SXSW 2018: Gina Chavez leads flash mob dance party on Sixth Street

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Austin-based singer-songwriter Gina Chavez led a flash mob dance party on the corner of Sixth Street and Red River during South by Southwest in honor of her upcoming single, “Let it Out.”

Chavez released video dance tutorials earlier this week so that fans could learn her moves and join the festivities, which were recorded for the “Let it Out” music video.

Gina Chavez flash mob dance party on Sixth Street.

After she led the choreographed dance, the artist started a conga line to the Flamingo Cantina, where she performed on Wednesday night. The first 40 people who joined her flash mob dance party got to check out the SXSW show for free.

MORE SXSW: See all of Austin360’s SXSW coverage

 

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…

MORE: Check out the Cultura en Austin blog for more cultural arts coverage 

Tour Diary: Austin musician Gina Chavez in Kazakhstan

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
Austin-based singer-songwriter Gina Chavez and her trio were selected as cultural ambassadors for the U.S. State Department. (Tamir Kalifa for American-Statesman)

BY GINA CHAVEZ

It’s 6:14 a.m. in Astana, Kazakhstan, on our final day here. I’m watching the sun slowly dust the cityscape in crimson and gold; the Khazret Sultan Mosque – the second largest in Central Asia – stands at attention. There are so many huge buildings here! And at night this place lights up like a subdued Las Vegas, each building with its own light show.

I’m afraid to admit that until a few days ago, I knew nothing about the ninth largest landlocked country in the world, a nation of 18 million people with the strongest economy in Central Asia (thank you, oil). (And no, I haven’t seen Borat. Though that hasn’t kept us from quoting it the last four days! Silly Americans…)

RELATED: Gina Chavez Latin American Tour

The people here have truly been amazing. Our first show was honestly the most energetic audience I think we’ve ever had. Really! There on the lawn of the majestic Rixos hotel, hundreds packed in as close to stage as possible, eyes bright, phones in hand. They love Latin music here! (I swear we’ve heard “Despacito” at least 30 times in the last three days.) Hips flew, shouts rang out, and eager phones recorded every note. The night was fire!

At first I didn’t know what to think of the people here. In a nation of 131 nationalities, the people of Kazakhstan are diverse and still trying to define their post-Soviet identity. Perhaps it’s a Russian holdover, but they’re often not ones to acknowledge a stranger. If you smile at them, suspicion sometimes bounces back. Thankfully, our embassy handler (not her official title), Zhanna, warned me that despite the stoic looks, Kazakhs have a “different” sense of personal space. After the show, we were quickly surrounded by ecstatic fans grabbing our hands and pulling our shoulders close to pose like the best of friends in selfies!

MORE: 10 Things Gina Chavez Band Learned in Jordan

The next days were a flurry of interviews, jams, wonderful meals (they love their meat and bread here), and time with Ambassador George Krol, who graciously invited us to his ornate Kazakhstani yurt to taste deer-blood infused vodka and mare’s milk (what?!). Later, we crossed town to hang with 30 children at a center for low-income families. The kids were awesome, playing games with us, screaming “morozinoyeh” (“ice cream”) to one of our songs, and then performed traditional dombra music for us!

Contributed by Gina Chavez

We were invited to perform on the massive stage at Baiterek Square, where the impressive torch-like symbol of Astana stands 97 meters tall, and then closed out our time in Kazakhstan at EXPO, the modern-day World’s Fair. It was like going to Disney! The architecture alone was astounding at every turn. We performed one last time at the USA Pavilion, attempting to representing all of the Americas with our music before catching a plane to Uzbekistan.

Contributed by Gina Chavez

I am constantly humbled to know we have been invited to share our music across the world, and aware of the privilege we have as Americans to do so. From the moment we arrived, it hit me that the people of Central Asia are not even on the radar for most of us in the States. Their features are truly a link between Europe and Asia, they speak Russian (among other languages), practice Islam, use Arabic scales in music, gave us some of the most stunning textiles the world, and yet, they are often not even on our radar.

Thank you, Kazakhstan, for allowing us to come, learn and meet you. Thank you for opening your arms to us, to learn and grow and dance together! We hope to someday return to your passionate audiences!

Now onto learning about the people and beauty of Uzbekistan…

Niñas Arriba benefit concert Aug. 5 to feature Gina Chavez, Roger Blevins of Mingo Fishtrap, Patrice Pike and Wayne Sutton

JAY JANNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

When Xiomara Cordova walked across the Stateside at the Paramount stage in her cap and gown last summer, a roar erupted from the crowd at the benefit concert that helps raise money for the college fund Niñas Arriba (Girls Rising). Cordova was the first graduate of the program founded by Austin musician Gina Chavez and her partner Jodi Granado, and the show last year included a symbolic walk up to the stage for the graduate to celebrate her achievement.

Niñas Arriba offers scholarships to young women in El Salvador, where Chavez and Granado spent about eight months as volunteers in the gang-dominated suburb of Soyapango in 2009.

MORE: Check out Latino cultural art news on Cultura en Austin

The annual benefit concert brings together performers and music fans to raise money for women who are seeking a better future. This year’s summer concert, which will also feature a silent auction with items such as Kendra Scott jewelry, returns to the Stateside on Aug. 5 featuring music by Patrice Pike and Wayne Sutton, who are the founders of the band Sister 7, Roger Blevins of Mingo Fishtrap and, of course, Chavez, who will headline the show.

Chavez will debut a new song called “Heaven Knows” and perform new renditions of old favorites. Expect a few surprise cover songs as well.

Doors open at 6 p.m. and tickets, which range from $25-$65, are available at austintheatre.org.

 

 

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.

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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).

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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’

 

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.

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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.

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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.