A Note from the Road by Modern Blues Master Samuel James

The Modern Blues Masters are traversing the Russian landscape on their round of the festival tour. Samuel James checks in on the way to Kirov:

“Guy Davis loved St. Isaac’s Cathedral. Phil Wiggins was amazed by the HermitageMuseum, and I can’t stop looking out the window at everything! It’s all so stunning! Having never played together, it’s been an incredible opportunity to be on this tour (at least for me…)!

From the kind folks at the home of the US consulate, and the happily rowdy crowd at the Jazz Philharmonic in St. Petersburg to the people sitting in the aisles of the National Center of Contemporary Art in Nizhny Novgorod, and even the three of us playing train songs on the train ride to Kirov, for us this has been a musical adventure for the ages. Russian audiences have been truly wonderful so far, and some of you really know how to participate– I’m talking to you, guy in the balcony of the Jazz Philharmonic. You know who you are.

Maybe we’ll see you tonight in Kirov!”

– Samuel James

For a peek into what their tour has been like thus far, watch this special clip from St. Petersburg’s “Art TV”. Below are several stills from the TV episode:

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A Few Thoughts and Memories

Joey McKenzie here, writing on behalf of the Quebe Sisters Band
I just wanted to write in to the blog and share a few thoughts and memories regarding our extraordinary March 2013 tour of Russia. 
First of all, let me start by saying this was the best tour we have been a part of – on a number of levels.
When we arrived in St.Petersburg, we were happily greeted by a young woman who assisted us in negotiating the unfamiliar airport and customs processes. She made sure that the fairly complicated forms, documents, passports, etc were dealt with properly, and also assisted us in getting our luggage and musical instruments through customs. This was the first of many well thought out (and thoughtful!) details throughout the entire tour….
We performed in a total of 5 cities – St. Petersburg, Kaliningrad, Yekaterinburg, Chelyabinsk and finished the tour in Moscow. Starting in St. Petersburg was absolutely incredible! Thanks to CEC ArtsLink, Thea Austen and Susan Katz (and a few folks based in St. Petersburg) we were able to see quite a lot of this stunning city and visit the indescribable Hermitage Museum. The first concert at the Jazz Philharmonic was awesome – wonderful theater, great sound, and a sold out house full of very enthusiastic people!
We were also very happy that we stayed in comfortable hotels in St. Petersburg and every city throughout the tour. Despite some long days on everyones part, we felt rested and ready to roll everyday. Susan and Thea also made sure that everyday we ate good food and experienced real Russian cuisine and culture (which we all enjoyed very much!!)
Each city along the tour was unique, mysterious, a bit exotic, and really fun! Each concert was different, but consistent in good sound, stunning venues, and wonderful audiences. 
Our first concert in Moscow was at Spaso House – the residence of the U.S. Ambassador to Russia. The audience included U.S. Ambassador Michael McFaul and his family, Federation Council Senator Mikhail Margelov and several Ambessadors, as well as many American and Russian guests. It’s hard to put that evening into words, but it was an evening I will never forget!   
Over the past several years our band has had the opportunity and great fortune of touring and performing in about 40 U.S. states, Canada, France, Switzerland and the United Kingdom, and each of these tours has been a wonderful experience. After our return to Texas and reflecting about the trip, we all agreed that our Russian tour was the best experience we have ever had as a band. This tour was amazingly well organized and thought out thanks to Susan Katz, Thea Austen, and the symphony of people and organizations working together. Susan and Thea seemed to negotiate every situation with professionalism and always had a smile on their faces! 
In closing, I believe that this went way beyond just a “good tour”…. I truly feel that at the end of the day we made real connections between the people of Russia and the United States. At every concert we talked with people we had never met who shared the same love of music, and within seconds created an instant friendship. U.S. Ambassador McFaul said that by coming to Russia and sharing western swing music from Texas, USA, we were in fact Ambassadors! However we may view this tour, I think that this proves that no matter what is happening between Washington and Moscow, we all share a common bond of music and beyond. 
Joey McKenzie  
Guitarist – The Quebe Sisters Band
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Videos of the Quebe Sisters Band on Tour

The Quebe Sisters Band has finished its tour for the Festival of Traditional American Music with much success and many new Russian fans of Western fiddling.

For those who were unable to make it to their concerts abroad, we have some great videos of the band playing in Moscow and Chelyabisnk.

This video, published by the US Embassy in Russia, offers a montage of songs ranging in style and emotion played at Spaso House in Moscow. Stay tuned for glimpses of an audience member’s live sketches of the group, and (best of all) Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul jumping up to swing dance with his wife towards the end.


Another video from this show was posted by Vitaly Raqulin, who also documented the concert with some beautiful photographs for the Embassy. You can see his blog post here.


And lastly, the Southern Ural program “Cultural News” covered the band’s concert in Chelyabinsk. This video is in Russian, but the interviews are dubbed, so English viewers can still hear those lovely Texan accents under the translation.



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The Quebe Sisters Band in Kaliningrad

Following a sold-out concert at the Jazz Philarmonic Hall in St. Petersburg, the Quebe Sisters Band wowed the Kaliningrad public with their beautiful vocal and fiddle harmonies. They performed to a packed hall at the Kaliningrad Philarmonic Hall and after nearly each song the audience erupted into synchronic clapping. The Quebe Sisters with smiles noted that they had never heard audiences clapping in unison and appreciated this cultural difference. At the end of the concert, a little girl presented the sisters with roses and hand made cards, moving everyone in the audience. Sharing their culture and music with the audience, the Quebe Sisters Band created a warm, friendly atmosphere that left the public smiling and humming with a newfound love for Western Swing.


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Russia Gets Ready to Swing

QuebeSisters_posterThe Second Festival of Traditional American Music kicks off next month, following the success of last year’s festival (which included standing ovations, serenades, impromptu street performances and plenty of dancing). Traveling through nine cities, this year’s musicians bring a whole new set of sounds to Russian audiences.

The first group on tour, The Quebe Sisters Band (pronounced Kway-Bee) will travel from as far west as Kaliningrad to Chelyabinsk in the east (we look forward to hearing their first hand accounts of the city post-meteorite). The sisters, Grace, Sophia and Hulda, are accompanied by their long-time mentor Joey McKenzie on rhythm guitar and Gavin Kelso on bass. Hailing from Texas, the group’s sound ranges from vintage swing to country ballads, all held together by the sisters’ impeccable three-part harmonies and energetic violin fiddling.

As with last year’s festival, all of the participating groups will be visiting Russia for the first time on this tour. This blog is their platform to share their impressions, thoughts and experiences traveling through Russia’s landscape and sharing their unique sounds with new listeners.

For a sneak peak into the band’s live performance, here’s a clip from a recent US show:

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A Drummer’s Eye View of the Nakai Trio Russia Tour, April 2012

Epilogue: the Seamlessness of Dream and Reality

We awaken to black skies and rumbling thunder, as if Russia doesn’t want to let us get away with too warm and sunny a stay. . . thoughts of delayed flights and unanticipated expenses dance in our heads as the sky opens up and torrents of cleansing spring rain deluge the city. . . but ever the trickster and shaman, RC takes to the street in front of the hotel, lifts his arms skyward, and lets out a cloud-parting (and crowd-alarming) shout, and within five minutes the storm has passed and the sun returns to blue skies, the city glistening and fragrant after the timely blessing of rain. . . .

The city is suspiciously uncrowded on this Sunday morning prior to the national Victory Day holidays, and we gaily surmise that the drive to the airport will be swift and unencumbered. . . . WRONG! Before too long, we are mired in the worst traffic jam I’ve ever beheld—it takes us two hours to go fewer than ten kilometers—I never want to hear anyone in Phoenix complain about traffic ever again—trust me, you don’t know the meaning of the word. . . . Right at the moment when we’re certain we’ll miss our flights and have to improvise another night of lodging somewhere, the traffic inexplicably breaks free, 99% of it diverting onto a different route, and we dash madly the last kilometer to the mobbed Moscow airport. . . .

The peaceful and harmonious gods and goddesses of cultural exchange and world music are watching over us: a parking space miraculously opens up at curb right in front of the terminal, and two empty luggage carts are magically being deposited right at that spot. . . we skid in on two wheels, barrel out of the sliding passenger doors, grab the carts, pile on our gear and bags, and sprint toward the entrance, whereupon of course we have to unload everything and run it through the first battery of security scanners, at which point we’ve lost our carts. . . nothing for it but to reprise the Yaroslavl tag-team baggage schlep through the crowded terminal to the passport checkpoint and up to the ticket counter, whereupon of course there is mass confusion over the seat assigned to William’s instrument and another interminable delay while it gets sorted out by yet another guardian angel, a native of Chicago who happens to be at the United ticket counter this morning and speaks both American and Russian fluently, as well as having a cheerful and nearly mystical command of the arcane computer system. . . .

Our flight is fortuitously delayed to address a mechanical issue, so we and our gear and luggage do in fact make it on to the plane before it takes off, eliciting another huge exhale as we settle into our seats for the ten-hour trans-Atlantic flight. . . .

Customs is smooth and easy in DC. . . William has a tight connection on a different flight, so he and his fabled lyraharp guitar bid RC, Pam and myself an unceremonious farewell as he sprints of in his pole-vaulter’s lope toward his connecting gate . . as it turns out we all make our flights, The Three Amigos settling in to first-class seats, courtesy of my lovely wife Shery’s Elite Platinum points in my case and on-the-spot upgrades in the case of RC and Pam. . . . off to Houston, then one more plane change and on to Tucson, where Shery picks us up in my trusty Ford Freestar minivan, our persons and belongings having all returned home safe and sound with a treasure trove of meaningful memories and a tall tale to tell. . . .

~With much gratitude to Thea Austen of the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, Susan Katz of CEC ArtsLink, and of course our guardian angel Nastya Tolstaya; as well as all the many wonderful people at the various Embassies and Consulates who enabled our travels; our intrepid drivers and translators; all the venues and presenters who so graciously hosted our concerts; the Russian media who so fervently documented our every move; and of course the Canyon Records family for their support of our efforts before, during and after the tour. . . . I would personally like to thank R. Carlos Nakai for deciding to bring The Wilde Boys with him on this extraordinary adventure; William Eaton for his inspired musicianship and stalwart esprit de corps through thick and thin, and for taking thousands of photos when I took none; Pamela Hyde-Nakai for her hands-on management of our affairs before, during and after the tour as well as for the sophisticated pleasures of her company en route; my wife Shery Christopher for serving pro bono as my PTA (Personal Travel Angel); her personal assistant Sydney Laudenbach for graciously consenting to teach me Russian on her own time; and last but in no way least the Russian people for their overwhelmingly warm, gracious, generous and hospitable reception. May peace and harmony reverberate from our musical offering~


by Will Clipman

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A Drummer’s Eye View of the Nakai Trio Russia Tour, April 2012

IV. Moscow: the Mind of Russia

The countryside dotted with picturesque farm communities and their ubiquitous onion-domed churches merges occasionally into small towns, through most of which the train merely slows down. . . we stop only two or three times between Yaroslavl and Moscow. . . . As we penetrate the growing density of the suburbs, the vibration of the legendary capital city grows palpably more intense: an intellectual, political, cultural and historical hive humming with the complex aspirations of its ten million inhabitants, majority ethnic Russians mingling sometimes in harmony and sometimes in conflict with minorities from every corner of the country’s vast and varied expanse. . . .

Gratefully, we are met here as we step off the train by a team of porters with a large flatbed trolley, on which they expertly pile and strap down our small mountain of gear and luggage, then whisk us down the level platform and out into the parking lot where our next van and driver await. . . the police strong-arming a vagrant through the bustling crowd lets us know we’re not in Kansas anymore, and our “big-city” awareness kicks in.

No rest for the weary: we go straight from the train station to the radio station (about an hour’s drive through chaotic rush hour traffic), through the building’s security checkpoint manned by no-nonsense guards packing Uzis, up the typically tiny (and for me, claustrophobic) elevators in shifts with our instruments, and into the studio, where the show host and translator await—we squeeze in a quick photo op in front of the station’s logo and then crowd into the darkened sound booth for an hour-long interview punctuated by on-air musical improvisation. . . .

Back out into the air and light and off to Hotel Peter I, the most luxurious of our accommodations, right in the cultural heart of Moscow, two blocks from the Bolshoi Theater and four blocks from Red Square. . . as we check in we take note of the spa two floors below street level for future reference, trundle our gear and luggage up to our rooms, grab quick hot showers and changes of clothes, and re-group in the lobby for a short walk to Café Sherbet, which features belly dancers, hookahs (not at our curtained corner booth), sumptuous Central Asian cuisine, an expansive wine list, and again the traditionally-served Sambuca with its mystical blue flames and head-clearing vapors. . . .

A post-prandial promenade through the bustling Friday night street life takes us to the Bolshoi Theater, the single most impressive edifice I’ve ever stood before anywhere: lit from below, its block-wide, intricately-designed and superhumanly massive façade radiates the deep, rich pride Russians take in their artistic heritage. . . . We continue on through an underground pedestrian arcade and back up into the plaza fronting Red Square—the outer buildings are literally red! As we pass through the main gate into the Square itself, there stands the Kremlin at the opposite end, lit up in all its storied glory. . . . As we cross the well-worn and deeply-intersticed paving stones, past Lenin’s tomb, the official presidential palace where the much-disputed Vladimir Putin dwells, the halls in which the Duma convenes, the cathedral, and the enormous fortress wall enclosing it all, the ironies are vivid: one feels the history and humanity of this place seeping up through one’s footsoles; one is also keenly aware of this place as a monument to inhumanity and suffering, poignantly highlighted by the raised concrete platform adjacent the Kremlin where public executions used to be staged; and one also wonders at the surreal Disneyland quality of the garishly-lit commercial enterprises that now offset those of government, religion and the military. . . . Red Square has been prepared for Victory Day celebrations, with grandstands erected along one side and the plaza demarcated with marching configurations for bands and troops. . . hindsight will reveal that those celebrations are contrasted both before and after our visit with massive and sometimes violent demonstrations for and against Putin’s re-election, which strangely subside for the short time we are here. . . .

Another sumptuous breakfast buffet on white linen in the Peter I dining room, some last-day shopping in the open-air bazaar in front of Red Square, a long, luxurious steambath in the subterranean spa, a power nap, then off to the Moscow International House of Music for load-in, sound-check, and our final performance of the tour. . . .

The venue resembles a gigantic alien mothership that has improbably landed in the heart of the metropolis along the banks of the river. . . we encounter one last, very thick layer of bureaucracy in attempting to find and access our load-in point to this towering complex of multiple theaters; after an interminable wait in the van and many animated phone calls from Nastya to various functionaries lurking somewhere within the building, we are finally granted entrance to our dressing rooms and the stage. . . this is the first and only modern concert hall we’ve played, so we let out a big exhale and set about setting up and tuning in. . . . As has been the case throughout the tour, our pre-show process must be integrated with an elaborate and lengthy on-stage TV interview, this time with Moscow’s (and therefore, one assumes, Russia’s) leading cultural television program, which turns out to be the most in-depth and knowledgeable coverage we’ve received. We meet our translator for the evening, the lovely and charming Moscow native Olga, and repair to our dressing rooms to get ready for curtain. . . .

Again, our performance is graciously and warmly received, rewarded with standing ovations and multiple encores. . . there is no meet-and-greet at this venue, so at the conclusion of the final encore the audience spontaneously comes up on stage for autographs, acknowledgements, hugs, photos and gift-giving—we are somewhat taken aback by this unaccustomed crossing of the proscenium line, but roll with it in the ebullient spirit of the moment and in deference to the obvious good will of the crowd. . . . an informal post-concert hallway tete-a-tete with Michael Hurley, Cultural Attaché to the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, who is evidently one of the movers and shakers who initiated and oversaw our inclusion in the Festival of Traditional American Music in Russia. . . a spontaneous sidewalk photo session with a group of fans dressed in faux Native American regalia and chain-smoking cigarettes, then back into the van and back to the hotel. . . . RC and Pam are in the mood for a quiet nightcap and a prompt departure for dreamland, while William, Nastya, Olga and myself are too buzzed to turn in; so RC and Pam repair to the hotel bar while the Four Moscowteers head out for a late-night supper and a couple more bottles of fine red wine, our soiree enlivened by the good-natured bantering between long-time friends Nastya (a St. Petersburg native) and Olga (a Moscow native) which illustrates the traditional rivalry between Russia’s two great cities, one the soul of this wonder-filled world and the other its mind, and bringing our life-altering journey full circle. . . .

~With much gratitude to Thea Austen of the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, Susan Katz of CEC ArtsLink, and of course our guardian angel Nastya Tolstaya~

by Will Clipman

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