The Songs of the Soul tour in the Balkans was wrapping up in Subotica, Serbia and everybody was in high spirits. The organizers, technicians and musicians were wrapping up a series of concerts that had started 10 days earlier in Varna, Bulgaria which had been a lot of fun and presented Sri Chinmoy‘s music to approximately 3000 concert-goers. I was also in high spirits, but I was also feeling a subtle anxiety creeping in. The explanation for this concern was not mysterious to me. I was about to embark on a new tour as part of one of an ambitious tour project. At the long-standing invitation of my friend Yuri, I was heading to Brest, Belarus for rehearsals that were to be followed by 6 concerts in Belarus and Russia. The band was to be comprised of 1 Belarussian, 3 Russians and myself. I had met these fine gentlemen before but only very briefly and had played very little music together.
Before getting to making some music, though, I had to get from Subotica to Brest, neither of which have an international airport. The solution, naturally (!), was to get a car ride to Budapest, Hungary, 2.5 hours from Subotica, then get a flight to Warsaw, Poland, then get an overnight train to Brest. That last part was what I was most concerned about. I had my visa for Belarus, but to travel alone overnight from the European Union into what used to be the Soviet Union had me concerned. With the very kind help of Jan in Warsaw, who picked me up at the airport, we made our way to the train station and we both agreed that it would be a wise use of my money to buy a first class ticket which gave me a private cabin for the train ride. As it turned out the ride was quite fine. The train attendant spoke no English, but we managed to work things out so that I got off in Brest. This train was traveling from Paris to Moscow ultimately. Warsaw is only about 200 km from Brest but the ride was 6 hours. I arrived in the wee hours where Yuri dutifully came to pick up Rostam and myself. Rostam was just completing 3 days on the train and was arriving from Chelyabinsk via Moscow.
The next 5 days saw the group of 5 of us sleeping, eating and practicing in the Brest Sri Chinmoy Meditation Center. The Center is a quite nice, newer 2 bedroom apartment on the outskirts of Brest. I had sent MP3’s and written music to all the musicians a few weeks before, but we still had to get 1 hour of music together in only a few days. The band consisted of Mahavrata, Sergey, Rostam, Yuri and myself. Sergey is a veteran professional drummer living outside Moscow. Mahavrata is an accomplished guitarist, signer, songwriter and flutist. Rostam was our youngest member and has been practicing meditation for 4 years. His inspiration and eagerness were invaluable during these 2 weeks. Although a fine guitar player, Rostam played various wind instruments in this context. Yuri was our coordinator, treasurer, translator and singer. I was traveling with my trusty Telecaster electric guitar and a few guitar pedals.
Brest is a relatively small town in a country that is as flat as Manitoba where I am from in central Canada. Belarus is sometimes known as the last European dictatorship as well as Russia’s potato supplier. Things in Belarus are orderly and people are quite content and happy. The crime rate is extremely low. When we weren’t practicing we were running for exercise. Only once did we go out for sightseeing where we visited a large fort that was very active in the Second World War. In fact, both in Russia and Belarus, there are many monuments to the war of 1941-1945. The other attraction for me was Orthodox Churches. I really like the icons in these churches. In general, it’s a lot like my native Catholicism both in appearance and feeling.
I had arrived in Brest early on a Monday morning and our first concert was Friday evening at the philarmonic hall in Brest. We were playing one of the smaller rooms that seats about 220 people. Our rehearsals had gone fairly well, but by the time the concert time arrived and after a not-reassuring soundcheck, I wasn’t sure that it would all come together. The advertising in the city seems to have worked because we had approximately 275 people in that room. That means that some were sitting on the ground or in the aisles and almost on stage! During the concert I still wasn’t sure if the audience was hearing something nice because I was making mistakes and I was hearing wrong notes here and there. It was also getting quite warm with all those people in that small room. I thought for sure that some people would leave. At the end of the concert, after 1 hour and 45 minutes, the room was as full as at the start and the crowd gave us an enthusiastic standing applause. As is usually the case for a concert for meditation we had asked the audience to hold their applause until the very end. This helps to create a nice atmosphere. After one week in Belarus, it seemed that our experiment had been a success. In spite of various imperfections, the audience felt the peace and harmony that Sri Chinmoy’s songs embody.
This first concert turned out to set the tone for our other 5 concerts. Audiences ranged from 150 to 300 approximately. In some places the halls were full , but in others, they were not. After every concert, people stood for the applause and many people came to speak to us after the concert asking questions. We even got nice comments posted on this very website. Pretty much every night I would have at least one elderly person going on and on in Russian about how (I presume) they enjoyed the concert. With my translators usually busy talking to other people, I could only nod and say ‘spaciba’ (Thank you). I would also get some young people who enjoyed the concert and were practicing some basic English. I answered quite a few questions about my guitar and the pedals I was using. I thought it was cool, for example, that a teenager with a Guns and Roses t-shirt would be intrigued by the equipment and mostly that he genuinely enjoyed the music.
In Brest and Minsk, our 2 Belarussian concerts, we were joined by Larissa who opened the concert with excellent singing and piano playing. Also Igor played some flutes at one point. In St-Petersburg the local boys from the Meditation Center put together some music as well. It was a first for me to hear Sri Chinmoy’s music as a Bossa Nova! In other cities it was just our group. Our set included 1 arrangement by Mahavrata that he and I played by ourselves. We also had a drum solo by Sergey and 3 songs by Mahavrata and Sergey, who are part of another group called Aspiration Flight. This would last about 75 minutes. At the end of each concert we would sing a song which has the following lyrics: “My gratitude heart always knows the way. My oneness-perfection always is the way” The fun part is that we sang it first in English then did the same song in Russian. In Smolensk, we played in a rather small hall that was over full and for this song the entire audience was singing quite loudly. I stopped playing guitar altogether to let them sing. It was great! In the meantime I was doing my best singing along with my phonetic Russian.
We travelled by car or van or train between each city. Both train rides were night time deals where every seat converts to a bed. That’s not so common here in Canada. This was considered third class but the wagons were quite new and everybody gets crispy clean bedding for the ride. To help us with all the organization along the way we had the ever-cheerful and soulful Vlad. If he wasn’t on the phone coordinating something he was cutting jokes with the guys which were clearly very funny. And if we couldn’t find him at any given time, he was off meditating somewhere. He is a young fellow like Rostam who has been practicing meditation for only a few years. On the day we were in Moscow he very self-givingly brought me to a cosmonaut museum which was a lot of fun. I felt like I was 10 or 12 years old because at that time I was determined I was going to become an astronaut and was very familiar with names like Yuri Gagarin.
When all was said and done, we played for over 1100 people in these 6 free concerts. In spite of our outer imperfection, the audiences were genuinely appreciative that we should present something like this in their city. There was a lady in Tver that was almost shocked by how unique a presentation it was, but simultaneously very happy to have had such an experience. I suppose that if we were anything at all, we were unique. But then that’s what has always attracted me to Sri Chinmoy’s music – It communicates a feeling and a consciousness that I’ve never encountered anywhere else before. The songs can seem simplistic and even childlike, but there is a profundity that can’t be found in any other music. Most of the arrangements that we played, I’ve performed hundreds of times, yet I don’t get tired of them. It’s like a musical miracle.
I feel extremely blessed to have been able to participate in sharing all of this with anyone who is inspired to come to a concert. I would like to thank all those who attended as well as my brother musicians, all the organizers and the new friends that we made along the way. Spaciba!