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.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

The Sun is Shinin'

Jeddah, Saudi Arabia

Little Joe McLerran Quartet with Abo Siraj
On Saturday, after a time out at the hotel our friend Ali took to the old city market. Robbie, Joe, and Ronnie picked up some goodies to bring home and I drank in all the sights, sounds and aromas of this exotic Middle Eastern bazaar. The old city of Jeddah is over 400 years old and Ali walked us deep into the heart of this antiquity. There were thousands of shops and vendors selling everything, literally from soup to nuts. Joey was approached by a man selling a battery powered vibrating back massager. Joe suggested that the man talk to Ronnie instead. Ronnie then spent the next 10 minutes trying to dissuade a very persistent salesman. The good news is he dropped his price from 50 Saudi riyals to 10 Saudi riyals (that’s from about $13 to $2.50) but Ronnie was able to escape with all his riyals intact. Ali then took us for a quick stop at the best shawarma and juice stand in the city. Shawarma is like a Mideast sandwich wrap….with meat wrapped in warm pita bread and topped with hummus or vegetables or pesto or whatever they’ve got. I had both a chicken and a beef shawarma, as well as a banana smoothie milkshake. It was so good I almost bit my finger eating it!

Mr. Sadeg and Berneso display the
Mississippi saxophones and bamboo cane flutes
After the market, we departed for the office-studio of the famous Saudi musician and band leader, Omar Alattas. Omar is a famous singer and musician who performs at countless private parties, weddings, and official events. We were greeted with a warm welcome from our musical brothers, offering Arab coffee, tea, yummy sweets, and conversation. After the pre-music visit we toured his facility and were led into a carpeted room. As soon as we entered the room Omar's band started playing a fantastic number, featuring singing, and rhythmic hand clapping that sounded like loud cracks in 16th beats. We all sat on the floor and proceeded to exchange instruments with our counterparts. Joey explored the nuances of playing an oud, Ronnie played various drums, and I tried, to no avail, to get any kind of sound from a bamboo flute. Mr. Sadeg was my flute playing counterpart and he made some impressive tones on his new harmonica as we continued to chuckle at my total inability to even get a squeak from my new flute. We had great fun playing and enjoying each others music without words. Once again the truth presents itself to us....Music is the universal language! We then played songs for each other. Omar's band was so impressive in their musicianship and ensemble playing. Mr. Omar directed his super tight band with hand gestures and as the evening progressed, violins, flute, oud, and a dancer was added to the mix. After about 40 minutes of glorious music we took our sweaty selves back to Mr. Omar’s office for more food, photos, and an embarrassment of gifts. Then hand shakes and hugs with a promise to talk to our friends at Lincoln Center about bringing Omar's fantastic Saudi folklore group, Abo Siraj to New York for a performance. We are sure Americans would love the music.  This was another Arabian night to remember.  How can it be that every day and with every experience, I find myself thinking, “this was the high point of our tour!”

Al Diddley Bo, Saudi style
Our mission on Sunday was to perform a concert at Effat University for Women. We were not sure what to expect but we were pleasantly surprised to play in front a large appreciative group of college women. As you can imagine Joey was a big hit with the young women and we signed lots of autographs. After the show we had a nice lunch and chat with the administrator, who gave us a brief overview of this one of a kind school. Math, engineering and sciences are the core curriculum and the students receive a top notch education with all the texts and instruction in English. Duke University in the US is their partner and they regularly exchange students and faculty there. The future looks bright for these brilliant young Saudi women!  Photography of the women was prohibited, but we got some good shots of the band on stage.
LJMQ at the Effat University with a backdrop of the old city of Jeddah.
Tomorrow we leave the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. It has been an incredible week here, filled with experiences I will never forget. Our journey tomorrow takes us to Kuwait for more stops on the Rhythm Road.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Help Me

Jeddah, Saudi Arabia

Friday was a rest day for the band due to everyone observing the Sabbath in this part of the world. We all slept in and then started our day with lunch at a trendy downtown restaurant. After lunch we headed to the US Consulate to do laundry at the Consul General's house. Technical difficulties (a major water leak) forced us to move over to the Marine house for laundry. But it was great fun hanging out with Marines, even if we were doing our laundry! The Marine house felt like a little bit of home and they have a very small refreshment area that is a oasis for many a thirsty traveler. Before we left I gave a quick harmonica lesson to Public Affairs Officer Dina Badawy and her friend Meryl. They were quick learners and we discussed adding two more Mississippi Saxophones to the band. While there, we were also privileged to meet Martin R Quinn the Consul General of the US. He warmly welcomed us and we chatted about our tour so far. It is amazing to have the opportunity to meet so many very distinguished and special people who serve our country.

But the real special people were yet to come. On Saturday morning we drove to the Help Center to set up and sound check for an afternoon performance. After the sound check, we dashed back to the Consulate for a remote radio interview. Some of the questions dealt directly with US /Saudi relations. Robbie elegantly stated that we are on a cultural exchange mission and I echoed that with the statement that music transcends national borders. Everyone agreed that our tour is a unique opportunity to connect people through music. We shared that our experience in Saudi Arabia has been very positive and enriching and that whatever fears we might have had were put to rest by the warm reception of our new Saudi friends.

After the interview, we then returned to the Help Center. The Center was co-founded almost 25 years ago by Maha Al-Juffali in response to the need to help special needs children learn the skills for life. The family is a very wealthy Saudi family (Mercedes Benz dealers) and they wanted to find a way to give back to the community. So they started the Help Center where children with cognitive disabilities, from infants to 18 years old, participate in day programs in a world class facility with “tip of the top” staff and curriculum. I have been in many schools and the Help Center is perhaps the finest program for special needs kids I have ever seen.
Looking out at all the smiling faces at the Help Center

The best part of the day was our musical performance. As soon as Joey struck up the band, big smiles broke out and everyone was having a total blast. The kids, the band, the Help Center staff and the Consulate staff all joined in the moment. Of all the incredible experiences I’ve had on this Rhythm Road adventure, this was my peak experience of the tour so far. I sensed the instant connection of our music with the kids and the more we played, the more joyful the moment became. We had dancing, swaying, boogie-woogieing, singing, handclapping, smiles, laughter and love. I am so fortunate to get to do what I do!
The Blues healed me!

Dancin' to the Blues.

With some of our new friends...What a joyous experience!
This is what I love doing!

Our days are rich and rewarding on the Rhythm Road, so full of incredible experiences.  Tonight we’re having a big jam session with Abo Siraj, a Saudi folklore group. It promises to be interesting because there will be traditional oud and string players, percussionists, and even dancers. We’ll be jamming at a private residence. It should be big fun.

Tomorrow could be another groundbreaking event. We’ve just received word that the concert at Effat University for Women will go on as scheduled. More on that as it unfolds. Again, as they say here, En’shallah….if God wills it.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Further On Up the Road

Jeddah, Saudi Arabia
Groucho Marx and the hookah
Thursday allowed us to catch up on our rest and go out for a relaxing dinner with Donny Yoo from the US Cultural Affairs Office. As we drove along the beautiful Red Sea, we admired hundreds of public works of art along the way. Every traffic roundabout featured a multi story sculpture. One was a giant monolith with actual cars sticking out at all angles. It even had a Chevy Camaro jutting out of the top! Dinner was at a restaurant complex just a few feet from the waves hitting the shore line of the Red Sea. We dined in a tent like area filled with sofas, large coffee tables, and very tall ornate water pipes. We sat next to a large open window just a few feet from the water and sea breezes. It felt wonderfully relaxing. Hamour fish (in the Grouper family) is the most common fish in the gulf and it is good stuff. After dinner Donny ordered up a pipe full of apple flavored shesha. They gave us a fresh hose and placed hot coals on top of the foil covering the shesha. I had fun taking photos of everyone enjoying a bowl of shesha. Of course, I “just said no” to the experience, due to my delicate sensibilities, if you know what I mean.

Robbie strikes a pose
Ronnie samples the apple shesha
On the drive home we stopped at a large super market for supplies. As I mentioned earlier Saudi culture is more nocturnal in nature and the market was packed with families at 11:30 pm. Thursday night is usually family night in the Kingdom and Friday is the Sabbath. On Friday we are going with Dina Badaway, the Cultural Affairs Officer, to the Consulate complex to do laundry. Then we’ll have time to explore the cosmopolitan city of Jeddah. Tomorrow, we’ve got more school gigs.

Today, April 9th is my dear Elizabeth’s birthday. She is celebrating a benchmark birthday…shouldn't say the number but it rhymes with nifty. I want the whole wide world to know just what she means to me. Liz brings true joy to everyone she meets. Elizabeth is my constant example of strength, intelligence, humor, loyalty, generosity, and love. Happy Birthday Elizabeth! Have a great day at the ball park. Eat a Hot Dog for me.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Eyesight to the Blind

Riyadh & Jeddah, Saudi Arabia

What an interesting few days it has been here in Saudi Arabia. On Tuesday morning, April 6th, on our way to a Saudi TV interview, we received word that our big performance at the gigantic King Fahd Cultural Center was scheduled to happen that evening. It would be by invitation only, with women and children seated separately from the men. This would be an historic event, since no American music had ever been played here before, especially Blues. We felt the weight of history on our shoulders and we were determined to deliver our cultural message.

The Saudi TV interview was a live interview on a local morning show. The floor director only spoke Arabic, so we felt a little unsure as to our “on air” cues. In fact, I happened to be strolling out of the bathroom directly on to live TV as the interview was starting. I was hustled around the camera to the other side of the sofa with a big smile like it was all planned. The program tied a cooking segment around our performance, so after our mini performance and interview, we then provided the musical soundtrack as the chef prepared yummy American style hamburgers. Just like Regis and Kathy Lee…..or maybe more like Wayne’s World. It was big TV fun.
Live from Riyadh, it's Good Morning KSA!

On the set of Good Morning KSA
As the day unfolded, we felt excitement as we prepared to head to the King Fahd Cultural Center for the sound check and performance. We arrived there around 6:00 pm and Billy Banks ensured that everything around the show was super professional. As we waited for the performance in the green room, Ben Peracchio from the Embassy continually updated us as to the size of the crowd. Ben is also a talented graphic artist and designed a special poster promoting the concert at the King Fahd Cultural Center. The posters are glossy, with a large press photo of us and lots of Arabic writing promoting this groundbreaking event. Ben is mailing a few of the posters home to us. I plan to have mine framed and hang it in a place of honor.

"Song List" - Little Joe McLerran
When the curtain rose, we were introduced to the crowd of approximately 1000 people by US Ambassador James Smith. The lighting on the stage made it impossible for us to see past the first 2 rows of seating, but we could hear their vigorous applause. We played for an hour long set and the show was met with good response throughout the performance. After the show, we were told some folks actually stood up, clapped, and boogie-woogied in that Saudi way. I’m reminded of conversations I’ve had with my friends Bubba, Jerry and Rayne down in Helena, Arkansas about the segregated south. They said that in their youth, they would attend soul and blues shows in Helena and Memphis. Blacks were relegated to the balcony or were separated by a velvet rope. However, once the music started, the barriers came down and folks mixed, as the power of music helped heal our country. I witnessed some of that same dynamic unfolding at the King Fahd Cultural Center that night.

Billy the Grinder with Bernesto
Immediately after the show, the Embassy staffed whisked us from the venue to the airport to where we bid a fond farewell to our dear friend Billy Banks, who left us to go back to Jazz at Lincoln Center. Billy taught us many things about how to ensure a successful performance in a strange land and how to travel efficiently and on time. He’s a smart, funny cat who we all just love. We can’t wait til our paths cross again. The Embassy staff helped expedite us through ticketing and security for our 12:30 am flight to Jeddah. We were starving, and we spied some fried chicken in the airport. We sat down to enjoy a quick snack and we were all totally buzzed about the historical concert we had just played. We were in warm, afterglow, all smiles and laughter, but when I looked at my watch, it was 12:25 am. We hustled to the departure gate and were informed by the staff that our flight had just departed!! Billy Banks had been gone for 30 minutes and left us on our own and we missed a flight! I know he’ll find out about it and we’ll never the end of it. We spent the next 5 hours hanging out in the Riyadh airport, waiting for the next flight to Jeddah. The odd thing is that the airport was full of people and bustling like it was 3:00 in the afternoon, not 3:00 in the morning. I’ve learned that Saudi culture is very nocturnal. It was weird and surreal. After all, they roll up the streets in Tulsa at 9:00 pm.

We arrived in beautiful Jeddah about 9:00 am on Wednesday, April 7th. The drive to the hotel was along the Red Sea. The city has countless pieces of public art found in every roundabout and all along the waterfront. The climate is hot and humid, like Oklahoma mid summer, but it’s yet to really warm up here. We’re staying at the beautiful Intercontinental Hotel where Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stayed a few weeks ago.

Last night, we performed at the US Consulate in Jeddah at Heroes’ Hall. We played for artists, students, reporters, various ex-pats, and other diplomatic personnel from other countries. I had a wonderful conversation with Toshimitsu Ishigure, the Consul General of Japan. He commented on my harmonica playing and I gave him a harmonica as a souvenir. He was delighted! After the show, we were treated to a reception at the social club with a buffet featuring yummy US food, including fried chicken, cheese grits, mashed potatoes, and pumpkin pie!! The high point of the evening for me was meeting and talking with Lt. Col. Gerald C. Graham, the Region 2 US Marine Corps Commanding Officer in charge of the Embassy security groups for the whole region. I told him about my dear friend Tom Moran, an ex-marine who sent me his Marine pin as a good luck mojo for my trip. I must have been tired because I was overcome with emotion. I gave the Lt. Col a harmonica and he gave me his personal coin of the Marine Security Guards, engraved with “Disciplined Professional Vigilant”. The motto at the bottom says “Miles from home and meters from chaos”. I gave him Tom’s pin and told him I would give the coin to Tom upon my return. I was so deeply moved by this experience and will never forget it.

Today is a much needed rest day. We plan to have dinner and watch the sunset on the Red Sea tonight. The Rhythm Road has taken me to places well beyond anything I could have ever imagined in my life!
Jeddah from my balcony

Monday, April 5, 2010

Ain't Gonna Worry My Life

Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

Last night we played our first show in Saudi Arabia. We were at the US Consulate in Dhahran, playing in a school assembly hall where there was a very diverse crowd. Our musician friends from the afternoon jam session were there and joined us on stage for an international rendition of Big Walter Horton's song "Easy". Then the Little Joe McLerran Quartet joined them for one of their original Arabic compositions. These talented musicians were overwhelmed by the opportunity to play in public. Their performances are limited to house parties only. Towards the end of the performance, they presented Joey with an oud to take home as a souvenir! What a rare gift. We felt such appreciation from everyone. For our American friends in attendance, it was as if we were bringing musical water to thirsty friends in the desert. Everyone loved it and we felt it. Our playing felt deep and inspired, full of joy and emotion. Being aware of cultural sensitivities, at one point I was concerned when I saw several traditional Arab men get up and leave. However, to my relief, a short time later, they returned with full cups of coffee! It was just an Arabian pause for the cause! One gentleman we met had attended Spartan School of Aeronautics in Tulsa and even inquired about the changes in our city since he was last there. He is a true renaissance man, with many degrees and certifications. I wish I could be around him and learn from him. The US Cultural Affairs Officers who are our liaisons, are incredibly talented and dedicated people who serve our country in foreign lands. In Dhahran, Cynthia Cook was our host, and to our surprise, we found out that she also plays a mean guitar! Our first Saudi shuffle was a hit!

We left Dhahran at 6:30 am and took a flight to Riyadh, about 500 miles to the capital in the center of the country. The plane was huge with only a few folks on board. The cool part was that a young Arab man boarded, carrying a beautiful falcon. It was perched on his forearm, hooded, and rode the whole flight on his arm. Fantastic! Incredible! Far-out! My Iowa Hawkeye blues buddy Joe Price would have loved to talk with him about raptors. As we were boarding, we were asked not to carry our coffee on board for safety reasons... but a bird of prey was allowed to board without any problems. Billy Banks commented, "No worries, that bird must be a frequent flyer!" Bada-bing!

Ben Peracchio, the Deputy Cultural Affairs officer, is helping us in Riyadh. I had heard that Ben was a Boy Scout and I asked him about his experiences in scouting. Ben proudly stated that he is an Eagle Scout and that the Boy Scouts in Saudi Arabia enjoy a fine tradition of leadership and service, particularly helping people during the time of the Haag. In today's paper, there was a photo of the King pictured with some Saudi Boy Scouts. I can't wait to tell my 2 Eagle Scouts at home about the international scouting connection.

King Fahad Cultural Center, Riyadh
The lobby of the King Fahad Cultural Center
After stopping at our hotel in Riyadh, we went to visit the King Fahad Cultral Center. The center is the scheduleded site for our performance tomorrow evening. The theater seats 3000 and the actual stage, lighting, and technical equipment is world class. The construction of the lobby and grand entrance hall is all in white marble. A splendid, almost palace like building. Now, here's the rub. The big concert tomorrow will be the absolute first time any American music has been performed in this hall since it was built in 1990. The embassy staff has been working incredibly hard to arranged this performance and are feeling stressed because they're waiting on governmental permission to host the concert. We may not know until tomorrow morning if the show will go on. Ben has a Plan B in mind and the show could get moved to the US embassy compound. In any event, I'm grateful to celebrate the opportunity to be a part of this American cultural program in Saudi Arabia. What a trip. It's very exciting. We will see how the day unfolds or as they say in the gulf.....en'shallah.....if God wills it

Not exactly juke joint seating!

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Playin' with My Friends

Dhahran, Saudi Arabia
Playin' with friends in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia
It’s just a brief entry today. We arrived safely in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia yesterday, crossing the causeway from Bahrain in an Embassy convoy of SUVs with very thick windows that don’t roll down. We had a briefing at the Consulate, an interview with a newspaper, and then some downtime at the hotel.

Saudi Arabia feels different from Bahrain. Where we are staying now seems to have a better infrastructure and more money. There are Mercedes and Harley-Davidsons everywhere. The women here are all veiled, which we didn’t see in Bahrain. One woman we met today even had Harley wings on the back of her abaya, the cloak-like garment that women wear over their clothes.

Music in public is not allowed here. You certainly won’t find buskers on the street, or nightclubs with music. But just because there is no public music does not mean that there aren’t musicians and people who love music here. On Sunday morning, we went to a local shop called Desert Designs, where the shop owner is a big music lover. He closed the shop and had several of his musician friends come over and we all played together. It was a treat. And his shop was fantastic! I made quite a few souvenir purchases.

Tonight, we are playing a concert at the Consulate for the staff and guests there. Then, at 6 am we leave for Riyadh.

Liz tells me our interview with Folk Salad on KWGS FM 89.5 is being broadcast tonight at 7:00 Central Daylight Time. Tune in.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Don't Start Me Talkin'

Manama, Bahrain

Each day, I say that I'll remember this day forever. But my fear is that my mental memory card is going to fill up!! There are so many incredible people, sights and experiences each and every hour.

I haven’t had a chance yet to tell you about Thursday’s activities. In the morning, Robbie was very late meeting us in the lobby to leave for our first school engagement. Billy Banks, an incredibly great guy from Jazz at Lincoln Center who is traveling with us, finally called Robbie on the house phone to find out what the hold up was. Billy’s face fell when Robbie let Billy know that he was too sick to leave his room and perform for the day. Billy has managed many tours for Wynton Marsalis, and being the professional that he is, he immediately went into problem solving mode and started talking to Joey about devising a Plan B for the day. I took the phone and inquired of Robbie “How you doing, man?” His reply was “April Fools!” That set the tone for the day and kept us all on our toes for subsequent pranks.

Harmonica players at the Gifted Students Center
Our performance and workshop at the Gifted Students Center was highlighted by some Bahraini girls singing songs in Arabic, using the scale with semitones. It made the hair on my arms stand up…truly beautiful and amazing! Our big student jam session included lots of guitars, 3 female harmonica players, keyboard and percussion. The musical theme was Muddy Waters’ “I’m A Man” and one of the girls even improvised words in Arabic.

The Bahrain showcase event was Thursday evening at the Cultural Hall. Little Joe upset the joint…once again. After the show, we met US Ambassador Adam Ereli, as well as a nice woman from Fayetteville, Arkansas who now lives and teaches in Bahrain. It was wonderful to be able to perform our music on the big stage for such a diverse audience.

Friday is the Sabbath, so it was a rest day for us with no gigs scheduled. The Bahraini American Cultural Exchanges Society offered to take us on a tour of the region, which Robbie, Billy and I accepted. We were hosted by Dr. Ali, Ali, and Khalid and had an incredible day. Dr. Ali is a teacher at one of the schools we visited, Ali is a coordinator of the Bahraini American Cultural Exchanges Society, and Khalid is an investment banker. We had just finished having a late breakfast when we were picked up in a touring van for our day's excurion.  The first stop was for lunch at the Coral Beach Club, a beautiful restaurant right on the water. The buffet was delicious, filled with so many culinary delights, that we all just had to eat again. We almost overdid it.

After lunch, we toured Qal’at al-Bahrain, one of Bahrain’s ancient forts and museums. The fort was built on an ancient site, with human artifacts dating back to 2300 BC. Seeing it was one of those “stepping back in time” experiences that gives me greater understanding into all those who have come before me and how I am only on this planet for a short amount of time, relative to our historical record. It’s hard to put into words. Much to our delight, we visited a camel ranch (if that’s what they’re called in the Middle East), owned by the King’s uncle. The camels in Bahrain have only one hump and this herd consisted of the finest racing camels. It may sound strange, but their faces were expressive and beautiful. Next door was a lush date palm grove and gardens. What a treat!

Another high point was visiting the Jaffer AlShoughel pottery, where we saw potters throwing pots and kilns being fired.  Like music, the art of pottery is global. I wish my brother-in-law Peter could have seen his fellow potters in Bahrain. The tour also included a visit to ancient burial mounds in A’ali, which took up countless acres. The burial mounds are protected by the government. Did you know that there are more than 100,000 burial mounds on this island?

Upon our return to Manama, Dr. Ali took us to Bab al-Bahrain, which means “Gateway to Bahrain.” The main tourist office is housed there, and we were able to pick up the all important postcards, fridge magnets and soccer jerseys at this stop.

My experiences in Bahrain have been phenomenal. Our Embassy liaison, David Edginton, was so very helpful to us and so willing to make our visit to this small country a memorable one. Every Bahraini that I met has been genuinely warm and friendly. The people here exude a gentle confidence and grace that I aspire to. I’m so fortunate to have been able to share my music with them and to have witnessed some Bahraini hospitality. What an incredible island.

Tomorrow, we’re heading across the causeway on our Saudi Arabian adventure. Wow!