Hello there Earth Stringband followers, Sam here reporting on our first full day in vibrant Cambodia.
We woke up this morning in Phnom Penh, the capital city of Cambodia, a city that seems to embody the “anything-goes” nature of the Khmer people. It is not uncommon here to see 4 or 5 people crammed onto a motorcycle weaving in and out of traffic, and apparently it’s not illegal either, provided the driver is wearing a helmet. Our first and only official concert here in Cambodia was at a busy Café right along the mighty Mekong river called the Blue Pumpkin. The show was a blast and the audience, a healthy mixture of Khmer locals and American and European ex-pats, seemed to really enjoy the Stringband energy. The folks from the Blue Pumpkin treated us to a delicious lunch and some of the best coconut ice cream any of us will ever enjoy here on earth. It is safe to say that the boys will be back for some more before we leave the city!
After lunch and a brief respite back at the hotel we headed out with Craig Gerard, one of the Public Affairs officers from the embassy (and a pretty darn good guitar player, I should add), to do a workshop at the Music Arts School in Phnom Penh. Although at first the audience seemed a little reserved but once we raged a few quick Oldtime tunes they opened up and it became clear that we were going to have an amazing musical exchange. There were kids of all ages there ranging from babies to 25 years-olds and although not everyone had an instrument it was clear that everyone had a deep appreciation for music. The 7-month-old son of Drew the school director was mesmerized by the bass, and apparently for the first time in his young life he started clapping along with the music (what a special moment!). We taught about the history of Bluegrass music and its influences and also about the roles of the instruments within the band. It was a blast seeing 30 smiling Cambodians stomping along with the bass, clapping with the mandolin, and beating on their chests along with the fiddle. Toward the end of the workshop Drew and Andy the two ex-pat directors of the school invited a group of the more advanced musicians to perform some traditional tunes for us. The Khmer melodies were beautifully haunting and everyone was completely enthralled by the music. The second tune that they played for us was a traditional Khmer song that was so similar to “you are my sunshine” that all the boys simply had to join in. This opened the door to a really incredible impromptu jam with the Earth Stringband boys learning a few Khmer tunes and teaching a few American tunes (angeline the baker, and boil ’em cabbage down) with everyone who didn’t have an instrument singing along and getting into the groove.
Although we love playing concerts, some of the most profound experiences we have had on this trip have been in workshop settings where we can really get to know people and share our music with them while also learning a lot ourselves. It is always amazing to communicate with someone who does not speak the same language on a purely musical level, and there is an immediate connection that is made that cannot be made with any other sort of dialect. I feel like I have made a lot of good friends here in Cambodia and I can’t even speak the language beyond sues dei (hello) and aw kuhn (thank you)! We are looking forward to the rest of our adventures here in Cambodia but for now I’ve got to catch some z’s for a long, music-filled day tomorrow.
Thanks for reading!
Tonight, The Earth Stringband played at the USA Ambassador to Thailand’s Residence for an audience of over 200 people. It was a huge honor and we met so many amazing people it’s hard to fathom. It capped the entire Thailand section of the tour for us, as we are now preparing to board a plane to Cambodia tomorrow morning (just a couple hours away!). What an incredible way to bid farewell to all of our first times in Thailand, Bangkok, Phitsanulok, Chiang Rai! It felt so great playing in the city in such an intimate and welcoming environment.
On the foodie front, I have to say I have of course been impressed with all of the Thai food we’ve been eating. There are many dishes that we’ve never heard of in America that are truly amazing, from fiery omelettes to insects to simple noodle soups. The culture and the food go deep together and we have all been getting deep into the spicy food (see recent posts for chili pepper reactions). I’ve learned how to order things seriously spicy and just like in the US, once you convince the Chef that you’re serious, they will really bring on the pain.
While we have been diligently blogging, there are a couple of really cool moments that haven’t been featured, so below you will find a couple of captioned pictures of really cool things that happend along the way:
Hello from Chang Rai, Thailand! The Earth Stringband woke up today with a hunger for some picking and singing. The rest day yesterday was awesome fun and very much needed but we’re all glad to get back to work and share and learn some music with the Thai.
We started with a workshop at the Mah Fah Luang University in Chang Rai and were introduced to both students from the school and members of the Chang Rai youth orchestra. Most of the students sported violins, and were also flanked by a few upright bass players and guitar players. We picked a tune for them and then sat and listened to one of their traditional Thai melodies. We also heard a rendition of a popular Coldplay tune as played by the local guitar duo in the workshop.
The Earth Stringband then split into a few groups and focused on teaching one tune, Seneca Falls Square Dance. Even though we love teaching together, it’s cool to see each of the guys’ personality come through in the teaching. Andy led his vioin orchestra through the melody phrase by phrase and implemented some fiddle-chopping techniques while Sam was in the room next door honing the bass flatpicking techniques he himself has been mastering over the years. Eric was hanging out with everybody, picking with the bass guys and jamming with the violins.
He came into my room later on to help out with some of the vocal improvisation my group was working on. I learned that we also had piano, saxophone and drumset players present on top of just guitar players so the melody in my group was taught through voice. After learning to sing the whole melody, we delved into melodic conversations, switching off everybody’s version of the A part of the Seneca Falls Square Dance.
One of the guitar players’ Steve Vai influence was apparent as he improvised his own little twangs into the Seneca Falls melody. We also encouraged each person to imitate their specific instrument as they sang the variations. There’s always a little place for distortion and whammy bars in fiddle tunes.
We returned to the hotel after a nice lunch at the local hospital. We thought this might be the best place for Sam to try exotic fish which he’s mostly been avoiding due to allergic-reaction-potential. We thought there’d probably be no better place to have your throat close up than the local Thai hospital(health tourism is huge here!). Sam still avoided the seafood however, probably for the better.
After the lunch and a short break we geared up for sound check. The concert tonight ended up being a huge success. Between all the publicity help we got from the Mah Fah Luang university, the city of Chang Rai, and the US embassy we were able to practically fill up a whole 1400 seat hall. Tonight was also my personal foray into the thai language arena.
We totally appreciate the translators who have helped us at all the gigs, but there’s no greater feeling than uttering a few seemingly meaningless syllables and hearing the crowd react with a radical passion. The music tonight also felt really inspired between the band members. We’ve decided to use microphones and put them all really close together to match the same kind of vibe we have when we’re playing together in our rooms back home in Brighton.
Even though we can’t crank the volume like we can with pickups on the instruments, I felt that the intimacy of the stage setting allowed for a nice connection between us and the big audience.
The show was followed by a warm meet-and-greet. We got to talk to people of all ages and everybody was so gracious and welcoming.
Learning so much about the language and being able to share all this music in Thailand was a great reminder of the good times that are yet to come. I think we’re all starting to gain a true appreciation for the workshop environment and seeing how between music and select phrases in the local language you can communicate an infinite amount of information. Tomorrow we play at the ambassador’s residence in Bangkok and then we’re off to Cambodia! Til next time…
Beautiful song played by a long neck woman near Chang Rai
Hello folks this is Eric here to tell ya about our last couple days in beeeeeautiful Thailand! We finished our time in Phitsanulok with a live TV broadcast on saturday afterrnoon- big thanks to our intimate studio audience, radiantly friendly host, and sound/ film crew for a great show! Big ups to Izaak from the US embassy for killin’ the interview. After the show we changed outta our fancy clothes and geared up for the five hour drive to Chang Rai- on our way out Dang, Administrator at Pibulsongkram Ragaphat Univerisity, gave us two big bags of small bananas for the drive (it seems like the longer we’re here, the smaller the bananas get and the smaller the bananas get, the better they taste!)
Driving through the mountainous Thailand country was a nice break after all the gigs, and we stopped at the nicest little outdoor restaurant for come chronic home cookin. We were the only people at the place and toward the end of the meal, I thought it was about time for a chili pepper eating contest. I’m not one for super super spicy foods, but Andy and Stash were ready to compete to see who was the real man of the Earth String Band. I took to the position of referee/ cameraman and ohhh boy did I get some footage (check out the video below).
We awoke in Chang Rai this morning for our day off and set out to ride Elephants through a little village, the name of which I can’t remember or probably spell. After a half hour boat ride, we jumped onboard the elephants (never thought I’d get to say that) and began our hour long journey, though it wasn’t long before some serious turbulence. We were on four elephants marching in a row when suddenly the first elephant was scared by some chickens, which caused the second elephant (Sam and Izaak) to charge at the first, which then caused the third elephant (me and Stash) to turn around and run in the other direction. It was terrifying and totally awesome. We continued through the village for an hour and then fed the elephants bamboo and bananas upon our return.
We departed the elephant camp to check out the Longneck Hill Tribe- I’ll let the pictures and videos speak for themselves. That’s all for now, I’m all full of fried Thai street food and coconut ice cream, and we wake up early tomorrow for a music school workshop followed by an evening concert at Mae Fah Luang University. Ra tee sa was! (good night!)
Hello dearest Earth Stringband followers, on Thursday we bid adieu to the beautiful city of Vientiane and the great people of Laos and hopped on a plane to Bangkok! So far we have been hitting the jackpot with the help we are receiving from U.S embassies (Pam, Saeng, Mike, Kaman, and Poung in Laos, and Izaak, Kelly, and Simon here in Thailand) and we were whisked through both airports by expeditors! Once we arrived in Thailand we crept slowly through the infamous Bangkok traffic towards our ludicrously luxurious hotel, the Bangkok four seasons. It is safe to say that all the boys felt pretty out of place in a five star hotel, but that doesn’t mean we didn’t make the most of it (I’ve got all the stationary tucked away somewhere in my bag, and I spent the better part of Thursday night in a bathrobe and slippers!). After we unloaded our gear we all went to the famous MBK mall for what have got to be some of the best food-court vittles known to man (both the green and red curries were to die for). The MBK was a complete sensory overload, we each had a few items on our list but it’s not so easy to decide where to shop when there’s an entire floor devoted to each thing you are looking for. We walked past what seemed like a quarter-mile of Camera shops before we found stash the right battery, and another quarter-mile of clothing stores before I could decide on some socks to buy!
Yesterday was another travel day and then we had our first performance here in Thailand. We flew to Phitsanulok on a prop-plane painted like a bird, and were greeted with wonderfully fragrant garlands by Dang, one of the department heads at the Pibulsongkram Rajabhat University where our performance was. Dang took us to a wonderful little noodle house right on the river where we all dangled our feet off of the edge of a pagoda and scarfed down some of the best pork noodles we’ve ever encountered (this wasn’t the only incredible meal Dang would treat us to that day). After lunch we dropped off suitcases in the hotel and headed to the University for soundcheck and a concert. The concert was in honor of His Majesty’s 84th Birthday and I asked Dang to help me say “we would like to take this opportunity to wish His Majesty the King a happy birthday” in Thai. Stash deemed my little oration “the king’s speech” and it was received with an uproar and a few hundred smiling Thai faces.
Although we didn’t know what to expect as far as audience reaction, people really enjoyed the music and the energy of the band and by the end of the concert people were hootin’ and hollerin’ and the Vice president of the university got up out of his chair and started dancing (I think this thoroughly impressed all of the students). The show was followed by a meet a greet the likes of which none of us had ever experienced before. We rushed off stage to put our instruments in the green room and as soon as we stepped out we were met by a mob of ecstatic college kids and an out-pour of adoration that none of us knew exactly how to handle. We spent a half an hour surrounded by the students signing autographs and taking pictures until there were spasms in our cheek muscles but we loved every minute of it (stay tuned for pictures), it was our own mini-Beatlemania.
After the concert Dang took us out for the most incredible Thai meal any of us have ever had at one of the best restaurants in town. He did all of the ordering and all of us were thoroughly impressed not only by all the food but by all of the knowledge that the Thai people have of what goes into the food and also what to goes well with everything. I think we will delegate the rest of the ordering on the tour to Kelly Jitjang the Cultural Affairs specialist who is traveling with us and any other Thais who we meet along the way! The highlights of the meal for me were the bean salad with shrimp, the pork leg, and the green curry but I heard from the rest of the boys that the serpent-head fish and coconut soup with fish balls were also to die for. The Thai food here is so delicious and vibrant I don’t know how I’ll ever go back to eating it in the states but I’m sure life will go on. After dinner Eric and I went back to the hotel and each got a 2 hour Thai massage! We were both so relaxed after the meal and massage that we had no further recourse but to pass out (explaining the tardiness of this blog). We are all loving Thailand and the Thai people and we can’t wait to see a lot more of this incredible country this week! That’s all for now. Stay posted for more pictures. Thanks for reading!
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!