarantula which he brought into the van. I asked him to pass it to me where I was sitting in the front next to Michelle, our Embassy liaison. I had mentioned we had a spider in the car, but she thought I was joking until she saw it crawling around on my hand. I was impressed by how fast she jumped into the back seat. In the meantime, Joe and Johnny were getting a kick out of the CB radio in the van. They hadn't seen one in a while.When we arrived at our hotel in Kampong Cham, the afternoon sun was shining on the Mekong River. I’d heard about this river since I was a young child and finally, to see it was amazing. I heard Cambodian music coming down the river and I saw a junket-type boat pulling a traditional dragon boat. This type of long thin boat seats 50 rowers was being transported to Phnom Penh to participate in the Water Festival. Every year, crews and dragon boats are transported to the river festival to participate in races and competitions. Three million people were already descending upon the city to celebrate this year’s festival.The hotel in Kampong Cham had beautiful, wood-carved statues and chairs. The rooms had beautiful, ornately crafted wooden beds. My room also had a little balcony that overlooked the Mekong.In most of the countries we've been to, I've been a lobby rat, where I'm sometimes able to find wireless. The wireless at our hotel was down but I was able to get wifi at a great cafe next to the hotel - Smile Café - an open-air Cambodian restaurant that helps young people in need in conjunction with a Buddhist association. The owner and I became friends right away and because they were open daily until 3:00 AM, he saw a lot of me.

We went to the football (soccer) stadium to load in and do our sound check.As soon as we started playing, the field filled up with people on scooters and bicycles who were on their way home from work and school. They sat there on their bikes and watched us sound check and when we left to change, they rode away.

We came back to play the concert and when we saw the stage and lights, we were amazed by the volume of bugs flying around. It looked like it was snowing bugs! My white drum skins were covered in black bugs. When I walked on stage, I was swarmed by critters of every shape and size. I thought, I am one with these bugs, I accept them, they won't bite me. We've all been taking Malarone pills for malaria but forgot to bring our Deet cream. Not that it would have worked in this situation.I thought, don't open your mouth on stage, but I knew I had to sing and wondered how much protein I’d be taking in that night. Probably not as much as Johnny! It was funny to watch the guys battling the bugs at first and I saw everyone have a big one fly onto their ear or mouth. While I was playing, I found a Praying Mantis hanging on to my floor tom and I had to play around him for a few tunes. Brian went to play his gogo bells for Mary Jean and there was a giant grasshopper on the bell so he was late on his entrance because it freaked him out. Then I saw a giant brown bug on his neck that looked like it was about to suck the blood out of him.The stage had a giant backdrop with our pictures and there were about five smoke machines that kept clouding the stage. During one of the quieter tunes, I requested they be turned off because they made too much noise. There was a strobe light by the footlights that, at one point, made me feel as if I had been hypnotized.The MC Puh Klaing really got the crowd going with his intros and antics. He was great helping translate the song intros and keeping the crowd informed and entertained. They loved our music and when Sophea came out to sing two of her songs with us, they were even more excited. We played more of our set and then Puh Klaing came out with the Blackwood Band who gave the crowd some of its signature rock. They were great and when we came back on stage, he joined us for a great version of Ain't No Sunshine! We really enjoyed being on and off stage with him! Sophea came back with her dancers and after, we did a rocking version of You Can Leave Your Hat On.After the show, we hung out at the Smile Cafe with Pu Klaing by the Mekong River.

To be continued...