May 4, 2015 – 24 hours of plane/car travel from Seattle, USA to Budva, Montenegro.
When I asked my American friends if they knew about Montenegro, I receive an abundance of answers:
- Yes, James Bond lived there.
- Yes, it is off the coast of France.
- Yes, they have a Prince there, right?
- Yes, it is in South America.
- Yes, this is the Spanish name for the Black Hills of South Dakota.
- Yes, it's in the Baltics.
I knew it was one of the countries that grew out of old Yugoslavia, but that was about it. Spending nearly a week here should add to my information about the place.
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This festival was put together by our good friend Sasha Cheparukhin. I first met Sasha at the Russian border in 2001 when King Crimson made it's first, and last, performances there. These were serious cultural events and Sasha wanted to make damn sure that we, and all of our equipment, made it into the country safely. Since then, I have been to Russia 9 times – each time with Sasha at the helms.
This time Sasha was pioneering a festival outside of Russia. He was brought to Montenegro to make a cultural event that would be, both, modern and ancient – bringing together world music traditions and modern musical performers. He wanted an event that would do all this and make collaborations with local Montenegrin musicians at the same time.
Obviously, I wasn't brought in as world music traditionalist! But Sasha's brilliant idea was to bring KTU (the group with Pat Mastelotto, Finnish accordionist Kimmo Pohjonen and myself) to perform at the festival and do a few collaborations. However, at the same time, he enlisted to me to participate in the last big event of the night: a one + hour set with a cast of characters from all over Russia and Montenegro.
These were some of the groups and players involved
KTU (USA, Finland)
Dakha Brakha (Ukraine)
Angela Manukyan (Russia)
Namgar Lkhasaranova (Buryat Republic)
Radik Tyulyush (Tuvan from the group Huun-Huur-Tu)
Robert Yuldashev (Bashkortostan)
Merlin Ettore (Canada)
Goran Vukovic (Montenegro)
Evgeniy Zolotarev (Buryat Republic)
I had met and worked with several of these folks before. Most notably Inna and her band. And there were several here who I knew of, but had never played with. Radik of Huun-Huur-Tu for one – who Sasha has a long history with.
In addition to KTU doing our first gig together in over a year (with only a few hours of rehearsal time available to us), I was to be thrown into a room with about 18 other musicians to make a performance. We had 2 and half days. Oh, and only a few people could speak English. Also it is worth mentioning, my Russian is limited to curses and toasts.
Thankfully Sasha had organized a similar-ish event in Perm, Russia a year or so ago with some of the same players. So, at least we had a template to begin from. Also, Merlin-from-Berlin (drummer extraordinaire) had already participated in a few warm up rehearsals in Moscow over the previous week. He had sent Pat and myself a bunch of mp3s of some of the raw ideas. Sasha had also sent some mp3s. And then Grebstel-the-Bass-Monster-of-The-Farlandars had, also, sent some mp3s. What was hilarious, and foreshadowing, was that many of the mp3s were some of the same material but different versions, and with different titles. So, I had made up a kind of spreadsheet with, what I thought, were the correct pieces that went with each different singer and each different title.
Of course, true hilarity began when I showed up at rehearsals in Budva to 18 people speaking Russian (I think?) and to find out that most of my information about the pieces was incorrect. Different singers were doing different pieces, different titles went with different pieces and...geez my jetlag is now making me slump over.
But we pushed through and eventually the Goat Song became clear from the Wedding Song (never, ever, ever mix those two up. Bad, bad things happen!) For myself, I would be improvising a ton. But I still had to sort out which keys and modes for each piece. And then which sounds belonged where. Amusingly one of the key ingredients I was asked to contribute to many of these player's pieces was the wild, out-there furious solos and heavy riff stuff that I sometimes do. If you listened to the original pieces you would never think in a million years that this would be the right thing to add. But when a Russian asks to you spasm wild dissonance over a folk song you don't argue. You flip your Furious Switch on.
Pat showed up the second day and now we had two full drum kits blasting. Oh, did I mention that we were rehearsing in the hotel? With the doors thrown right open out into the courtyard. This made for the occasional amusement when a local just couldn't control their dancing feet:
video of Dancer during Inna's rehearsal. You can hear me soloing while this sexy man does his sexy dance.
By the end of the second day my fog was beginning to clear. Now I could start to see how this was going to work. Though by the end of the second day Kimmo had arrived, with Philip (our KTU manager) and Hessu (our sound man in quad – he has two sets of ears.) So now I had to contend with drinking and Finnish humor.
The next video was typical of our rehearsal discussions. With local Montenegrin group Zora. Cool tune in 7/8. Our boy Kimmo leading the solo sections. Then the wonder of Dakha Brakha takes a solo section right before the recap.
Much of the third day of rehearsals was dedicated to KTU getting our feet back into our material. Our set would be slightly shorter than we were used to so we had to cut a few tunes. No worries, we still had our powerhouse pieces; Kataklasm, Absinthe & Voima. Additionally we would be doing a piece with Dahka Brakha, a quartet from the Ukraine. I love this group. One of my strongest memories of them was being at a festival in Kazan, Russia with KTU. We all went out for a big celebration dinner the net day. After we finished our meal, Dakha got up and sang an a cappella piece (joined by Inna Zhelannaya) that brought tears to our eyes.
For the life of me I can't seem to be able to remember the name of the piece KTU would be doing with Dakha Brakha. But it was absolutely wonderful. Here is a rehearsal segment:
And here is a link to their Tiny Desk concert performance:
And speaking of tears – the third night at our local dinning spot here on the bay in Budva we were sipping the fantastic Montenegrin wine Krstaç. A super dry white. Suddenly the waiter arrived with 5 shots of Dunya – the local spirit. It came with this note:
Oi! Hurrah. There were the Dakha's down at the other end of the restaurant.
Na Zdorovie! But, now....how will we return the toast? We must up the ante on them. We asked our waiter if they had any drinks with fire – lot's of fire. But no. So, after much discussion we decided the best thing to do was to double-up and send them back two shots each. Which we did.
After finishing our meal we stopped by their table to say goodnight just as the waiter was delivering another round of Dunya shots to our, now empty, table. He ran over our way and put one in each of our hands. Now we were in trouble because Dakha was going to sing for us. Which is both awe inspiring and tear inducing. As Kimmo had said at dinner, the best thing in the world is to have Dakha Brakha sing to you. And they have done this a few times for him when they have been out for a meal. The only drawback being that it is impossible not to weep. And here we were. Would they sing? Oh yes. Were there tears? Oh yes. All around. Wonderful magic.
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The day of show was now upon us. And for me, it was going to be an insanely long day. I was playing a song with Inna and Farlandars, then a set with KTU, then a piece with Dakha Brahka and the another whole set with the MonteSteppe project and then the finale with the addition of every musician who had been onstage that evening. And that was just the show this evening -- first I had whole day of sound checking all of these projects.
I was woken up extra early with the message that I had to leave right away because, now, KTU would be sound checking several hours earlier than planned – 10:00am. So I rushed and rushed and we got all of our gear over to the venue. And, of course.... the stage was not ready for us. In fact it wasn't ready for another two hours! Oi! Suck-o. So now we sit around and try to contain our energy for the day.
The gig was on the beach here in Budva. An idea setting in a beautiful bay.
Eventually KTU got our sound check with, to be blunt, a small nightmare of the monitoring-kind. I am more convinced than ever that having someone other than me running the monitor system is a crap idea. Having someone who doesn't speak the same language as me running the monitors is a double crap idea. Just as having someone who doesn't know the monitoring board running the monitors is a triple-pile-of-crap idea. So, in order for the sound checks to be the most messed up as possible we opted for all three crap options combined.
But KTU is super professional. We know how to work quickly and how to function under crap conditions. We knocked out our sound check and then Dakha Brakha joined us to check our tune together. Then they sound checked and up next was Inna and her band. They sound checked everything and then I joined then for the tune I would do with them.
It was 6 hours into the sound check process when I collapsed. There was still the MonteSteppe project to check, but it was going to take several more hours to get that together so I did something I have never done before – I bailed. I just left the venue and went back to my hotel to go to sleep until later. It turns out I missed nothing as the rest of the sound check time was spent tracking down microphone feedback. Not the best way I like to spend my time.
It was going to be a wing-it kind of monitoring for the performance tonight. So be it.
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In short, the evening was magnificent. The weather was beautiful. The audience was perfect and the scope of the whole performance, and the intermingling of the artists, was super great. The thing really worked. The modern and the ancient. The songs and the instrumental parts. The local Montenegrins and the Americans and the Russians. And, of course, the one Canadian. All of it mixed super well. Kudos to Sasha for putting this together and pulling it off.
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Rocking out with Inna Zhelannaya on Maslenitsa.
Crazy dancers during the KTU set. The same dancer from the rehearsal video above was there right down in front of me. But he was joined by a group of very young boys mosh-pitting in the sand. When Kimmo and I went into “crazy solo” mode for the piece Voima, they went crazy-double-speed-spazmo-flaying.
Check out drone camera and the accordion cam in the KTU video from the piece Kataklasm
Playing with Dakha Brakha. Joy, joy, joy!
Then next up was the MonteSteppe project. This began with Goran, a local Montenegrin singer. I loved this guy. Onstage he was totally serious and totally committed to his songs. But offstage he had a great sense of humor. He also let us totally bastardize his traditional song with all sort of unorthodox rhythms and parts.
Then we segued into other pieces with Angela singing and then Namgar and then Radik. Each singer's piece had it's own vibe and we sometimes built on that vibe with them and sometimes we took the whole vibe somewhere new.
Here is Pat and Merlin double-drumming it up:
And video of a traditional Montenegrin piece led by Goran with extra vocals from Inna Zhelannaya, sax by Oleg, Arkady on keys, Grebstel-the-Bass and heavy drumming at the end by Pat and Merlin.
Finally we made it to... the Finale. The Zora Band joined us and we played one of their pieces. And EVERYONE was onstage together:
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The next day was a proper day off. And, boy, did I need it.
We hired a driver to take us into the mountains and around the bay. Since we had spent all of our time in this bay on the Adriatic Ocean, I had no idea the mountains were so intense.
Here are picts from the final day off:
And then the next morning, super early, I headed to the local airport for the 24 hour trip home. What a week!
Every once in a while you have a gig that is unlike any other. This was that gig. I'm very happy to have been present for all of this.