How Austin musician Gina Chavez sees music, travel as bridge to understanding

Austin singer-songwriter Gina Chavez and her band recently toured through Jordan. Along the way the full band – which includes Michael Romero, Brad Johnston, Jerry Ronquillo, Kenneth Null, and Mike Meadows – offered us insights into what it’s like for an Austin band to perform, lead workshops and collaborate with local artists in Jordan.

In this last installment of the Gina Chavez Middle East Tour Diary, Chavez offers her final thoughts about the experience. Catch up with all of the previous tour diary entries on Cultura en Austin and Austin Music Source.

Gina during soundcheck at Terra Sancta Theater in Amman. Photo contributed by Kenneth Null

Gina during soundcheck at Terra Sancta Theater in Amman. Contributed by Kenneth Null

BY GINA CHAVEZ

Having a U.S. passport means possessing a key that unlocks nearly every door in the world. And holding that key is a privilege, not a choice.

We closed out our tour in Aqaba, a Jordanian port on the Red Sea, which is much more conservative than Amman. At our performances, audiences were separated by gender, with women and families on one side and single men on the other. And there I am, performing as a front-woman with an all-male band. I look out at the audience, especially the women in hijab, and wonder what’s going through their minds. I mean, they seemed to love our show, screaming and clapping at every chance, wanting to meet us afterward.

MORE TOUR DIARY ENTRIES:  Gina Chavez Middle East Tour Diary

As we were packing up, a mother and her six daughters approached me, bashful, but giddy with delight. I greeted each of them with a Jordanian-style kiss on the cheek and the little Arabic I could offer –“Shukran kathir! Tcharufna!” (Thank you so much! It’s nice to meet you) – then asked if they wanted to take a selfie. Wide eyed, they shook their heads and started to walk away, looking back at me with smiles and giggling as I waved.

Oh yeah, I remember, many women here are not allowed to be photographed. The mere thought is other-worldly.

The young women at our final concert in Aqaba, Jordan. We took separate photos with the male and female students.
The young women at our final concert in Aqaba, Jordan. The band took separate photos with the male and female students.

We got back to the States at 11 p.m. on Sunday, Nov. 6. The irony, or perhaps importance, of having been in a Muslim country at this very moment in our country’s history is not lost on me.

To be in a region whose people preserved the libraries of the Greek, Roman and Byzantine cultures, that gave us our system of numbers, perfume, concepts like Algebra, advances in architecture and astronomy and words like sugar, coffee, and satin, is an honor. Thousands of Arab contributions have bettered our modern lives, but you’d never know it by the way we talk about and act toward our Muslim brothers and sisters.

RELATED: Gina Chavez Trio Makes Musical Connections as Cultural Ambassadors

This is why I travel and share music. Because everywhere I go, I see beauty in our differences – language, belief, dress, food, daily life – and in the eyes of those I meet, I see that despite those differences, we truly are one people; members of one family, each longing to be heard, to contribute, to matter, to love and be loved; we truly are brother and sister.

A couple of days ago, I swam in the Red Sea. The chill of the water took my breath away as I submerged and arose to the sounds of Arabic semitones and drum beats wafting from passing motor boats, while tiny fishes leapt all around me in time with the beat. I soaked in every breath, grateful for the countless people who have supported and carried me to far-flung lands. Grateful for the privilege to have a U.S. passport and the ability to share multi-cultural, multi-lingual music in a mix-gendered band. Grateful for freedom, longing for understanding.

 

Austin drummer’s top Jordanian food discoveries while on tour

Austin360 will be posting dispatches from Austin singer-songwriter Gina Chavez and her band as they tour through Jordan. The full band – which includes Michael Romero, Brad Johnston, Jerry Ronquillo, Kenneth Null, and Mike Meadows – will give us insights into what it’s like for an Austin band to perform, lead workshops and collaborate with local artists in Jordan.

The sixth installment of the Gina Chavez Middle East Tour Diary was contributed by drummer Mike Meadows. Catch up with all of the tour diary entries on Cultura en Austin and Austin Music Source.

jordanian-food

Drummer Mike Meadows enjoyed kanafeh and other sweet treats from Jordan while on tour with Gina Chavez.

BY MIKE MEADOWS

One of my favorite things about touring is getting to experience the culture, history, and cuisine of the places I’m fortunate enough to travel to. Jordan is certainly no exception. We have been welcomed here with open arms and have had some pretty amazing cultural exchanges. We’ve collaborated musically with some of Jordan’s finest musicians and we’ve seen some awe-inspiring and important historical sights.

MORE TOUR DIARY ENTRIES:  Gina Chavez Middle East Tour Diary

For those that know me though, I have a serious affinity for food, especially dessert. I suppose you could call me a foodie. One glance at my Instagram and you’ll see that drums and food are my passions.

In my experience, one of the quickest ways to make friends in new locales is by sharing meals together and trying the local cuisine. With my insatiable sweet tooth in mind, some of my favorite food discoveries on this tour were Jordan almonds, om ali, and kanafeh.

RELATED: Gina Chavez Trio Makes Musical Connections as Cultural Ambassadors

The first night in Amman, we discovered a store that specialized in Jordan almonds. I had never made the connection that perhaps Jordan almonds actually came from this country. Although their origin story is disputed, I like to believe the version that says they originated from the Jordan River Valley. The ones we tried our second day in Amman were both the most delicious and ornate Jordan almonds I’ve ever tasted.

Jordan almonds

Further south in Petra, we discovered om ali, a dessert with an auspicious history. Om Ali is best described as an indulgent bread pudding, made of puff pastry, milk, nuts, and honey. Legend has it that Om Ali was the first wife of a ruler from the Ayyubid dynasty in Egypt called Ezz El-Din Aybek. Her rival was the second wife of the ruler. After the ruler’s death, the rival wife arranged for the death of Om Ali, and told the cooks to come up with the most delicious dessert they could create, to distribute to all of Egypt. This most delicious dessert was the bread pudding recipe, which has since become known as om ali or “Mother of Ali.”

Om ali

Everywhere we went in Jordan, people told us we must try kanafeh. Finally, in the port city of Aqaba, we were taken to a place that specialized in the cheese pastry, which is soaked in a sugar-based syrup and covered in shredded wheat. It’s prepared above a bed of hot coals and served warm, often topped with pistachios or other nuts. I must say it lived up to the hype!

It was not only the delicious flavor of these desserts, but the generous and hospitable nature of our new Jordanian friends that I found to be so inspiring. I truly hope to someday return to this magical place!

Small moments uplifting for Gina Chavez band on tour in Jordan

Austin360 will be posting dispatches from Austin singer-songwriter Gina Chavez and her band as they tour through Jordan. The full band – which includes Michael Romero, Brad Johnston, Jerry Ronquillo, Kenneth Null, and Mike Meadows – will give us insights into what it’s like for an Austin band to perform, lead workshops and collaborate with local artists in Jordan.

The fifth installment of the Gina Chavez Middle East Tour Diary was contributed by bassist Kenneth Null. Catch up with all of the tour diary entries on Cultura en Austin and Austin Music Source.

Michael Romero shares his trumpet at a show for kids with disabilities in Amman. Photo contributed by Kenneth Null
Michael Romero shares his trumpet at a show for kids with disabilities in Amman. Photo contributed by Kenneth Null

BY KENNETH NULL

What sticks with me on every tour, and Jordan is no exception, are moments when we’re on stage creating organized noise around Gina’s songs. There’s joy, frustration and decades of practice poured into every note, snare hit, key press, and string bend before the moment is gone.

Each show is different, and there are parts from each one that stay with me like when I look over at Mike during a drum solo in the Herbie Hancock tune “Chameleon” as he treats the beat like a finite moment in time around which he wraps a polyrhythm. Or sometimes I see the look on Gina’s face after she sings the second longest note I’ve ever heard sung. She whips her head around to look at Jerry while her white Kendra Scott earrings swing around. She acts like she sings that every day (which she has this tour).

MORE TOUR DIARY ENTRIES:  Gina Chavez Middle East Tour Diary

I’ll look over at Brad on the eighth bar of the intro to “Like An Animal” to signal that we’re both coming in on beat one of bar nine. I’ll catch Jerry hit his best biceps pose during “Siete-D” as he yells “Oh!” and lays into his congas. I’ll listen to Michael pour his heart into a trumpet solo and the different phrases he wraps around the chord progression. I’ll feel the bass through the subs when we hit the second half of the bridge of “Gotta Get.” All of those goose bump-inducing moments stay with me long after the show.

Kids at the Al Hussein center get a close look at Brad's accordion. Photo contributed by Kenneth Null
Children at the Al Hussein Center get a close look at Brad Johnston’s accordion. Photo contributed by Kenneth Null

In Jordan, seeing the joy on the faces of children when Michael, Brad, and Jerry walked around and let them play trumpet, accordion, and agogo was the part that made me cry. The kids’ faces lit up as I took pictures with the U.S. Embassy’s Canon 6D with a 20mm f1.4 lens not only for the joy of capturing the moment, but mainly to keep my eyes dry. Seeing the kids at the Al Hussein Society for People with Disabilities almost abandon their assistants in joy will always stay with me.

RELATED: Gina Chavez Trio Makes Musical Connections as Cultural Ambassadors

I heard and saw how classical musicians at the King Hussein Foundation’s National Music Conservatory, who are trained to maintain a certain posture so as not to distract from the music they play, loosen up just a little. They physically internalized the differences in a straight beat and a swung beat and took on a new sonic voice. Brad, Mike, and I lay a foundation for them to start gaining this freedom. Hearing normally conservative Jordanians scream lyrics back at us so loudly that I couldn’t hear my band mates are moments that will always bring a tear to my eyes.

The part that hits me the hardest every day, though, is that I have an amazing wife who said ‘Yes.’ Yes to marrying me five years ago, and yes to me going on this tour. I love you, Liz. It is an honor to be on this adventure with these spectacularly giving people in this amazing country full of beauty and struggle.

RELATED: Gina Chavez explores her roots in album ‘Up.rooted’

Power of music connects Gina Chavez band with Jordan residents

Austin360 will be posting dispatches from Austin singer-songwriter Gina Chavez and her band as they tour through Jordan. The full band – which includes Michael Romero, Brad Johnston, Jerry Ronquillo, Kenneth Null, and Mike Meadows – will give us insights into what it’s like for an Austin band to perform, lead workshops and collaborate with local artists in Jordan.

The fourth installment of the Gina Chavez Middle East Tour Diary was contributed by percussionist Jerry Ronquillo. Catch up with all the tour diary entries on Cultura en Austin and Austin Music Source.

Jordanian oud master player Tareq Al Jundi, gives Gina Chavez a test on her interpretation of Jordanian folk song, "Lamma Bada Yatathana."
Jordanian oud master player Tareq Al Jundi, gives Gina Chavez a test on her interpretation of Jordanian folk song, “Lamma Bada Yatathana.” Contributed by Kenneth Null

BY JERRY RONQUILLO

My Jordan experience has been one of music, food and love.

Our first day of programming started with a mind-blowing crash course in Arabic makams (similar to music scales/modes), with Tareq Al Jundi, Jordanian master of the oud – a 10-stringed guitar-like instrument without frets. With sheet music and rhythm exercises in hand, we got schooled on quarter-tones and odd time signatures, and put our new knowledge into practice later in the week by covering two Jordanian songs that Tareq taught us.

Having landed the night before, our energy was waning after our lesson. We needed food! Our main U.S. Embassy staff contact (i.e. our Jordan tour manager for the week), T’Errance brought us our first taste of Jordanian falafel and hummus to fuel us for our first workshop– Zahki! (delicious)

MORE TOUR DIARY ENTRIES:  Gina Chavez Middle East Tour Diary

After soundcheck and a media round table with local newspapers, we had an intimate storytellers concert and Q&A with college students from all over Jordan, as well as Iraq, Palestine, Syria and even America. They were really curious about how we came together as a band, how we write songs, how we foster our creativity, and each of our instruments – I gave them the tour of all my percussion toys (traveling congas, shakers, shekere, tambourine, cowbell, etc).

jerryblog2

Jerry Ronquillo lets kids at the Al Hussein Center try their hand at agogo, a percussion instrument made of two metal cones used in African and Latin music. Contributed by Kenneth Null

We didn’t receive to many do’s and don’ts upon entering Jordan. It’s one of the only countries in the Middle East that coexists with a minority Christian population, and where you can see a young woman in hijab (the veil that covers head and chest and can also refer to a modest frock or body covering) walking next to her friend in jeans, a T-shirt and no veil. That said, there are still many people who are conservative, and so we were asked to not put our arms around people in photos or reach out to shake hands unless they offer their hand first.

So it surprised me when an Iraqi student approached me after the concert and took my hand. His name was Bahkir. He told me how much he enjoyed the set, and thought it was interesting. Then, still holding my hand as if we were long lost friends, he told me about his experience growing up in Fallujah. He asked if I knew about Fallujah, and I said yes. He reminded me that ISIS forbids music because it’s not from God. But he said he knew that couldn’t be true.

RELATED: Gina Chavez Trio Makes Musical Connections as Cultural Ambassadors

Bahkir recently started playing the oud and whenever his 3-year-old niece starts to cry, he plays for her and her tears stop. With my hand in both of his, his chin quivering to hold back tears, Bahkir asked me, “How can something that sounds so beautiful that it can comfort a child not be from God?”

In that moment, I realized how much I take for granted the beauty of music and my freedom to play it. It was a humbling reminder of why we do this.

Bahkir squeezed my hand one last time and said, “I know you’re very busy, but please if you have any time, I hope you can come to my house and I will cook you homemade Iraqi food.”

RELATED: Gina Chavez explores her roots in album ‘Up.rooted’

 

‘Orange is the New Black’ actress Diane Guerrero tells Texas Book Festival how family deportation shaped her

(Photo by Jason Kempin/Getty Images for Remy Martin)
(Photo by Jason Kempin/Getty Images for Remy Martin)

‘Orange is the New Black’ star Diane Guerrero grew tired of interviews focused on her beauty routine and favorite lipstick. It was time, she says, to tell her real story.

Guerrero recently released the book “In The Country We Love: My Family Divided,” which reveals layers about the actress that go beyond the life of a television star. At a packed Texas Book Festival tent on Saturday, Guerrero shared parts of her personal journey as the child of undocumented Colombian immigrants who were deported when she was a teenager.

Guerrero will never forget the day when at 14, she came home from school and discovered that her family was gone. She remembers seeing her mother’s rice and beans in the kitchen, a sign that she had already started dinner. A neighbor told her that immigration officers had removed her family, and all of a sudden Guerrero’s world turned upside down.

fullsizerender-2

The morning her parents were taken away, Guerrero remembers running late for school and arguing with her mother about eating breakfast. “It was a huge fight,” she says. “The whole day at school I was thinking about this fight, so when I got home I was going to say sorry.” But she never got the chance.

Guerrero’s father had prepared her for the possibility that someday the family might be deported, and so she went to stay with friends. “That day I made decision to stay,” she says. “People ask me why I didn’t go with my family, but I’m an American citizen. The U.S. is all I know. I decided to stay, so that I could eventually make my parents proud.”

Gina Chavez band teaches the blues to musicians in Jordan

Austin360 will be posting dispatches from Austin singer-songwriter Gina Chavez and her band as they tour through Jordan. The full band – which includes Michael Romero, Brad Johnston, Jerry Ronquillo, Kenneth Null, and Mike Meadows – will give us insights into what it’s like for an Austin band to perform, lead workshops and collaborate with local artists in Jordan.

The third installment of the Gina Chavez Middle East Tour Diary was contributed by keyboardist Brad Johnston. Catch up with all the tour diary entries on Cultura en Austin and Austin Music Source.

Brad Johnston leads a blues workshop in Jordan.
Brad Johnston leads a blues workshop in Jordan.

BY BRAD JOHNSTON

When I go on tour I have very few expectations on how things will turn out because I really never know what will happen. But I know for sure that when I’m with people who have the right intentions, touring is an amazing way to discover the world, meet new people, and hopefully leave the world a slightly better place.  This tour has made me realize that I’ve always taken one thing for granted – that our band stays together, at least for the official programming such as concerts, rehearsals and workshops.

MORE TOUR DIARY ENTRIES:  Gina Chavez Middle East Tour Diary

Before flying into Jordan we knew that the U.S. Embassy – our host – intended to split us into two teams to help cover more ground over the course of two days. This is where the teamwork kicks in. With only a broad understanding of each of the workshops, we divided into teams based on our musical interests and skill sets. But how would we create a thoughtful and helpful experience without having time to fully prepare?

The answer was simple. We do it all of the time in our music – improvise! And this week, I saw improvisation in a whole new way. At the National Music Conservatory, our team of three – Mike (drums), Kenneth (bass) and I – led a group of young adult musicians in a masterclass on blues music. We led 14 eastern classical musicians, who had never played the blues, until everyone was jamming! Singers were exploring their voices in a whole new way, Arabic instrumentalists on the oud (non-fretted stringed instrument) and the qanun (mixture of the auto harp and zither) were mastering the pentatonic scale. Pianists were daring to make mistakes as they discovered a new voice on the keys. You should have seen the joy of musical freedom in their eyes!

RELATED: Gina Chavez explores her roots in album ‘Up.rooted’

The next day, we got the whole band back together for an interactive concert for young children with disabilities. I’ll never forget the joy on their faces as we improvised some Arabic lyrics to our silly kids’ song, “Gimme Some Ice Cream.” In mere seconds, we had a room full of students and their teachers shaking the room with shouts of “Ahtini Buhza!” It’s a joyful noise I’ll never forget.  These past few days have fortified in me, yet again, the power of being open to improvising, especially when it’s your only option. This band is filled with some really special souls.

RELATED: Gina Chavez Trio Makes Musical Connections as Cultural Ambassadors

 

10 things Gina Chavez band has learned in Jordan

Austin360 will be posting dispatches from Austin singer-songwriter Gina Chavez and her band as they tour through Jordan. The full band – which includes Michael Romero, Brad Johnston, Jerry Ronquillo, Kenneth Null, and Mike Meadows – will give us insights into what it’s like for an Austin band to perform, lead workshops and collaborate with local artists in Jordan.

The third installment of the Gina Chavez Middle East Tour Diary was contributed by Michael Romero (trumpet, synth, harmony vocals). Catch up with all the tour diary entries on Cultura en Austin and Austin Music Source.

Michael Romero, of the Gina Chavez band, has been touring with the group through Jordan.
Michael Romero, of the Gina Chavez band, has been touring with the group through Jordan.

BY MICHAEL ROMERO 

10.  Arabic music uses quarter tones. Whereas Western music’s smallest interval between notes is a half step, Arabic (as well as other areas) music’s smallest interval between notes is a quarter step. That’s quite a few more notes and maqams (scales) to enjoy. Brad Johnston (pianist/accordionist for Gina Chavez) is at this very moment jamming some Arabic tunes on the accordion.

9. One of the musicians we’ve met, Basem Aljaber, is a phenomenal bassist. He played a groove while simultaneously drumming on his upright bass. Basem is a wise and kind man from Syria.

8. You can oftentimes do OK (at least at first) knowing little Arabic here as many folks speak English as well. I’m betting Gina Chavez will be fluent soon. She has more than three songs to learn and sing in Arabic by the end of the trip, and she’s already taken the lead to really study. The rest of us are, well, we could study harder.

RELATED: GINA CHAVEZ TOUR DIARY #1: MEET THE BAND IN JORDAN 

7. A chance to try Turkish coffee prepared with a huge flame and a small metal cup is worth it. Kenneth Null (Bassist for GC) will likely figure out how to start preparing it at home.

getfileattachment

6. The juice shops here are better than any dessert – though Mike Meadows (joining GC on drums for the tour) might disagree due to his love for Jordan almonds.

5. Islam lately has a pretty negative connotation in the U.S., and the majority of people here follow Sunni Islam.  This band has been lucky to play music with and befriend many amazing Jordanians including the JOrchestra members and the youth from the Haya Cultural Center.

4. Justin Bieber, you’re well known and liked around here.

RELATED: What’s it like for an Austin band to tour Jordan? Gina Chavez to share with fans

3. If you’ve traveled a lot before, you’d not be surprised to know you can find a Subway Sandwiches, 7/11 and McDonald’s here. Maybe that’s not such a positive thing, but appreciation of a quick lunch is one of the many things we have in common.

2. Jerry Ronquillo (percussionist for GC) has a mustache that is admired in every country he goes to. So far, he’s received countless compliments in the U.S., Costa Rica and Jordan.

1. Mom, we’re safe. As you taught me, safety increases in all ways and in all places when we, as humans, pause and sit with, learn from and admire each other.

Thank you, Jordan.

 

Gina Chavez Middle East Tour Diary #1: Meet the band

The band at a layover in Heathrow on its way to meet Gina Chavez in Amman, Jordan.
The band at a layover in Heathrow Airport on its way to meet Gina Chavez in Amman, Jordan.

BY GINA CHAVEZ

It’s 2:00 a.m. in Amman, Jordan, (7 p.m. in the ATX) and I’m wide awake. My body has no idea what time it is since flying through the air from Sydney, Australia, a couple of days ago.

My bandmates – all five of them this time – and I were invited by the U.S. Embassy in Jordan to lead workshops, collaborate with local artists and perform free public concerts throughout this beautiful and ancient country that sits at the crossroads of Asia, Africa and Europe; a country that in the midst of great turmoil has opened its arms to 2.1 million Palestinians and 1.4 million Syrian refugees.

This is my second time in the Middle East – following last year’s eye-opening tours in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain – and I’m so excited to be back in the region! I’m also stoked to share this experience with my entire band, my musical family. This is only our second full band tour outside of the States and I’ve come to value our time together on tour as much as I cherish traveling to new and far off lands! As such, I thought it’d be cool for you to hear from all of us this week.

RELATED: WHAT’S IT LIKE FOR AN AUSTIN BAND TO TOUR JORDAN? GINA CHAVEZ SHARES

You’ll meet Michael Romero (trumpet, synth, harmony vocals and also a talented songwriter with his own band, Strumero). We went to grade school together, though as his elder I was too cool to really get to know him until I heard his mad skills on trumpet a few years back. Michael is the MacGyver of the group and my musical right-hand man.

You’ll meet Brad Johnston (keyboard, accordion) whose percussive style and versatility on keys was just what the doctor ordered for our brand of Latin-pop fusion. Brad consumes new experiences with a wide-eyed wonderment that I’m excited to share with you.

RELATED: GINA CHAVEZ EXPLORES HER ROOTS IN ALBUM ‘UP.ROOTED’

Kenneth Null, my first-ever bass player, has been with me through it all. He’s always had my back as my resident gear guru, but on tour it’s his smile, laughter and hugs that refresh the soul like a glass of cool water.

Jerry Ronquillo, our mustached percussionist, is the life of the party at home and abroad. He is always down for a challenge and when jet lag or hits, Jerry is our secret weapon.

Mike Meadows (drums) is the new addition for this tour. He’s someone whose style and approach to music I’ve long admired, and we’re excited he had time between tours with Willie Nelson to join us here in Jordan.

Join us tomorrow for our first taste of Amman, Jordan…

What’s it like for an Austin band to tour Jordan? Gina Chavez to share with fans

Gina Chavez performed at the 2016 Austin City Limits Music Festival. (Tamir Kalifa for American-Statesman)
Gina Chavez performed at the 2016 Austin City Limits Music Festival. (Tamir Kalifa for American-Statesman)

For the next few days, Austin360 will be posting dispatches from Austin singer-songwriter Gina Chavez and her band as they tour through Jordan. The full band – which includes Michael Romero, Brad Johnston, Jerry Ronquillo, Kenneth Null, and Mike Meadows – will give us insights into what it’s like for an Austin band to perform, lead workshops and collaborate with local artists in Jordan.

The U.S. Embassy invited Chavez and her band to Jordan this time, but it’s not the first time the award-winning Latin-pop outfit has represented the U.S. abroad. In 2015, the Gina Chavez Trio (a small but mighty version of her full band) became one of 10 acts across the United States selected as cultural ambassadors as part of the U.S. State Department’s American Music Abroad program. Earlier this year, Chavez also traveled on an independent tour through Costa Rica at the request of the U.S. Embassy.

Keep checking Cultura en Austin and Austin Music Source for regular updates. Safe travels to Gina and all of her band!

Gina Chavez departs Austin.
Gina Chavez departs Austin.