As a musician, the moment of resistance for me is when I am able to float on the stage and explode all my colors right there in my artistry. I always carry a light of hope for that explosion to happen somewhere that will blow my mind away.
And then it happened… I was offered an opportunity to do a music tour in Siberia.
It is such a beautiful thing to see past the front garden of your own lawn to see first-hand what the manicured gardens of another land like Angarsk look like. Or to see what the rich green algae overlaying a foreign body of water like the world’s deepest lake, Lake Baikal. With my blessings on my mind, I got myself together, prepared my wardrobe and music for the ten days that I would be travelling to and around Russia.
The first time I went to Russia was a little bit different because over 16 days, I took ten flights, three super long train and two lengthy car rides to get to and from the ten different cities I had visited. This time around, it would be a five city tour over ten days, with three of the cities being in Siberia.
Every single day of my ten-day trip was memorable from the moment I entered into my gate where I would soon board my Aeroflot flight to Moscow, to the moment I walked back through JFK airport, returning back to the summer that started to bloom in New York.
Here is how the days went.
- Day one –
Three hours of sitting and-a-waiting. I wish that Courtney Milner could have been in my terminal making the time pass faster with her joyous song and dance, to make the wait sweeter than Kool-Aid and ice on a 98.7 Degrees day. But, good thing that I love to read because the book “When Power Meets Potential” by T.D. Jakes kept me occupied until it was time to board my plane.
People talk about binge watching television shows all the time. I never thought I could actually binge watch about four movies back-to-back-to-back without catching a wink of sleep. But I did. All the new movies that pegged my interest streamed on the television positioned right before my passenger seat.
Nine and a half hours later . . .
“We have just landed in Moscow. Please make sure to take all your belongings with you when exiting the plane.”
- Day Two -
I walked through the Moscow terminal to the next terminal where I would get on another almost five-hour flight heading to Irkutsk.
I had always been told that Siberia was the coldest place in the world that you could ever go. Lucky for me, the temperature that day was in the upper sixties and I was able to be outside with a long sleeved shirt and no coat.
Dr Alex was the pianist of the band, the Doctor Jazz Group, with whom I would be working. He picked me up from the airport to bring me to my cozy hotel room in Irkutsk. About an hour after getting settled in, it was time for our sound check.
Our first performance together would be a few hours after that. We would be performing together with his band at the Concert Hall of the Regional Irkutsk Philharmonic Society as part of the Three-City, Jazz at Baikal Festival Tour.
I always enjoy the fanciful moments of soundcheck time because I get to bond with the band for a minute. I had sent my set list and charts for my song selections prior to getting there so that we’d be able to play with a synchronized grace; especially when it got to my original songs because that mattered to me a lot. We may not speak the same exact language but when we get into music, we just gel like we have known each other for years. It is a great way to also get to know the band members. The good thing about it was that this band and I would be traveling to three different cities together to release our boundless energy through music as a team. We would have the opportunity to learn each other's personalities on and off the stage. We even got to enjoy a bowl of mutton soup together in the midst of our travels. The first soundcheck was the beginning of a union that I'll never forget.
Right after the rehearsal, I had a radio interview with Baikal Radio where I discussed my artistry, music, goals and favorite artists with the Jazz at Baikal representative at the station. After the interview, we were back at the hotel room.
I refreshed myself in my favorite African print dress, did a twist out so my curls could be cute on stage, put on some makeup and then soon after that, we were outside of the Philharmonic hall once again. Alex shocked me when he showed me the biggest poster I had ever seen with my face on it right outside of the music hall. Excitement built me up and made me feel so confident and happy to be there about to color the rhythms of my life with songs for the world.
A crowd of beautiful people who loved music and who loved to dance were in the audience just grooving off of my energy. Most of my favorite songs were written in the 1930s and so, it is like dreaming from the field when I get to channel Ella Fitzgerald or Sarah Vaughan while singing. We did some jazz and then we got into original music. I was happy to have been able to get the crowd to sing my song with me.
“Wherever you are. Wherever you are.
Wherever you are. Wherever you are.
Kak Di Lak!
Ya Lu Blu!
Whenever I said those phrases, the crowds would just cheer because I made an attempt to say “what’s up” and to tell them “I love you” in Russian.
I am a nature freak and love flowers. I can’t tell you how many centerpieces from different events that I have taken home with me just to have the beautiful explosion of organic color on my mantle. But when a bouquet of roses is given to you after a gig, it feels so nice and warm. I never get tired of being presented with flowers.
What an evening it had been; the music, the crowd, the flowers. I had successfully completed my first gig.
I came back to the room and decided to sort my things in my suitcase because the next day, the band and I would be taking a 3-hour car ride to Angarsk for our part two of our Jazz at Baikal tour together and then after that, we would be hopping on a train to “Ulan-Ude” for the third installation of our tour.
My suitcase was on the floor across from a cherry wood dresser that sat neatly against the wall. As I was taking my stage outfit for the next night out of the suitcase to put them into my little duffle bag, I felt myself slip and boom; I hit my head on the hard edge of the thick wooded dresser, my back hit the floor, and all I could do was sit there in shock.
I had no idea what just happened, all I know was that, I was on the ground with a dent in my head and I couldn't move. Had I fainted? Was I so tired from having not slept that past 24 hours that I fell tired? Did I have a concussion? So many questions circling through my mind.
I was worried because I was about a million miles from any close relative with our only way of communicating being over the air. My cousin in Florida told me not to go to sleep and to instead wet my head. I felt a lot better after letting my body get more soaked than a sponge under a cold shower. I knew that I'd be okay and went to sleep, to rest myself up for the next day.
- Day 3 –
I woke up feeling so refreshed and ready to take on the brand-new day. I couldn’t help but to think about having hit my head the night before, looked in the mirror and there It was; a huge knot on my forehead.
"I have a performance tonight. What am I going to do? Ugh!"
I got up out of bed and called my manager to let him know what happened and then, I decided to go out and take a walk along the walking path that was positioned in front of Lake Baikal.
The fresh air was peaceful. The water was picturesque. There were a plethora of folks enjoying the atmosphere. I couldn't help but to snap some landscape photos and a couple of selfies.
Soon after, it was time to leave to go to Angarsk. I am normally a lover of driving but if I am not the one in the driver’s seat, I am the one that is sleeping. It feels good to be the passenger every now and then. Four hours across the thoroughfares of Baikalia and we arrived at the Chudak Theater.
The columns were just gorgeous. And when we looked up the neatly stacked steps, an even larger poster than the one at Irkutsk with my face on it. I was excited to be performing there that night but all I could think of was the big knot on my forehead.
I was lead to my dressing room and a few minutes later, the band was called to that stage to do our rehearsal and soundcheck. During the rehearsal, the band decided to include a guitar and vocal duet featuring me and the guitarist, Nicholas. We performed a cover of Errol Garner’s “Misty” as a duet and it made me think about the Ella Fitzgerald and Joe Pass duets. I wonder how she felt when she was on stage doing her duets with him. This had to be one of my favorite performances ever. The best part, nobody even noticed the swollenness of my face. At that, I was blessed with two bouquets of flowers that night; something to smile about. Thank God!
The band and I left the theater with our spirits up and ready to head to the Trans-Siberian Railways to board our train to Ulan-Ude.
The instrumentalists shared a room, while I had another by myself. For the next nine hours, I read, sang, danced, slept and looked at the beautiful mountains and the trees rolling by us as the train hauled across the landscapes of Siberia. I woke up in Ulan-Ude the next day, ready to experience the unfamiliar town and musical stage that we would share.
- Day 4 –
Passengers, we are now stopping in Ulan-Ude. Please take all your belongings with you as you make your way off the train.
I am so used to seeing a melting pot of people in New York all speaking English, and all from different places around the world. But the culture shock I got to see Asian people speaking Russian. It was later when I realized that a few more stops on the Trans-Siberian Railways would have put us in Mongolia.
One thing you will find in Russia that you can appreciate seeing are the very old buildings that have been standing there for hundreds, even thousands of years. The Ulan-Ude Philharmonic Hall was no different. I looked at the big columns and saw a pulchritudinous structure with history and a nice cozy indoor oasis. I wondered about the man different artists who might have performed there on their stage.
This would be my last performance with the Doctor Jazz Group and then they would be making their way back to Irkutsk while I would be on the next plane to Sochi.
This performance was particularly cool because I got a folk singer who had been sitting in the audience, to add her chanting to my rendition of Stevie Wonder's "Superstitious," and it was such a nice vibe. The night ended with smiles, flowers and then sitting two hours at the airport to board my six hour flight to Sochi.
- Day 5 –
My timing was all off because of the time differences in the different zones of Russia. Siberia has a nine hour time difference from New York, Sochi has a seven our difference. But, I did notice that the sun was bright at odd times. I had not yet realized that what I was seeing were the white nights that my French Professor Dr Ruiz had spoken to the class about in one of our classroom meetings. . I’m writing this story still with bedazzled eyes at seeing such a phenomenon, I never thought that I’d be able to jot down in my journal with my own pen. We will get more into the midnight sun later.
But for now, Sochi.
Sochi is surrounded by manicured lawns, beautifully decorated with trimmed tree art, palm trees and a pebble beach. It is a very touristy area with a plethora of attractions to see.
The temperatures are tropical and especially in that Mid-May day, it was like a warm day in Brooklyn. When you walk around Sochi, you see palm trees standing tall and facing the sun. There are lots of nice little jazz clubs around, including the one that I would be performing at the next night named Beerlin Lounge.
The first day, we took the bus across town, stopped at McDonald's for ice cream and then walked onto the pebble beach. I was happy to take a picture of a peacock that walked across the rocks toward us. The boardwalk was filled with pedestrians and bicyclists. We passed many on our way to a Turkish restaurant for lunch.
After lunch, we visited Sochi’s Luna Park where I enjoyed the atmosphere, watched a dolphin show, got a facial, manicure and an eel foot soak. Shortly after, we made our way to the Dance hall of Adler to see a Georgian Dance in the most beautiful theater that I have ever sat in. The columns stood tall over the fancily decorated walls. And the dance of the young prodigy on the stage made the visit to the theater worth it.
We took a nice, brisk walk back to the hotel and it was phone calls to my family and friends and resting up until the morning came calling..
- Day 6 -
Andry walked into the hotel room with a bag filled with Russian pastries and a tall cup of coffee. I had a few hours to myself before I had to meet with the band that I would share the stage of the Beerlin Lounge with.
It was rehearsal time and luckily, I had performed with Alesky and Donald on my last visit to Sochi, so we had already gelled and were in synchrony with each other for what we would be doing together that night. We did some jazz and got into some funk and Stevie Wonder songs. Russian people love Stevie Wonder's music and so, whenever we did a Stevie tune, the crowd was on their feet.
Nothing is more pleasing to the palette than the huge plate of whatever is on the menu that fancies my eyes to eat. I have had some of the most delicious of Russian cuisine you could imagine. It was always a great way to settle down after a concert. Once we were done, the band and I left Beerlin Lounge and found our way to a jam session at one of the local Sochi jazz clubs in the area.
Jam sessions anywhere you go to around the world are similar. There is the main band killing it and then the musician who wants to sit in on the set, is invited to come on and just rock it with them. We all agreed to do a rendition of "Nights in Tunisia" and it was fun. We jammed until the club owner wanted to close for the night and then we walked through the darkness of the night through Sochi back to the hotel.
I was back at the Hotel and it was time to pack and get myself together for the next day when I would be boarding on to my next flight headed towards Arkhangelsk.
- Day 7 –
Arkhangelsk is one of my favorite places in the world. The large structures and the welcoming warmth of the people add to its appeal.
I was excited the whole flight until I landed in Arkhangelsk. Stanley picked me up from the airport and we drove about twenty-five minutes to this little café where I met up with Konstantin who sat there to enjoy lunch with me.
Konstantin and I met on my prior visit to Arkhangelsk. He has such a nice personality. His voice is like silk and he has a great stage presence when he gets before a crowd to share his talent. We quickly caught up and then talked about our game plan for that evening, as we would be rocking the stage together once again at the Arkhangelsk Museum.
The museum was not too far from the hotel and so, we walked from the hotel to the museum for our rehearsal. We walked and sang. We sang and scatted under the beauty of the sun and until we got to the museum for our rehearsal with Tim and his band. We rehearsed for about two hours and then it was time for the performance.
Our performance ran for about an hour and a half before a capacity filled room. Konstantin sang and played his flute. Tim strummed his guitar like it was nobody's business and I got pushed to sing and do scat solos over the Ellingtonian tune "Caravan" and then on my original song, "Wherever You Are."
After our performance, we walked out of the Arkhangelsk Museum. The landscape is beautiful aligned with green grass, trees and a waterfront walking path. And right in front of the museum is a red swing that anybody would feel obligated to sit on; even for just a minute.
The odd thing was that the sun was shining very bright and knowing that I had been there all day I had to ask,
"What time is it?"
The sun was shining bright and there were no stars in the sky. It was 10PM and it looked like 2 in the afternoon. The idea of the midnight sun totally clicked with me when I saw it shining its dazzling light.
I could hear Ella sing,
“and I saw the midnight sun. Was it such a night. It’s a thrill I still don’t quite believe.”
“That’s what Dr. Ruiz was talking about.”
Seeing the white nights was exciting and confusing at the same time. I can hardly sleep when the nights are dark. So, imagine when there is no dark because the light is always on. 24 hours of sunlight. I tilted my head many times to look closely at the midnight sun. It was a cool experience!
- Day 8 -
The temperatures weren’t freezing but I was starting to feel chilly. I hadn't considered the fact that it gets a little colder in that European country than New York in May, and neglected to bring a coat. Instead, I carried my wool poncho, but I needed something warmer. And so, Konstantin was kind enough to bring me to the mall to see what they might have that I could get to calm my shivers.
This was also the first day of the “Arkhangelsk Blues Festival” which I would be performing at that night on a stage filled with other International artists. Tim put his heart and soul into organizing this event. Based on his anticipation and all the many advertisements I had seen for the event and the many artists featured on the roster, I knew that it was going to be really great.
The band had our rehearsal in one of the oldest buildings standing in Arkhangelsk since the 1400s. It was old and it felt vintage. Folk Singer Minerva and I would be paired up to do a folk and blues duet and I thought the call and response thing together was so cool and vibrational. We clicked at rehearsal testing the water on different songs like Bobby Troup's "Route 66" and Horace Silver's "Song for My Father" which we planned to perform that night. I knew that the live performance would be really cool.
I was especially excited because this would be the first time that I would be singing my original music at an International Blues Festival. We gathered at the Arkhangelsk Regional Drama Theater and were ready to do our thing. I got on the stage in my white mini dress and sandals. The lights were blaring and the stage was huge. I looked at the crowd and wailed away, “Gotta go. Gotta be. You and me. Wherever you are. Gotta go. Gotta be. You and me. Wherever you are...” Konstantin and Minerva with their tight harmonies and Tim strumming away through the song and during his solos. It was a great moment.
I walked off the stage and through the huge expanse of the Theater taking pictures with many of the audience members and signing and selling my CDs to the beautiful Russian people who wanted to take my merch home with them.
- Day 9 –
It was my final day in Sochi, and it was Day two of the Blues festival. I was not supposed to be performing that day, but I was in the house to hangout with the artists and to also celebrate Tim’s birthday. The artists featured in the lineup for that night rocked the microphone and then all the artists who performed from both days including me, all got on the stage to do a special music tribute to Tim. He chose a great way to celebrate his birthday; a well organized music festival. What a night!
When the festival was over, we all left the theater and went to the after party. We ate, drank and jammed away in the cozy vintage building, right in front of a lit fireplace. It always excites me when bands just start playing the chords to my song and I can't help but to sing, "Gotta go, gotta be, you and me. Wherever you are." It gets me even more overjoyed when the crowd starts singing the lyrics along with me.
The night went cool until my manager got into a fist fight with one of the musicians. I guess you might think that a fight is something unexpected, but when you pair people with 100oz bottles of vodka floating around the room, it is something that can possibly happen. Luckily, I have been sober for seven years and even in an environment where everybody is offering me drinks, I do not indulge.
We drove that night from the after party and back to the hotel where I gathered my things because in the next few hours, I would be checking in at the Arkhangelsk international airport, getting ready to board on to the 10PM Aeroflot flight to Moscow, to catch my connecting flight home to JFK airport.
- Day 10 –
On the road again. I was in the Moscow airport and waiting for the plane to take off. I roamed around going to the different souvenir shops to see if I could get a gift for my folks.
Starbucks? How could I resist? I sat in the terminal with my venti cup of dark roast black coffee in my hand, awaiting for the now boarding call.
And just like that, we were all ready to board, then to take off and then, to be in the air for the next nine hours.
On the plane I reminisced about all the sites I saw, all the musicians and people I met, all the stages that I sang on and all the different cities I had visited. I remembered the site of the midnight sun.
"There was still some stardust on my sleeve. Always I'll remember it."
The rest of my time on the plane was spent reading, sleeping and eating the luxurious meals that the concierge brought around. I watched movies and slept again. Nine hours later, I was on the line checking in at JFK international airport.
I walk a bit different now. I have a new way of seeing the world having seen the world from a different angle. All the beautiful sights there in my every heartbeat and memory.
I was like a child at play building something to remember out of my walk. Ever since, I have found this new attraction with traveling because traveling is such a thrilling adventure.
What an amazing way to have spent ten days of my life. And to think, I did it doing what I love to do the most, which is singing. And I saw the midnight sun. Thank God for each and every opportunity.