2017 European Tour
Often times, the grandest adventures take hard work and ridiculous traveling to make them happen. This trip was no exception- after touring from Asheville to the North East, dropping our van off in Connecticut, taking 3 trains to get to the JFK airport, we were already exhausted when we started the flight to Europe. In our quest to save money, the first flight was a red eye, and the two legs of our journey were with different airlines that didn’t cooperated on baggage, so when we arrived in Stockholm after a sleepless, upright night, we had to collect our bags, go through customs, and then check back in for our next flight. We made it to Bucharest after several days of intense travel, and were greeted by our host at the airport, where she had also flown into a few hours before us. She was very kind to wait for us, and share a taxi ride home. To our immense relief, we arrived safely, and slept soundly after a few hours of conversations about politics and culture.
The next morning, we met up with our European bandmates, Jacob and Aaron. This tour team coming together was quite serendipitous- Jacob is as awesome at activism as he is at the fiddle, and Aaron has played bass for many of our favorite and formative bands. Somehow our plans fit together nicely with theirs, and Jacob drove out to Romania from London in Dogfood Dave, the box van (that name can just barely be made out on the front of the van from his previous job). Dave was an ideal touring vehicle in many ways, with beds for 3, plenty of storage space, a stove and full spice rack, even an inverter with a plug in fridge. Dave had his shortcomings as well, but we’ll get to that later. After a show at a collectively run bar in Bucharest, we woke early to drive across the country.
The whole experience of the Mera World Music Festival was life changing. Set in a tiny village in Transylvania that is just 15 minutes away from Romania’s second largest city, Cluj, this small festival has a magical atmosphere. The town has beautiful old houses with traditional woodwork, and there are still many horses and carriages for getting around. We were welcomed warmly by our host, Kati, an adorable granny who waited up for our late arrival in her robe and slippers with snacks. We didn’t share a language, but we managed to communicate well enough. She had a spread of food (much of it from her garden!) and coffee every morning when we woke up, and she gave us traditional Transylvanian beaded necklaces as a gift. The festival featured many incredible bands from Romania and Hungary, as well as groups from Italy, Poland, and Mexico. We played right after one of our favorite bands, Sondorgo, and after our set, a seminal Hungarian band called Muzsicas played songs that much of the audience knew by heart, singing along. We ended the evening with a late night, palinka fueled jam, joined by Sandor Neti, a great Roma violinist.
After three whirlwind days in Mera of being pampered by Kati, we said our tearful goodbye and promised to write, and set off for traditional music and dance camp in a nearby village. Transylvania was part of Hungary until the end of World War Two, when it was taken over by Romania. There has been much tension between the ethnicities in this area, and the traditional Hungarian music and dancing was banned for a long time. Now, there are camps in different villages throughout the summer, and we had the privilege of attending. While the dancing was very entertaining to watch and fun to learn, it was very strictly gendered, which was a bit jarring to our feminist selves. We stayed up way too late playing music, dancing, and drinking palinka with our old and new friends, we got not nearly enough sleep before our epic drive to Budapest.
During the sweltering, 7 hour drive to Budapest from Transylvania, Dave started making an ominous whistling sound, and we decided to take him in to the mechanic as soon as we could. The mechanic fixed the whistle, but informed us that the gear box was going, and that we should avoid using second gear if at all possible. Jacob was already the only driver because of insurance issues, but this was another layer of stress added. Luckily Jacob is extremely competent, and Dave held together for the remainder of the trip, but it was always in the back of our minds that we could break down at any moment.
Somehow, every time we go to Budapest, it’s unbelievably hot- it got to 40 degrees celsius, which is 104 fahrenheit. It’s hard to enjoy oneself in those temperatures, even in a beautiful, exciting, multicultural city, but we still did our best to have fun. A really strange thing happened at the flat we were staying at- Live music has to end at 10 PM in Budapest, according to a new law, and we had come home after a gig pretty early, all feeling super tired. We had all just laid down and were starting to drip off to sleep, when we heard an enormous crash. A quick investigation revealed that the shower door had somehow jumped it’s track and fallen to the floor, shattering in to thousands of pieces. I’m sure our host had a hard time believing that it had just fallen on it’s own, but he was extremely gracious about it. We had a hard time believing it ourselves-it felt like a strange dream! Aaron’s birthday eve fell on the last night we were in town, so a tiny dance party was had in his honor.
The next morning we headed to play Jazz Capital festival in Kecskemet, Hungary, which is the largest outdoor jazz festival in Europe. It was still excruciatingly hot, and all of the musicians were dripping in their fancy suits. We reminded ourselves and the other bands of where jazz came from and hot damn hot it gets in New Orleans, and that though helped us get through the day. We played for an extremely appreciative and attentive audience, and ended up enjoying ourselves immensely. After our set, the evening ended with a big jam, culminating in a jazz version of “Happy Birthday” to our bass player Aaron.
The whole time we were in Hungary, we’d been dreaming of the ocean, so the day after our performance at Jazz Capital, we booked it south to Croatia. It happened to be the weekend of the 25th annual Monteparadisio festival, a big punk fest that happens at Rojc Social Center. The venue was originally a Naval military school under the Habsburg Empire, Italy and Yugoslavia, transformed into army barracks in 1976, and abandoned by the Yugoslavian Army in 1991. It was squatted and opened as a cultural center in 2000. We arrived after another 7 hour drive just in time for Saturday night’s headliners, Doom and Oi Polloi. Oi Polloi was especially awesome and super fun, with great political commentary between all the songs. Our whole band got in the pit, and the lead singer of the band handed Jacob a bottle of whisky to pass around. We ended the night on the beach, sleeping soundly, and waking to an early morning ocean swim.
The drive through Italy was fairly uneventful aside from shockingly high tolls and gas prices. It cost well over 100 Euros just in tolls to drive from Croatia to Switzerland. Luckily the busking in Switzerland more than paid for it!From Locarno to Bern, our time in Switzerland was cozy and lucrative. We played in an infamous record shop in Bern, in a loft above the audience! It was hilarious and challenging- we couldn’t stand up, and Jacob had to sit on the ledge to keep from hitting the ceiling with his violin bow.
In Switzerland, we had to say goodbye to Aaron for a moment- he had another tour to go on for a couple of weeks. We set out across France with Jacob, who is, conveniently, fluent in French… It’s hard to get by there, without someone in your crew that speaks their language
After a brief visit to our friend Ashley, who was staying in an old stone school complex outside of Leon, the coast was calling, and we hightailed it west.
The stone streets of la Rochelle have been scrubbed by centuries of salty sea air. We pulled into the last parking place sur la plage, by the tiny bit of sand nestled in the rocky coastline, and had a lovely evening exploration of the ancient port town. With classic castles, and boat busses to other bustling coastal towns, the tourism trade was booming. Our time there was a welcome break from traveling every day- we spent three nights by the ocean, and three mornings, afternoons, and evenings playing on the streets, making good money and drawing good crowds.
We ran out of CDs, because our package we sent to Switzerland got caught up in customs, and we sold so dang many to those tourists. People from all over the world visit La Rochelle in the summertime, and they so ready to be entertained. After three solid days of playing and weeks of traveling, we were about ready for a rest. Jacob’s mother lives part of the year in Normandy, and we were able to spend a couple of peaceful days in the countryside, cooking delicious meals, and filming a video for our song “Weary Head”.
The rest was needed, but short lived, as we departed for a whirlwind week in Amsterdam. Our first stop was actually outside of the city, to play a circus festival at an incredible place called the ADM. This cultural free haven has been built over 20 years on a derelict, unused shipping dock, and is now home to 125 people, incredible festivals, and experimental living projects. Filled with sculptures, gardens, and DIY living spaces, the ADM is definitely one of the most creative and inspiring places we’ve ever been, and we’ve had the good fortune of spending a fair amount of time there through the years. This time, we played Jetlag Festival, a circus and experimental theatre event put on by a French performance group teaming up with the ADM. After an incredible performance and experience at the event, it was unfortunately time to say goodbye to Jacob, our wonderful fiddle player, and Dave, our trusty tour van. They drove back to London together, and left us to have some nice sweetheart time in Amsterdam. Once again, we played every day for a week at various community dinners at squats throughout the city. They took great care of us there!
More coming soon! Featuring adventures in Germany and Scandanavia…
2015 Europe tour
Part 2- Mainland Europe
There are certain adventures in life that one feels excited to tell to their grandkids or young friends someday. We don’t really feel like waiting that long, so we hope you are excited to hear the story!
Weekly Krishna parade by our front door
We have been hearing wonderful things about Budapest for ages from lots of friends who have spent time there. Our arrival was a bit rough, I lost my subway ticket in my sleep deprived haze, and we were stopped and fined by some thuggish security guards on our way out of the public transportation system. Our first day busking was terrible, with not only very few tips, but very little interest, and even scowls from the older folks. Our experience in Budapest was saved by the excellent company of our friend Kjartan, of the Szkojani Charlatans, and his crew of friends. We had a good gig on July 4th, and a very strange experience involving ice cream soup and an unpermitted dinner party. The visit ended with a sort of parade to Liberty bridge, with a balalaika and a bottle of pink wine mixed with sparkling water, the Budapest refreshment of choice.
After just three days, we took the train to Prague to meet up with our friend Max. There was a heat wave over most of Europe during this time, and the AC on our train broke. It was sweltering, but still probably better than the bus. Our time in Prague consisted mainly of wandering the beautiful streets, and quality time with rad American friends.
We chose to take a bus this time, and headed to Berlin. We weren’t sure where we were going to be staying there until the last minute, when we were rescued by the ever so helpful folks at Berlin Street Music, who set us up with our temporary host (Thanks Georgie and Lala!) till we could go stay with our slightly more pre arranged host, Sabine. Berlin was a whirlwind. We went with just two shows booked, and ended up playing three more times through the week. We had the pleasure of playing most of those gigs with Pete Olynciw, who we play with sometimes in New Orleans. He was on tour with another band of old friends, and they were on break in Berlin. There was a magical night when some of the Underscore Orchestra folks (more old friends, look em up if you don’t know!) were also in Berlin for one night, and all three bands met up in a back room of a Flammerie bar. We ended up moving another time, and staying at a super rad collective apartment complex that used to be a squat. On our last night there, we played a concert on their roof, and randomly ran into the same friends that we saw our last night in Istanbul! It’s a big world, but circles of friendship can make it feel small.
We also played a fair bit of swing music with Oliver Bonie, a saxophone player from New Orleans who was hanging in Berlin for a season. He had been invited to provide the music for a Balboa weekend camp on a lake outside of Berlin, and Giedre, the organizer, asked us to be his band. We were picked up by an old VW bus and whisked to a lake outside of town. Taking dance lessons in a wonderfully dilapidated old space, feeling awkward around the naked swimmers, and playing lots and lots of jazz. When the weekend was through, we caught a ride to Hamburg with one of the swing dancers.
The outdoor bar
Riding in style
Busking the subway (with dancer Giedre)
We stayed in Hamburg with the one and only Renee De La Prada, and her then finance (now husband!) Ingo. They were so wonderful to get to know and spend time with, we felt like old friends even though it was our first time meeting. We had a successful busk there, and a lovely bike ride, and a backyard barbecue show.
Backyard barbecue at Renee and Ingo’s
It was a silly idea to try to hitchhike to Amsterdam, since the bus is cheap and fast, but the adventure turned our heads and we heard it was easy. Well, it should have been easy. There were other hitchhikers at almost every stop, and we got a ride that took us to the very wrong place, far south at the Germany/Netherland border. It was getting dark by then, and the place we were dropped seemed hopeless. It was a rough stretch of very normal, conservative, middle class feeling road, and not much sympathy for two musicians with all of their stuff. We ended up getting a ride to a train station, and grudgingly paid our fare to Amsterdam.
We were nervous about Amsterdam, because we only had one show booked and we weren’t sure where we were staying, but it turned out to be one of the most incredible experiences of our journey. The squatting culture in Amsterdam is really, really awesome. The laws there are much more squatter and tenant friendly, and there are many long term, well cared for, established squats. Many of these places have community spaces that host weekly free volunteer run vegan benefit dinners.
We stayed at the ADM, a huge squatted dry dock just outside of town. This community has been around for almost 20 years, and the place is just incredibly beautiful. The houses, caravans, sculptures, gardens, playgrounds, crazy art and music and people. We ended up playing these benefit dinners every single night for the time we were there. We had booked one before we arrived, but word must have gotten around, and every day we were offered a new show or two! The culture of generosity and persistent, practical political work was extremely inspiring to us, and we left Amsterdam with a sense of gratitude and motivation to step up our activism.
Banksy at De Peper
Bordelestino at MKZ
Busking in the park
Mural in the smoking room at De Peper
Part 1- Istanbul
Rockstar Kale in the palace backyard
Raquy and Bunyamin in their darbuka ofis
Kale, Sparrow, and Charlotte at Arasta market
Mosque at dusk, hanging out with friends at the park
Reyhan and Sparrow
Our two month adventure tour across the European continent started with two weeks in Istanbul with Sparrow’s family. The largest city in Turkey and the 5th largest city in the world, Istanbul is very different than anywhere we have ever been. The music, the architecture, the culture- there is so much to see and learn and experience. Sparrow’s mom, Carol, is a geography and history teacher, so we made it a priority to see a lot of the amazing historical places in Istanbul, like the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, Topkapi palace, the Hippodrome with it’s ancient obelisks, the Basilica cistern, and the archeological museum. We also spent some time taking lessons. Sparrow went and learned some Turkish Romani dance with Reyhan Tuzsuz, a beautiful dancer who has taught many international students her style of this casual traditional dance. We took a darbuka lesson with the incredible Raquy Danziger, a mind blowing drummer and kamancheh player who is originally from the states but has relocated to Istanbul. She was very welcoming and friendly, showing us around her favorite music shops, and bringing Sparrow and Charlotte (Sparrow’s sister) to her favorite neighborhood hammam, or Turkish bath. The women who worked at the hammam had a darbuka hiding in the back, and got Raquy to play a bit, and we had a little dance party in the 700 year old bath house in our towels- an unforgettably awesome and very silly experience. We also played a lot of soccer at the small neighborhood park near where we were staying. The local kids were really really good, and gave us a run for our money. We bought a ball to play with and gave it to one of the kids at the end of our stay.
We stayed in the Sultanahmet area, where most of the really old historical stuff is, but we also spent a lot of time north of the golden horn in the more modern part of the city. Istiklal is one of the main streets in the Beyoglu neighborhood of Istanbul, where Taksim square is. It’s one of the most crowded pedestrian streets we’ve seen, and is home to most of Istanbul’s nightclubs, big retail stores, embassies, and buskers. Taksim is one of the most liberal areas in Turkey, and has been the site of many protests- we saw a demonstration almost every day we went there to busk. We were reminded of how conservative the Turkish government is when we went to see the pride parade on Istiklal street. The government banned it at the last minute and used tear gas, rubber bullets, and water cannons to disburse the crowd. We went down a side street so we were not directly affected, but it was a scary close call that brought the political atmosphere to light.
We played two shows while in Istanbul, both at a great little bar called Jurnal. The first night we had a hard time finding it, and were walking down the street with all of our instruments, looking very confused. Luckily the owner of the bar was outside and recognized us and showed us where to go! We came back to that bar a couple of other times and saw a great greek rembetico band- 2 girls singing and playing oud and kanun, and a violinist. There were some incredible buskers out there, including a virtuoso 10 year old darbuka player who was playing with an awesome clarinet player- we were watching them play, and they saw our instruments and waved us over. They insisted that we play a song with them, and then the clarinet player came down to our gig that night and sat in with us. Some of the songs were perfect with turkish clarinet, but it was funny to hear some of the banjo tunes with such a foreign sounding instrument! On our last night in Istanbul we went out on the town to hear some music. First we headed back to Jurnal pub to hear the Greek band play again to meet up with one of Keith’s old friends from Wisconsin, who had just been traveling all over central Asia with his girlfriend. Together, we went on a wild goose chase to find the place where my friend’s balkan brass band, the Duma Duma Orchestra, was playing. After a bunch of confusion and running around, we finally found the venue, which was of course on the top floor of a very tall building with an extremely sketchy lift. We danced till we had to get Sparrow’s sister Charlotte home to leave for the airport at 3 AM. After a stressful struggle with mom’s rugs and a broken suitcase, we made our tearful goodbyes, parted ways with the family, and got on a plane to Budapest.
One of the islands of the coast of Istanbul where princes used to be exiled. There are no cars here, just lots of bikes and horses.