Latvian Illusions: Raving Mad in Rēzekne

The official tourism website for Latvia describes the country as ‘Flat in landscape, quiet in temper, cold in temperature and small in size.’ Except for the temperature, which right now (summer) is a great deal warmer than the -25 degrees it can apparently drop to in winter,  I couldn’t come up with a more fitting description after spending a single weekend in the small eastern city of Rēzekne.

Rēzekne (Photo by Ashling McCann)

We flew into Riga airport over stunning scenes of shimmering sea water, thick forest, numerous lakes and expansive, flat farmland, the red roofs of quaint wooden houses, spread far apart, hiding between the trees. We were greeted on arrival by our host – the perfect Northern European embodiment with his quiet nature and flash of white blond hair – who would become our good friend and team member no. 7 throughout our stay.

The following information may be best read and understood as a kind of dream sequence, in which all events happen in a seamless fashion that made sense at the time but, in telling it back, now appear rather surreal and at times contradictory, perhaps even unlikely. While the art of good storytelling often benefits from obscuring or exaggerating the truth as opposed to offering an accurate and impartial portrayal of facts, as far as I’m aware, this is a weekend in Latvia as it actually happened, or at least as it was for six clowning drummers from north-east England.

“Hi there, taxi? Yeah, there’s literally nobody here.” (Photo by Ashling McCann)

At first glance, the city of Rēzekne, located in the Latgale region just 63km west of the Latvian-Russian border, appeared to be something of a ghost town. Having driven four hours east from Riga, the capital which houses a third of the country’s population, Rēzekne looked like a small town peppered with modest clapper-board houses accompanied by beautiful vegetable patches, and absolutely no people. That was, until the festival began, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Castle ruins on Castle Hill

In an attempt to explore the distinctly unbustling city centre before the gigs began, we headed down quiet roads past an assortment of charming churches towards the first hill we saw (one of seven in the region, though the whereabouts of the other six wasn’t immediately obvious) where there stood the Castle Ruins. Here, there stood a stone arch, the humble remains of a castle, at the top of the hill, perfectly framing a striking redbrick church in the city below. In a field beside the ruins we noticed an intriguing set-up taking place: various tents, neon flags and bizarre flying saucer-shaped objects began to appear as a few dreadlocked hippies prepared for some sort of rave. Moments later, after snapping a few shots of the Castle Ruins from various angles, we were ambushed by two terrifying six-year-olds with wooden swords, as if enacting a battle from medieval times. Brendan took the first hit, shortly followed by Adam, and soon the whole team was down on the ground pleading for mercy. But the youngsters refused to give in, and battle commenced for a good twenty minutes or so, while peaceful painters glanced disapprovingly over their easels and any parental adults remained blissfully unaware.

Tranquil haven on the hill


Victorious soldiers

After being fought off the territory of two victorious six-year-olds, we descended towards the tourist gift shop and ogled woollen mittens, patterned winter socks and stuffed animals made from felt. Upon paying for one or two woolly luxuries we noticed by the window a strange hooded statue with no face, which prompted a local ghost story from the shop assistant, who told it with the utmost sincerity. Then, having lost half of our group following the Great Battle of Castle Hill, we wandered towards an intriguingly angular modern building nextdoor, which turned out to be hosting some sort of school concert to which our friends had already been personally invited. Shuffling into a crowded hall full of costumed kids and proud parents, we watched on in baffled fascination, at performances by classical guitarists, breakdancers, ballroom dancers, and everything in between. By the time certificates were being awarded, and we had eagerly applauded on ten or more occasions between Latvian speeches we had no chance of understanding, we decided it was time to leave and eat ice cream, which was conveniently served at a non-specific eatery nextdoor.

Mysterious angles, mysterious content

The evening brought three half-hour gigs of unexpectedly large proportions. Having been a drizzly ghost town by day, by night Rēzekne was transformed. Each gig got busier, and by the second night we were almost wondering where we would actually perform, as it seemed every inch of space around the main square and stage was taken. We still have no idea where all the people came from, but what we do know is that they seemed delighted to be there.

Daylight gigging (Photo by Ritvars Pujats)

After some lively and incredibly enjoyable performances amongst the crowds, we packed up and headed back towards Castle Hill, where the afternoon’s preparations had culminated into a full-blown UFO rave. The DJ was spinning discs inside a transparent, neon inflatable flying saucer, while computerised psychedelic visuals danced above him on an elevated screen, and techno pumped loudly through a PA while ravers enjoyed dancing between smoke machines and neon rags and miniature solar systems hanging from the trees. We danced and danced as if we hadn’t just danced for hours in front of large crowds moments earlier, and then decided to take a chance on the ‘hipster kebab house’ down the road, which the Latvian organisers had promised would provide the night of our lives.

UFO rave on the hill

The hipster kebab house, it turned out, wasn’t just a kebab house but a bar that happened to serve fancy kebabs as well as beer, and hosted DJs that played all night long; it was also the location of the festival’s artist after-party. Here we met with other performers from Latvia, Russia, Spain and Argentina, and continued dancing non-stop until the sun came up and we could no longer ignore the daylight. Perhaps the most telling part of a good night of dancing is when the sound system breaks and the party continues. In fact, the point at which the music packed in for half an hour or so was probably the most entertaining part of the night, as the celebrations erupted into full song and dance, including a rap battle and dance-off led by Spanish breakdancers, followed by an improvised song about Rēzekne, and then a conga line that involved the entire population of the venue and led outside before ultimately descending into the Macarena. Meanwhile sound technicians anxiously attempted to uncover the root of the problem, yet we were so far past needing anything but our own voices that barely a soul in the bar seemed to have noticed there was a problem at all.

Sunrise over hipster kebabs

Leaving the bar giddy and woozy from dancing, having forgotten to try a kebab, and with a hundred new and temporary best friends, we wandered across the barren planes of the town, stopping by a deserted play park on the way to get childlike thrills from jumping off a roundabout and rocking on an inappropriately squeaky seesaw. The neighbourhoods were simple and clean, organised by straight, wide roads and green gardens with dilapidated sheds and perfect flowerbeds. We walked back to our hotel in the fresh air and the early morning sun, the sincere words of kind yet intense strangers still ringing in our ears. We walked along empty roads, alongside the pavement, recalling being kindly told off by sensible teenagers for that very thing earlier in the day.

“Guys? Where is everybody?”

Not a bad find for this time in the morning

A quiet walk to the hotel

The following day we downed the Emergency Muesli and left the hotel in the early afternoon to get lunch at the cultural centre known as ‘Gors’, which stood at the centre of the festival site. Though a grand and beautiful modern building with a wide range of event listings, the venue itself was not used for the festival except for providing meals and a dressing room for us, and was otherwise almost completely deserted throughout the weekend, except for the odd school trip and a wedding. Lunch, like dinner, consisted of some kind of meat, mashed potato or rice, and shredded cabbage and carrot. It was always hearty and delicious: exactly what performers need between energetic shows where you lose half your body weight in sweat. We took the time over each meal to discuss other meals we’d eaten in various parts of the world, the good and the bad, the extravagant to the shocking. We asked our Latvian friends if the food we were eating was ‘typically Latvian’, but it seemed nobody knew. Well, you can’t expect to learn everything in one weekend.

Outside we were met with sunny weather and pleasant acoustic tones from the smaller stage by the river – the perfect antidote to the previous night’s escapades. Eating more ice cream, as holidaymakers do, we took a stroll by the river and eventually came across a huge lake, where novice wakeboarders splashed about in the freezing water and teams of twenty-somethings played volleyball in the sand. I took the opportunity to sprawl out on the grass and take a nap in the sunshine, being awoken at short intervals by the cries and whoops of watersports spectators as a wakeboarder took a particularly large jump, or as a sorry man took yet another fall in a Walking Water Ball that made him look like an especially clumsy, oversized hamster.


Wakeboarders and volleyballers at Lake Kovsu

The gigs that night were more strenuous again, and the sheer volume of the crowd even more monstrous. For the final show, we went out into swarms of mosquitoes, drawn to the lights in our drums and sticking to our whited faces, and waited patiently behind the main stage while the previous act – an incredibly popular Russian female singer who appeared to attract fans of every generation – came to a finish. In a final trick I’ve never seen played out so smoothly, the band continued playing as the glamorous singer left the stage and flitted past us before stealthily getting into a gleaming white 4×4 with blacked out windows which promptly disappeared seconds later. No chance of an autograph, then. A minute or two later, the music on stage came to an end, and the singer was already nowhere to be seen.

Our own final performance was one of the most exciting we’ve played, with merry festival-goers dancing and jiving from every direction, and a few hilarious clowning moments with overly-keen punters who lingered a little too long in the performance space. Getting right up in the grinning faces of content party-goers was the perfect way to finish an exceptional weekend, and the subsequent reviews from various festival-goers in the following days became the icing on the cake. One happy punter aptly nicknamed our low surdo player ‘The Destroyer’, describing him as ‘scary at first’ but, as the performance progressed, came to see him as a friend, someone he could trust. The show’s narrative had never felt so pivotal, the reviews alone so far-fetched and entertaining.

Another incredibly fun night of shows at the Seven Hills Festival (Photo by Chris Maines-Beasley)

The next morning we hopped back on a bus with all our gear, accompanied by a small number of the other artists we’d since danced and sung the night away with, and headed back down that long, straight road west towards Riga. After a few hours of chatting to Russian pop stars in between sporadic naps against drum cases, we dropped a couple of passengers off in Riga’s Old Town, making the rest of us envy their free time before flying home, which allowed them to explore what appeared to be a truly beautiful city. This, among many others, is a good reason to return to Latvia, and I sincerely hope that we do.

A Performer’s Passage to India: Three Days in New Delhi

India must be one of the few countries in the world that can leave such a strong impression on you in just a matter of days. When I was told we were flying to New Delhi for the weekend to play a wedding, I didn’t expect we’d see any of the ‘real’ Delhi, or any of the things most people might associate with travelling in India, typically a month-long excursion. Though the experience was brief, it was one of the most intense trips we’ve had to date, and certainly the most surreal. New Delhi provided an entirely new attack on the senses; some of these senses I wasn’t even aware I had.

We arrived at our hotel on Saturday morning, and a couple of hours later found ourselves on a bus heading straight to the venue, where we would spend the next ten hours or so. The journey there wasn’t exactly smooth, as we braced the crosstown traffic, roughly ten lanes-worth of cars, busses, rickshaws, tuk-tuks, bikes, mopeds, tractors and brave pedestrians attempting to squeeze down a dual carriageway with no actual lanes. This may have seemed like the perfect chance to catch up on some sleep, waiting in heavy traffic for an hour or two, but I quickly learned that there was simply too much to see and, in a more practical sense, the horns honking were so loud and constant from every single vehicle that peace and quiet was not a option.


Queuing tuk-tuks

One journey seemed so remarkable that I felt compelled to make a list of things I saw as we passed them; the more we saw the more chaotic it seemed to get: masses of people, fruit vendors selling coconutswatermelonspapayabananas, new housing projects, old slums, cars ceaselessly beeping, old-fashioned steamrollers, tractors, skinny cows poking their noses through mammoth rubbish tips, stray dogs, men sleeping under trees or in wagons full of building materials, motorbikes, pushbikes, cute schoolboys enthusiastically waving, women carrying huge bags of grain on their heads, shopfronts completely submerged in advertisement signs, half-finished building sites already inhabited, men sitting on the roofs of moving trucks, tyres nesting in trees, bamboo ladders, pot sellers, more cows, men playing cards, barbers giving customers a shave by the side of the road, four children on a bike, five women on a scooter, more cows, dusty yards covered in temporary homes, a grand and incongruous Hindu temple, giant gods sitting happily amongst it all, piles of bricks, bicycles pulling bigger piles of bricks, men napping in a JCB, nuts for sale, rugs for sale, litter and cables among the plants, endless queues of rickshaws… All the while our coach driver and his friend indicated with flailing arms out of the front windows, presumably to replace the coach indicators which were either broken or ignored. Then, a right turn and a brief moment of calm: a young boy and his father resting together in a trailer full of coconuts. Just a stone’s throw from the slums, another right turn, and suddenly there were fewer people, sparser traffic, neater hedges on rural roads, and many more tall walls with grand gates, presumably housing huge properties, or ‘farms’, owned by the implausibly rich. Further down the road, a tree offering shade to another working man stopping for a rest in the oppressive midday sun. It was shocking to see a contrast so blatant.

And at night time, around 11PM, when an exhausted bunch of performers fell into a post-rehearsal slumber on the return journey, I managed to keep my eyes open for the exact moment that an elephant passed us in the street. I looked around inside the coach, searching for another conscious human to verify the experience. Fortunately, someone in the back, equally as delirious, piped up, ‘Can someone just confirm that was actually an elephant?’. All those who were awake let out a simultaneous sigh of relief and a stifled squeal of excitement as it was acknowledged, no, I’m not so tired that I’m having stereotypical hallucinations of things one might see in India, and yes, that was actually an elephant, something I’ve never seen before in real life. I grinned with delight, then stared at the sleeping performers around me and thought, they’re going to hate me in the morning.

Further down the road and still there was more to see; I didn’t dare close my eyes for a second after the elephant incident. At night, it seems, Delhi only gets busier; when the sun has disappeared and it’s easier to breathe. The moon was beaming bright in the black sky, outlining silhouettes of wild dogs feeding off mountains of rubbish, like the perfect backdrop to a film, and still there were people everywhere, some sleeping, others still working, others playing cards and out for the night.


Our stay was punctuated with delicious meals highlighting the best of India’s culinary delights: a huge variety of curries, with chicken, lamb, vegetables and paneer, the flavours of which seemed to get better every day; followed by tasty cardamon-based desserts and masala chai. Every exchange with the cooks, waiters and other Indian workers was interspersed with characteristic head wobbles: neither a nod nor a shake, but a general acknowledgement that initially leaves outsiders a bit confused about how the conversation was concluded.

All I can say of the gig itself was that it was surreal, monumentally huge, and like nothing I’ve ever seen before. Being a private event, there’s not much more I can put into detail, but please take this as an opportunity to ask if we happen to communicate in person. After a long and utterly bizarre night of performing, dancing, and gawking at the incredible absurdity of it all, we had one day off to explore New Delhi. After wandering around for some time we eventually found the metro station, marked by a single broken signpost on the side of a temporary fence, and paid the equivalent of 20 pence to hop on a plush train between stations that looked more like high-budget airports. The first train from the outskirts was relatively quiet, but nothing could have prepared us for the following connection, which was comparable only to rush hour on the London tube times a million, after a huge concert, when all the other lines are down. ‘Is it usually this busy?’ our friend innocently asked a stranger on the other end of his nose. ‘Yes, always.’ Still, a good service all the same.


Room for one more? Cosy travelling on the DMRC

Stepping out of the station between security guards with large guns and stray dogs passed out in the afternoon sun, a stranger approached, affectionately shouting, ‘Welcome to India!’ as if we’d just arrived on a train directly from England, before continuing on his merry way. We walked cautiously through male stares from every direction towards a long line of tuk-tuks by the side of the road: these little green and yellow auto-rickshaws would become our primary form of transport for the rest of the day. With two tuk-tuks, three passengers squashed into the back of each, we were hauled to the centre of town in the most chaotic whirlwind fashion imaginable, the driver laughing maniacally as he swung the steering wheel left and right into oncoming traffic just for fun. Our shrieks and screams only encouraged him all the more.


Arrival in the city

When we arrived at our mystery destination, flustered, exhilarated, amazed (at still being alive), we stepped out to see what must be the world’s largest Indian flag flapping in the wind in a large park in front of us. After a few moments the second tuk-tuk pulled up, now with an additional passenger: ‘Alright guys, this is John.’ John, or Uncle John as he later called himself, was a friendly old man from Punjab, who had decided (without anyone asking) that he would be our city guide for the day, and proceeded to show us around various parts of New Delhi, a place he may or may not have known very well. He was a gentle and garrulous character, who liked to shout on the telephone and then tell us random facts about his family and his cooking and places not in Delhi, before swiftly moving on to the next tourist attraction.


Meet John, your new uncle (Photo by Ashling McCann)

On our way past a strange mix of colonial-style buildings, fruit sellers, beggars, an outdoor office with a ringing landline, and the United Colours of Benetton, we spotted a musical instrument shop and ran excitedly towards it. It was only a small shop, but somehow grandiose, decked out in shiny, dark wooden panelling, with hundreds of photos of famous Indian classical musicians lining the walls. There were glass cabinets all around, housing sitars, tablas, tanpuras, harmoniums and various tuned percussion instruments. The man at the counter stood tuning a sitar, and two other men stood by the entrance fixing up instruments, making new parts and carrying out repairs. We quickly learned that this was the instrument specialist in Delhi, a highly respected manufacturer of North Indian classical instruments, and a former contact of George Harrison and the Beatles, as shown off by the photographs of the band’s visit hanging by the door.


Fruit seller


Inside Rikhi Ram Musical Instrument Manufacturer

After eagerly quizzing the shop manager about local music and tentatively trying out one or two of the instruments, we headed back out into the streets, satisfied and grateful. John got us straight back on another couple of tuk-tuks to head to a Hindu temple three kilometres away. For less than 50 pence that seemed pretty reasonable. The temple itself was right on the roadside next to a flyover and a steady flow of insane traffic. Though parts of the building were ornate, with stone pillars carved in meticulous detail, I couldn’t help but notice the unbelievably enormous vermilion-red monkey-like deity standing up tall in the sky, the foundation upon which the whole building was constructed. And then there was the fact that, after removing one’s shoes, you entered the temple through the giant mouth of another monkey, whose head was positioned directly between the red deity’s legs. Inside the temple was a shock of colour in every corner, brightly painted statues of gods and paragraphs of information written in Hindi on the walls. Unfortunately this meant we couldn’t read it, and so we wandered around gazing at things and having our foreheads marked with dots (bindi/pottu) of kumkum (a turmeric-based paste) and our hands filled with holy water, partially wondering what it all meant and desperately craving an explanation. But there was no time to find out, as it seemed life in Delhi didn’t slow down even in a temple, and rather than the peaceful break from the mad metropolis that we’d been expecting, we were rushed through each room and eventually led down to a kind of cave, where we were briefly met with more deities of a darker, more deathly nature, before almost crawling through a low tunnel until we arrived back outside via the mouth of a lion. Surreal? Yes. At times I felt like an oversized ball on a crazy golf course, and at other times fascinated, though frustrated by my own ignorance. Next time, I’ll do the appropriate research in advance.


Traders directly outside the temple

Our second to last stop was at an Indian fabric wholesale store, where the shop assistant generously offered to make us every possible item of clothing from the finest materials in a single day, but alas, we had not the money nor the time. Then it was one final exhilarating tuk-tuk ride (we’d grown fond of them by now) with the most flattering and mild-mannered driver, before we paid up – it was all a clever hustle after all – and wished him and our Uncle John a final farewell.


All of the fabric you could want


A rogue drummer takes a turn at navigating his own way around the city

To conclude the day we got back on the busiest yet most efficient metro and headed to Chandi Chowk. Here we walked through the bazaar, taking in the best and the worst of the sights and smells, from great temples and food stalls to limbless beggars, from the sweet scent of incense and cardamon to the lingering stench of urine. Walking through this lively nighttime playground was the most intense experience of the whole trip, as the crowds of fast-moving people seemed endless, the stares a little more intimidating, the beeping horns louder, and never a chance to stop and take a breath. There were so many photos I wanted to take of this incredible amount of life on a single street, but there was barely a chance to stand still, never mind get a reasonable shot of anything. With every turn it seemed ten people crashed into you, all in a hurry to get somewhere, though where I’m not so sure. It seemed there wasn’t a single empty space, and every parked rickshaw or wagon or space on the pavement was filled with someone either sleeping or selling something. We almost had ourselves another Uncle John outside one temple, a friendly old man who began talking in depth about the local tourist sites, until we informed him we weren’t looking for a guide at the time, to which he replied, ‘I’m not your guide, I’m your friend.’ Our friendship blossomed quickly but was sadly short-lived, as we were conveniently moved by the crowds via more fruit stalls, rickshaw jams and shouting tradesmen.


Chandi Chowk at night


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Returning to the hotel provided the kind of respite one usually gets from escaping to the countryside. There was suddenly so much space, and it seemed so peaceful and simple by comparison. But in a way I missed the chaos, and still do. Arriving back in my suburb of Newcastle was like returning to a quiet country village, which is undoubtedly easier to live in but not nearly as exciting. Our tiny experience of India was exactly as we’d been warned yet nothing was as we could have expected. Surreal, overwhelming, beautiful and turbulent – I could definitely go back for more.

Caribbean Carnival, the Dominican Dream

A view from the field…

Lounging by the pool at our 27-storey hotel amongst the urban chaos of Santo Domingo, it’s difficult to remember just how we got here. It’s sunny and about 30 degrees Celsius; there’s cheesy pop music gently rippling from nearby speakers and an atmosphere of calm despite the cacophony of sirens and horns echoing from the streets below. Behind the city skyline on the horizon is a perfect blue stripe of ocean. I’m enjoying the sun for an extra hour between rehearsals, though to be honest there’ll be plenty more time for this, what with there being just two short gigs at either end of an endlessly sunny week in the Caribbean, and one rehearsal day – today – to prepare. ‘We’re not on holiday,’ we sensibly tell ourselves, though perhaps this time we almost are.

A couple of days ago I was at home in cold, wintry Newcastle, solemnly gazing at my diary, desperately wondering how best to fill the following week. Sometimes, as in this case, last-minute gigs come up just at the time you need them to, though they’re not usually quite this far-fetched.

Buenos días, Santo Domingo!

I’m suddenly attempting to pick up some Spanish again, in a vague attempt to interact with any number of the friendly locals. Fortunately they seem to speak slightly slower here than the way people speak in Spain (at a million miles an hour), and act incredibly appreciative whenever you utter a single word in the native language. This bodes well for us novices.

In this particular part of Santo Domingo there are few tourists, and most foreigners seem to be here on business, having travelled south from the States. We therefore encounter a lot of staring as we walk down the street, as locals unashamedly ogle these pale outsiders who rarely see the sun. The roads are fast and hectic, and most cars that pass seem to be lacking parts, like bumpers, doors and the like, and very few have license plates. Yet, from the perspective of a pedestrian, they are the most courteous drivers I’ve come across, and crossing these busy roads becomes a simple matter of confidently stepping out and making yourself known.

Beat up car

Plenty more where that came from (Photo by Alex Tustin)

Yesterday we walked down the road from the hotel in search of food, passing all the American fast food chains – Wendy’s, McDonalds, KFC, Krispy Creme and the rest – until settling at a small sandwich place that looked more like an off-license with a few tables in the front. We ordered cervezas and sandwiches from a surly, matron-like Dominican woman, received the beers immediately and waited and waited and waited for the food, all the while listening to a loud, garrulous man in a cap, presumably a regular, who was prone to random outbursts of excitable shouting, but all in good spirits. The service in most places tends to be so hilariously slow that by the time you receive your meal you’ve forgotten what you ordered, making the whole experience full of brilliant surprises. There’s never any apology for how long it took, or for anything else, but time slows down and life seems that much easier simply for choosing not to care.

Later on we discovered ‘happy hour’ at the hotel bar – more like ‘ecstatic everything-is-free two-hours every-freaking-day’ – and exchanged our stories from the road of gigs been and gone over buckets of face-shakingly strong sangria and bar snacks. I got the feeling this might set the tone for an enjoyable week ahead.


And now for a little reflection…

The first gig turned out to be on the 27th floor of our hotel, with a panoramic view through glass walls. I remember entering a stage from the balcony outside and experiencing a flash of green lights and smart phones, a room full of cameras (presumably with faces behind them) and a backing track revealing what happens when samba meets pop. It was short and sweet, in contrast to our 10-hour rehearsal day, and followed by big-screen videos and a seemingly high-profile rap group. In the dressing room we learned the crucial pre-performance phrase ‘muchas muerdas!’ – like a cruder version of ‘break a leg’ – from a very amicable stage manager, and enjoyed the awe-inspiring view of the sun setting over Santo Domingo and its surrounding mountains. When you get used to putting on your gig make-up in a basement with no windows, this sort of thing feels pretty special.

Sunset from dressing room

Sunset from the dressing room (Photo by Alex Tustin)


For our first day off we took a taxi to the city’s Colonial Zone, a historic neighbourhood famed for being the oldest permanent European settlement in the New World, and now a World Heritage Site. Our driver took the scenic route to get us there, by which I mean she drove us through an immense variety of neighbourhoods. We travelled down narrow streets, every humble home painted a different bright colour: splashes of red, orange, blue, green and yellow, a vibrant backdrop to the everyday activities of locals who sold fruit or took a break sitting on the bonnets of mashed-up cars and in deck chairs watching the world go by. Through open doorways we caught glimpses of everything from conga drums to fresh hanging meat, and the occasional siesta-taker. It was at once familiar and like nowhere I had ever seen.

Reaching the Colonial Zone the buildings suddenly got grander, the streets cleaner and the colours softer. We could have been somewhere in Europe (though I suppose that’s more or less the point). We headed via cigar and panama hat shops towards the Parque Colón, a grand square with restaurants on one side overlooking the stunning cathedral (Basilica Cathedral of Santa Maria la Menor) on the other, and a statue of Columbus in the centre. This was evidently the tourist trap we had expected it might be – if you go for a day trip to Santo Domingo, this is where you go, and we could see why. We sat at a restaurant on the square, gazing around at beautiful buildings, a mix of excitable tourists and laid-back locals, and a mass of pigeons to rival that in Trafalgar Square. Men sat in the shade playing checkers and draughts on large boards supported by their laps; groups of Dominican kids on school trips explored the historical buildings around them; and Merengue musicians played for everyone’s entertainment – except for the occasional timid tourist afraid of being hounded for money, people stopped to watch and dance and there was a general atmosphere of sunny festivities.


Merengue musicians entertain the crowds

While we waited for our food (fortunately time flies when you’re having fun), two young Dominican men approached our table, armed with guitar and guiro (in this case a metal scraper played with an Afro comb). Luckily for them, we’re never timid tourists, and so, as they got started on a Merengue version of Justin Bieber’s ‘Love Yourself’, the forks and spoons came out and we got a rowdy percussive jam on the go, ropy vocals included. After putting up with us throughout their otherwise flawless performance, they deserved every peso we could offer them.

After filling our stomachs with pizza, pasta and all those other typically Dominican foods (we did attempt to find local dishes, it just wasn’t particularly easy), we decided the best way to explore was by the Chu Chu Colonial, otherwise known as a train for children, except that this was an adult-sized one, where they gave you sophisticated historical information about your surroundings. As the road train set off we soon realised the whole experience was something of an attack on the senses: with a Spanish-language audio tour coming through some loud speakers, an enthusiastic group of about fifty young locals making up all the remaining space after the five of us, an English-language audio tour happening solely for us through one very loud speaker interspersed with Latin music wherever possible, and all of the general city hubbub happening around us. It wasn’t even possible to see half of the buildings we were meant to be learning about beyond the low roof of the train, and so I resigned myself to simply enjoying the friendly greetings of locals as we passed them with a wave and an ‘Holá!’. It was amazing just how approachable everyone was – even those gazing into the abyss from chairs down alleyways or sitting alone in dark rooms – and how far a small greeting can go. Combine that with the sunshine and endless brightly coloured buildings and you’ve got yourself a recipe for contentment.



Plaza de Espana

The following day we took a taxi to Juan Dolio, the beach paradise we’d naively expected to step out onto directly from the plane. Our driver told us it would be no better than the two other tourist-infested, litter-filled resorts he’d taken us to first, but fortunately he was wrong – it was everything we had imagined: white sand, turquoise sea perfect for swimming, palm trees, unspoiled views, and most importantly no other visitors. It was also not as far away from Santo Domingo as one might expect – Punta Cana on the eastern side of the island is better known for its stunning beaches, but is about a three-hour drive away. Here, about one hour from the capital city, the beach and the bar was all ours. So, it was 11am already and easily time for a Piña Colada. This was the most relaxing day I have ever had (and probably ever will) on a work trip. I will cherish every coconutty, rummy, sunburn-inducing moment.


Unspoiled beach at Juan Dolio

A final day off before the next gig involved a visit to must-see natural wonderland, Los Tres Ojos National Park. The Three Eyes (Tres Ojos) are three underground lakes, hidden in enchanting caves laden with stalagmites, stalactites and immense vines – it’s no wonder both Tarzan and Jurassic Park were filmed there. These perfect azure lakes were enjoyed by local swimmers right up to 1972 when the site became a National Park. A Tarzan-like character still lingers in the cave’s shadows: having remained almost a permanent fixture since the sixties, the wizened (but presumably very fit), bearded, half-naked man climbs the rocks every time a large group of tourists approaches, and from a great height, as if out of nowhere, dives into the six-metre-deep Lago La Nevera to a roar of applause. After a short, quiet boat ride across this lake, this was perhaps the last thing we were expecting.


On the other side there were more surprises: pillars as big as old trees, where stalagmites had met with stalactites over hundreds of thousands of years, running seamlessly from floor to ceiling. According to our guide it would take more than 100 years to grow one inch – that gave us a pretty good idea of how old and remarkable this place, which was once entirely immersed in sea water, actually is. After the three underground lakes, there was one more lake immersed in sunlight, surrounded by cliffs covered in trees and their elongated vines. The water here was teeming with fish, which we were given morsels of bread to feed, and there was a wooden platform which extended slightly further out towards the sunlight. If it wasn’t such a popular photo spot for the other tourists, we could have stood there and pondered for hours.

After all the hard work of being tourists for days on end, we deserved a proper night out. Things we discovered on a night out in the Zona Colonial include: cativias (also spelled catibias) filled with chorizo and cheese, a local and incredibly tasty street food dish; that sushi is surprisingly brilliant in the Dominican Republic (what with being so far from Japan) and available in most places; and that club nights playing Merengue are few and far between, but if you want hardcore house and techno from Swedish DJs you can go pretty much anywhere. All of our enjoyable antics that evening were due to the help of an incredibly kind and hospitable young woman who went to the ends of the earth to sort us out despite being under no obligation.



Finally the day had arrived that Carnival was upon us. On Shrove Tuesday in the UK, we make pancakes. Here in the Caribbean, they throw the world’s most insane party, and apparently it goes on for pretty much a whole month. That funky pancake batter doesn’t seem so edgy now, eh? Our final day in the Dominican Republic was spent entertaining and subsequently being entertained by the party-goers at one of the biggest Carnival events on the island, in La Vega. We headed north in a mini bus with all our gear, on long stretches of road surrounded by mountains and lines of palms, a constant stream of Cuban Son and Bossa Nova on the stereo. We passed small villages full of life, pottery shops and long lines of vibrant rugs – or were they carnival capes? – catching brief flashes of fluorescent pink, blue, green and orange.


En route to Carnival in La Vega

Carnival itself turned out to be one of the loudest events I’ve ever come across, as we discovered when we rocked up behind the main stage, sub-bass dance tunes blasting from one side and hoards of drummers bashing away at random on the other. The stage was enormous, about ten feet above the audience, and as we headed out there above the crowds for our first show of the day things went from surreal to crazy. At Carnival people drink and dance from the beginning of the day to the bitter end, so the atmosphere is lively all day long, to say the least. There were people in colourful matching t-shirts filling the backstage VIP area, with glitter on their faces and in their beards, and just when we were ready to go onstage for the second time, troupes of what looked like dragons in various team colours turned up. It turns out these represented the Diablo Cojuelo (Limping Devil), the mischievous main character of the carnival, who typically carries a ‘Vejiga’ (a faux animal bladder filled with air) with which he whips innocent bystanders. Fortunately the whipping must have been banned in the backstage area, but we learned about it the hard way the second we ventured out into the main arena after our gig.


Time to eat – backstage before the showtime madness

Backstage, the Devils gathered around us, chanting ‘Gringo! Gringo!’ (a Latino term for white American or foreign folk), until we started up a spontaneous bossa groove, which seemed to make them dance with delight. Next minute, we were called to the stage and charged onto a catwalk to perform amongst ecstatic party-goers and confetti canons, and then charged back again to continue playing to our by-now admiring backstage audience. We gave all the energy we had, and it was worth every ounce of sweat and every lost breath. It’s not often you get to play drums at Carnival in the Caribbean, and after the incredible week we’d been given, we gave it everything.

Do You Know the Way?: San Jose and the Golden State


Walking through the streets of downtown San Jose on a Sunday morning was a surreal experience. Having trudged through a selection of the busiest airports the previous night, the city had a kind of lifelessness to it, and as we searched for larger groups of people or bustling streets, we began to get the feeling we were oblivious characters in The Truman Show, the wide, clean, sunny streets our stage. It was a typically sunny morning – just what we expected from California – and the perfect uniformity of the roads lined with palm trees and new, nondescript buildings gave it the quality of a film set. Or perhaps it was just that, coming from dreary autumnal England, everything we saw reflected that which we had only ever seen in Hollywood movies: yellow fire hydrants on every corner, four-lane roads with huge street signs at every mammoth intersection, pavements teeming with skateboarders, all set to a backdrop of awe-inspiring golden hills.

As if all this wasn’t cinematic enough, as we wandered we spotted young men playing catch with a football (not soccer, the other one) in a park area, shortly followed by a couple dressed in extravagant costumes and make-up in a ‘Day of the Dead’ style: their faces were completely deadpan, giving the impression this was in no way unusual. Further down the street, past bagel bars, burrito shops and Philz Coffee (with a queue out the door), were endless groups of young cheerleaders, closely followed by a few budding American football players in full uniform. Then, just as we’d decided to amble back to the hotel, a rumble of drums echoed in the distance. Drumline? we thought. Surely not. Everything had been far too predictable so far, and this was just the icing on the cake. Like hungry hounds we briskly turned on the spot and followed the sound until its source crept into view. There in front of us was a great mass of vibrant feather headdresses, bare dancing feet, powerful incense, painted faces and frightening masks: a parade of Hispanic men, women and even tiny children (some still in pushchairs) moving to the beat of two extraordinarily loud drums as part of the Día de Los Muertos (or Day of the Dead) celebrations. The group of thirty or more dancers passed us in a colourful blur and we raced after them down the street until they stopped in a square by the sidewalk and continued in a ritualistic dance, led by a masked man with a conch. To make way for the parade, other masked dancers appeared to stop traffic simply with the power of their aura.

We stood and watched the dancers for a good while, unable to believe our luck in happening upon such an event. Gradually the crowd of spectators grew and grew, and soon we were surrounded by people eating Mexican food and handing out free orange flowers through a cloud of strong incense. We eventually managed to pull ourselves away, and off we went to play our own drums in a huge conference hall, in preparation for the gig a couple of days later in front of 5000 people.

After relatively demanding tech and dress rehearsals on Sunday and Monday morning, Monday afternoon was our chance to go out and explore. After a great deal of deliberation, we hired a car and headed for the Big Basin Redwoods State Park in Boulder Creek. As soon as we got into the SUV on those wide American roads, it felt like freedom was ours. Every house we passed looked like the quintessential family movie location, with clapboard covered in Halloween decorations, tree-lined sidewalks, and always in the distance were those rolling California hills. We followed Bear Creek Road all the way to Highway 9 and Big Basin Way – a route we’ve since discovered is notoriously dangerous for all its winding turns along cliff edges. Of course, we went on the one night of our stay that it rained, and since nobody involved in our group outing that day had ever driven overseas, we found ourselves on slippery roads travelling on ‘the wrong side’ in an automatic car. Novices, we were, to say the least, but fortunately our drivers did an impressive job, and were suitably scared out of anything close to dangerous driving by the unfortunate car we passed that was being toed back up the cliff edge in a particularly ominous fashion.

Boulder Creek itself, a small town in Santa Cruz County, was both bleak and idyllic in equal measure. One main street of food stores, old saloon bars, the odd pizza place and a gas station made up the town centre, tucked deep into the forest. Looking up the road between old cafes and pickup trucks, we could see mist hanging like cobwebs between layers of towering pine trees. The low cloud and constant rain that day gave an eerie quality to the wilderness backdrop, while in the foreground impatient drivers honked their horns as workmen dug up the one through-road for the whole town.


Boulder Creek

We stopped to pick up a late lunch at the local farm food store, full of healthy and interesting produce typically found in bohemian neighbourhoods, and were offered advice by friendly locals on which vegan wrap to purchase (without asking for it, I should add). We had come from the mild, sunny city completely unprepared for the great outdoors and must have stood out a mile, but received remarkably warm greetings as opposed to any small-town animosity.

After purchasing our falafel, vegetable samosas and mystery health drinks, we were back on the road. On our way towards the redwoods we passed charming countryside houses dotted throughout the forest, where we presumed people must live wholesome lives, and even these were covered in witches, skeletons, pumpkins and fake cobwebs. Reaching the National Park itself we were astounded by the natural beauty of the place. We exchanged a few words with the woman working at the Visitor’s Centre, predictably joking about how we must have brought the rain with us from England, and she playfully thanked us, having endured droughts over recent years which put the redwoods at great risk of dying out.

Now that it was beginning to get dark (we really had spent a long time deliberating about what to do that day), we took the shortest walk through the forest, feeling like characters in the Blair Witch Project as we wandered through the mist at dusk, expecting any moment to be split up by some unfathomable event. The trees themselves were astonishingly large, many of them between 1000 and 2000 years old and around 300 feet tall. One or two were burnt out in the middle, which had created a huge space inside: a tree-shaped room, the trunk its walls. We took full advantage of this by doing the choreography for one of our drumming pieces in this unique space, which was then filmed on the phones of unsuspecting passers-by who seemed to feel they’d caught a magical moment on camera. We can now say we have done our routine inside a tree. That can be added to the long list of things I never thought I’d say.

That evening we returned to the hotel reasonably late and went in search of food in downtown San Jose. We ended up at a video games bar, playing Mario Kart on the Nintendo Wii while we ate pizza and fries and drank Root Beer. It had the gaming nerds among us starry-eyed, and was perhaps the only kind of drinking establishment where the aggressive shouts and screams of customers from across the room did not pose any kind of threat. No bar brawls here, just impassioned outcries aimed entirely at fictional characters on a screen.

The following day was bookended by gigs: preparation for the first beginning at 6am, the gig itself completed just after 9am, while the second took place in the evening. We packed up after the morning performance while listening to American entrepreneurs onstage giving motivational speeches that contained more references to baseball than we could ever pretend to understand. I took the opportunity in the middle of the day to meet with family friends for lunch in the heart of Silicon Valley. We drove out on the highway between numerous company ‘campuses’ where professionals live out their working lives and coffee breaks, to an area full of restaurants surrounded by nothing but fast roads and hilly horizons. There was a choice of every type of world cuisine imaginable, and we ended up at a Malaysian place that was jam-packed everyday by 12 noon. Given the lack of residential areas in this part of town, it was clear just how many people work in the area. It also seemed, as we caught up on news of each others’ families, that we could have been almost anywhere in the world, except for those imposing hills all around us; green on the west side towards the ocean and golden to the east – a natural compass.


Photo by Lizzie Lowe

The gig that evening was lively and exciting, our main role being to draw the crowds into the City National Civic, a concert venue that has previously hosted performances by the likes of Peter Gabriel, Randy Newman and Barbara Streisand (I took note as I wandered down the autograph-lined corridor). We danced and drummed our way into the main hall to find an outrageous laser show that supported our act perfectly, and eventually drummed our way out again to make way for headline band Third Eye Blind. While it seemed every American attending the conference was their biggest fan, they were less familiar to us, except for a vague sense that we’d heard them before on the soundtrack to at least one teen movie from the nineties or early noughties. (It turns out we were right: they featured on the soundtracks to American Pie, Me Myself & Irene, and Coyote Ugly among many more.) So far America was everything we were hoping for and more.


Photo by Chris Maines-Beasley


The City National Civic on a quieter night

Our own gigs were a great success and this was largely due to the support of the people we were working with: stage managers and organisers who offered words of support and encouragement at every possible moment throughout rehearsals and performances. This display of good character seemed to stretch beyond the realms of work and into every part of leisure as well. Californian ‘service with a smile’ is more than just that. Whether we were indulging in a fancy meal (admittedly that was just the once), asking for advice on where to go in San Francisco at the hotel’s front desk, or simply ordering a coffee, every employee went above and beyond the line of good customer service. By the end of one meal we felt like the waiters who had served us were our best friends, despite knowing nothing about them; meanwhile the baristas at Philz Coffee in downtown San Jose merrily called out ‘I can help!’ with a beaming smile instead of the bored-sounding ‘Who’s next?’ we’ve come to expect at home. What was most satisfying was the apparent passion, whether genuine or not, shown by many for their work, perhaps most perfectly summed up by the waiter who insisted our wine was ‘a Pinot that acts like a Merlot’. We nodded in faux-agreement, looks of bewilderment faintly glowing in our eyes. Even if this waiter was simply acting like a enthralled connoisseur just as the Pinot was acting like a Merlot, we believed him, and it made our evening altogether sensational.


A seafood platter poses next to a sneaky pinot in disguise

After a night of post-gig dancing and merriment in the downtown bars with various colleagues and conference attendees, we had one final day to ‘go see the city,’ as we’d been so instructed to do by so many. ‘The city’ was not, as we’d originally thought, San Jose, but the more vibrant city of San Francisco, an hour up the road. Having last visited with my family almost a decade ago, San Francisco still held precedent in my mind as one of the world’s most inspiring metropolises. When we arrived over the hills into this beautiful urban chaos, my excitement was reignited. We only had half a day, but we used it well, beginning at Crissy Fields in Golden Gate Park, overlooking that striking red landmark across the bay. On our way towards it we passed numerous houses with an unspoiled view of the bridge, so expensive ‘you can’t even touch them,’ said our taxi driver, yet still every one of them was covered in extravagant Halloween decorations; even the wealthiest aren’t above this spooky holiday. It was a glorious day, all clear blue skies and sunshine – summer, I’d been told, happens later in San Francisco – and even the top of the bridge, which is so often covered in low cloud, was in perfect view. All around us was the idyllic American setting: dog walkers ambling along the beach, the sun low in the sky, the bridge on one side and a city silhouette on the other, Alcatraz looming just far enough away in the distance. There are moments that it feels good to just stand, stare and appreciate. This was one of them.

After taking enough photos of the Golden Gate Bridge to make those back home bored, we ordered taxis to Haight Ashbury to see what was on offer in one of the hippest districts ever known. After mooching up and down Haight Street and exploring its range of bohemian shops, we bought colossal sandwiches in Haight Street Market, yet another large farm foods store. Sitting outside in the street with a sandwich, surrounded by giant pumpkins, the odd busker and hippies selling handmade gifts, I didn’t want to be anywhere else. Locals recommended interesting bars around the corner but soon enough we knew we’d have to leave for the airport. In the final ten minutes before our departure I ran to Rasputin Records and quickly browsed through its immense music collection, and in what felt like a heartbeat it was time to go. Our taxi took us on a scenic route up and down San Fran’s steep streets, through beautiful neighbourhoods of colourful clapboard houses overlooking the striking city below. Our short visit once again whet my appetite for the place and left me wanting more. Apparently house prices in San Francisco have now been driven so far up that it’s too expensive for most people to live there. This is hugely unfortunate, though unsurprising, but I still plan to pass through again soon, and take my sweet, sweet time.



Warning: do not touch


Good morning, America!

Arriving at San Jose airport for our final departure, we were greeted by a group of giggling airline staff, who appeared to be having a lot more fun than one typically expects in an airport. Little did they know it was about to get better. When they asked what it was we were doing in the USA, we decided it would be fitting to launch into a dance routine with a cappella beats. If you happened to pass the front desk of San Jose airport at that precise moment you would have witnessed some dancing drummers surrounded by a bunch of enthusiastic, clapping, cheering airline staff and a few cheerful strangers who latched on along the way. During our time in California I had seen a man being pulled along on his skateboard at breakneck speed by a small dog on a leash; detected evidence of sushi burritos; listened to a lot of Spanish radio; witnessed a man taking photographs of his new trainers in various scenic settings for a good hour; enjoyed the rain; danced inside one of the most enormous trees I have ever seen; attempted to motivate 5000 accountants and business developers before nine o’clock in the morning, and now this. It had been, at the very least, entertaining, and at best, friendly, inviting, hilarious, and something we need to do a whole lot more of.


Coffee break with a view – Photo by Adam Stapleford

America, until next time, please take good care.

All Play, No Rest: 12 Days in Dubai

Arriving midweek into Dubai for the third time in the last year, the city felt more familiar than ever. Yet every gig we do seems to provide a new perspective, and this one, lasting nearly two weeks, gave another chance to explore a new (or rather ‘old’) side of the Emirates.


Well, hello again, tall buildings.

After a long journey, the first full day was a welcome day off, with performances commencing a day later. And so, after an excitable group rehearsal in a hotel room, we wandered down the street from our hotel in Bur Dubai to Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood, situated by The Creek, where we had a slap-up meal of middle eastern delights, ordering too much food and then spending hours attempting to finish large plates of hummus, falafel, grilled meats and fattoush, all the while desperately clustered around one air-conditioning machine. The ‘neighbourhood’ was almost deserted, but turned out to be the best place we could have wished to visit. First, we happened upon the Coffee Museum, where we learnt about coffee-making processes from Ethiopia to Italy, and sat on rugs drinking small cups of strong Arabic coffee accompanied by rose-flavoured Turkish delight. We left practically shaking with delight, and not just because of the caffeine. Turning the corner outside, we then stumbled upon a spice shop, which hosted shelves upon shelves of valuable herbs and spices: here we took in the smells of cardamon and cinnamon, the dazzling colours of bright blue and yellow stones, and sampled perfumes of saffron and frankincense.


Eagerly awaiting our tasty Arabic coffee, done good and proper

Next door, an enclosed area comprised of two workshops: one, a calligrapher and engraver, hammering away at a giant sheet of copper to create beautiful Islamic patterns for an ornate doorway; the other, a weaver, working fast on his weaving apparatus to create colourful rugs, prayer mats, bags, scarves and cushion covers. I entered this one first, and was offered a cup of tea or coffee by the friendly weaver, but politely declined, carefully considering the amount of caffeine already in my system. He showed us his weaving while his friend sat and chatted away, and then encouraged us to each have a go on the weaving apparatus, made only of chunks of wood holding together thousands of fine threads. The activity required both hands and feet, controlling pedals to move the threads up and down before carefully weaving the coloured pieces of thread in between. Five hours it would take our weaver friend to finish this rug, who weaved so fast you could barely see his hands moving, and probably closer to five weeks for one of us to do the same job. We looked around in awe at all the reds, greens, golds and blues covering the small room in which this man worked; there wasn’t a patch of wall, floor or ceiling to be seen. He continued weaving as we looked around, and bid us a cheerful farewell as we left, without buying anything.

We then wandered in to the engraver’s place immediately next door. We watched as the engraver hammered away in a bright room covered in stunning calligraphy, including everything from Arabic names engraved in jewellery to the face of Sheikh Mohammed, the Emir of Dubai, made up of Arabic letters engraved into shiny silver. This particular project would take him at least three months overall, though a large part of it was already completed. I was therefore somewhat surprised when he offered me the hammer and suggest I try some engraving. I enthusiastically agreed, and then did a measly amount of work, fearing I might ruin his masterpiece. I decided the man must have the patience of a saint, as this work was by no means an easy use of time, and even more so for letting me contribute with my unskilled hand. These were very special people – passionate, welcoming and patient – and I had a feeling we might see them again.


Nighttime boat trips from The Creek

After the first day, most of our exploring took place from the window of the bus which took us between hotel and venue. Dubai is truly an international city, in the broadest sense. On one road we travelled down each day to reach our venue, I spotted an Iranian club, a ‘Parsian Hotel’, an English speaking school, an Indian high school, a Pakistani language centre, a Jordanian social club, and a French cultural centre, all interspersed with Indian, Arabic, Thai and Filipino restaurants and a handful of visually stunning mosques. On one journey we took particular note of the ‘Saudi German Hospital – Dubai’, and sat inside our minibus with perplexed expressions, silently pondering what, or who, might be inside.


View from the bus: the Burj Khalifa standing out from the crowd

Bur Dubai, where our hotel apartments were situated, might best be described as Little India, hosting a large portion of the city’s huge Indian population and containing endless curry houses and Indian-owned convenience stores. In this part of town there seem to be fewer 4x4s and a million times more bicycles – shop workers will even hop on a pushbike from the greengrocers and deliver groceries in this way right to your apartment door. Local inhabitants make good use of the many empty plots of land yet to be built on, sitting in the dust just to hang out or even playing the odd cricket match.

Approaching our hotel one night, we passed a small group of men sitting in a circle in another sandy empty plot, this time accompanied by one massive goat. The goat sat out of their way, docile as ever, and nobody paid much attention to it. We wondered if the heat had finally got to us, like lost nomads wandering in the desert, dehydrated and hallucinating. It was such a big goat. What was its name? And what was it for?


From day one we knew this would be no easy gig: thirty-six shows over nine days at the Festival City Mall. The Dubai mall is the land of plenty – sparkly polished floors, top food chains, children’s play areas, 7D cinemas, mammoth supermarkets, IKEA, designer handbags, designer watches, designer everything, and air conditioning that makes you never want to go outdoors in the midday sun ever again. People come here for their daily entertainment, their meals, their socialising, and just about everything that isn’t work (unless, of course, they work there) every day of the week until late into the evening. They shop here, eat here, pray here, and, if they have them, they show off their expensive cars here – we exit through valet parking at the end of each day and see the delights of the motoring world, including pristine Range Rovers, Lamborghinis, Ferraris and many more. The Eid holiday is the busiest time of all, as nearly everyone is off work and in need of some entertainment, and that’s exactly where we come in.

Every day we paraded through various parts of the mall, often feeling like pied pipers as a crowd of excitable onlookers ran after us, chasing the sound of our drums, which seemed to reverberate throughout the entire building. The kids were typically one of two breeds: terrified criers diving in the opposite direction the second a drummer looked in their general direction, or joyful, confident enthusiasts desperate for a piece of the action. We made many children cry, but, somehow, we convinced ourselves it was for the greater good. Whatever attitude the shoppers had – whether it was shooing us away from a sleeping baby (not for long) or dancing tirelessly all the way from M&S to Toys R Us – it was impossible to escape our thundering beats, four times a day.


Coming to a mall near you… [Photo by Alice Boynes, Worldbeaters Music LLP]

On our one and only night off after the gigs started, we headed to the aptly named ‘The Beach’ in Dubai Marina. Here we ate at an Arabic restaurant containing the largest number of plasma TVs ever to be seen, all set to different channels; saw the fastest, most expensive car in the world, the Bugatti Veyron, stuck in a traffic jam (I don’t profess to know a lot about cars, but my attention was drawn to the large queue of people taking selfies by this particular one while the driver was sitting in it); and watched the most impressive Eid celebration fireworks display as it echoed and ricocheted off the rows of skyscrapers lining the seafront. Incidentally this was just one night of eight on which you could observe this firework display – welcome to Dubai: land of splendour and excess.


View from The Beach, where the sea water is a warm bath

Another night we accompanied one of our colleagues to an old haunt where the band she previously worked with were playing: it was none other than Jazz Night at Pizza Express. There, we ate pizza, drank a pint each (just one) of shockingly expensive lager, shared conversations with Brits, Americans and Australians, and enjoyed dancing to swing music – we could have been anywhere in the world.


Just an average harbour, filled with boats and buildings

Overwhelmed by the international chain restaurants and eateries dominating the malls and commercial areas, we travelled by car one night to 2nd December Street in Al Satwa district, where we stopped by Al Mallah, a basic and very popular middle eastern restaurant serving some of the best chicken shwarma and mint lemonade I’ve come across, for a very reasonable price. We sat on plastic chairs at tables on the street outside, enjoying the rare opportunity of having a meal in the natural outdoor air, no matter how sweaty. Another cheap middle eastern banquet, another satisfied band of drummers.

On the last day, we awoke early, had a morning swim in the hotel pool (coolest, though still a tepid warm bath, at this time of day), and returned once more to Al Fahidi historical neighbourhood to buy some spices and to see a familiar face from the first day: Ahmed, the weaver. He immediately welcomed us in and without a moment to spare we found ourselves sitting among the woven rugs drinking Turkish coffee which he brewed there and then in a corner, accompanied by the sound of an old Arabic film playing from YouTube on a nearby laptop. We didn’t have a lot of time to spare before starting the final day’s work, but we gave all the time we did have to Ahmed, and took advantage of our last opportunity to buy some of his handmade creations: cushion covers, scarves and olive soap. Meanwhile, the weaver told us of his exhibitions in Syria, Turkey, and all across Europe. He then played a short tune on a kind of Arabic fiddle with one string (a likely relative of the rebab but otherwise unfamiliar to me), subsequently passing it to me and placing a fez on my head as I struggled to bow a clean note from this instrument I’d never before had the pleasure of playing. We finally left, remembering there was still work to be done, hyper from caffeine and beaming with satisfaction at the morning’s events. When we got to the mall that day, we decided the morning could be improved further with a visit to the 7D cinema, which filled a five-minute break with a virtual rickshaw ride on the Great Wall of China, jolting seat and water spray included. By the time we set up for the final day’s shows, we were practically flying through the roof with giddy excitement. Show number thirty-three was the most energetic and enjoyable afternoon gig of the trip, and they only got better as the day went on. Dubai single-handedly drained us of energy and injected us with new life all at once.


We return to the UK a tad shorter, deafer, and in great need of a massage; but also with an appreciation for the passionate people and high level of hospitality in another part of the world, and a feeling that we now know our show better than ever before. Now, the busy season begins.

Cheese Boats and Sunburn: Another Georgian Summer

This August saw our return to Batumi, Georgia’s favourite holiday resort, for more street theatre gigs as part of Check-In Georgia, a nationwide summer festival. Same mind-frazzling, body-ruining, spirit-raising gig; same lovely air-conditioned dressing room; same venue and parade route along a beautiful beachfront to another lively crowd; different team – just as eager.

With a few new fresh-faced drummers on board, our excitement was renewed: for one performer this was her first international gig with the group, and I found myself reminiscing not only about last year’s Georgian adventure but also about my first drumming trip abroad, to Macau (the one that got this whole writing thing started). While the regular trips might become more normalised, our job as performers is still the most exciting in the world, and even a trip back to the same place is always full of surprises. This year’s hotel was different, if only a few yards down the road, with the same startling view of the country’s most baffling skyscraper and what looks like a down-sized London Eye stuck to its side.

When we arrived we were met with the type of humidity the new recruits thought we could only be exaggerating, perhaps because it’s typically associated with tropical places like Bali or Trinidad, and something of a shock to the system in this part of the world. The gigs themselves were as tough as we remembered – hot, sweaty, exhausting – but exciting and truly fulfilling. The crowds were yet again fantastic, with their heartfelt dancing, keen clapping, engaging grins and loud cheers. And there’s nothing more satisfying after a long energetic work-out (well, gig) than a soaking catsuit dropping to the hard floor with an immense ‘PLAP’. By that point you know all the hard work was worthwhile.

Now, let’s get down to business: THE FOOD. Our mission to find a good lunch on the first day involved finding the first place that sold Adjaruli Katchapuri (the cheese boat – see earlier blog-post ‘Bringing Batumi Alive’) and ordering a round of beers to accompany our cheesy, bready feast. ‘Stodge Heaven’ might be the best way to describe it, and it was just as good as I remembered. If I thought it was in any way good for me, I would probably eat at least one every day. It turned out that nearly every eatery in town served this traditional meal, and even the tiniest people could be spotted confidently tucking into the mammoth stodge-fest. While this is typically served for one person alone, pizzas, on the other hand, are for sharing. Following our first evening of gigging we attempted to order six pizzas for a group of six people, and evoked a reaction of startled confusion from the waiter, who suggested we have just two between us. A waitress soon came over to help out with this over-zealous and complex order (six pizzas and six drinks, please), telling us that ‘Here, we do not eat a whole pizza like they do in Europe – our pizzas are much bigger so they are for sharing.’ After a few confused looks around the table about which continent we were therefore in, we made a compromise and ordered three pizzas. They arrived quickly and were undoubtedly delicious but, being the ravenous animals we are after a tiring gig, we realised soon enough that this did not quite satisfy our appetites, no matter how greedy the staff thought we might be. ‘Tomorrow, we’ll get four,’ we mischievously plotted in near-whispers so as not to be found out.

Predictably, we returned to the first restaurant each day, and not only because of the cheese boats but also because of the friendly waiters, one of whom described our first meal as ‘the sea, a boat, and a piece of the sun in the middle’. What a charmer. So there we sat each lunchtime on the front terrace, next to perhaps the wildest crossroads in the world, where traffic lights and the demands of police seemed to mean absolutely nothing to any of the drivers. There was always something worth watching among the cacophony of horns, screeching brakes and wails of sirens among notably nonchalant pedestrians.


Time to freshen up in Batumi’s central square


It’s all action on these grand streets

We found that the general attitudes of the public were shamelessly blasé, and this was perfectly summed up by the way nobody (except us) at the hotel pool seemed to notice the alarmingly eclectic playlist being hurled out of unnecessarily large subwoofers with erratic volume-changes and the most inappropriate lyrics for a daytime family crowd. From Cab Calloway singalongs to Georgian covers of Kylie’s ‘Can’t Get You Outta My Head’ and a few X-rated dance tracks, they had it all. The DJs were loving it, the Georgian guests, young and old, appeared indifferent, and all the while we sat there with mouths hanging wide open, unable to comprehend what kind of listenership the DJs imagined was there. This, coupled with the sounds of marching bands and rock covers groups echoing over from the seafront, provided endless entertainment and certainly kept us awake after we used up most of our energy on hyperactive ballgames in the pool. At the end of the day, there’s always a show to do, and every moment of sitting down without heavy drums attached is one to be cherished.

We played for around 90 minutes each night – sunburned, sweaty, and fighting off mosquitoes with our sticks – to an energetic crowd which somehow managed to keep up with us as we made our speedy stampede along the beach promenade. Each show ended with a swift game of pool or ping pong as we made our way back to the dressing room through outdoor leisure areas filled with families and holidaymakers. Perhaps this is the way in which we should end every show from now on.


Fancy a game? Photo by Chris Maines-Beasley

Coming back to Georgia this year has made me realise how much more there is to discover: from the beach resorts on the Black Sea to the hiker’s mountainous paradise always in sight on the horizon, and far away on the other side, the capital, Tbilisi, where it seems half the people in Batumi actually come from. And if we needed any more reasons to return, perhaps next year they’ll be handing out free Georgian wine at the airport again. There’s only one way to find out.


Six drummers lungeing for joy.