Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Doctor Is In!

Dr. Lonnie Smith

Johnny:  JORDAN

All of us can learn life lessons from legendary jazz musicians.

Joe once told me a story about seeing the great organist Dr. Lonnie Smith in concert at Smoke Jazz Club on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

Dr. Lonnie Smith at Smoke, NYC

Dr. Lonnie was about to play a song when he suddenly stopped and looked up at the audience.
He thought for a moment and smiled, then said, “You know, it’s funny.  Sometimes I sit at this organ and I have no idea what I’m going to play.”  Then he laughed.
That comment has really stuck with me.

In music, as in life, we have no idea what surprise is around the next corner.  The only thing we can really bring to the table is our good intentions, open hearts and minds, and our reaction to what the moment offers us.

I feel the same way about this tour.  I had only abstract visions about what I would encounter.
Like music, my experiences so far have left me searching for words to describe them.
I am thankful for the sounds, images, good memories, and new friends we made in Jordan.
We certainly attempt to document special moments on our video cameras and in photos, but technology never truly captures the magic of the living moment, especially in music.

Feeling the Moment

I know I am changing for the better through sharing music.  I trust I am not the only one the music changes.

Here is a small collection of images that are but small representations, mental bookmarks, of some of my memories of our time in Jordan...

All Aboard!

Jordanian Olive Trees - Rachael Ray, Eat Your Heart Out!
Mudman's New Axe - MUCH LIGHTER!
Veiled Serenity
Unanimously Approved
Cotton-Eyed Joy
Aaaaay! - Arthur Fonzarelli would be proud...
Backbeat - On 2 and 4
Peas & Carrots
Music - Always Plenty For Everyone

Our New Pal, JP @ Mood 92
Sally, Our Guest Conductor in Irbid
Heartfelt thanks and praise to Ambassador Jones and the US-Jordanian Embassy Staff:
Karin Ehlert, Reem Abdel Hadi, Haytham Hamad, Ramzi Abu Mohammad, Emad Al Mushati, and the many others who worked so hard and made it look so easy.
Our time here was short, but the ambitious programming and smooth handling of it made it feel so full and satisfying.
We hope to return soon...

Karin Ehlert (left) & JRB with UNRWA School Staff (and 2 mischievous students - boys will be boys!)

"Grateful, Grateful, Truly Grateful I Am.
Grateful, Grateful, Duly Blessed and Truly Grateful.”
~ John Bucchino



To be honest I was very reticent about going on this tour at all. Leaving my family, my hard working wife and 3 wonderful kids to go to anywhere for a month is reason enough for pause. Compounding my concerns is the fact that some of the countries on this tour have had 'Arab Spring' events all year in the news. More than any other tour that I've ever left home for this one took the most personal courage for me to leave the 4 parts of my heart stateside and quell my own fears and preconceived notions. However, in Jordan the higher purpose and opportunity that the good people of the state Dept have provided us with came into clear focus and this has given my spirit strength and my music renewed intent.

Day 1 was a free day to have some R & R and ease our jet lag. We took the opportunity to visit the Dead Sea with our amiable and ever helpful guide and facilitator Emad. As you can see from the posts and pix above that hi jinx ensued and a fun and relaxing time was had by all.

That famous Dead Sea mud really does do wonders for the skin making it feel smooth and supple when you wash it off.

The guys call me 'Mudman' in the band so ofcourse I was the one to get slathered head to toe. Most Americans only get to do this unique salt sea visit from the Israeli side and not the uniquely beautiful Jordanian side. However, as I gazed across the water to the land on the other side, so near you could almost swim for it, I found it a bit hard to be so close but yet so far from Eretz Yisrael. 

The countryside between Amman and the Dead Sea coast was dotted with unique Bedouin tent dwellings and their small herds of sheep.

We were told if we were to approach these temporary homes the people living in them would welcome us with open arms and break bread with us without hesitation as is their custom.

Day 2 had us playing for kids aged 7-11 at the UNRWA School of Wehdat, the oldest and largest Palstinian refugee camp in Amman. Their enthusiasm and apprciation of our performance touched us all very deeply. They were so sweet and open in thier expressions of joy from the music. One girl said she had never seen people playing music before. This was the moment I realized how important it was for me to take this journey along with my band brothers and what this tour is really about and ofcourse what a powerful force for good music can be. As I was packing up saying goodbye to the kids I could not help being misty eyed from the experience.

That evening we played a free concert open to the public concert at The Al Hussein cultural center in downtown Aman to a crowd of about 300 people. The new American Ambassador to Jordan, Stewart Jones introduced us and said some brief remarks.We really enjoyed playing this perfectly sized concert hall and it's good acoustics helped my bass sing the way I like it to. Our sound AV engineer Ramzi Abu Mahammad couldn't have been more patient and helpful in securing and transporting the right equipment for all our performances in Jordan. The audience was warm and receptive to our music and we enjoyed playing an encore for their standing ovations. What a unique and great day, practically a dream!

On our 3rd and last day in Jordan we traveled to the city of Irbid in the north of the country to play and conduct a workshop at The Princes Basma Center, a youth center for young adults where they learn art, computer graphics as well as music. We were touched by the art work that they made for us from downloaded pictures of us off the web.

I was surprised at the hi tech bank of computers that they had for the kids, complete with the latest scanners and web cams. Their welcoming director Ruba Shaddad told be they were learning how to use Photoshop and other graphic programs. They also had a small, but nice recording studio. We performed for the kids and then encouraged the musicians among them to perform for and then with us.We really enjoyed the percussionists, violinist and keyboardist that played. We joined them in an informal jam session in their Mid-Eastern style and I couldn't help thinking how similar the groove was to alot of the Klezmer music that I play back in NY. They were really talented and the keyboardist was proud to tell me that he had won 1st prize in a nation wide competition, but he lamented that he only could play in an "oriental" style and he did not know "occidental" style. I told him how great he played and how interesting his improvising was. Johnny remarked that he could superimpose his style on top of our western style to create something new. Musically this kind of cultural exchange is one of the main goals of our wonderous journey. There is alot more to come...

Goodbye Dubai


Last night we spent the night in Dubai on our way to Djibouti. We stayed in this really modern hotel in the terminal, an expediting service handled our baggage, instruments and tickets etc. The Dubai airport has some amazing duty free shopping and reminds me of a mini Vegas. We had enough time for a few hours sleep and then we caught our flight. Right now we are flying over Saudi Arabia, I looked out the window and I got so thirsty;)

We arrived in Djibouti and were met by such heat on the tarmac, that I thought I would burst into flames.
but as soon as I stepped on to the continent of Africa, I could feel something special. I have never been here before, but it felt like I was returning to a place I had visited long ago.

Our instruments & bags got here ok and the airport crew carried our gear in the 100 degree heat. It's usually 113 in the daytime, so this a big relief;)

We met our US Embassy liaison, Omar and on the way to the hotel, he briefed us on our schedule for the next few days. The drive to the hotel was enlightening and when we stopped to get some supplies in town, we saw a lot of poverty in the streets. The unemployment rate is about 60% or higher. The local government and the port are the biggest employers.

We got to our hotel and it really is an oasis in the middle of a desert. Because this is the only deep water port in East Africa, there is much international competition and commerce that surrounds the area.
The hotel houses service men, service women and civilians from around the world. The hotel, like Djibouti, sits on the Gulf of Tadjoura and the Red Sea. Somalia is to the south and many ships that have been taken from Somali pirates, came from this port.

Almost all business and government offices close and the men go home snd chew a green leaf called Qat. It is like a stimulant at first and then it mellows you out. They will chew it all afternoon and into the evening. Two times it was tried to be outlawed and both times, it erupted in to civil war.

It's sold in little huts and shaded spots, because it's photo sensitive and loses potency after a few hrs. it is transported daily from Somalia.

Omar took us to a cultural youth center, where we performed for about 100 students. There was a sax player and a guitarist. We played some tunes by ourselves and then we played a song with the guitarist. He picked, Hit the Road Jack and we played it in some Country, Reggae, African feel.

Then the sax player played a local modal melody and we joined in with her. Omar said that this is probably the only time these kids will see American artists perform live in the next 10 years. We did a lot of call and response and Omar was amazed at how interactive the kids were today. He was also very surprised that a female student got up to play.

Here's some pics of the outdoor area of where we played and the stage where we will play this evening for some older students.

After the workshop, Omar took is to a very small restaurant that only serves baby goat and a long grain rice. You can pick out the goat in the back and then it is slow cooked for hrs. We didn't pick out the goat, but I took some pics of the ones out back.
I'm usually a vegetarian, but when in Rome...;) I tried some of the crispy skin and I must say, the goat with the rice and spices was pretty amazing!