Fishing for Maltesers in Malta

Stepping off a plane just outside Valletta, there was something dreamlike about the summer humidity that you could almost taste as it subtly lingered in the breeze – the smell of warm, damp grass and a novel sense that one might just get by here without a jacket. After enduring the longest winter in recent memory back home – snowstorms leading to a string of cancelled and rescheduled flights in March, and more to come in the foreseeable future – we were pastier than ever and ready for a healthy dose of Vitamin D.

As is always the case, the bus ride to the hotel took an estimated 30 minutes, in which time we took a few moments to share what little we knew about the island on which we’d landed. Maltesers, malt loaf, malty beer, and malt vinegar, it turns out, were not necessarily cultivated here, or even available at all. The Maltese language was not ‘just like Italian,’ and we were definitely not, as one team member wondered, ‘going to Africa.’ It had got off to a great start, and perhaps highlighted just some of the reasons people should travel.

Early on, it all made about as much sense as these three cows in Valletta

Looking out of the windows it appeared we were travelling on the left-hand side of the road – and not just because the driver was somewhat reckless – and every road sign displayed a place name that looked like an unfamiliar mix of Italian and Arabic. What with Malta sitting in the middle of the Mediterranean between Sicily and the North African coast, this actually makes a world of sense, and perhaps gives some level of justification to anyone who thought we were off to another continent.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

According to a man who steered my colleague across the Valletta harbour in a boat one day (perhaps a more reliable source of information than Wikipedia), following a mass migration during World War II there are now approximately only 400,000 Maltese people living on the island. Meanwhile there are up to 1.2 million tourists in Malta at any one time. We got a good sense of this, not only from the lack of Maltese people we met, but particularly from the hordes of spatially-unaware elderly tourists crowding the hotel lobby at all times, and from the moment we stepped through the painfully slow rotating door. The lobby looked like something out of a 1980s Hollywood blockbuster (Die Hard comes to mind), and a faint smell of cigar smoke lingered in the air while an endless queue of confused or grumpy white-haired holidaymakers bustled around the front desk. The concierge was friendly yet serious, with round glasses, bald head, large moustache and a striped blazer, like a character out of a play. Each room had a balcony which overlooked the sea on the other side of the road below, and it was gratifying to keep the sliding door open at night to hear the waves crashing against the rocks.

 

The gig itself was at a spot below street level and right by the sea, with white flooring, palm trees between the tiles, and a small infinity pool perched just down by the sea rocks. A soundcheck in the daytime caused a small crowd of onlookers to gather on the street above, while we battled with the strong sea breeze rattling through the PA system. By night the breeze had settled down and we were processing through a crowd of American delegates, skating across the smooth white tiles towards the stage, gracefully avoiding inconveniently-placed palm trees, swimming pools and precarious glasses of red wine.

The following day was a rare day off, but one which highlighted the value of having a guide. With no local host to show us around, we wandered aimlessly around the city of Valletta – an old fortress and the southernmost capital of Europe – admiring its beauty, its ancient ruins, its harbour perched on a sea bluer than blue, and its quaint old streets, with no particular place to go. Fortunately, for an amateur photographer, wandering like this allows ample time for experimenting with a camera, stopping at every opportunity to get a good shot.

 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

For lunch we reluctantly skipped the traditional Maltese rabbit stew, which seemed to cost a small fortune in this tourist trap, and settled on a relatively modest pizza and beer. Hoping the hostess might be able to teach us a thing or two about the language and culture of Malta, we began by checking the pronunciation of ‘thank you’ in Maltese – ‘grazzi’ instead of the Italian ‘grazie’ – but were quickly informed that she was in fact Italian and didn’t know a great deal about Malta. We slurped down our drinks, including a vibrant cocktail consisting of Malta’s bright red Bajtra liqueur and sparkling white wine, and ambled down a cobbled street towards the Grand Harbour.

 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Two sunbathers, side by side

Towards the end of the afternoon we returned to the main street in the old town, just beyond the city walls, where there appeared to be a huge political demonstration in full swing. People with placards filled the streets, all moving towards a large stage that had seemingly appeared from nowhere in the few hours since we’d started exploring. So here were the Maltese people, evidently not happy with the current state of their government, following news stories about money laundering and the murder of an investigative journalist. The mass of meandering tourists – which we had become a part of – suddenly seemed so senseless, so incongruous with this unstable political landscape. Travelling is always a learning experience, and sometimes what you learn is that being a tourist isn’t necessarily helpful. As performers we follow the gigs, and with gigging comes so much more than just a performance. Long may the learning continue.

Advertisements

Istanbul, Not Constantinople

Istanbul, as many will know, is huge. So huge, in fact, that one might not know where to start in this continent-crossing metropolis. My mind was therefore put at ease when we were told we’d be spending four days there without a single chance to see the city.

We arrived at the airport on the European side, and were soon on the road to Asia, crossing the bridge over the Bosphorus waterway, towards our hotel. There are some cities so vast, so built-up and brimming with life, their buildings merging into the natural landscape, that it’s hard to imagine a time when they didn’t exist. Here was an endless city scape, peppered with rolling hills, thousands of buildings old and new, of every shape and size, the minarets of decadent mosques peeping out of every block, interrupted only by a mammoth harbour to rival any other around the world.

IMG_4465

A city of two halves

Our venue and hotel, both on the Asian (or Anatolian) side of the city, were apparently on the outskirts, far from the centre and any major landmarks. Yet this area was so full of life, of people, with not a spare space to build in sight, it would be easy to imagine we were in the heart of Istanbul. Between gigs we sat in the spring sunshine on the rooftop of our venue, a brand new shopping mall, eating ice cream while practising paradiddles, or guiltily sneaking pieces of the tastiest baklava I’ve ever tried from a box in the dressing room. With three to four gigs every day, we were at the venue from morning until night, leaving minimal time to explore, but the events of the Saturday night gave us enough storytelling material to last a few generations.

Following that day’s shows we were taxied to a nearby (in Istanbul terms, within an hour’s drive) restaurant, under the direction of our generous host. There, we were led down some steps into a cosy wooden building by a small team of people who seemed suspiciously pleased to see us. At the entrance was a poster for the night’s entertainment: a scantily clad woman with big hair stood in various poses on a stark white background. If I hadn’t known better I would have said it was Cher in her ’80s perm phase. We’d been promised Turkish music and belly-dancing and we were giddy with anticipation.

Then we entered a large dining room, filled with tables assembled around a stage and central dance floor, shiny disco ball included. This dance floor would come to be at the very centre of all the evening’s pleasure and pain, though at this point we were none the wiser. At each table there seemed to be a different kind of party, with everything from a hen do to a birthday and an engagement party. We were evidently the last to arrive and constituted the ‘post-gig’ party, with remnants of clown white still in our hair, and sat down at the last free table where the first course of dinner was already served. So long as there is hummus, we are content, and here there was so much more than hummus.

The evening’s entertainment began with a stallion-esque male singer/guitarist, competent and passionate in equal measure, who sang Turkish songs to which everyone in the room knew every word and were not afraid to show it. Everyone except us, of course, who sang ‘watermelon watermelon watermelon’ in the hope we might at least look involved. We laughed at all the right moments, were moved to tears by words we didn’t understand, and keenly stood up to clap along to songs in complex time signatures.

Next came the bellydancer, who burst onto the stage to an exciting backing track, wiggling brilliantly in her floaty gown. It was clear she wasn’t expecting to get upstaged by an overzealous bride-to-be and her hen party, and then for her finale to get completely hijacked by a sudden flurry of excited dinner guests who leapt into action on the dance floor and forgot to give her any tips. Everything that happened from then on was deemed the most surreal moment of the night, until something else happened that topped it. Here I present you with just some of the highlights.

Turkey’s answer to Cher appeared soon after the bellydancer incident, lighting up the room with her bright smile and unmissable gold hotpants. Her band were ‘sooo tight man’ – in the words of all musicians – and blasted out an incredible set list of Greek and Turkish songs, moving smoothly from one complicated groove into the next. A couple of dinner guests who just happened to be Greek dancers soon got up to the floor: a very broad, dark-haired man preceded by his beer belly, wearing a white shirt and black waistcoat, was poised and ready to pounce onto the dance floor every time the right song was played. He was closely followed by an incredibly strong-looking woman, and the pair of them danced around a single glass tumbler or a chair, falling purposefully onto their knees with such force that one would’ve expected the kneecaps to shatter, yet on they went, legs kicking and arms flinging in time to the steady beat. It wasn’t long before the dancing circle began to grow, and the floor was once again filled as more dinner guests got up to join in the fun and show off their Mediterranean dancing skills.

IMG_4409

The best vocal chords in town

1D9A03D4-A992-483E-8C8E-27DD7DC18BB6

While everyone shook and jived the night away, a waiter did the rounds with numerous stacks of white plates, which guests took turns to smash into thousands of tiny pieces, Greek wedding style. It soon became clear that this was an opportunity not to be passed up, and so I took the top plate and smashed it repeatedly onto the pile in his hands, watching with manic satisfaction as each plate shattered onto the floor, shards bouncing chaotically up into the air. A colleague then proceeded to do the same, and then another, until our boss, reminded of the cost of such an activity, stepped in and gently said ‘Enough now.’ Standing by for the entire night was a slight man whose sole job, it seemed, was to sweep away the shattered plate remnants with an enormous broom. It reminded me of a parent attempting to make a point by vacuum cleaning under their oblivious child’s feet as they continue playing. The patient man with the broom never had chance to leave the dance floor, and the plate-smashers never ran out of energy.

31381142_10160394622675296_896996845958463488_o

That poor man’s hands. Even mine were bleeding.

IMG_4405

World record for most efficient sweeper while dancers continue dancing is currently held by a this man in Istanbul

IMG_4414

Hero of the night

At some point the music slowed down and the floor cleared a little while guests returned to their tables to finish their food and try the local digestif – a mystery pale-white liquid something like ouzo and certainly no weaker, or at least that’s what our faces said as we knocked it back. It turned out to be Raki, the unofficial national drink of Turkey, also known as Lion’s Milk, and supposedly it’s bad etiquette not to order an entire bottle to accompany your meze platter; in any case, they didn’t give us a choice. At that moment it was time for the world’s most attractive couple to take their slow dance in celebration of their recent engagement. A tall, bearded, triangular-shaped man with a chiselled jawline and rolled-up white sleeves to accompany his perfectly-fitted waistcoat led the dance with his partner, a tall, slim woman with striking eyes and a sleek, long red dress, who had turned every head as she had entered the room. We felt as though we might have seen them before, but only on a screen, and probably in a Disney movie. Fortunately this only lasted for one song until other couples got up to dance, or we all might’ve died from the lack of breathing. Once again, passionately singing along to slow, sentimental songs to which we didn’t know the words proved unexpectedly rewarding.

As the music became more upbeat again, two of us left the group on the dance floor to find the toilets. When we returned, less than two minutes later, we found our bandmate playing riq (a type of Arabic tambourine) at the back of the stage with a microphone set up, now a fully-fledged percussionist with the house band. For a while we thought we might have to leave Istanbul without him, and that next time we visited this restaurant we’d find him still here, by then a world-famous Turkish percussion player.

31408331_10160394622455296_362906620339945472_o

Here we see a raving percussionist in his natural habitat

Sometime into the small hours, Turkish Cher announced that a visiting percussion group from the UK was about to give a performance. A few awkward glances around our table proved quickly that she did indeed mean us, but we had no instruments and hadn’t gone too lightly on the Raki. Fortunately we were feeling just about merry enough to improvise with the materials at hand, and so one drummer took to the kit onstage while the riq player kept his place by the mic; meanwhile the rest of us, with no percussion instruments left to acquire, occupied the dance floor, where we partook in a shambolic – but not lacking in enthusiasm – version of some of the choreography from our show which, without drums, lights or costumes, doesn’t look like much. Still, accompanied by our own drummers and the bouzouki and clarinet players from the house band, we made it our moment, and danced as if no one was watching (which they probably weren’t, as dessert had just been served).

IMG_4448

Time to entertain the crowds, again

It wasn’t long before the other guests got bored of sitting sensibly at their tables again, and a bout of Turkish dancing occurred between our table the hen party next to us: about 20 young women who insisted the music now being played was from their specific region of Turkey and that we must all join pinky fingers and wave napkins in the air. It was great fun, and most importantly put us first in line when they decided their delicious celebratory chocolate cake was simply too large to have all to themselves.

The final hoorah of the night was one which ended in tears, and perhaps it was only tears that could possibly bring an end to a night this eventful. The bride-to-be, from our cake-offering neighbour table, was led to a chair in the middle of the dance floor, while a large vail was placed over her head and the remainder of the party proceeded to dance around her, throwing rose petals over her as they moved. Watching from the sidelines, we could see from the moment she walked barefoot onto a floor covered in shards of smashed plates, things weren’t going to end well. After more drunken dancing, bleeding feet, and generous offerings of sticky plasters and paracetamol, there were too many tears to contain the party-goers any longer, and all of the hens got up to leave in what could only be described as the evening’s greatest anticlimax. We sat and pondered how soon the wedding might be and whether she’d need more than just a finger plaster, before seeing the outrageous amounts of leftover bridal cake and helping to clear up…

Still, the music played on, and now it turned out the singer’s mother was also in the room, and so she swept up to the stage to dance and throw more rose petals onto her big-haired daughter who continued to sing and boogie under the giant disco ball. By the end of the night we were covered in plate-remnants, petals, wine and cake, and all of the evening’s events were already blurring into one.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Taking some time to reflect, as long hours staring out of airport windows encourage one to do, there may be a lot that I’ve missed. Perhaps more of it will reemerge when we’re sitting at one of our future post-gig meals and somebody says, ‘What was the best dinner we ever had?’

 

Fast Cars and Falafel in Kuwait

It’s January, and what better way to start the year than with sleep deprivation and swift trips to foreign lands? Kuwait seemed the obvious choice.

Arriving at our hotel at around 7AM, we were bleary-eyed and delirious, but didn’t fail to notice that the hotel looked less like the five-star super-modern vision of luxury we’d seen online and more like the Brutalist 1970s time-warp that had been described to us by some of its current guests – another team of our own LED drummers, also gigging in Kuwait at this time. Following an awkward meeting at the airport with a bunch of men who carried all of our luggage to the minibus – and who we had assumed worked for our client but were in fact just opportunist buskers of the airport world, hoping to earn some dollar (of which we had none on arrival) – our driver, who actually did work for the hotel, taxied us off without a single word of understanding passing between us.

We waited in the lobby, confused and trying not to appear impatient in our sleep-deprived state, while two important-looking men in traditional Arabic attire had a lengthy meeting with the concierge. After eventually checking in, we decided to take a quick look at breakfast before stumbling to bed, and found the best in Middle Eastern cuisine laid out in the restaurant on the 17th floor, which boasted a panoramic view of Kuwait City and a breathtaking sunrise (okay, so it was still luxurious). A few moments later, just as we were discussing whether or not this was the very same hotel in which our colleagues were currently staying, the lift pinged and in walked our boss in his pyjamas. That’ll be a yes, then.

IMG_3319

Sunrise at breakfast

We slept into the late afternoon and awoke to the sound of the Call to Prayer echoing off skyscrapers, just in time to get a late lunch – because every free meal you can get is a valuable one – and to discuss our evening plans: to go and see our own show, as performed by the other team, at an open-air food court across town. I suppose you might compare it to something like working in a restaurant and going there for a meal on your day off. Whatever the case, it seemed perfectly reasonable.

IMG_3318

Good afternoon, Kuwait City

IMG_3338

And good evening

The event at which the other drummers performed was in celebration of the Arabian Gulf Cup Final – that’s Gulf, not golf, thus football, not golf – featuring the Emirates and Oman national teams, a big deal in this region. Though this was nowhere near where the match itself was taking place, they sure knew how to sell it. The programme included virtual-reality goalkeeping (a game for which I accidentally broke the highest record), mini football pitch for kids (and a few grown men, but I won’t name names…), memorabilia for sale, virtual 3D maps of new stadiums being built for the 2020 Qatar World Cup, plus a huge stage reserved for music, dance and laser-based acts. Among all of this, three shows took place each night, performed by five of our own LED drummers.

IMG_3335

BREAKING: Drummers invade children’s football game

Watching a show you know so well is a bizarre experience. Those of us not playing felt like we should have something to do, something to worry about that we might have missed. I filmed the first two shows on a fellow drummer’s Go-Pro, partly to capture the action for the performers to watch later on, and partly just to have something to do, to feel useful rather than becoming a mere bystander. That’s not to say the performers didn’t keep us fully engaged: they did a incredible job and reminded us just what a great show we do (collective trumpet fully blown).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

A bizarre but brilliant experience watching our show from the audience

Feeling at a loose end between shows, we enjoyed lemon mints at an Iranian restaurant, and then ordered a ridiculous feast – as this part of the world tends to encourage us to – at a Lebanese place. As we listed about five mezze dishes each from the menu, as always, there would be that haunting question asked in earnest: ‘Are we sure that’ll be enough food?’ The answer is YES, YOU IDIOTS, THERE IS ALWAYS ENOUGH, EVERY SINGLE TIME. As we tucked into gargantuan amounts of hummus, aubergine moussaka, cheese sambousek and spinach fatayer (‘Whoops, this is definitely too much… please waiter, stop giving us bread!’), musicians took to the large stage in front of us, and we felt serenaded by the sweet sounds of hammered dulcimer, Hang drum and darbuka. Meals like this typically start with rumbling stomachs, an air of excitement, and a familiar rapidity at reaching for each dish. The pace gradually decreases and, by the last tidbits, is slowed almost to a halt as each consumer feels their body balloon beneath them. It’s a game of two halves, in which the latter half will determine the final winners and losers, though it’s difficult to tell whether this is down to eating more or less.

After what felt like a long day of work but, for half of us, was in fact a day of doing nothing, we all reassembled in the hotel. Drummers from both teams gathered in one room, some with the remains of clown white around their eyes and ears, and others still blissfully clean, accompanied by production managers and light painters (those also involved in the show from that evening). Never before have there been so many of us in one hotel at the same time, and we were like excitable children meeting their heroes after a Christmas show.

IMG_3424

The following day it was time to stop observing and actually do some work, and so we loaded our gear down to the underground carpark and waited for our gig contact to arrive. After a quiet half hour waiting, we suddenly heard the monstrous rev of an engine, and in fled a sleek, black Maserati: oh good, the client. We threw all of our luggage onto the back of a huge, vermillion pick-up truck, driven by his friend, and four of us jumped straight into the Maserati. I didn’t think I cared about fast cars at all, and still try to maintain this stance, but it was hard not to feel the thrill being driven down open highways at breakneck speed in the tan leather front passenger seat, windows down and rock ‘n’ roll blasting from the stereo. A few times we stopped at traffic lights as the red pick-up pulled up alongside us, and we gesticulated at our bandmates as we rapidly pulled away, reducing them to nothing but a dot in the far distance.

Our gig was at The Avenues, a shopping mall which is currently the largest in the Middle East and, due to new developments, is set to soon be the largest mall in the world (that’s if Dubai doesn’t compete and get there first). Walking through it was not like being in an ordinary mall, but something far more overwhelming. Whole buildings and warehouse-sized stores, such as an entire Ikea, occupied relatively small spaces within it; real palm trees lined what can only be described as indoor streets or boulevards; and finding the way outside was an ordeal that involved a half-hour walk, only to reach the mall’s very own garden, complete with ponds, waterfalls and concrete paving.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The gig itself attracted bigger crowds than we knew it possible to squeeze into one mall, and there were gold iPhones springing at us from every angle as we paraded along one of the many boulevards. At times there was so much excitement from the masses of shoppers that we could barely move from one space to the next. Following our main set, we stood in front of a stage for the world’s longest drum roll in anticipation of a prize draw, in which one lucky entrant would win the equivalent of a few hundred thousand pounds and the other a very expensive car. It’s no wonder there were so many people waiting around looking eager. As expected, the final winner wasn’t actually present but was instead informed of his newfound riches over the phone, and the host kept him on the line, baffled as ever, for as long as possible before announcing his prize, at which point the winner sounded like he’d nearly died of excitement. It was like watching any TV gameshow, in which the host can be expected to say any number of predictable things, and is easy to understand due to his tone, never mind the fact it was all said in Arabic.

After one more set parading in the opposite direction to the first, we returned to the dressing room, sweaty and hungry as ever. You wouldn’t believe just how much we felt like the prize-winner on the phone, then, as when our client turned up with bags full of Middle Eastern buffet food – falafel, hummus, tabbouleh, fattoush, stuffed vine leaves, sambousek, and warm bread. It was the perfect feast before rushing off to the airport to begin another long journey home.

This time, those of us who had already been in the Maserati swapped with the others to allow everyone the chance for a speedy thrill, and enjoyed sitting up high in the pick-up, getting lost on roads that all looked the same and learning some Arabic words and phrases in the meantime (about ninety per cent of which we’d shamefully forgotten by the time we alighted at the airport).

After a short flight to Dubai, four hours in another glittery airport passed quickly with the help of card games, to which we may or may not have learnt all the rules. The pressure was on as we sat around a table between crowded departure gates, observed closely by a few elderly Pakistani men and women, who watched the whole thing as if it were a spectator sport. We hoped they didn’t notice our crude naming of every game, shouted out at short intervals, and the fact the rules kept changing in every round. One or two people came to introduce themselves, and asked about where we were from, before glazing over at our enthusiastically wordy responses and then slowly walking away. Airports can be tiresome, there’s no doubt – these anonymous worlds in which a sense of time and place seem to be entirely lost – but fortunately travelling, especially with this bunch of drum-crazed weirdos, remains enriching, always different, and always interesting.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Christmas in Kaunas

It’s been almost exactly two years since our first Lithuanian jaunt. After our second and most recent visit, we could conclude that it’s still cold, quaint, and the spirits are still strong. Kaunas upheld our expectations since our trip to Panevėžys: that despite being the second largest city in Lithuania, at times it felt very much like a small town. In the Old Town, quaint cobbled streets are lined with attractive churches and colourful town houses, and we wandered for hours squirming with delight at the twee and wintry aesthetic of it all. These streets all feed off the Town Hall Square, and it was here that we performed to a few thousand people from the main stage, located next to a giant Christmas tree. On the stage we were accompanied by Santa Claus, this time in the guise of a notoriously clumsy electrician, and his snowman friend Olaf (because the hype of ‘Frozen’ may never die), along with a couple of polar bears, some fire dancers and various musicians.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Walking from our warm hotel to the frozen square

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

View from the Town Hall Square

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

As for our post-gig experience, it seems Kaunas, while near-deserted in the daytime, truly comes alive at night. The charming cobbles became a hotspot for smokers, dancers, shouters and dramas surrounded by the neon lights of bars and basement clubs that seemed to appear out of nowhere. After a couple of failed attempts at entering the hippest bars – presumably turned away for not being local – we settled on a couple of friendlier, tourist-tolerant bars, and eventually a completely packed-out club, and that’s about where my memory ends, though I’m assured an excellent night was had by all. Most importantly, the gig had gone down a storm, and we’d enjoyed every second; even in the moments we had to take cues in Lithuanian (a language we’re not particularly well-versed in) from Santa the electrician and his giant snowman friend.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

‘The usual unusualness’ is a phrase that has come in handy more times in the past year than ever before in my life, perhaps even including when I was a toddler, experiencing most things for the first time. From escaping devils with whips at a Caribbean carnival to insane tuk-tuk rides in Delhi and UFO raves in Latvia; from dancing with mangos in Blackpool to playing among ageing rock stars to a sold-out Royal Albert Hall, and just about every other bizarre, clown-whited, verging-on-psychedelic experience in-between, in 2017 I’m delighted to feel like a toddler once more, though this time with the haunting knowledge that I have to file a yearly self-assessment tax return. Happy New Year, everyone; use the time to do the things that make you excited to be in the world.

 

 

Lights On, Eat Pizza: Parading Through Pula, Croatia

Anyone who woke up in Pula after a long journey would be forgiven for thinking they were somewhere else entirely. Every restaurant serves primarily pasta and pizza, locals say ‘ciao’ when they bid goodbye… oh, and there’s a great big Roman amphitheatre in the middle of town. Sitting just across the Adriatic Sea from Venice, Pula’s history of both Roman and Venetian influence shines through in its endless list of striking buildings and ancient ruins scattered all around the city.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

On our first night in town we were taken to an Italian restaurant down a quaint street on the edge of a pretty square, and it was here, the client’s restaurant of choice, that we would eat our own bodyweight in pizza and pasta for lunch and dinner for the next four days. The wine wasn’t complementary, but seemed a worthwhile investment. Well, when in Rome… wait, where were we? At some point we asked if there was anywhere we would be able to try some typical Croatian food: ‘no,’ was the response, ‘this is the food here.’

The following day, we plunged into an ice-cold pool at the hotel and walked down to the comparatively warm sea. I stood in the clear water among the rocks, happily gazing across the harbour in the sunshine, blissfully unaware, while bandmates endured the garrulous promotional chatter of a dodgy dealer selling boat rides.

img_2604

Ignorance of salesmen is bliss

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Ball games in the square

img_2631

Pula Cathedral mind control

After more pizza at our new favourite restaurant – from staff who didn’t seem as pleased to be there as we were – followed by a site walkthrough and a few verging-on-obnoxious ballgames in the square, we ate some takeaway pizza (yes, really), and then began preparations for the evening’s mammoth parade gig. By the time we left our dressing room in the town hall and entered the square, this time in full costume, it was completely packed with expectant people. Visualia, Pula’s annual light festival is evidently a very popular event among both tourists and locals, and once we got the parade going it was near-impossible to shake off the crowd, even as we took a scheduled water break halfway through. The parade covered a fair distance, from the town centre to the seafront and back again, down shopping streets, through parks and various light installations, including kaleidoscope-like projections on Pula Cathedral and a crane light show in the harbour. With a touch of heatstroke and dehydration following one day in the sun – which we’d long-forgotten about back home – it was exhausting, but as always the crowd (and a sip of water) kept our energy levels high, and by the time we returned to the dressing room we were hyped and ready to play again. Alas, time to pack up, finish the pizza, crack open a beer and relax.

img_2623

Our own little billboard in the square

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Over the following couple of days we: listened to the Alan Bennett-style ramblings of older holiday-makers and their accompanying flesh basking in the sun by the hotel pool; made the most of a nearby waterslide, ‘supervised’ by the most oblivious man in existence, who didn’t seem to notice four-person trains repeatedly descending into a pool of chaos; half-reluctantly swam and staggered around in the rocky sea among thousands of tiny jellyfish (fortunately non-stingers); and explored more of what Pula had to offer. This consisted of doing whatever we could for free: in other words, walking around the outside of numerous historical structures. The view of the city from the fort was worth the walk to the top, and gave us opportunity for an obligatory cannon photo shoot.

Saturday evening saw performances from the Lords of Lightning, another UK-based performance group, in the Pula Arena (the amphitheatre), finally granting us free entry to the city’s most impressive ancient site for a mind-boggling, electricity-mad show. Between watching shows we resided in the main square, quenching our thirst and observing runners in the annual 10K Night Run. As runners glided past us in our guilt-ridden drinking hats, we noticed a distinct lack of noise and support from other onlookers. Having recently been almost moved to tears by the heartening support shown by crowds watching the Great North Run, a well-renowned half-marathon in my home city, we couldn’t allow such apathy. So, for the next half-hour or so, we cheered, clapped, high-fived and provided a Mexican wave for every single runner who passed us. It soon got the rest of the crowd making more noise and doing much the same, and became a joyful experience for everyone involved. We’d like to think that in future years, the 10K Night Run in Pula will become known for its incredibly supportive crowds, all thanks to a few merry drummers who couldn’t stand to see people trying so hard with no glory. Well, when in Ro… Okay, enough of that.

Other activities involved accidents with beach balls, all-night card games, and various band members being either held captive or pushed out of the hotel casino, the last place to close each night. We spent many taxi rides, with our incredibly calm and hospitable driver, attempting to learn the Croatian for phrases such as ‘Two beers please’ and ‘This gentleman will pay for everything’ – top of several lists of helpful suggestions according to the Croatian tourist board. How convenient.

If you’ve been following this correctly, you might have worked out that our only day of actual work was at the beginning of the trip. It seems the mosquitos and weather gods heard this, too, because by the time we left our glorious refuge by the sea my face was covered in karma-indulging swollen insect bites and, due to a sudden electric storm on the final day, our flight was delayed by four hours. Here proves that in everything exists some sense of balance. On the one hand, the sea was lovely and the jellyfish didn’t sting; on the other, I’ve returned home to rainy England with a sore, sad, red face. Well, when not in Rome, you can’t have everything.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

A view I could get used to (if only I could still see out of my swollen left eye)

The Street’s a Stage: Welcome to Bucharest

On a flight from Amsterdam to Bucharest, a few travelling musicians peered out the plane window to the ground below to see a familiar-looking lake – long and thin, containing memories from the previous week. I think I could even hear a distant thumping of beats reverberating from the earth around it. This summer sees five drummers return to Eastern Europe as many times as they’ll take us. Next stop: Romania.

We arrived in Bucharest’s Old Town for a vibrant street theatre festival, where we would play strenuous parades and street shows in front of cheerful, partially rain-soaked crowds for the next three days. Accompanying us throughout that time would be colourful stilt-walkers from Germany and a huge number of thundering Spanish samba drummers dressed as skeletal furry goat-men. Nothing unusual there, then.

On our first night in the city, we ventured out in search of food, through sleazy alleys and touristy haunts towards a highly-recommended and totally bizarre restaurant. As we entered the huge dining hall, we found ourselves interrupting a ballroom dance in front of the main bar. The dancing couple then invited various customers to dance, including one of our drummers, and while avoiding this invitation I turned around to find Charlie Chaplin wearing a stack of hats on his head and a real, bright-green parrot on his shoulder. It took us another half-hour to get to the bar, a circular array of gold taps with an overlooking gallery and stained glass window, and at no point before this did we get the impression any member of staff wanted us to eat there, as they abruptly rushed past us with plates of food and the entertainment – now causing a people pile-up by the entrance, a cumbersome wooden revolving door – continued. The place was busy and buzzing with families and tourists, and the waiters had no time to spare, or so it seemed. Eventually we found a table, ordered some local Romanian food, with no help from a lethargic waiter, and later tucked into stew, cheap wine and beef salad that contained neither beef nor salad. Our spirits were nonetheless high, and we enjoyed every last unpredictable bite.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

A right old mix: Bridal shop/night club/massage parlour

In the mornings we enjoyed outdoor breakfasts on the hotel’s terrace and wandered into the Old Town – Bucharest’s beautiful, historical centre, outlined by contrasting architecture both old and new, including a number of nineteen-sixties concrete apartment blocks that make you say, ‘Why?’. In the daytime the Old Town itself was the perfect quaint European tourist spot, a thriving hub of cafes, restaurants, antique fairs, churches and museums peppering its attractive narrow streets, and the occasional busker. By night, suddenly it seemed these same buildings were all home to at least one ‘gentlemen’s club’, and the neon signs offering massages and dancing girls came to the foreground. The nightlife was clearly a hit with backpackers from every corner of Europe and beyond, and Romanian seemed to be the last language we heard spoken, making way for French, German, Italian, Hungarian and English.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

It was on these streets that we met some characters we may never forget; real-life street theatre artists, if you will. First came Larry, the old Romanian English teacher, who chewed our ears off for around 30 minutes to prove his more-than-sufficient level of English, seemed surprised that we had heard of the Beatles’ White Album, and eventually asked the all important question, ‘Will you buy me a pint of beer?’. Larry had an incredible way with words that could only be admired, and he certainly had a creatively roundabout way of getting to the point, but sadly after discovering he was just another beer-fiend like the rest of us, we realised our conversation had come to an abrupt end. If he’d asked the same question after our day of work, and not at 11 o’clock in the morning, perhaps we would have ended up on a night out in Bucharest with a retired English teacher; I suppose we’ll never know.

Later that day we encountered Bucharest’s answer to Michael Jackson – still living and breathing, though perhaps only just. There he stood in the middle of a cobbled street, a tiny man in his sequinned purple hat, dark glasses and single glove, pulling a series of incredible dance moves, and a moonwalk to rival your grandpa. He didn’t speak, nor did he ask for money, and so we stared on while every other passerby pretended nothing was happening (I now understand they must have seen him before). We encountered this sparkly enigma again one night while sitting outside a bar in the same area, as he dance-battled with the drunks and whispered profanities into his jacket lapels. He was no less peculiar, but if one thing was clear, it was that he had won the battle fair and square.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Jacko… reincarnated?

Following two mad and exhausting shows – including a huge parade through the city centre – on the Saturday night, we set out away from the sleazy clubs and in completely the wrong direction in search of a good bar. After what felt like hours of walking, we eventually came across Happy Pub, and delighted at the cosy atmosphere and never-ending list of beers. We sat outside in the warm night air, listening to recordings from a Pink Floyd concert, singing and sipping our ales, until suddenly we noticed the music had changed, and all we could hear was drums. After listening for a few moments, we soon realised the recording now coming from the pub’s speakers was from one of our own shows. One drummer leapt into action, beginning the choreography in front of the bar inside, gradually encouraging the involvement of every barmaid. We stared in bafflement, until realising that simple advertising – say, a hashtag on the back of a t-shirt – really does come in handy every now and then. Soon, we were all up on the metaphorical dancefloor, and it wasn’t long before I crashed head-first into a waitress coming through the door, but was met only by laughter and continued merriment. After our final impromptu set of the night, it was time to sit down and talk, drink beer, and watch a small group of cockroaches congregate around a spilt drink on the ground: it really was a party for everyone.

20045309_10154979432073370_3421161447003136922_o

‘Let’s do this all again later in a pub, yeah guys?’ (Photo by Chris Maines-Beasley)

 

The following day we went out with the sole intention of visiting the Kitsch Museum, which exceeded all of our expectations. Here, hidden in a small, unassuming building in the Old Town, we learned about vampire kitsch, religious kitsch, Communist kitsch, gypsy kitsch, art kitsch, and just about any other kind of kitsch you can imagine. There were bowls of fake fruit, garish rugs and pictures of the Virgin Mary, fake money for the specific purpose of ‘making it rain’, gold medallions, pink fishnets, glamour models, gypsy weddings, Dracula in all his guises, watermelon wallpaper, bad taxidermy and, a concept close to all of our hearts, a tribute to the Romanian kitsch tradition of clapping on aeroplanes. We had never felt more at home than in what can only be described as a mecca for the tacky and ironic.

The final night of shows was preceded by thunder and rain, and we were convinced there would be no crowd at all. Our audience that night, however, was committed, smiling and responsive, and had so many umbrellas that it seemed rude not to use them as props in just about every element of the show. The rain brings you crowds who really care, who won’t go home halfway through a performance, who will stay with you and laugh and dance right to the bitter end. They’re the last ones standing at the party, they’re the heroes of your big night out. Sunny days and warm nights are easy, but to stand in the rain for hours on end and then stay for pictures and autographs at the end is only for the hardy folk who you can guarantee will show up time and time again.

It’s been a couple of years since we were last in the picturesque town of Sibiu in central Romania, and I hadn’t forgotten how incredible a Romanian street theatre festival could be. What with this and the popularity of clapping on aeroplanes, I imagine this won’t be our last visit.

img_0360

Greetings from Bucharest – always check your side-door

Beats, Beats and Bigger Beats: Balaton Sound, Hungary

It’s day four of five at Balaton Sound in Zamárdi, about 70 miles outside of Budapest, and our ears are almost bleeding. We’ve endured days of relentless dance music being blasted from opposing stages in every direction, while scantily-clad, picture-perfect, bronzed bodies move and shake and gyrate in the 35-degree heat. All of this takes place on the edge of the beautiful Lake Balaton – fresh water, shallow enough to stand in almost all the way across, on squidgy, cushion-like sand perfect for barefoot exploring. Perhaps the only place to escape the intensity of the pounding beats – because let’s face it, even if you love it, everyone needs an ear-break – is out on the water, as far as you can go.

img_0167

The crowd and general atmosphere (immaculate toilet blocks included) is a contrast to Glastonbury, which I only recently left: instead of an eccentric and mixed age group, it’s basically Club 18-30, and while the chance to wear as little as possible in the summer heat is generally liberating, here it seems routed in a sense of competition, starting with ‘Who has the shiniest six-pack?’ The amount of flesh on show has got so extreme that my band mates have started to get excited by punters wearing more clothes due to the sense of mystery it provokes.

img_0185

Baywatch-tastic

Today I swam in the lake for the umpteenth time, played on some large inflatables, ate my bodyweight in free risotto, and lounged in the sun, temporarily forgetting what it was I came here to do, and tonight I will play another swelteringly fun 45-minute show for a somewhat rowdy yet responsive and loyal crowd. Between the six-packs and slim-line beer kegs there are many lovely souls and outrageous dancers, just the way we like it.

By day four, we’re sitting having lunch in the VIP (very inconveniently positioned) area, as we do every day, directly between Finlandia – a small and disproportionately loud stage dropping ear-splitting wob-wob-wobs all day long – and the main stage, which begins a soundcheck at precisely the moment we sit down to eat. It feels like we’ve heard these Coldplay and Ed Sheeran remixes a thousand times before – and, truth be told, we probably have. Today the earplugs are out and, like a bunch of disgruntled and exhausted pensioners, we’ve all had enough; talking isn’t an option as it’s simply too loud, so everyone looks down at their thumbs and electronic devices and gives up on real-life socialising. At night it seems to make more sense, but in the daytime we feel like decrepit geese sweating in a locked pen, yearning to be set free in the cool lake, away from it all.

img_2539

Main stage – prepare yourselves for another big drop to a beat you never expected (Photo by Alex Tustin)

img_0258

Ahhhh, much better

One 45-minute show a day by a glorious lake at 11PM doesn’t really feel like work – except when the mosquitoes are out in their thousands and drawn to our drum lights and sticky white faces – so we spend each day enjoying the sun, the lake, trying out a bit of experimental drumming, and, on the final day, scaling a climbing wall and descending on a giant zip wire, which propels us from one end of the site to the other, above a sea of tiny half-naked people. For the sky-high view of the lake alone, it’s worth every penny (and this is Hungary, so not many).

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

img_0209

Optional bungee jump by the main stage

Backstage we’re accompanied by various other street theatre companies in neighbouring makeshift dressing rooms: a stilt-walking group from Germany, a walkabout group from France, and a Samba Batucada group (complete with capoeira and samba dancers in bright, buttock-revealing costumes) from Budapest. We catch moments of these other shows throughout the day, and make our way over to dinner while casually samba-dancing along the main track.

img_2540

Samba Batucada – a pleasant walk to lunch (Photo by Alex Tustin)

img_2541

Cheeky

Highlights in the programming include Mija and a number of other artists on the Jäger stage, which we find ourselves drawn to each night, and Noisia’s set on the final night on a tiny stage at the far end of the site. The lowest low is Jason Derulo, who makes the main-stage crowd wait for 45 minutes before bringing on the world’s most awkward hype man for an embarrassing school disco, and then finally turns up just to repeatedly shout his own name over butchered remixes with his hands lingering conveniently down his pants while various women dance around him. Watching the young crowd’s enthusiastic reactions and hearing their screams, it feels as though we’re bearing witness to the birth of a new cult. Time to cover our grimacing faces in clown white and get back to work.

img_2535

Jäger Stage (Photo by Alex Tustin)

With our gigs here coming to an end, it’s not long before we’ll be missing the daily rituals of lake-swimming, predictable drops and endless bikini time. Our spritely, young coordinators have been organised to the point of perfection (nothing like a ravers festival back home), and despite the monumental levels of noise all over the site which completely drown out the sound of our drums, the gigs have been all sorts of fun. We even have a soft spot for our hotel, a strange but somehow homely place, 15 minutes’ drive from the festival site down a straight road in the middle of nowhere, with brightly-lit advertisements for a restaurant that doesn’t exist and a half-finished concrete roof covered in sun loungers. Here we’ve enjoyed a few bracing swims, ping pong games, bicycle rides to Tesco, hot nights with no air conditioning, and scrambling behind the reception desk for room keys in the dark only to discover the watchful owner sitting silently in a pitch-black corner. It’s been hilarious and eerie, and the breakfast pastries and selection of mystery meats have kept us going throughout the day. What more could we ask for?

 

Now, time to polish off this risotto and jump back in the lake, where we might just have another walking singalong to 90s dance classic ‘Freed From Desire’ as it echoes from some distant shore.

img_0159