I recently returned from a 3-week tour of Russia with Soul/RnB act, Quinn DeVeaux and the Blue Beat Review. The tour was put together by the Forum for Cultural Engagement (FCE). The FCE is a nonprofit organization that is dedicated towards exploring cultural immersion through the creative arts. In other words, the FCE sponsors international tours for bands, in the interest of exchanging and sharing culture on an international level.
Our tour lasted 3 weeks and we played in the following Russian cities: Vladivostok, Ekaterinburg, Kaliningrad, Rybinsk, Kazan, Moscow, St. Petersburg, Arkhangelsk, Vologda, and Krasnodar. If you were to look up these cities on a map, you would quickly realize how far apart they are from each other. It would be perfectly rational for you to question the claim that we played all of these cities in the span of 3 weeks. As a matter of fact, I’m still in slight disbelief that we did it. We traveled upwards of 30,000 miles and literally circumnavigated the globe on this tour. Our most common mode of travel was through flying, although, we also traveled on busses, vans, trains, and even a boat. It is really hard to accurately summarize this tour because of its length and also because of its wide ranging inclusion of cities, venues, and performances. If I had to choose one word to describe my last 3 weeks, I would say “Vast”. That word selection incapsulates the tour on multiple dimensions.
First of all, the country of Russia is vast. The Easternmost city that we played in (Vladivostok) is 50 miles north of North Korea. The westernmost (Kaliningrad) is west of Lithuania and almost in Scandinavia. The distance between those two cities is 4,500 miles. For perspective, NYC to San Francisco is around 2,500 miles. Other than the language spoken, these cities have almost nothing in common. They are not even on the same continent. Then add in one of the northern most cities of Arkhangelsk which sits on the gateway to the Arctic ocean, and you get an even wider amount of diversity. (I have a distinct memory of David Guy, Charles Ray and I walking home from the venue that night. It was 1am and the sun had still not set. It was one of those disorienting jeglag/alcohol-infused moments that touring musicians think to themselves, “What a weird life I’ve chosen.”) Then consider Kazan, which is the Islamic capitol of Russia. The city is home to a huge middle-eastern population and the food and culture was closer related to that of Georgia or Turkey than anything else. It is safe to summarize my experience of Russia by stating that the cities and towns within the country vary more in culture, landscape, and architecture than the cities in America.
In another application of the word “vast”, the shows that we played ranged from from performing under a rainy tent in the dense woods of the outskirts of Moscow, to a packed outdoor jazz festival in Ekaterinburg on the banks of the city river, to a summer camp for children in Vladivostok, to a formal show at the Spaso House in Moscow, which is the residence of the US Ambassador to Russia (and also former Governor of Utah), Jon Huntsman Jr. Our audience sizes ranged from about 40, to close to 1000. And we never knew what to expect. I speak for myself, but I grew to appreciate the element of surprise with respect to the diversity of the shows that we played. It definitely kept me on my toes.
One of the things that I loved about Russia was the warmth of its people. Everywhere we went, we were greeted with positivity and genuine interest in us. We met four Russian soliders while waiting for our food at a little Kebab stand in Kaliningrad. They were all probably under 25. One of them spoke a little bit of English and communicated to us that he had never met an American before. He was so excited to be talking to us. He told us that he was a guitar player and that his favorite bands were Metallica and SlipKnot.
It was such a pleasure performing for the Russian people. A lot of our shows were in sit-down venues. While we were performing, the audience would be dead silent. No side-conversations, nobody on their phones (ok maybe a few… it’s 2019), but mainly just pure focus on the experience of listening to our music. It was beautiful. After the shows, people would swarm us and tell us how grateful they were that we came to their city. They would smile and give us thumbs up and speak to us in broken English and say “Thank You!”. They would ask for autographs and photos with them. Everywhere we went, we felt like the Beatles coming to America in 1964 to play on the Ed Sullivan Show. It was so genuine. We felt so welcomed.
The food is also something I should write about. The first thing that immediately comes to mind is the heavy use of dill. On like everything. Borscht (beet soup), pierogi (similar to dumplings), chicken, rice, vegetables, cabbage, you name it. Breakfast in Russia often consisted of some sort of assortment of crepes, eggs, oatmeal, fruits. Lunch was usually a rice dish, and dinner ranged. Normally, at the restaurants we ate at, dinner was served in multiple courses. They would start us off with a beet salad, then give us some sort of soup, usually Borscht. Finally we would receive the main course which was often times some sort of take on chicken and rice. Interestingly enough, there was one really common dish that included a white sauce with pineapple on top of chicken.
Overall, my experience of Russia was so different than I could have ever imagined. I’ll set politics aside and just focus on the cultural experience… As an American growing up in a post-Soviet world, I was taught by textbooks and culture that Russia is a dark, menacing, unsettling place. That stereotype couldn’t be farther off from what I experienced. The people that I met were so warm. So many huge smiles and laughs. So many soulful human beings. Such an appreciation of the creative arts. I am forever grateful for the opportunity to see what few Americans can claim to have seen. Not only was I fortunate enough to have seen Russia’s crown jewels of Moscow and St. Petersburg, but I got to experience rural Russia. Villages and towns and countryside where its residents could never have dreamed of an American band visiting their town and performing American soul and gospel music. I got to experience life in places like Ekaterinburg, which is a city of over 1.5 million people that I had never even heard of before this trip. It was one of the most beautiful modern cities that I have ever seen.
When I was younger, I heard a quote that stuck with me. “Experience is the greatest teacher”. I loved that quote because it broke down the idea that my public school education (which is really all I had known) was the only way I could learn things. It inspired me to try new things, to travel, and to think for myself. I’m 26-years old, and just now, in the past year, I’m beginning to realize that while this quote was a pivotal one for me, it still isn’t entirely accurate. This trip to Russia took me so out of my comfort zone and tested me in so many ways that it practically forced me to come out of this trip with an update to the quote that had once changed the way I viewed the world… From now on, I live by this: “Experience is the ONLY teacher”. Thank you Russia, for the warmth, hospitality, and love!