Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Home Sweet Oklahoma

Tulsa, Oklahoma
Little Joe McLerran Quartet leaves Oman after 4 weeks on the Rhythm Road

Home in Tulsa 36 hours later and still smiling.  What a trip!
Our return journey was long yet uneventful. We arrived at the Muscat, Oman airport at midday on Thursday, April 22nd. We said goodbye to the Embassy staff and thanked Dan for all his support and the gifts he sent with us. We had 5 flights, 3 baggage checks and 36 hours of travel ahead of us. Thankfully, we made every flight with no delays and all our gear returned with us and without any damage. It felt so good to see my home sweet Oklahoma again.

Will and David sporting new Omani kumas
My re-entry back into life in Tulsa was smooth with no major jet lag. Upon arriving home I gave Liz and Will big hugs and I was in bed by 7pm. I slept until 6am and woke up surprising well rested. I spent Saturday unpacking, resting and having breakfast at Cafe Ole and dinner at Goldie’s hamburgers. Sunday afternoon Will and I went to see the Tulsa Drillers play at the new Oneok Field. Big Joe met us outside the park and gave us tickets to seats in his row of season tickets along the first base line. Bobby Greenshoes gave us a tour of the park and as we walked along the promenade deck, we sampled some of the great hot dogs and Philly cheese steak sandwiches. Ain't nothin' like a ballpark hot dog. Sitting at the ballpark, enjoying a completely American tradition, my mind continued to reflect on the incredible experiences of the past month on the Rhythm Road.

Monday morning, I was back teaching kids at Edison Middle School. I’m teaching the same curriculum I taught before I embarked on my journey.  However, I feel that I'm looking at the world through different eyes.  My life has been so enriched by this cultural exchange.  Now, when I teach kids here, I can share with them about teaching kids at the Kanoo International School in Bahrain or the Azzan bin Qais School in Oman, or talk about Saudi women studying engineering at Effat University, or share about jamming with Abo Siraj and the Saudi musicians, or explain about the sheer joy our music brought the kids at the Help Center in Jeddah. I'll also be able to describe the incredible people who serve our country in foreign lands. The men and women who work for the US State Department, the US Marines who protect the Embassies and Consulates, and the Ambassadors who represent our country, all are dedicated, knowledgeable and have special gifts for connecting with others. I hope to be able to share all of that with every student I teach.

I bring home with me a much better understanding of the people of the Persian Gulf. By spending time listening to people, sharing meals and playing music, it has helped to inform me about a life and culture I knew very little about. I hope that the people who crossed paths with us also have a better understanding of Americans. My belief that music is the universal language and transcends all barriers continues to be validated.

I owe a most heartfelt thank you and debt of gratitude to our friends at Jazz at Lincoln Center. Their commitment to this mission of diplomacy through music is of the highest order. From the training they provided us, to their support, and their planning and logistics, even getting us home around the Icelandic volcano, was incredible. I am honored to have served such a fine organization and fine people.

Finally, I give a very special thank you to my fellow travelers on the Rhythm Road. I'm grateful that Little Joe, Robbie, and Ronnie asked me to join them in this project. We formed a professional ensemble that was highly successful at delivering the message to the people. Everywhere we went, we had a positive impact, and we were often part of groundbreaking events. Little did we know that we might make history through music. We did the Bahraini Boogie, the Saudi Shuffle, the Kuwaiti Quiver and the Omani Mambo! I shall never forget it.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Shoppin' for Clothes

Muscat, Oman
Sporting hats of the region, from Lansky's in Memphis to the souk in Oman, clothes make the man!
The LJMQ spent Tuesday relaxing and shopping for last minute souvenirs and gifts. In the evening, Dan Pattarini took us into the Old City of Muscat. The Old City is a located securely within natural barriers formed by mountain formations along the coast. We visited a new museum dedicated to Omani life and culture. The exhibits were very well done and we were easily able to understand elements of the rich Omani history in Muscat’s old city. We then headed to the souk, or market, for the real Omani shopping experience. The souk is filled with thousands of sights and opportunities to exercise our bargaining skills. The high point was seeing Joe and Ronnie all decked out in regional attire, including, cane, royal robe, and the kuma hat wrapped with a colorful scarf. We wandered for a few hours, trying to get lost, but the minarets served as landmarks that lead us back to the sea and our waiting van. The return drive home to the hotel was along the water next to mountains and sometimes through road cuts that snaked along the coast.
You start with a kuma

Add a colorful cloth
Use expert wrapping techniques
And cover your face in the desert
Get the right color
Wrap and tie perfectly
A stylish Omani brim
We arrived back at the hotel and walked to a local Italian Cafe for a late meal before turning in. I am enjoying the beautiful evenings here. The sun sets around 6:30 pm everyday, due our location near the Tropic Of Cancer. After a brief band meeting Wednesday morning we are beginning our final packing process for our long, over 30 hours journey back home to Tulsa. We depart Wednesday morning for a short flight to Bahrain, then fly to Amman, Jordan and then a 12.5 hr. flight to NYC, go through customs and immigration. We then need to take a cab from JFK to LaGuardia airport to catch another flight to Dallas and then take a short flight to T-Town. Needless to say we are charging our batteries for the long journey half way across the world. But I am extremely grateful to be able to fly around the dangerous volcanic ash clouds and make it home in time to teach my 6th grade friends at Edison Middle School on Monday morning. I hope to post another blog entry before I depart and certainly upon my return to the US, en’shallah.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Sultans of Swing

Muscat, Oman
Muscat beach at dusk
Our final performance on the Rhythm Road was one to remember. The setting was the Grand Lawn of the Crowne Plaza Hotel, sitting high above the seaside beaches, rock cliffs, and mangroves. The stage was set up with our backs to the west so as the sunset and the crescent moon rose above us, we all agreed that this had to be the most beautiful setting we had ever performed in. The cool evening breezes and warm welcome from everyone helped make this an absolute perfect ending to our experience in the Arabian Peninsula. Little Joe selected songs that seemed to sum up the evening and his playing was inspired. The crowd numbered in the hundreds and US Ambassador Schmierer and his wife were great hosts, welcoming everyone to this final cultural exchange. Some of the dignitaries that were in attendance at our previous concert also came out for the big outside show, enjoying an evening of Blues music under the stars. After the concert the crowd slowly dispersed and many folks stayed to enjoy the last drop of this fantastic

Bernesto with US Ambassador Schmierer, his wife, and the Spanish Ambassador to Oman

We then had a lovely post-concert buffet dinner at the Hotel where the conversation drifted to the complications of our return flights back home to Tulsa tomorrow. We were scheduled to travel through London to Dallas and we learned that all flights into and out of London remain canceled. Public Affairs Officer Robert Arbuckle assured us that we will be able to depart within a day or two, rerouting through Abu Dhabi and New York or something like that. The news here is full of accounts of people attempting to travel back to the UK and being stranded for days in all sorts of difficult situations. I can think of a lot worse places to be waiting in than in beautiful Muscat, Oman! This past few weeks on the Rhythm Road has been the most enriching and rewarding experience of my life. Words fail me when I trying to describe my thoughts and feelings. I will bring back a wealth of information and stories about the people and places of this wonderful part of our world. More on our return adventure tomorrow as it unfolds.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Big Road Blues

Al Buraimi & Muscat, Oman

Robbie Mack practices ping pong diplomacy
We left the Intercontinental Hotel at 10:30 in the morning on Sunday for our 3.5 hour car trip to the town of al-Buraimi, on the border between Oman and the United Arab Emirates. The journey took us through many small towns and past an in country border checkpoint to the mountains bordering the UAE. The desert mountains were magnificent, rising up from the near flat surface of the desert to almost touch the sky. We arrived at al-Buraimi University at midday and the temperature was almost 100 degrees. When we were asked if the hot weather had a negative effect on us, we stated that the temperatures in Tulsa often hover at the 100 degree mark in July and August, but not in April. We were introduced to the faculty at the University and had a nice meal. The dining room at the school had a ping pong table at the back and soon Robbie was involved in a little ping pong diplomacy. We had a lot of laughs and were soon off to join some new friends from the school’s English club. Three girls presented an interesting power point demonstration on ''Western Culture''. After our meeting we posed for a photo and I taught the girls how to say ''I Scream, You Scream, We all Scream For Ice Cream.” It was good fun.

We set up to play in a large hall linked to a nearby school for special needs kids. One of the students created many super cool king size posters for the performance and he gave us prints as souvenirs. The show was well attended and well received. Once again Little Joe was a big hit with the crowd of younger,college age students, who really enjoyed the music. We then packed up for the long return journey back to Muscat. On our return drive, Dan suggested we stop at a deluxe new hotel located high atop a hill for dinner. We dined outside under a beautiful crescent moon and enjoyed good conversations all the way back to our hotel. We arrived around 1am and I felt happy, but very stiff and tired from our long and fruitful day on the Rhythm Road.

Getting ready to play Al Buraimi University College
Monday morning started with a visit to Azzan bin Qais Private School for an all school assembly and some small group breakout sessions to teach our friends about guitar, drums and harmonica. The assembly was hosted in the large entry hall of the school. As soon as we arrived, students, from K-12 began filing into the performance area. Needless to say, the students all enthusiastically enjoyed Joey's music. At one point, two young elementary aged boys were led to the front by their teacher to provide a spirited dance demonstration for everyone. When I'm working with young people, I derive my greatest satisfaction in life. It's a delight to see Robbie, Ronnie and Joe in this setting, enjoying themselves and feeling the reward and energy that you get from working with kids. At one point, during a break in a song, Ronnie cracked a big smile, clowned with his drum sticks, and the kids went wild. We also did some breakout sessions, attended by about a dozen students in each group. My harmonica group was full of quick learners and when we joined Joe's guitar group for a jam on the "I'm a Man" riff, it was apparent that we had successfully shared some basic Blues elements with these kids. It was a great morning.
Robbie Mack working with students on guitar and bass
The harmonica students
Demonstrating fine dance moves!
Playing to large group of students at Azzan bin Qais Private School

We're resting now, before our big, big show tonight. We’re scheduled to play a free, public concert on the grand lawn at the Crowne Plaza Hotel. There have already been 400 RSVPs for the event and we're looking forward to a great evening of Blues under the stars.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Got My Mojo Workin'

Muscat, Oman

Our plane from Kuwait arrived in the Sultanate of Oman at 1am Friday morning. We were greeted by the Deputy Public Affairs Officer Daniel Pattarini. He was easy to spot because he was sporting an Eskimo Joe's tee shirt! How wild is that seeing a shirt from an Oklahoma landmark so far from home? Dan helped us get settled into our rooms at the Intercontinental Hotel in Muscat and we hit the sack after a very long involved (extra baggage charge challenge) travel day.

Friday in the region is the Sabbath and we took it easy resting for our busy upcoming schedule in Oman. Robbie Mack and I explored the immediate area and we ended up at the very beautiful beach and waterfront area. In the evening, Public Affairs Officer Robert Arbuckle, his friend, Dan and his wife took Robbie and me out for a great seafood dinner featuring, you guessed it, hamour fish. Robert ordered two large whole fish, grilled in a mix of savory spices and drinks of mint flavored lime…very, very tasty. I always enjoy dinner conversations on the Rhythm Road. Robert has served in the region for many years and his insight into the culture is fascinating.

Our waiter expertly filets the hamour fish.
After dinner in my room I relaxed with a bit of channel surfing. Much to my surprise, I saw a feature on religious traditions showing interviews with Carlton Pearson and Bill Scheer of Guts church in Tulsa. It is amazing to witness the revolutionary changes in information sharing, as technology links up every part of the world. There I was sitting in a hotel room in Muscat, Oman, watching a television program about 2 prominent religious leaders in Tulsa, Oklahoma. What a small world it has become!

Sultan Quboos Grand Mosque
Saturday morning in the Gulf is basically Monday morning. Dan called it metric Monday and I have not quite adjusted to the concept yet. We started the day early with a meeting with the sound technicians for all our programming here in Oman. Then we were off to experience the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque. This was our first opportunity to actually walk around inside a Mosque and we were overwhelmed with the size and beauty of this magnificent Muslim holy site. The Grand Mosque has the world’s largest Swarovsky chandelier and the second largest hand made rug in the world. Pictures do not do justice to the fantastic architecture and gardens. The Sultan allows public tours of the Grand Mosques and I am grateful to have had the opportunity to actually go inside this great Mosque.

We then drove to the US Embassy for a press interview and a meeting with the US Ambassador to Oman, Richard J. Schmierer. Ambassador Schmierer also has over thirty years of experience in the diplomatic service and he said he was happy to have us bring Little Joe's music to Oman. We talked about tonight’s concert and about the buzz on the blogosphere. See muscatconfidential.blogspot.com.

On Saturday evening, while standing in the hotel lobby waiting to go to our Saturday night concert at the Sinbad Ballroom at the Crowne Plaza Hotel, Joe introduced me to Mad Dog David Charles, a British ex pat who runs the hotel health club and happens to be a blue harmonica player. He and Joey think that they actually met on Beale St. in Memphis a few years ago. We realized we had a mutual friend, British blues player extraordinaire Eddie Martin. I invited Mad Dog to our gig as we hopped into our Embassy ride to the show.

At the US Embassy, Muscat, Oman
The show was well attended by senior Embassy contacts, foreign diplomats and ambassadors, press, as well as prominent business people in the community. It was a very posh setting, with rows of cloth covered seats and we expected a somewhat restrained response. However, we upset the joint!! Everyone appeared to have a great time. After our performance, I chatted with the Ambassadors from Spain and Korea, as well as US Ambassador Schmierer, who told me he was looking forward to Monday night’s show in a more casual setting where people might even be able to dance. After a great evening, we returned to the hotel to call it a night.

Tomorrow is a unique travel day. We’ll be driving 3 hours away to the town of Al Buraimi to do a school workshop and performance. We’re hoping to see some camels along the way so we can stop for some good photo ops of Little Joe and his Arabian Knights.

A complicating side note is the recent volcanic eruption in Iceland. We are scheduled to fly home through London on Wednesday. Who knows what will be happening by then. On the Rhythm Road, we have learned that we must really hang loose. We’ll make it home, en’shallah.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Flying Saucer

Kuwait City, Kuwait

As we climbed into the bulletproof van for our drive to Kuwait University we couldn't help but wonder what the turn out for our show will look like. We set up and waited backstage people started to trickle into the large theater. By show time the room was almost full and a few minuets later the place was packed! Our crowd was primarily young people with some families and folks in traditional Arab dress also in attendance. The audience was enjoying our program from the first tune, with shouts, hand clapping and seat boogie-ing. During one of the educational elements, a group of eight students joined me on stage for a fun filled harmonica lesson. As the lesson unfolded I moved from student to student with the microphone to hear everyone’s interpretation of the choo-choo train. About half way down the line one of the young men began playing a genuine Blues riff! Wouldn't you know it, a ringer. The crowd went nuts and I replied by saying that I must be a really good teacher. Everyone loved it.

Upsettin' in every way!
I am constantly moved by Joey's ability to conjure real and powerful emotion with his music. As he played Midnight Hour Blues I had to stop and admire this beautiful blues being played by a true master. As Joey's music washed over me, images of my dear Elizabeth and home sweet Oklahoma came into my mind and heart. My eyes filled with tears and I realized that I must pull myself together before I really started to blubber into my harmonica. After the show we spent the better part of an hour signing autographs and posing for photos. What a peak experience on our final night in Kuwait.

On the drive back to the hotel our new friend, Salama, took us to the best shawarma place in town for a late night snack. We all took turns a applying American food chain names to the shawarma concept…McShawarma, Shawarma King, Shawarma Bell, Shawarma Hut, Long John Shawarma’s…..ad nauseum. Salama drove us back via the scenic route and we marveled at the city skyline. All of the architecture is incredibility modern and futuristic. We stopped the van to admire and photograph the fantastic Kuwait Towers. We all agreed that seeing the city at night offers a surreal perspective that is unbelievable. It’s kind of the Jetsons of Arabia….incredible!
The LJMQ at the Kuwait Towers

At breakfast on Thursday I met Zac Brown in the restaurant. Zac is on a USO tour of the region and is headed to Iraq, God bless him. On the 2010 Grammys show, Zac had Tulsa’s own Leon Russell performing with him. The Zac Brown Band has lots of cool videos on Youtube. Check out his hit “Chicken Fried” and enjoy his great American music!

Later today we are flying to Oman for the last country on this incredible Rhythm Road Tour. I am told that our hotel is located on the seaside and Oman is very beautiful. Our brief experience in Kuwait has proven to be another unique opportunity to offer our Blues to folks and to successfully exchange our different cultures.  I can't wait to see what adventures await us in Oman.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Sky is Cryin'

Kuwait City, Kuwait
Robbie Mack and the Al Heshemi II
We departed Jeddah and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia on Monday afternoon, April 12th for our flight across the vast Arabian desert to Kuwait. The Radisson Blu is our new home in Kuwait City. This hotel was nearly destroyed during the Iraq invasion in 1990. The great news is, the Radisson has been rebuilt into a fantastic facility featuring two gigantic full scale reproductions of ancient sailing ships. Kuwait has long history of nautical expertise and is still a major port in the Persian Gulf. At the hotel, the smaller of the two reproduction ships has a five star restaurant on board and the big ship ''The Al Heshemi II” has a museum and grand ballroom on-board. This ship is in the Guiness Book of World Records as the largest wooden dhow ever built in the world. It weighs a massive 2500 tons and has the length of 85 m. The ballroom has 5500 lightbulbs in fixtures covered in 24 karat Italian gold leaf. It can accommodate up to 1000 people. Fantastic!! A private beach and spa on the Persian Gulf, as well as three fine restaurants, round out this beautiful hotel.

On Tuesday morning I awoke hearing the sound of distant thunder. I thought, this must be the sound of a jet but a few moments it started to rain! To understand the uniqueness of this event, it is important to know that it only rains a few days a year in Kuwait and usually not this time of year. April is reserved for big sand storms. We left our hotel and only had to go a few meters to the Al Heshemi ship, located on the property, for our first TV interview with Al-Watan television. We set up in the huge ballroom, played some music and talked about our cultural exchange mission. The host said she would attend the evening concert at the US Embassy to get more film for the feature on the Rhythm Road to be broadcast the first of next week. After the TV interview we drove across town for a FM radio interview promoting our big concert on Wednesday night at Othman Abdul-Malek Hall at Kuwait University on the Shuwaikh campus. The radio studio was located at one of Kuwait's shiny new shopping malls. Our Public Affairs Officers from the US Embassy, Hatem and Rachael, are making sure we are at the right place at the right time and are more than willing to show us the wonderful sights of Kuwait City.

Won't you let me take you on a sea cruise!
By midday, we returned to our hotel to prepare for the big outside concert at the Embassy in a few hours. The evening presented cloudy and cooler weather as we drove to the Embassy. Security at the gates was the most comprehensive of our tour so far. In fact I was not allowed to take my camera onto the grounds, hence I don't have any photos of the concert for this posting. Fortunately I was able to wheel my equipment case in with no problems, but the camera had to stay at the guard house. The concert was scheduled as a garden party at the Embassy.  The Embassy's tennis courts were transformed into a posh dining area with cloth tablecloths and astroturf carpeting covering the court. The stage and sound system would rival any festival stage in the world. As we set up we could not help but notice seeing more lightening and hearing thunder approaching. Unbelievable for the desert! As the guest started to arrive and be seated it started to rain! Now a few drops here and there in Tulsa, it would be considered just a close call, but in Kuwait it was almost a show stopper. Will and his sound crew managed to cover all the gear (220 volts and H20 are not good friends in any part of the world) and after a few minutes the sprinkles stopped and we were introduced. US Ambassador to Kuwait HE Deborah K. Jones gave everyone a very warm welcome and Joey chose "I Get The Blues When It Rains'' as our first number. Very fitting . Despite a wee bit of dampened spirits we delivered our musical message and a good time was had by all.

Tonight is the big University show. It’s still cloudy today, but our show is inside. We hope to be deliver the message to lots of young Kuwaitis tonight.