Monthly Archives: September 2011
Today was a life-altering experience for The Earth Stringband. Still in Vientiane, we began our morning with a workshop / concert at the Sihome School (Sihome means ‘beautiful fragrance’.) These kids were far younger than those at the workshop yesterday. This was a true cultural exchange – we shared our music, and when we were done, they shared their music and dance.
We took off our shoes and sandals when we came into the library to show respect for their culture. It’s easy to offend if care is not taken to respect these differences. For example, our signal for “this tune is about to end” is lifting our foot casually. We’ve been performing this action our whole musical lives and it is second nature. In Laos, we have learned that feet and especially showing the soles of your feet or shoes is a very sensitive and potentially very disrespectful action. To choose to take off our footwear, even though our translator offered to explain that it was because we were American and we are not familiar, was to set the tone of respect right from the beginning of the workshop. That tone grew warmer by the second as we began to play music and interact with the kids.
The Earth Stringband is a vibey band. While we’ll play and be happy in any situation because we love playing music together, when we are able to really engage our audience and there’s energy coming back, we feed off the vibes. The energy flowing in the library of the Sihome School was explosive, in the best possible way. While we did not speak the same language, music and dance functioned perfectly as a universal language. These kids had such great energy and we really connected with them on a human level. We fed off their energy as they fed off our energy, whether it was jumping up and down to the Old Time “Wolves ‘A Howling” or meditating to the Cajun waltz, “Chez Seychelles.” Watching the expressions on their faces as they reacted to our traditional music moved us deeply.
When we sat down on the floor to watch some students perform traditional Lao dancing, there was a moment before the dancing started in which a boy was rolling a die (singular of dice), enthralled by the results. He would hold up his fingers with the number it landed on and give a look of true excitement. Entertainment is relative. This is one of those little things that put a lot of other things in perspective for us.
We followed Noi Sengsuriya (who introduced us to the school today and also happens to be one of the most prolific people we have ever met) to one of her favorite Lao restaurants. From exotic vegetables to stomach lining soup to mysterious bitter sauce and really spicy papaya salad (I’m leaving out a Lao-t) this meal of traditional food, prepared by the multi-generational family who ran the restaurant, was off the charts delicious. While I’m in the foodie portion of the blog, I will mention that we really love Beerlao, the National Beer of Laos. It is a crisp, refreshing, balanced lager in the vein of Czech pilsners. The delicious hop flavor especially shines in Beerlao Gold, my personal favorite.
Later on, we performed in the Cultural Hall for the general public, all were invited. The American Ambassador to Laos, Karen Stewart, introduced us and we played two sets of music. After our first set, a group of Lao musicians who were students at the National School of Music and Dance (who we worked with yesterday) played a couple of traditional Lao tunes, followed by the culmination of what we learned from each other: they jammed on Cotton Eyed Joe with us (and even took raging solos!) and we jammed out with them on Cham par meuang lao (a beautiful song about the national flower) as 3 beautiful Lao dancers moved gracefully to the music.
Now, about to leave Laos tomorrow afternoon for Thailand, new adventures await. We’ll be moving forward with a great appreciation for the people and culture of Laos, and we will never forget these experiences. The Earth Stringband loves it here and we all hope to come back soon!
The culinary family:
So much has happened in the past 2 days, I just have to post these pictures from yesterday’s workshop and two more videos of Lao traditional music and dance performed by very young and very good musicians. Here we go:
Our third full day in Vientiane! Stash here enjoying a break before we go out to dinner with Mike Pryor, our Deputy Public Affairs Officer over at the US embassy. Today was an activity filled day with many lessons learned by all in the Earth StringBand. The day started with a workshop at Laos’ school of Music and Dance, the first official workshop the Earth StringBand has done. Being the first workshop, there was a definite nervous vibe in the air since we’d never taught to an audience that didn’t speak English, but the good stringband energy was channeled through the thick humidity and we were all sweating through our shirts before kicking off our first tune.
Since we were at the school of Music and Dance we were lucky enough to play with some very talented musicians. The instrumentation included gongs, xylophones, little ringy cymbals, and a cool drum played by a dude with cool hair; I think a Mohawk would suit this guy well. Instead of describing the music I’ll let the music speak for itself (Check video below!). There’s no doubt Lao music is an earthy concoction for the ages. We taught these guys the Earth StringBand’s version of Cotton-Eyed Joe. The lao music men learned the melody within minutes and were literally slamming it up to speed with that funky Laotian backbeat like it was their business.
The workshop soon moved to an awesome dance session. After Eric showed a few students how to do a basic shuffle step for fiddle tunes, one of the directors at the school got up and showed us how to dance a traditional Lao dance to the melody of Cotton Eyed Joe. With Eric posing as my female counterpart, they lead us through a dance that resembled a good old American square dance. At that point my pants had acquired very large sweat stains. I didn’t even realize one could sweat through one’s legs so much.
Finally, we invited the musician students to come and play with us at our concert tomorrow at the Vientiane Cultural Center. We all met later in the day at the Cultural center to rehearse our pieces and learned a beautiful Laotian folk song taught by the same students who learned Cotton-Eyed Joe earlier in the day. Wow, what an incredible tune! It’s one of those very triumphant melodies that makes you want to weep and laugh as you cross some sort of finish line, maybe after experiencing a tragedy. To top it all off, a woman by the name of saria brought 4 little girls to dance a traditional Lao dance to the song which radiated cuteness vibes across the whole 1500- seat hall.
Despite some small technical difficulties and Andy’s foray into fuse-replacement tactics on the mixing board, I think it’s safe to say today was an awesome unique workshop, and a true eye-opening experience both musically and personally. Check out the videos of our rehearsal and look out for some concert footage tomorrow. dang dang!
Hello earthstringblog readers, Eric here. What a day, what a day! We headed out for the embassy this morning for a meeting with the US ambassador to Laos, Karen Stewart. We all learned so much in just a half hour about the rich political/cultural history of this country and its relationship to surrounding southeast Asian countries and the US. Karen was quick to admit that being an ambassador is a pretty sweet gig. This became exceptionally clear to us upon arriving at her residence, a GORGEOUS property purchased by the US government in the 1970’s with a large downstairs area for social events. This intimate setting was the venue for our first concert of the tour, and we could not have asked for a better audience or warmer vibe.
During some shmooozing, hors d’oeuvres, and drinks before the show, we stumbled upon Karen’s personal collection of traditional Asian instruments in the hallway and just couldn’t resist (see video below). Before we knew it- SHOWTIME! We were a little nervous at first, but quickly loosened up as the audience’s radiant smiles and energy filled the room. ‘Twas a groovy melodious hootin’ hollerin’ JAYUUMM!! Two 40-minute sets later we didn’t want to stop, but I suppose eating and sleeping are gonna be necessary on this tour so all good things must come to an end. We were each presented with a beautiful bouquet of fresh roses after the performance and an hour of photographs and meet/greet followed.
A deeeeeeeeliciously spicy late night meal accompanied by our new favorite “Beer Lao” was last on the agenda for the day- we ate on a great little outdoor patio of a restaurant surrounded by a monsoon! The thick and sticky climate of this place is growing on me! alright alright ladies and gentleman it is bedtime for chroberson- we leave tomorrow morning to teach a workshop for 30 students at the National School of Music and Dance. till next time!
Hey everyone, Sam here checking in after our first full day in beautiful, vibrant Vientiane. After the initial wave of homesickness and culture shock subsided, we woke up this morning excited to have the day off and eager to explore Laos. This morning we met Pam, the cultural affairs officer with the U.S Embassy and she took us to her favorite traditional Lao eatery, the Kulao Restaurant, just a few blocks from our hotel. We let Pam do most of the ordering and we enjoyed a smattering of Lao favorites including sour fish soup, papaya salad, purple sticky rice, pork stew with dill, and fried crickets (see andy’s post). Surprisingly the crickets were actually pretty tasty, and they weren’t even the most bizarre thing on the menu…a few lines down I noticed the had steamed baby wasps!
After lunch we all walked down to the most incredible market for the most enjoyable shopping experience any of us had ever had. We each took 350,000 Kip down to the market (about $50 USD) and left with a plethora of silks, sculptures, t-shirts, and other handicrafts. It seemed like forever walking past stall after stall overflowing with ornate textiles and all the while friendly Lao women would pop their heads out bow and greet us with “Sa bai dee” (“hello” in Lao). If I keep buying souveniers at my current clip, I’ll probably have to stuff the inside of my folding bass with clothes to make room for them all! After the market we said goodbye to Pam for the day and wandered around until we came to the quintessential little smoothie stand. We all indulged in different exotic fruit drinks, stash had a Dragonfruit smoothie that was the most purple concoction any of us had ever seen (see below), Eric had guava, Monak drank coconut water straight out of a freshly chopped coconut, and Andy and I each had a smoothie made from a fruit so exotic neither of us can remember it’s name…but rest assured it was delicious! After smoothies everyone headed back to the hotel to relax a bit, with the exception of Chroberson (my favorite nickname for Eric Robertson) who went for am hour-long massage around the corner…I believe it cost him a whopping 9 dollars and judging by the pep in Eric’s step it was fully worth it!
We all went back to the Kunlao restaurant for dinner but mostly to see a traditional Lao music and dance concert. We were all completely blown away by how beautiful the music was and impressed by the amount of costume changes the dancers went through in just an hour and a half! I’m glad we had a day off to acclimate and get acquainted with the city, but I am ready to begin the musical portion of the rhythm road tomorrow night at the Ambassadors residence! Signing off for now…Kawp jai lai lai (thank you very much) for reading!
We are in the Bangkok airport, in transit! This post was written in my music notation Moleskine notebook which you can see below in this picture of my airplane tray table.
MN to Japan was my longest plane flight ever, for sure. We took a bus into the center of Narita (city near Tokyo where both the airport and our hotel were) and poked around a couple blocks. An entire flock of some small but very vocal small birds were gathered in the trees above us. Besides the birds, everything seemed very quiet. Commuters, students.. We had trouble finding a restaurant until we walked up to an elevated walkway that led to a train station. Through the other side was a whole other world, much more like the Japan I had imagined – flashing colored lights, cute looking tiny bars, little restaurants.. After a popular place was full, a couple steps further brought us to a beautiful medium sized restaurant with a sliding door entrance (couldn’t figure out how to get in for a moment). The entire kitchen staff greeted us with a loud unison friendly welcome! After getting through couple language barriers, we were able to order a pitcher of beer and some food. I don’t think the cold udon noodles on ice were exactly what my bandmates had in mind but it looked really good. My rice box (see my last mini blog) was a large, hot, splintering, wooden box filled with steamed rice (perfectly cooked), tender grilled salmon, and plentiful salmon roe. The wasabi was the freshest ever – a whole other world of wasabi. The beer in Japan that we were able to taste (I know for a fact the rabbit hole goes deeper but we weren’t able to find any Japanese craft beer) is not very flavorful but tastes very real. Extra light malts with herbal, mineral-like hop bitterness with extremely clean yeast profile.. refreshing and delicious!
As I sit here on the plane to Thailand (en route Laos) I’m left wishing we could have seen Tokyo proper and spent more time in Japan. Aside from a little noodling in the hotel room apres dinner, we did not get to play our instruments. I hope to come back, with a gig next time!
Update from Bangkok airport: Did I mention how excited I am to play music in Southeast Asia?! Not to mention the food which is amazing at every turn! So far the beef curry on Thai Royal Airlines has set a new bar for best airplane food ever. I sat next to a Japanese businessman, also 25, who runs a business selling orchids internationally. He was eager to practice his English and we both worked on how to order Thai food at the desired spice level. The snacks – mix of rice crackers and dried fish and the green tea ice cream add to my high rating of this flight. The seats were brightly colored, and you quickly see that the Thai culture is a very colorful culture. The vibe is very inviting. Now we’re in the airport, waiting to fly to Laos. Our first concert is on Monday! Even if this seems like a food blog right now, the music and cultural exchange is about to hit really hard and we are so ready to start picking tunes! Thanks everyone out there listening!
Below: Eric Robertson keeps calm on our flight
Hey friends! We made it through the longest flight ever to Narita / Tokyo airport in Japan. We are alive, well, and beyond excited! Monak from Jazz at Lincoln Center is traveling with us through Laos and Thailand. Speaking of Laos and Thailand, tomorrow early morning we fly from Japan to Laos via Bangkok. travel travel travel! This picture is of a cooked salmon / salmon roe rice dish from downtown Narita. Deeelicioius!
The Earth StringBand is intact and ready to go! Our faithful guide, Monak, missed her airplane to Boston this morning due to the rain but we’ll be meeting her in Minneapolis before our flight to Tokyo. We’re all looking forward to the 15 hours of flying! Dang Dang!
Today marks the first day of consuming Malaria medicine. This is a sure sign that in under 48 hours, The Earth StringBand will officially be off for Southeast Asia!
We’re almost 100% ready with all our equipment and generally having our things come together. We cannot wait to land on the other side of the world and spread the good stringband word!