On tour in land of Genghis Khan, musician Gina Chavez has Houston in her heart

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.
The Gina Chavez Trio — which includes musicians Michael Romero and Sammy Foster — joined an elite group of musicians who aim to connect cultures through the power of music. Since then, Gina Chavez has traveled around the world performing, teaching and learning about different cultures and musical traditions.
This time, Chavez takes us along on her journey. Through her guest blogs, we’ll peek into her travel diary to see what life is like in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. –Nancy Flores, Cultura en Austin columnist

Photos contributed by Kirsten Michener

BY GINA CHAVEZ

I’m sitting beneath the maple trees in the ancient city of Samarkand, Uzbekistan, and my heart is torn. I’ve been on sensory overload from the tour of a lifetime in Central Asia while my beloved Texas is hurting in the wake of Hurricane Harvey and the passing of music angel Margaret Moser. Our internet access has been very limited, but the band and I all have Houston in our hearts as we represent the United States in the Stans. We know you are hurting and we can’t wait to get back and join the recovery efforts. We love you, Texas!

Where to begin? There was Tashkent, capital of Uzbekistan, with the horse meat that looked like cole slaw, the Hast Imam library where we saw the oldest version of the Koran in the world, rehearsing in Ambassador Spratlen’s basement, and sharing the stage with famous Uzbek singer Farraukh Zokirov. And then there was Samarkand.

We stepped off the train in Samarkand — ancient land of Genghis Khan and the Silk Road — to the booms and blares of Uzbek doira drums and karnay horns, on-the-spot TV interviews, dozens of volunteers grabbing our gear, young women in traditional clothing offering bread, salt, fruit and nuts. Everyone is here for Sharq Taronalari, an international music festival featuring 250 musicians from 58 countries! But it feels like something out of Harry Potter– see, we stepped off platform 9 3/4 into an alternative universe where high school summer camp meets the musical Olympics.

Our hotel is a non-stop live music jam infused with every language and sound you can imagine and lots more you’ve never heard of: Japanese Taiko drums, Nepalese sitar, accordions of all sizes, Turkish flute, the Brittany talabard (reed instrument), Ukrainian harp-like bandura, the komuz (three-stringed lute) from Kyrgyzstan, Iranian hammer dulcimer, frame drums from all over. It’s wild (and very loud outside my window at 3 a.m. every night)!

RELATED: Inside Gina Chavez’ Kazakhstan tour diary

In the morning, we eat together in the dining hall, then hop off the bus for a field trip to some ancient wonder — great astronomer Ulugh Beg’s 15th century observatory, Shah-i-Zinda mausoleums dating back to the 11th century — always accompanied by at least one police escort and multiple student guides. We’re gonna miss skipping every red light as we drive through town.

Our first show was the definition of a “throw-and-go” at a run-down Soviet-era park with the most hodgepodge sound equipment and me battling an impending sickness. Our second show, however, was the most majestic “stage” we have ever played. Ever. Our rhythms and voices soared throughout the Registan — three towering stone madrasahs (schools) that were the city center of 14th and 15th century Samarkand where philosophy, math and astronomy were taught and the silk trade flourished. The intricate geometric patterns, like tapestries on each stone facade, seemed to dance in the colored lights while the crowd went wild for our cover of “Nazar Nazar,” a Persian song made popular by Uzbek pop star Sardor Rahimxon.

Little did we know, that song would launch us into stardom throughout the region. By morning light festival volunteers, shop owners, museum staff, and tourists on the street stop us for photos, while crowds pour into our shows to see the Americans singing in Uzbek! Video views have climbed to 72,000 on Facebook and the story is circulating in major Uzbek newspapers and on Russian TV networks. Wha?!

We usually try to cover a song when we’re in a new country, but we’ve never seen a reaction like this. The Uzbek people are so proud of their culture — their textiles, history, dance, music — and they genuinely love when you try to speak even a word of Uzbek, so I think they’re shocked that we covered one of their songs. The opening line, “Samarqanding gyo’zali” (the beauty of Samarkand) pulls the women to their feet, their arms out wide, gold teeth flashing the biggest smiles. It’s a beautiful sight.

Even more beautiful was playing games and singing with kids among the trees at a nearby orphanage. Uzbekistan doesn’t allow them to be adopted outside of the country, so most of these kids are here for good, especially the teenagers. The kids were shy at first, but once we started “Nazar Nazar,” the girls lead the charge, singing their favorite songs for us, including “Jingle Bells.” We all screamed for “Musqaymok” (ice cream) and got everyone dancing the Hokey Pokey! Never gets old, that one.

Two days later, our musical Olympic village was invited to join the President of Uzbekistan for the official Opening Ceremony of the festival (oddly three days after we performed). That’s when our international summer camp turned into a Central Asian Disney World on steroids…

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