Friday began with a much appreciated morning off. I woke up around 9 and set out for a long walk around Bishkek. I always enjoy walking the places that we visit. Bishkek is very walkable and seems safe at all times of day or night. While the air quality can present a challenge, one would be hard pressed to find a major city with more public parks than this one – all filled with sculptures, statues, memorials, and far more trees than I’ve ever seen in any city anywhere. In fact -we’ve been told – during the Soviet times, Bishkek (then known as Frunze) had more trees than any other city in the entire Soviet Union. While the Soviet Union is no more, the trees and parks have survived!
I had one goal on my walk: Find a copy of the first Harry Potter book in Russian for my next-door neighbors who collect such things.
Along the way, I stumbled upon some protestors outside of a government building.
Unfortunately I don’t know what their message was. (Anyone who can read the Kyrgyz writing, feel free to chime in!) I tried to ask a nearby officer, but he could’t understand my English and I could understand neither his Kyrgyz or his Russian. Regardless, it is nice to see that the right to protest is an acceptable thing here – which of course it was not for many decades.
After a brief press interview for a local website, and lunch around the corner from our hotel, it was off to rehearse with our new friends Ordo Sakhna in preparation for tonight’s concert.
We had already planned for a two song collaboration during our previous rehearsal with these talented and easy-to-get-along-with artists. Then something happened during our soundcheck that led to a third song. There was some fun teasing of each other about the way we all speak our own languages, (and the way we try to speak each other’s languages). That’s when one member of their group began to sing the Ben E. King classic, Stand By Me. We added harmonies on the chorus, then Aaron and I chimed in with the second verse. We knew immediately that this had to become a part of the set!
Here is another fun moment that happened during soundcheck. Is Ben giving the banjo lesson, or is he receiving the banjo lesson?
The purpose of our being here is to celebrate 25 years of friendship between the US and Kyrgyzstan. It is The Dostuk Music Festival – dostuk is Kyrgyz for “friendship.” Tonight’s event was the keystone of the week in that respect. This was the closing reception of a daylong conference highlighting the relationship between our two countries, held at the American University of Central Asia. The event was reminiscent of many receptions we’ve performed for at various embassies on the several State Department sponsored tours that we’ve been lucky enough to be a part of – compete with appetizers, libations, and diplomats rubbing elbows & “letting their hair down” a bit. We performed a short set, followed by Ordo Sakhna performing two songs. Then we combined forces for the final three songs of the night, closing it out with Stand By Me.
Here Is a piece of Ordo Sakhna’s first song, just to give you a taste of the traditional Kyrgyz music they play.
After our set, as the reception was wrapping up, we mingled around the room, meeting some of the many American diplomats in attendance. Each one I spoke with emphasized the importance of our role as musicians in this event, for preserving and bettering relations between the U.S. Kyrgyzstan in this particular case. They remarked that this type cultural exchange goes much further than any other type diplomacy that an embassy can offer when it comes to building bridges between cultures and emphasizing our similarities over our differences. That it makes the embassy’s job much easier when there are positive cultural exchanges to draw upon and share. I have had these thoughts and feelings often on these tours to different corners of the globe. From the rooftop jam session in Nouakchott, to backing up amature rappers in the poorest neighborhood of Monrovia, to finding common interests with musicians and audiences in central Russia and beyond… Music builds bonds between people. It makes us smile and dance with each other. It creates positive communication when words fail us.
I can not emphasize enough how much I believe this to be true. I believe it because I’ve seen it and experienced it first hand many times. I don’t consider myself “patriotic” in the sense that the word tends to be used, yet I am proud of what our country does when it comes utilizing to this type of cultural exchange to bridge gaps and maintain friendships with our fellow nations. It encourages us to simply be good humans with one another. I am proud to be a part of it, and hope that our country will have the good sense to continue this type of cultural diplomacy in the years to come.
We come here as American people. Playing our American music. Sharing our American experiences that we have living in America. We meet Kyrgyz people -some of whom play Kyrgyz music- most of whom live their Kyrgyz lives in other ways. They share with us their experiences of living as Kyrgyz people in the Kyrgyz Republic. At some point in our interactions we forget about our identity as “American,” and they forget about their identity as “Kyrgyz.” We laugh about our differences and we delight in our similarities. That is the point at which we know that we are successfully doing our job – both as cultural diplomats, and as human beings on this Earth. If a life can be measured by how many bridges one builds, as opposed to how many walls, then I am confident that we are doing good.