September 8-27, 2012
The group then traveled to Afghanistan on September 14 with the support of the U.S. Embassy Kabul. Despite enormous challenges with security restrictions during the time Mary McBride and her band were in Afghanistan, the group was able to conduct classes and workshops, and played a series of live concerts in Kabul and Bagram.
On September 17, the band visited the French Cultural Center directly outside the wire in preparation for their concert there the following day. The Cultural Center is on the grounds of the Lycée Esteqlal, a French-Afghan school built in the late '60s, and is now one of the best public schools in Kabul. McBride wrote, “The Cultural Center is beautiful (by any standards) and has a very pretty gallery in the front and two theaters -- one 300 seater inside and an outdoor theater where they do workshops with young artists. We met one of the directors, Guilda Chahverdi, who is Iranian and also teaches theater at Kabul University. She was so dynamic and seemed excited about the prospect of our collaborating with Afghan musicians. Already, it is inspiring to see how hard people work to make and present art under such difficult circumstances, and I am reminded, once again, how fortunate we are to have the opportunity to be here.”
The following day, September 18, the band played their concert at the French Cultural Center for young people from Kabul, who were reticent at first but then got up and danced to the music. The US Embassy Kabul distributed a video of the concert on YouTube (above) and wrote about the concert: “Singer Mary McBride and her band's rustic ballads lift an audience of teenage boys and girls to their feet with arms waving in harmony to the beat of a rare live musical performance by a Western band…the band helped to bridge cultural divides with their irresistible blend of country and rock music from the heart of America.”
On the third day of their visit, September 19, the band visited a music school, which is part of the Aga Kahn Music Initiative in Central Asia and run by the Aga Kahn Trust for Culture. Mary wrote, “We had no idea what to expect but it ended up being the most magnificent day. We visited six classes and heard performances by all of them. The school has enrolled more young women musicians than anywhere in the country (they also have a school in Herat and the Trust also runs programs in Kazakhstan and Pakistan) and there were so many talented kids there. The teachers were clearly revered, and when we asked one 15 year old tabla player what it was like playing with his 94 year old teacher, he said "this is the best time my life will be." The Programme Director of the school, Mirwaiis Sidiqi, invited us in to his office for cake and tea before we played. He explained to us that the Trust also has, in coordination with the Ministry of Culture, refurbished their beautiful building and also sends people out to the rural parts of Afghanistan to document traditional musicians to ensure that their techniques live on. All of the students were clearly so happy to play for us. We weren't sure we were going to have time to do a show but we ended up playing for all of the classes in a small closed in courtyard. It was all acoustic, but we ramped up the set and the kids seemed to love the more rock ‘n roll tunes.”
On September 20 the band traveled by helicopter to Bagram and was met by Garland Travis, head of MWR -- morale welfare and recreation -- at the base, who gave the band a tour of the base and our rooms. McBride wrote, “You simply can not imagine the scale of this place. There are approximately 10,000 soldiers, 19,000 contract workers, and over 5,000 Afghan workers here, as well as a large group of Egyptians and Koreans who run humanitarian operations. We played one, unannounced show at a barber shop on the east end of the base, and another show at the base’s military hospital. It was an utterly memorable day.”
The band’s show at the base’s military hospital, the Heathe Craig Joint Theater Hospital, turned out to be one of the highlights of their tour. There are three wards - the Afghan ward for locals (mostly children), the American ward, and the EOP (Enemies of Peace) ward, which is for incarcerated soldiers who have a guard standing next to them bedside. In the "high season" (warm weather), the hospital workers treat over 200 trauma patients a month and have a 98% success rate in keeping people alive. Mary wrote, “We were introduced to two patients who were among the group that had been on the bridge in Kunar hit by a suicide bomber two days ago. Both were in their early 20's and were from Atlanta. They told us their story -- that they had been repairing a bridge and an old man walked over to them and blew up the bridge and all the soldiers on it. Two of their friends died and two ended up with traumatic brain injuries and were flown directly to Germany. These two looked like they would eventually be ok, although when we asked them if they were going to be there for awhile, they said that most people who have injuries severe enough to be sent to the Bagram Hospital were almost always sent to Germany for treatment as well. We sang "Home" for the two soldiers at their beds and then sang several songs in the area near the nursing station so that the nurses and other patients who were mobile could come out. I asked if we could sing in the Afghan ward but there was clearly serious sensitivity about doing that, so I asked if they could bring some of the kids out by the station. I asked Hussain, our local fixer who has been with us all week, to thank them for coming out and being with us and he did.”
The following day, September 21, Mary and the band were off from shows due to security restrictions, but Mary had the opportunity to go to one of Kabul’s public art venues, The Venue, with PAO Sarah Evans. That day, Mary wrote, “We were originally scheduled to play a venue in downtown Kabul earlier in the week (called "the Venue") and we ran into an American woman, Robin Ryczek, and her Pakistani friend, Humayun Zadran, but the show was canceled. I got a call today at 4pm telling me my request was approved and that I could go with one escort at 5pm. So Sarah (our PAO) and I got in the car and traveled to a more upscale part of downtown and then drove down a street with huge ditches on either side of a very narrow driveway until we got to the entrance of the club, which is unmarked and is behind a huge green metal grate. We knocked on the gate and were greeted and brought through their magical courtyard which has candlelight and outdoor seating. We went into the space, which is part music club and part gallery. It was so interesting just to sit and listen to their stories. Robin is a classically trained cello player who went to grad school in Boston, spent time in Berlin and then randomly changed course and came here through university contacts. When she realized that students wanted to learn guitar, she taught herself guitar and now does one-on-one lessons (she was teaching a lesson to an Afghan-American woman when we arrived. Humayun was born in Afghanistan but spent most of his life in Peshawar where he would take buses to Lahore to go to underground rock shows, and then moved back to Kabul in the late '90s. The space they were in was an old coffee house called Kabul Coffee House and it was in such disrepair the owner offered to have them take it over. They now do regular concerts, film screening and openings there, and were proud to say that their audience is 80% Afghan. I asked them if they were worried about security and Robin said, "We can't worry. Otherwise we wouldn't do anything." I so hope that we have the opportunity to play there before we leave.”
On September 21, Mary and the band performed a two set show on the grounds of the Embassy, and had a terrific crowd. Mary wrote, “Tables were set up outside for dinner, people were dancing and we were thrilled to have musicians who we had met earlier in the week sit in with us.”
The following night, Saturday, September 22, Mary and the band played at the base adjacent to the Embassy for the International Security Forces. The show was set up in an outside park on the base and Mary and the band played for over two hours for a military crowd from all over the world, but with a heavy European contingent. Following the concert, they went directly to the Embassy, changed quickly and then loaded the cars to go to the Venue, where they had been approved to play a concert for a small audience there. Mary wrote, “It was a perfect way to end our tour, playing a rock set for a mixed crowd of Afghans, Americans and Europeans, artists and journalists and students, just regular people who are going about their lives and trying to do their part to make Afghanistan a better place. We simply couldn’t have scripted a more perfect evening.”
On their last morning in Kabul, Mary and the band taped a live-audience concert for Ariana TV and Ariana 93.5, the largest private media channels in Afghanistan, covering 33 of 34 provinces and reaching over 20,000,000 Afghans. During the concert, Mary dedicated specific songs to different cities in provinces where they did not have the opportunity to perform. Ariana aired the concert as a special and it was first aired in the first week of October, 2012.
The band arrived in Albania in Tirana on Monday, September 24, for a three-day tour in Albania, which included stops in Fushe-Kruje, Tirana and Shkoder. On the first day of the tour, Mary and the band did media interviews in Tirana and prepared for their first show the following day at Fushe-Kruje Prison, a men’s prison. The band played at the maximum-security prison outside on a basketball court where guards and inmates gathered for a mid-day concert.
The following day the band drove to northwestern city Shkoder and took a tour of the newly refurbished downtown, and then played for a public audience in the Shkoder pedestrian zone. This was the first time the US Embassy had organized an outdoor public show and the audience filled the streets as soon as they started. The Shkoder concert was covered by News24 as well as shqiptarja.com.
The following day the band played their first public show at the public park near the Taiwan Center. The concert was sponsored by Top Channel and included a warm introduction by Ambassador Arvizu and opening act performances by Top Channel artists. DailyMotion.com covered the concert, which attracted more than 1,000 Albanians of all different ages, in their news report here.
On their last day in Tirana, the band played for all of the inmates at the Female Prison in Tirana. All of the women were dancing together and several women stood up and thanked the band. One woman, Elena, said, “Thank you on behalf of all the women here. I've been serving my duty for many, many years and I couldn't enjoy real life. Of course I couldn’t hear live music, but especially American music. I have also not been able to hear the music at the wedding parties of my children. Thank you very, very much on behalf of my friends here. Bringing this concert to the women's prison made the soul of the women here feel free. You will always remain in my mind and in my thoughts for the good thing that you did today. Thank you very much.” Following the tour, Mary wrote to Betsy Lewis, Cultural Affairs Director of the US Embassy in Tirana: “Our morning at the women's prison may be one of the most moving days we have had in the past 14 months. Thank you for bringing us there and for giving us the opportunity to play for those wonderful women, who clearly are trying to get things back on track. I hope we get the chance to meet them again.”
The US Embassy in Tirana summarized Mary’s tour on their website in a post titled “Mary McBride makes Albania “home".
at Joe.Merante@theHDI.org or at +1-212-944-7111