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
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…)
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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!
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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!
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.
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…