Ukraine- Babas, Wild Pigs and Borscht
Sometime last year I came across a video of a group of drummers from Ukraine doing one of my exercises, the Turkish split hand paddy cake. I began corresponding with the leader of the group, Denys Barabanza who told me abut this group of drummers learning the Darbuka In a city called Zaporizya which is not even one of the main cities of Ukraine and quite far from the capital, Kiev.
We finally decided that he would organize a master class and concert for me this October! When my student Alex from Moscow heard about it he said, "hey why dont you come to Moscow after". And when the darbuka community in Siberia heard I was coming to Moscow they said " hey why dont you come here too", thus the whole Ukraine/Russia tour developed.
Denys picked me up with his family - his beautiful wife Natalia and his adorable two little boys who's nicknames are Hiroshima and Nagasaki because they destroy everything in sight. They gave me the options - stay in a hotel, stay in my own apartment, or be a guest of a Sea Captain named Kiril who is a drummer and raw food vegan. I went with the third option. We arrived at Kirils and he greeted me warmly- a handsome man with amazing blue eyes and wild curly black hair. He was in a great mood because he had just returned home after 4 months at sea to his beautiful wife and baby girl.
They preceded to serve me a stunning meal- a stew of potatoes and mushrooms, pickles, an incredible fresh salad, and the highlight which was chunks of pink grapefruit on a bed of lettuce with a mountain of pine nuts on top. Absolutely incredible. The beverage was freshly squeezed juice of fruit from their own garden. In fact, most of the meal was straight from the garden! The dessert was vegan bananna sesame cookies.
After dinner we went to the music room. As a sea captain, Kiril has traveled all over the world and collects drums wherever he goes so he has quite an impressive collection. He is a self taught intuitive drummer with a great groove. He likes to play the cajon and the digeri doo at the same time while holding his baby on his lap. Since the concert was the next day we decided to rehearse so we went over a few pieces that I wanted Kiril and Denys to accompany me on while the boys ran around knocking over everything in their path. Denys and Kiril were not used to odd rhythms so they found my material challenging but Denys promised that he would stay awake all night in order to practice.
I woke up and did my yoga practice which was interrupted by Kiril bringing me by a freshly squeezed juice. I could get used to this, I thought. He then offered to take me on walk. He lives in the outskirts of town so there is a totally wild place right near his house. We had a beautiful walk and snacked on berries and wild fruits on the way. During the walk he explained to me that he an his wife were trying desperately for 10 years to have a child- doctors, fertility treatment ect to no avail. At the time he was a heavy smoker, drank alcohol an ate meat. After 10 years they gave up on having kids. At the same time Kiril discovered drumming which made him stop smoke and drinking and eating meat. As soon as he did that, his wife got pregnant! As a matter of fact almost all the people I met in Ukraine were vegetarian, non smokers, non drinkers and non drug users.
For breakfast they made kasha. I thought I didn't like kasha but I guess in Ukraine they know the right way to prepare it. They served it w a sauce of onions and carrots with another huge garden salad. I also tried chicory - a local drink that resembles coffee. It was great! Apparently regular rice and coffee only appeared n Ukraine in the last 20 years. Before at it was only kasha and chicory.
The workshop was in a beautiful center for yoga- very fancy looking. About 30 drummers showed up. They were all quite beginner as far as Turkish split hand technique. Besides me the only other Turkish drummer to give a workshop in Ukraine so far has been Misirli Ahmet last year. The group was good - very focused and I have a feeling many of them will go far with what I taught.
The concert was upstairs in a beautiful concert hall filled with mandala art. I played 4 pieces w Kemenche and 4 on Darbuka. The audience was very warm and gave me a standing ovation and asked for an encore.
The next day Denys an Kiril took me on an excursion to show me an island of wild pigs. I was very happy because I love pigs! The island also has an open air museum of ancient stones. The stones are are statues called "babas" used for graves. Denys is a historian so he explained very interesting things. Most of the babas had no faces because the Christians who took over the area destroyed the faces but the statues were very cool anyway. Everyone kept mentioning Kosaks, the badass Ukranian warriors who defended Ukraine against invaders. There are references and pictures of Kosaks all over Ukraine. The Kosaks played big kettle drums.
Kiril pointed out to me a field of plants a I realized it was cannabis plants. A whole field of them! I took some picture for my pot loving friends back home and grabbed a few buds for the hell of it but ended up chucking them because I was in the company of such straight people! Oh well!
Unfortunately the wild pigs were hiding that day but there were signs and droppings of them everywhere. I even climbed to the top of an old Kosak lookout tower to see if I could spot any pigs. Apparently these wild pigs have gotten used to humans so they will actually eat out of your hand! I got no such pleasure but we did see a family of adorable non wild pigs on our way out so my pig- seeing craving was satisfied.
After running around the island of invisible pigs my hosts said I must try the local borscht. Usually borscht has meat in it but they asked a restaurant to make a special vegetarian borscht. It was delicious - like a soup with cabbage, potatoes and huge beans. I guess the waitress didn't know about the vegetarian thing cause she served us a plate of white strips that were lard!!!! Yes, most people eat strips of lard with the borscht!
The next morning Kiril and I decided to go for a run. I didn't have shoes so he gave me his which was 5 sizes too big but they gave me a bunch of heavy socks so it worked out just fine. We took his giant dog who doesn't get to walk or run the whole time Kiril is at sea- she just sits in a cage all day. So you can imagine how happy she was to run with us! Kiril runs with hardly an clothes on even in below freezing weather, and he stops at a river and swims even when it's covered in ice he makes a hole in the ice and swims! The dog always jumps in as well to save him and the two of them swim- it was very cute to watch. He likes to bushwhack off of the path through bushes and trees- it was quite an adventure and one hell of a workout!
When it came time to pay me, Denys took out a huge wad of dollars! It was so exciting until I realized that it was all five dollar bills- the bank only had fives that day. Denys explained apologetically that the Ukrainian salary is very low compared to western countries. Because cost of living is also low it's ok for living there but once you start converting to dollars it becomes difficult, so considering that they managed to come up with a nice token to pay me. Denys warned me about Moscow. Those Moscovians are so materialistic, he said. They are all about money. Your host in Moscow Alex is originally Ukranian too, but he sold out to move to Moscow in search of the big bucks.
They all piled in the car- all of the kids and wives etc to take me to the airport and stood there waving and taking pictures until I was out of sight. Such sweet people. I had a wonderful time and will be happy to go back there again!
Moscow Dream - Limo Darbuka Parties and Gorgeous Men
It's a short flight from Ukraine to Moscow. My host Alex can best be described as prince- like. A tall gorgeous vegetarian drummer who has the best energy and travels the globe constantly. He had come before to Turkey for some of my camps and is getting to an excellent level on the darbuka. He was supposed meet me a the airport. He had told me that there was some surprise for me, and I wondered what it could be. I left customs control and suddenly Alex appears with a camera crew and a group of incredibly tall incredibly handsome men - maybe 8 people altogether. Alex introduced me saying that theses lovely men were some of the best percussionists in Russia. That's strange that all these people schlepped to the airport just to meet me, I thought. They must have come in a few different cars.
We exit the terminal and there is a white stretch limo waiting for us outside. "Surprise!" said Alex. I entered the limo and it was decorated with colorful oriental style scarves, pillows and flowers. There were several darbukas and platters of vegan snacks. I felt like I was dreaming. All of the beautiful drummers and cameramen piled into the car and Alex gave the driver instructions to take us straight to a vegetarian restaurant. Apparently many of the Russian drummers are veggi as well! They handed me a Darbuka and we all started to drum. I thought to myself, "wait till Denys from Ukraine sees the picture of the limo party- it will just reinforce all of his beliefs about the materialistic Moscovians!
In a pause in the drumming they said "now for your present" and presented me wih a beautiful Armenian Kemenche in a nice case with a bow and everything! And there was an inscription in the bowl of the Kemenche with my name on it! I took it out and played a couple songs. Very sweet instrument! What a gift!
After the restaurant they took me to the apartment which was also filled with flowers, fruit, nuts, all kinds of veggies, avocados, you name it! The apartment was that of Trifon, an adorable 26 year old drummer who I knew from before because he came to one of my Istanbul darbuka intensives last year. He promised to be back the next morning to bring me fresh bread for breakfast.
The next day began with a lovely yoga session and beautiful breakfast. The coffee in Russia resembles Turkish coffee but the special pot they cook it in is much bigger, and they strain the grounds before pouring it into a big cup unlike Turkish coffee which they serve in tiny cups and keep the grounds which sink to the bottom. Anyway it does the trick!
The rehearsals and master classes were at a drumming school called Ethno Beat. Its in a crazy huge industrial building that used to be a factory and is now used by all kinds of artists. The school itself reminded me also of my Darbuka Ofis - a nice big room with a carpet and mirrors on the wall and filled with drums. I felt instantly at home there. The beautiful tall men from the limo were at the rehearsal. We managed to whip up a few pieces to play in the show the next day which we not easy because the drumming piece were quite complex.
After the rehearsal they took me by subway to another vegetarian restaurant. Moscow metro during rush hour was quite an experience! We were running late so they were rushing. As a person who is always the fastest walker in the group it was surprising to be running after these long legged men who I could barely keep up with through the Moscow subway system!
There were over 30 students waiting for the master class when I returned. I began to teach and was shocked by the high level of the students. They had all obviously been practicing the split hand technique for a while and were so focused and receptive of everything I showed. The 2.5 hour class flew by!
The next day was the show! It was in a club called Dom which means house,a music theater in a beautiful classy part of town. The theme of the night was women performers so besides me there were a bunch of other acts that featured women - tribal belly dancers, a Russian woman beatboxer, djembe group, and samba group. My favorite was a duet of two women doing ancient Russian chanting- totally trippy! My music was very well received by he Russian audience. I think the hit was Maksum Madness which we played perfectly! After the show there were more flowers, a jam session and then a late night dinner at a sushi restaurant with many vegan choices. Im used to going out after a show and everybody having a glass of wine or beer to unwind, but nobody in this group drank alcohol, just like in Ukraine! They all had juice or tea. They were also all vegetarian! So much for the stereotypical drunk meat-eating Russians. What a beautiful night
At the end of the night a beautiful tall blond woman, Tina, came up to me and said in perfect English that she would be showing me around Moscow the next day and what time would I like to be picked up? She called from downstairs the next day saying " your carriage awaits!" We began by taking a tour of the subway stations. Those of you from NYC might think, " why the hell would anybody do that?" But actually some of the Moscow subway stations are stunningly beautiful, like museums with mosaics, statues, gold plating everywhere and stunning chandeliers! I couldn't believe how beautiful they were! She then showed me the Red Square and St Basils Church, straight out of a fairy tale, an incredible colorfully decorated cluster of 9 churches that peak in the onion shaped domes. Inside I heard an gorgeous live quarter of Russian religious chant. We also saw the Kremlin, and the Clear Pond which turns into a skating rink in the winter. Tina was such a delightful guide telling me such interesting and funny stories and political scandals about everything we saw. She's a CEO in an IT company so she can take days off and do whatever she wants. She has this "smart watch" that's also like a phone and computer and she would occasionally shout orders to her office workers into her phone, like something from a James Bond movie.
The next day was the same only we began with an interview of me for a Russian vegetarian magazine. Then more sight seeing w Tina. This time she showed me the university, a beautiful monastery where they used to send girls who were naughty and we ended up at a Georgian restaurant. I didn't know anything about the country Georgia or Georgian cuisine but after this meal I want to visit this country. It was some of the most delicious vegan food I've ever tasted,the highlights being a paste made from spinach and walnuts and another paste made from beans and leeks. The waiter actually gave me the recipies! I vowed to buy a food processor so that I can recreate some of those dishes. They played background music of beautiful Georgian singing.
That evening was the last master class. They presented me with two beautiful volumes of illustrated Russian fairy tales as a gift ( and I never even told them that as a kid I was obsessed w Russian fairy tales! How did they know!) and everyone was so nice saying they would like me to come back soon. After the class a group of us stayed and jammed. What a beautiful, fun, unforgettable week in Moscow!
Siberia - Hot Springs, Beautiful Soul Sister, Yoga and the Best After Party Ever
I arrived in Siberia and was met by the lovely Anestaia who I only knew from Internet. I knew about her because somebody sent me a video of her band playing my song Nubian exactly like we played it and it was such a nice surprise seeing a woman as the lead drummer! We began to correspond on line. She has a Darbuka school in Siberia and has been to Cairo and Istanbul. Now she is a single mother with a two year old daughter so shes unable to travel so it was a big treat that I came to her! A tiny woman, much smaller than me she still insisted on carrying my luggage and lifting everything herself into the car. She was apologetic about picking me up in a mere car after seeing the pictures of the limo pickup in Moscow. I loved her immediately and felt as if we've been friends for a long time.
First she took me to Ivan's house where I would be staying. Ivan is a big bear of a Russian man who teaches English and was thrilled to have a real American to speak with. I had sent them a description of my vegan diet and they had prepared accordingly but in the funniest way! The motley assortment of food laid out on the table was indeed vegan but so random! A bowl of sesame seeds, some strange jelly like candies, a bottle of soy sauce, a few cans of vegetables, a package or rice noodles, a cut up pepper and cucumber, some slices of interesting Russian brown bread, a sliced kiwi.... I had a hard time picturing how all these items would become a meal but I decided to go with the flow and nibbled on various things. They were especially proud of the bottle of soy sauce and kept offering it to me when I was eating bread and fruit and stuff. It was a very nice endearing effort on their part.
Then we went to the club where the concert word be later that night. It was an awesome huge music venue with very professional sound crew! They had my table all set up for me in the middle and were very well prepared. I sound checked and then we played through a few songs with Anastasia's band. It was amazing- they had learned the song I sent them perfectly - exactly like on my recordings! What a pleasure for me! The hall started filling up and there were over 300 people in the audience by the time the show began. There were several other acts before me including some djembe groups and Anastasia's students who reminded me so much of my own messengers! My set was wonderful- it was so fun playing with such a tight group that was so well prepared! The audience was extremely warm and enthusiastic.
After the show a bunch of the performers came back to Ivan's house or an after party. Everybody brought something - tons of fruit, nuts, cookies, cakes and juices. Something felt strange to me and then I realized what. Not one drop of alcohol, not one cigarette, not one joint. All these cool hippy looking young people, completely straight! And almost everyone vegetarian. They explained to me that ten years ago everybody smoked and drank in Russia but in the last years many of the young people got tired of this and took on a healthier lifestyle- no drinking, drugs, cigarettes or meat. They just sat around drinking juice and tea singing Russian songs to me accompanied by guitar. It was such a touching scene. Such young people give me hope for the future. I started getting tired and Ivan offered me a massage! Just what I needed! He gave me a wonderful massage that put me straight to sleep.
The next day was the master class- a nice group of about 20 drummers. After the master class there was one private lesson with a young man who is a djembe teacher from another town in Siberia called Omsk. He didn't speak any English but other people told me that he was a total fan and had a huge crush on me. He's a good drummer but whenever I showed him something that he didn't get right away he would turn red and run out the room. So cute.
We stopped at a supermarket on the way home and I was shocked at how tiny and crappy the produce department was. There were hardly any veggies and the ones there looked horrible. I guess there are not many farms around so most people eat meat and fish and buy frozen vegetables. I think I would be challenging being vegan there.
I had planned to stay one extra day because I wanted a chance to sit and play with Anastasia just me and her. The day began with a yoga teacher coming over to practice yoga with me. He was very curious about my style of Hatha yoga. He did my practice with me and asked very interesting questions. He was surprised at how long I held the poses. After our practice I shared with him some tehina and zaatar I had brought from Istanbul for breakfast (what a lifesaver!). He had never tasted such food before! It was actually great on a slice of Russian bread with some sliced cucumber on top.
Then Anastasia came over with her darbuka and I proceeded to show her all the latest moves from Istanbul. She was totally amazing, picking up everything instantly! What a talent! We sat for at least 3 hours but I could have kept going all night long! She was so happy to get new materiel because in Siberia she's a big fish in a small pond so she doesn't get much inspiration.
For my last night they decided to take me to the hot springs. What a treat! It's a huge steaming hot swimming pool under the stars. There is so much steam coming off of the water that you barely see anything! So magical!
Back at Ivan's house almost at midnight he had bought ingredients to make vegan sushi! We made rolls with cucumber, carrot, beets and peanuts! He had bought avocados as well but they weren't ready. While we were making the sushi we realized that we all speak French, so we started speaking in French. It struck me as so funny that here I was speaking French with Russian Darbuka players making Japanese sushi in Siberia! What a world! The sushi was delicious! Ivan had bought some Russian wasabi that was much more like horseradish than wasabi, but it did the trick! For dessert Ivan had all these frozen berries in the fridge so we sucked on frozen berries and drank chai.
Here I am on the plane back to Istanbul writing about my adventures. I'm very excited to go back to my favorite city, my Darbuka Ofis, my sweet little apartment and my beloved teacher Bunyamin, but I'll never forget this wonderful trip to Ukraine and Russia and the royal treatment I received from these amazing people.