August 2, 2018 @ 2:06 AM
Cisco and the Racecars tour Ukraine. Video here!
I believe that you have received a report on the remarkable success of Bluegrass in Ukraine from Anni Beach and the Jam Pak Neighborhood Band. However, I wanted to add to their report my own recollections and observations and express to you and TMU my sincere gratitude for your support of this project.
There were many highlights and remarkable moments throughout the tour, but I will share with you a few.
Stara Syniava. The band really didn’t know what to expect when the bus arrived in the village of Stara Syniava. There is not much in America life that compares to life in rural Ukraine. Most homes do not have running water or indoor plumbing and some are still heated by wood-fired brick ovens.
When we arrived, a local delegation met us with bread and salt and they wore traditional clothes. They were singing – Ukrainian folk songs have the “high lonesome” sound that bluegrass musicians seek. It was quite touching.
More Ukrainians joined us and we were back on the bus to Mama Lida’s house for her birthday. Everyone crowded in, champagne was served, and we started singing songs in English and Ukrainian. Then on to lunch, gifts, and a visit to the dairy farm and bee hives followed by a remarkable performance at the local music school. The abundance of talent in such a small village was impressive.
The village grandmas seemed to gravitate to Anni, with her long grey hair and colorful hippy clothes. They could hardly imagine that a woman their age could travel with a young band and get on stage to play the mandolin. In Ukraine, older women live simple lives growing potatoes and raising chickens.
Cisco and the Racecars gave a powerful performance that evening in the local auditorium. After the show, everyone wanted their pictures taken with the band members, especially the African-American bass player. Chances are that most people in the audience have never met a person of color. The head of the village’s culture department said it was the highlight of his career.
Jam Session. The next day found us in Khmelnytskyi, an oblast capital of about 300,000 people. There was a press conference with the mayor, a rehearsal in the afternoon and that evening an outdoor jam session.
When we planned the jam session, we thought that we might have half-a dozen people show up to learn a beginner’s bluegrass tune or maybe sing a song in English. Instead, there were hundreds of people. I was in the front and I could not see far enough to the back to count.
The band invited others to join them. A keyboard player came to the stage, along with two sax players and some guitars. The keyboard player started things off, the language of music took over and the whole place went crazy. The musicianship was superb and it seemed like they had all played together for years. Then the bass player stepped up and to the mic and started singing “House of the Rising Sun” . . . everyone joined in and . . . Wow!
House of Culture. The next night was a free performance in the 110-year old “House of Culture”. Try to image an old European opera house with balconies and a high chandelier. It was packed, with standing room only. An American flag and a Ukrainian flag decorated the stage.
Cisco and the Racecars gave another great performance and people were dancing – which never happens at US bluegrass festivals. Halfway through the show, the Ukrainian folk choir wearing colorful red traditional dress marched in from the back of the theater in single file. They were singing “Carol of the Bells” which we know as a Christmas song but has its roots in Ukrainian culture.
I started tearing up. This part of the program was never rehearsed and was a surprise to the band. I looked up and could see that they were tearing up, too.
With the folk choir — maybe 30 people — now on stage, the Americans stepped to the microphone and started singing a folk song in Ukrainian. I looked around and could see every Ukrainian’s jaw drop. They were shocked.
Ukrainians generally do not have a high opinion of themselves and their country and it simply did not occur to them that Americans would take the time and make the effort to learn their language and one or two of their favorite traditional songs. Usually quite reserved, the crowd was smiling, laughing, clapping, singing and hooting and hollering. The folk choir joined in and by now everyone was crying and wiping tears away.
The show ended with the Ukrainians national anthem and the American national anthem. I can honestly say that I’ve never seen such an outpouring of mutual respect and admiration that I saw that night.
Reflections. If I could do it all over again, I would try to find a few more hyrvnias to hire a videographer to join the band on the tour. It is so very difficult to describe the full experience with words alone.
Acknowledgements. Bluegrass in Ukraine, would not have been possible without the engagement and support of many individuals and institutions in the US and Ukraine. I am deeply grateful
In particular, I would like to acknowledge the America House and the US Embassy in Ukraine, for providing a performance venue and funding. Ambassador Yovanovitch personally welcomed the members of the band to Ukraine and despite drenching rains, the America House staff mustered up enthusiasm for an American Independence Day picnic.
I also want to thank the local government leaders in Stara Syniava who organized a day of cultural activities that few Americans will ever have a chance to experience.
Volunteers and government staff also demonstrated a commitment to cross-cultural sharing. The Khmelnyskyi Department of Culture in Tourism and the volunteers that organized the promotion of the concerts deserve a lot of credit.
I also wish to thank the Ukrainians who got on the bus with the band. They volunteered their time to lug instruments, interpret, solve problems and generally share their love of Ukraine.
I am grateful to Peace Corps, the US government agency that has been in Ukraine for 26 years and that has made my service here possible. There are now over 300 American volunteers working in Ukraine to teach English, develop youth and advance the capacity of local government and organizations to provide services to citizens.
Anni Beach, Jam Pak and Cisco and the Racecars exceeded all of my expectations. On and off the stage, they were genuine ambassadors of American values as well as American roots music. They made me proud to be an American. Following the tour, the band gave a banjo to Ukraine, so they can continue to learn about bluegrass music.
Finally, I want to thank you, the staff and board of directors of the Trust for Mutual Understanding. Early on, I think you sensed the special “magic” that this project was able to create. We simply could not have done it without you.
My Peace Corps commitment will last until early next summer. Until then, please feel free to call upon me if there is anyway I can assist TMU in Ukraine.
US Peace Corps Volunteer