Coffee and tea in the principal’s office!

One great experience of our school workshops includes a meet and greet with school directors and teachers and often in the principal’s office.   This is no ordinary handshake but a real sit down and chat with local treats and customs bestowed upon us. In the town of Zenica in BiH, the principal wished us safe travels with a traditional gesture that includes throwing a glass of water onto the street.  Then today in the small city of Telšiai, Lithuania, the school director gave us homemade goat cheese sprinkled with caraway seeds.   I think school principals back in the States need to reconsider how they greet a visitor!!  Usually it’s just a sign in and a nod from the secretary.

We are on our last leg of this musical journey and it’s been a great adventure.  In Latvia and Lithuania, the short, snowy and cold-weather days have impeded the little bit of tourism we get to do.  However, the musical conversations with teachers and students as well as the hands-on workshops about string improvisation have really made this a special type of tour.   I think we get a better sense of the people and the community when we visit music schools and and work with local musicians in smaller cities.   Today we visited the Zemaitijos Kelegijos in the city of Telšiai and played for both faculty and music ed. students.  We encouraged a young violinist in the room to join us on “NOW” our free improv song. This was such a treat.  Firstly, his professors were so stunned to see him join us and bravely agree to partake in 4 short improvisations.  Each short improv included a different parameter and in each we made space for our young friend to shine. And shine he did!!  The smiles and enthusiasm from his colleagues were palpable as was his own satisfaction at a successful first stab at improv.  It is pretty cool to show string players that improvisation is possible on typically Classical music instruments.

Earlier in the day Dina, Alisa and I took a walk up the hill for a view of Lake Mastis.  It is covered in snow.   I’m sure it’s a great summer destination! In fact, we have been told that very sentiment in each Latvian and Lithuanian city so far.  I will have to plan for a return visit and partake in some summer jet skiing or just plain swimming and sunshine.  We got a cappuccino at the theater cafe where we performed–the Zemaites Dramos Teatras.  Our concert there tonight was fun and more formal than others have been.  It’s a good sign when the audience does the synchro-clapping and an even better sign when they give us a standing ovation.  I think they liked it!

Over dinner–we had some “alone together time” on our computers and looked across the way at the local mega-store called, ‘Matrix’.   It’s like a Target but Lithuania style.  I bought some fishing wire to fix up my cello case strap that broke and of course had to buy a wool sweater brush and some hello kitty products–true Lithuanian items only found here in the old country!

We did learn a bit about the Jewish history of this city-called Telz by the Jews. The Matrix mega-store happens to be on “synagogue street”!   This city still has one of the only surviving wooden synagogues.   This is a cool fact–unique Jewish architecture!!  Additionally, the Telz Yeshiva learning style was the one adopted by American Yeshivas!  Some real heavy hitting rabbis came from this community and their brand of Judaism still holds for many ultra orthodox communities today.  Of course we all know how it went down for this community, sadly.  Here’s a link I found with details:

Tomorrow we leave bright and early for the city of Kėdainiai for a workshop.  I hear this is the cucumber capital of Lithuania!

Here’s a photo of houses and Lake Mastis in the city of  Telšiai 

Team RVSQ Bob-Sled! Time: 1:18!!

Our first day here started off pretty well to say the least.  We are staying in Riga which is gorgeous and covered in new snow.  We headed off to Segulda for the day and worked with a talented student string orchestra.  They performed a Suite by Grieg for us played with a lot of sensitivity for their age and skill level.   After, we got up there and played a few tunes  of ours to show them what we do.  Then Alisa taught them a Bluegrass tune, “Boil them Cabbage down” including the shuffle bow, the chop and the bass line. It was great and most of the kids in the class were having fun.

We went off to lunch at a nearby hotel and finally ate some fish!!  This trip has been a big meat and pastry gastronomical one and eating a protein from the ocean cleaned up my insides pretty darn quick! I think our bob sled time clearly shows the health benefits of salmon. I can only imagine a time of 3 minutes had we eaten kebab and cheese bread. It would have been an embarrassment to say the least.

The rest of our day (and this was all before the concert in a lovely chamber music hall with great acoustics) included a tour of a nearby castle from the 1200’s.  Covered in snow and glowing a bit from the light of the dusk sky, it was truly magical.

Probably a highlight of the day came late at night when we went out to a folk club in Riga for some traditional Balsam liqueur (tasted a bit like cough syrup) and to hear a traditional Latvian band. They were a bit rough around the edges and I think more of a death metal, Ren-Faire type band than something from actual musical traditions.  The beefy drummer played with a confident stance and the gentle hurdy-gurdy player wore a fine leather belt/wallet that I think only belongs on someone in this type of band.  (Note to self: do not wear leather waist band because I will look like a waiter not a Latvian death metal rocker)

Yesterday we had a rest day and enjoyed the city of Riga in 30 minute spurts. It’s so cold here that it is imperative to plan for indoor time.  Our guide from the embassy–Alice (pronounced Alic-eh) took us on a walk to the old city with a stop at a museum of the Art Nouveau in Riga. It’s a city filled with this architecture.  The museum had been a private residence of a famous Art Nouveau architect and so each room had some original furniture  and/or features including gorgeous kitchen wooden floor, painted ceilings, hutches for dinnerware and of course all the exacting detail that encompasses this genre. I especially love the old radiators and door handles.   After this museum visit we walked to the Christmas market (a hold over from German influence) and enjoyed some mulled wine and crafts.  Many folks selling gorgeous knitted booties–another essential in this weather.

After we toured the JCC (Jewish Cultural Center) and it included a bit about the many Jews who used to live in these parts–many of whom were quite successful at what they do but made me feel like Latvia only had the cream of the crop Jews and where were the regualar folk during the heyday? Of course, like all of these great cities-each museum ends with their particular Holocaust tale.  Riga is no exception to those atrocities but it was great to read about the non-Jews who helped to save some. That part is heartening.

Off to Leipaja this morning!

Dze si?

This tour continues to pull me in even when I think I want out and to be in my own bed at home in Oakland, CA.  Yes–I do miss Oakland and the Bay Area but then I put those thoughts aside and think—wait a sec, I am in such historic places and meeting the warmest people and all the while playing my cello and with my friends in the quartet–I can hold off on my own digs for a while…

Our week in Bosnia & Herzegovina was great.  The recent 1990’s Balkan war history certainly does permeate the air and in each city we visited, there were enough visual reminders on apartment buildings that this country and its people have certainly endured a lot. I’m not sure the “separate but equal” method I perceive works but it’s better than “ethnic cleansing”.  Both terms are equally bad-in theory and in practice.   The folk song we prepared to play at our concerts was enjoyed throughout the county but then we could not exactly mention it by name in certain places, lest it should offend.  So, sensitivities remain on alert.  But then meeting people in both Republika Srpska and in the Federation of Bosnia & Herzegovina was equally special.  Like anywhere–once you meet someone and share in some national beverage or better yet–in some music making–you are fast friends.

Our latest friends were the rock-n-rollers from BalkanEros.  They are a cool band from the town of Zenica (a working town as the director of the city museum told me when walking us to our hotel at 11 p.m. on an empty street).   Their band includes a lead singer with a great voice and dark, sunken eyes.  He told me that my nickname–Jess-in Bosnian means “what’s up?”, so that confused him at first.   BalkanEros taught us one of their tunes, an American blues song in fact, and then we played a Bosnian song together called “Bolero Negotino”.   It was a great concert with a standing room only crowd including 80 music students!

Our hotel-the famous Hotel Europa, in Sarajevo was a real treat.  It is located right in the heart of the old city and near Imam Bey’s famous mosque from 1531 and the old Sephardic synagogue from 1581!   It was also just a quick jaunt from the famous Latin Bridge where Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophia were assassinated. As Dina said, “turn left at the start of World War I and then a right at the Ottoman Empire and we should be there”.   Legend has it that you have to drink from the fountain at the mosque to ensure that you will return to Sarajevo.  I made sure to do that and I also am making sure that my next visit will be in the summer!

Yes I finally pulled out the silk drawers and now feeling much warmer. Also bought a gorgeous handmade wool scarf in Sarajevo with Bosnian design and this will no doubt help keep me warm over the next 10 days.

we are now in Riga–only been here for a few hours and it does seem magical mostly because there is a glowing layer of new snow on the ground and that just puts me in a jolly winter mood!  

here’s a pic of our post gig meal with BalkanEros in Zenica from Wednesday night. That platter of food was gone in 20 minutes!!

Rakiye and the Ring of Fire

Nothing like jamming with local friends from Banja Luka, Bosnia (Srpska Republic) to our favorite American down home songs like: “Sweet Home Alabama” and “Ring of Fire” and even “country road”.  Yes it was a fun way to end our time with the band members from the Banja Luka Tamburica Orchestra and the rock band, Grasshoppers from neighboring Kotor Varos.   The triple bill was a real highlight for us on our beginning tour of Bosnia.  We arrived via Zagreb on Friday night and settled into the famous Hotel Bosnia in Banja Luka. It feels like winter now (even snowed tonight) and it’s much colder than it’s been in any other city over the last two weeks.   The others even pulled out the silky drawers to keep them warm (I’m toughin’ it but probably not for long).

We played 2 songs with the Tamburica Orchestra then did our own RVSQ “rock and roll” set.  Then Grasshoppers rocked it with their set.  They did a fierce cover of Bob Marley’s “I shot the sheriff” but had to change the translated words to “I shot the mayor” since sheriffs don’t really exist here in Bosnia!   Dina suggested they try some Tom Petty which is a great idea so we’ll have to keep this conversation going.  It was at the cast party (well it was really the after party but with juice, cookies and pretzels in a small rec room, so it reminded me of my middle school cast parties),  was where the beauty of real musical bonding took place.  Especially when the guys from Grasshoppers took over and sang song after song.  Alisa took out her fiddle to join in.  The national alcoholic beverage of choice appeared–well two of them really–Turkish coffee and Rakiye and then it was a party!

Tomorrow we head to Sarajevo and I’m looking forward to it.  Alisa handed me an historical fiction novel to read before we left about the famous Sarajevo Hagaddah.   We found out from our US Embassy liaison (her name is Sunshine and she really is a ray of it!) that the museum where it is housed  is closed so we can only see replicas of it. That’s disappointing.

Here’s a photo of Grasshoppers doing sound check. I love the backdrop!

Keeping it Real in Skopje!

I love being in a politically exciting hot spot! Especially when I am safe in my hotel room and reading about it. Just like home in Oakland!

Last night we were in the old city of Skopje and saw all these young men and boys with the Albanian flag worn as capes.  We mused, “Must have been a win at soccer!”,  “Maybe Albania won the world series of the Balkans?” well no, actually it was the 100 year anniversary of their independence and so it was a big event with the Albanian flag draped over the fortress wall and crowds getting more excited with yelling and dancing. Then a bunch of cars drove by, as if in a parade, with the flags hanging out of the windows and kids were throwing fireworks. It felt both exciting to be around but also a bit scary to be among a crowd of young men. Since it gets dark here so early and since we are all ready to get to bed by 8:00 pm., we headed back to the Glam Hotel in the new city section and did a bit of Internet research to find out this: There was a bit of political provocation and not just an Independence Day celebration. You can read the article here:

So then I watched 2 episodes of “Homeland” from Showtime and made myself more anxious to be so far from home. I’m far more used to East Oakland scary than Balkan scary. But, in the morning, we were greeted by Borka, our cultural affairs contact. She is a confident and calm woman and like many others here, has a grounded and realistic attitude. ” Of course we’re fine. Nothing to worry about. Let’s get in the van and get going to Tetovo where the music students are waiting!”

Allrighty! That was super fun. It was our first real educational presentation for a large group of high school students. They are instrumentalists and singers who clearly love music because the enthusiasm and attention they gave us was very respectful.  They loved our version of “Sweet Honey Bee” because they all love Jazz (we joked–the folk music of America! not as old as the Macedonian folk music but just as groovy!)  We ended the set with a version of Katy Perry’s “Fireworks” arranged by Dina.  She interpreted it like a blues tune and I had fun belting out the first verse.  On our way out of the school we caught up with an accordion player who played a traditional folk song for us–it was pretty great. Irene even got the balancing coca-cola bottle on the forehead treatment from some kids singing and dancing.

Now we have some time before our 7 p.m. concert and we are in the American Corner Library (free Internet!).  Borka took us on a quick jaunt to the “Painted Mosque” (Šarena dzamija) where we sat up in the woman’s balcony for the afternoon prayer.  It was just repainted so the colors and patterns were not only ornate but exquisitely clear and shiny!  Read about it here:

We have some yummy cookies to much on called “parachutes” they are walnut with pink cream and like a Macedonian macaroon. Yum!!

trying to pull an all-nighter

it’s 1:03 a.m. and we leave for the airport in an hour. Our flight is not until 5:00 a.m. but somehow we need to leave with 3 hours to go. I am exhuasted. I’m sure the rest of the gang is equally tired. I want to sleep but fear that I will not hear my alarm so I will do things like use the computer to keep me awake. I have the window open too and staying a bit cold keeps my eyelids open for some reason.

Our brief time in Azerbaijan made such a great impact on us and really started this tour right. Our hosts from the US embassy were so organized and helpful as well as super knowledgeable about the country’s history and about the history of the region.

We ended our tour with a traditional Azeri meal including Dolma and Plof. That’s dolmas and rice pilaf for all you Americans:)  The dolma was sautéed meat stuffed into cooked eggplant, peppers and tomatoes. It was so delicious. Then the plof included my favorite-chestnuts and apricots as well as local and small plums. Tea all around and with a side of cubed sugar that is so ubiquitous around the world. Why don’t we have that in the States? It seems more dignified than a packet of sugar somehow.

Earlier today included travel/teach/perform/travel to and from the city of Khachmaz.  To get there we had to drive on a new-ish highway past a deserted refinery and then a mountain range that looks like 5 fingers.   We learned that our sound guy-with all the gear-had a car breakdown at finger number 2 so he barely made it to our gig that afternoon!   We held a masterclass with 3 violin students and Alisa worked on “Cluck Old Hen” with them by ear. it was cute–“now that you know the song, stand on one foot, close one eye, air bow!!” with that endearing Wisconsin accent! Great Job!! (sounding like “great jab”!)

There was a strict piano teacher in the room–she had many things to say including letting us know that Arnold Schwarzenegger had been our governor. She also congratulated us on our recent Obama re-election.  Then she started acting like our teacher and correcting our music and we all got a bit nervous around her.   But–she and I had a nice smile from the stage to the audience at the concert.   I think some folks here don’t know what to make of us really! A string quartet that does not play Mozart? In these parts, it can be confusing I suppose.

falling asleep….need coffee….to much coffee

Live on Azeri TV!

 Videoda ANS TV və ANS ÇM radiosunun aparıcısı Cavid Osmanovun ABŞ-dan olan Real Vocal String Quartet-i ilə “Salam Azerbaycan” səhər şousunda oxuduğu Bob Dilan – ın Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door hitinin akustik versiyasıdır.

reporting live from Azerbaijan….about Whitney!!

up early and already back in the hotel after a great morning at AZN TV.  We played 2 tunes on the national show, “Salaam Azerbaijan” (Hello Azerbaijan!) and then chatted with the host a bit.  He was a youthful and jovial guy who told us that he got a “C” in English class!   But we bonded over our musical love and jammed on Dylans’s “knocking on heaven’s door” live in front of the nation!

Some of our favorite questions have been–what do you love about Azerbaijan?!! Of course that should be the question but it’s hard to answer with much detail since it’s only our 3rd day ever in this country.  Still–so far everyone we have met is terrific–our cultural affiars specialist, Fargani, our translator, Elvin, our driver who lets me fuss over where my cello will go in his van!  Also Chris, the US cultural affairs officer is spot on!!  Even when he had to field questions about Whitney Houston.  Yes—after our spot on “Salaam Azerbaijan” they asked if we could be part of a short interview on another TV program where the topic was Whitney Houston.   I like to think of myself as a Whitney specialist……  Well, really I just listened to her debut album multiple times with the cute girls I babysat back in 1985.   We loved it when she defiantly modulated up a key in “I will always love you”!! I knew she meant it!  Oddly the host of this Azeri TV program wanted to get all tabloid-y with us and talk about her addiction problems. But–we kept it about the music and truthfully, there are only great things to say. As Irene said, her performances were electrifying!

We have a break now and then our first workshop with students this afternoon from the conservatory followed by a concert at a jazz club.  Tomorrow is Thanksgiving so we will look at rugs and visit the hamam in honor of the pilgrims back home.



oh the Caspian Sea!

My hotel view is magnificent.  It’s on the 16th floor of an office building and it’s pink!  First thing I did in my room–after spending 5 minutes with light switches on and off only to realize it was my key that had all power access-was open the window and voila!  There it is–the lovely Caspian Sea. WOW.  it’s so great to be here and know that this is truly a special experience.  Thanks for having us on the program this year US State Dept and AMA!

Our travel to get here was met with some challenges that we faced head on with aplomb and with Gluhwein!  Yes–we had a longer layover than expected in Vienna and so off we went into Wien mitte for the Christmas market celebration.  Only 3 Euros for a cup of that sweet wine and then some yummy potato pancakes and roasted chestnuts.   It was nice to  have a moment in a familiar city and to feel the European kind of holiday cheer.

But it has been a tiring double red eye kind of travel and I feel a fatigue that is part floating zombie and part excited tourist!!  How can I just go to sleep when there is local cuisine to try out and city lights tempting me? I’m sure there is some 80’s dancing tonight somewhere.  Or maybe Karaoke and I do know the Azerbajiani Eurovision hit song, “Running Scared”!!  In fact we played it this afternoon at our first concert with some local music students in the town of Gusar.   We loved the unison applause and the support and enthusiasm from our audience.   And then on the drive home, we all sacked out!

tomorrow’s adventure includes coffee first thing….


Bon Voyage concert!

well that was fun! Thank you San Francisco Performances for hosting us on your Salons at the Rex concert series.  It was great to have a reception after the show and chat with people about our upcoming adventure.  Yes I am writing here when perhaps I should be packing or better yet–sleeping (it is 12:36 a.m.)

We had a very full house and shared new tunes for our tour–a folk song arranged by each of us from our host countries including “Sene de Qualmaz” from Azerbaijan, “Jovano, Jovanke” from Macedonia and “Mujo Kuje” from Bosnia.  Dina and Irene will have to get the Latvian and Lituanian songs to you since I never did get the song titles.

attempting to add some photos from the night!