Intro: It’s important to note throughout this part of our two month tour that we’re dealing with the same curiosities and lack of knowledge that a lot of Americans do in regards to the Middle East and even Saudi Arabia specifically. While the band has toured in a Muslim country before (Mauritania), Saudi is considered one of the more conservative countries in this vein, all while making some huge strides in our philosophical direction, recently. To be honest, several disparaging remarks have been posted on social media about this trip. It has been difficult to figure out how to deal with them and for the most part we ignore them. We too find it difficult to understand some of the fundamentals of life over here, but we’re all determined to take it in with an open mind. The people here have been welcoming and warm to us. While the goal of these State Department trips is to connect our cultures in a meaningful way, it has become clear that one of the byproducts of the trips is that they educate us quite a bit. We’re still soaking it all in, but to say that it has been enlightening is an understatement. While we may not agree with everything we see in this world, it seems clear that holding the people of any given country responsible for their government or religion’s decisions may not be a useful point of view. With that out of the way, we hope you enjoy the story of our trip. It has been really exciting so far.
Wednesday Feb 10th – Friday Feb 12th.
By the time we landed in Saudi Arabia (6pm on Thursday) we were in that weird sleepless state that this kind of long trek puts you in. The ride from the airport was a blur but you can’t help immediately noticing the stunning architecture of Riyadh. Fanciful buildings that don’t look possible dot the skyline and there are new structures being built continually.
At 1pm on Friday we loaded our gear into a van and headed to the Ambassador’s house for a sound check. It initially seemed odd that we were sound checking a full two days before the big event, but it quickly became clear how big this soiree really was going to be. More on that later…
Friday evening we were taken by our new friend Waiel to the Diriyah Historical District (which is a UNESCO World Heritage site). You can see from the pictures how beautiful it is. Even thought this country is relatively young, its location in the desert gives it this otherworldly feeling.
Being that it was Friday, the Muslim holy day, we (as single men) weren’t allowed into the restaurants in this district. So, Waeil took us to a traditional Saudi eatery downtown. We arrived in the middle of evening prayer and had to wait for about 15 minutes. Though things are changing some here, Saudi Arabia is still a fairly conservative Muslim country. During prayer every business closes it’s doors for the duration. Aaron found himself in a Dairy Queen (yes, really) in the middle of prayer as the doors were locked up and blinds set down. He had to wait it out in silence, which sounded like a interesting if not enlightening experience. It really does feel good to witness these things in person. There’s so much confusion and misunderstanding about Islam in the US (ourselves included) and having a direct connection to is makes it all less mystifying.
Dinner was simply amazing. Waeil is one of the kindest people we’ve ever met and he more than happily answers any questions we have with impunity and honesty. It became clear to us all that he’s going to be a lifelong friend.
Saturday Feb 13th
Saturday night was our first chance to connect with some Saudi musicians and it was exhilarating. Public music performance is forbidden here, which is hard to grasp for an American, but it doesn’t stop people from being accomplished musicians. There were so many fantastic moments that it’s difficult to encapsulate into a blog like this. They performed for us and we did so in return. When we played the Saudi Arabian tune we learned, they just about fell out of their chairs and began singing with us. The minute we finished playing, a jam erupted. They taught us a new melody and that somehow evolved into us playing “Sweet Child of Mine” (GnR) with the younger kids in the room. It was all surreal and beautiful.
Here’s a video of something that started out as a jam and evolved into us all being completely blown away by this guys Oud skills.
And this is probably one of our favorite moments of the trip so far.
Our final day in Riyadh was the National Day celebration at the Ambassador’s house. This was a massive event with 1500 guests, most of whom were Saudi and other nationals from all over the world. The event was effectively the Fourth of July celebration but much earlier in the year due to conflicts with Muslim holidays. The theme of the party was “State Fair” and there were booths throughout the compound designed to give a genuine feel of this seminal American event. We were busy playing and singing the national anthem throughout the whole thing so it was difficult to get pics.
There were some wonderful moments throughout the evening, including our performance of Ya Reem Wadi Thaqif, which got all the Saudi’s up and singing along with us. After the show I checked twitter and a bunch of people had posted things about the event in Arabic. Luckily twitter offers you the ability to translate. We were touched by the things they were saying.
Stay tuned for more, folks. We’ve still got Jeddah and Dammam coming up and then we head off to Europe!