Author: Evans, Bill

From Russia…with Bluegrass

I’ve just returned from an incredible and intense two week United States General Counsel-sponsored tour of Russia. This is the third year that the U. S. State Department has brought American bluegrass bands to Russia and this year’s group included yours truly on banjo, Todd Phillips on bass, Barbara Lamb on fiddle and Tim May on guitar.

In 12 days, we traveled by plane, train and van from the historic city of St. Petersburg to Vologda (a quaint city known for its hand-made lace and butter), then Moscow (where we toured the Kremlin and paid $100 for a five minute taxi cab ride), to the small town of Totma (which celebrated its 875 anniversary on the day of our concert), and then 2,000 miles east to the cities of Perm (known for its ore production) and Yekaterinburg (an eastern ballet center), which straddle the border between Europe and Asia. By the time our plane had touched down in Perm, I was 13 time zones away from home!

Unlike many European tour venues, it’s absolutely necessary to travel in Russia with someone who knows both English and Russian well and can translate. Otherwise, you’ll be lost quicker than you can spend a ruble (there are 33 rubles in one U. S. dollar, by the way) or you might order something from the restaurant menu that you might not want to really eat (like, um, tongue) or you’ll never catch the correct Moscow Metro subway car.

We played with Russian bluegrass and traditional groups at almost every stop on the tour and the typical Russian bluegrass band is quite different than its American counterpart. First off, the Russian musicians love to plug in and they like their volume loud – really loud. Their musical models are more often musicians such as Sam Bush and Bela Fleck than they are Flatt & Scruggs and Bill Monroe. Unsurprisingly, you hear a lot of songs in minor keys that no doubt relate back to Russian traditional music styles.

The purpose of the trip was twofold: to expose audiences in somewhat out of the way places to American bluegrass music but also to show American musicians as much as possible about Russian life, Russian music making and Russian cultural attitudes. We learned a lot and we discovered life in Russia to be quite complex – it’s going to take us a while to process everything we experienced.
A tour such as this is filled with memorable people as well as unforgettable adventures and gigs that will be talked about for many years into the future. For all of us, the most intensely wonderful moment of the tour came when we offered up a short performance in a Perm orphanage. We all swallowed hard upon seeing forty childhood faces before us, ranging in ages from 3 to teenaged years, then we broke into “Old Joe Clark.”

What happened next was captured on video and it was a true moment of transcendence. I want you to see it. Here’s the URL:

This video shows what our tour was ultimately about: reaching out in whatever way we can as musicians, making the world a little smaller of a place and spreading understanding and love between two lands and two peoples that are really quite different from one another. There are many more pictures of the tour on the Facebook Bill Evans Banjo page:

Stop by the page if you can. I’m now off to Canada to teach at the Nimblefingers music camp, one of my favorites. See you in about a month!

All the best,
Bill Evans
Posted:  8/24/2012

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