Tako and Gigi, and Two Different Days

Post-show selfie at Tbilisi State Medical University

Tako and Gigi met us at our hotel to go over our itinerary for the week. Tako, local staff at the U.S. Embassy, has been my primary contact, and organized all of our events and local travel. She knows so much about Georgia, it’s incredible. Gigi is a whip-smart, one-of-a-kind, funny guy with so much heart, who was our interpreter. I liked them both immediately. 

We had a very warm reception at our first event: a daytime concert for students at Tbilisi State Medical University. It was apparent that the students appreciated a break from their studies because they were electric! They danced, sang, and waved their phone flashlights in the air. The concert culminated with a huge group dancing with us on stage. 

New friends at the Youth Palace/American Corner!

From there, we played at the local Youth Palace (a cultural hangout center for teens and young adults) on the closing night of a film festival. They, too, were so much fun. After our set, they crowded up around us to greet us, and request more songs. “Play Nirvana!” “Do you know any Queen!?” We obliged, and the singalong that ensued will be a great memory. 

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One thing I love about these tours is the broad spectrum of work we get to do. The next day was equally great, and 180 degrees different from the first. 

We started the day with a meeting with local Non-Government-Organization (NGO) leaders, and activists in the disability/different abilities community. Over coffee, I was asked to lead a discussion about the work that they do, the issues that they’re facing, and to share my own experience, life story, and facilitate a Q&A session. 

One man said “15 years ago, if you had a different ability, you could get around as long as someone could carry you, and then in many cases, when you were too heavy to carry you entered the bed you’d stay in the rest of your life.” 

They’re working on updating infrastructure: ramps on stairs and sidewalks (which are rare, or ineffective), accessible doorways, bathrooms and buildings, and working to overcome discriminatory hiring practices. I was touched when they said my visit was especially meaningful because they also want people to see and meet leaders who are different. 

In the afternoon, we played at a neurodevelopment center. The room was packed, standing room only with kids who had various cognitive and emotional differences, and their families. We had no PA system, so we just shouted out our songs, and strummed our guitars hard. We also had help from some less-shy youth who’d crowd around and stomp on Alex’s drum pedal, and pluck our guitar strings.

This little girl had so much fun! She danced and sang for the entire concert!

Georgia (the country) On My Mind

Hello, Georgia!

This is going to be tough… 

Georgia has left an impact on me that’ll be hard to relay to you. I haven’t processed it all, myself, but as I traveled, I took detailed notes about what I saw, heard, tasted, smelled, and touched. My notes are extensive… It’s a beautiful, interesting, often-easy-going-sometimes-intense place… I loved it. 

Just a one hour flight from Baku, Tbilisi, the capital of the country was our first stop. It was early in the afternoon, and though we were all a little tired from the early trip, there was no way we could arrive in a brand new place and not explore just a little bit, right? … This turned into a 7.5 mile hike around the city. 

We were hungry, so after we stopped at an ATM to get some Lari (the Georgian currency) we walked to a nearby restaurant. It was here that my life was forever changed as I was introduced to khachapuri for the first time. 

Is this real life? – Khachapuri

Khachapuri is a hollowed out loaf of fresh bread that is filled with hot, melty cheese, butter, and a runny egg. Yes, this is a real thing. It was one of the least health-conscious, and most delicious things I’ve ever eaten. Seriously so good. At the end of our meal, a complimentary glass of warm, homemade, spiced wine was served as a dessert. 

From there, we walked extensively: through the government center, the markets, the old city, and across the river to the Narikala skyway tram (which reminded me of the Wonka-vator from Willy Wonka). 

The tram (aka “Wonka-vator”)

The tram lifts you high above the city, into the hills overlooking the homes and shops, and the top is stunningly picturesque. We just did our best to take it all in. 

You learn quickly that Georgians love their country, food, wine, and language (which is unique to Georgia) very much. For example: What would you crave when you’ve just hiked through an ancient fortress and climbed 40 flights of stairs? Water or a bench to catch your breath perhaps? Don’t be silly. How about a long row of merchants selling homemade chacha (a local homebrew) and wine.

In a rare scheduling anomaly, our travel day was back-to-back with our rest day, so we took full advantage of our time, laced up our shoes and went for another walk. Farther this time, and more stairs, across the river and through the pedestrian walking tunnels, up into the hills on the opposite bank of the river where Sameba Cathedral is located. It’s the largest church in Georgia, and was beautiful to behold. 

Sameba Cathdral


Tony, Alex, Joey, and Tbilisi

From there, we walked more and stopped at a restaurant with an open-air second floor. We had a street view, a snack, some Georgian wine, reviewed our schedule for the week, and just enjoyed the warm, sunny day. We rested well, and prepared our minds and hearts for our mission ahead. 

The simplicity we felt in those first two days (and so many times throughout the week), was fascinatingly juxtaposed with the complexity of the place, the people, the politics, the recent violent history from the 2008 Russian invasion, and the estimated 200,000+ refugees the Russo-Georgian War displaced.

Flash Mob at the Roman Theatre in Amman, Jordan

MUST SEE!! We toured the 1800+ year old, 6,000-seat Roman Theatre in Amman, Jordan, and brought some instruments along to play. FUN ENSUED! When we started playing, a group of people in the distance started clapping, and joined us for a singalong!

Here’s our NEW SONG, “Never, Never, Never Gonna Give Up (Anthem)” – thank you for listening, watching, and sharing!

Two New Uncles

Beautiful Persian rugs in Azerbaijan

Our final day in Azerbaijan was a day trip to the American Corner in Salyan. 

Not far from the Iranian border, Salyan was dry, warm, and the streets were lined with pine trees. Just like in the U.S.; weather, food, culture, and people are unique region-to-region. What’s especially interesting about that is Azerbaijan is about the same square mileage as the state of South Carolina. 

We warmed up our voices and instruments, did a sound check, recorded a video of a song that we learned in the Azerbaijani language called “Sene de Qalmaz,” and recorded a video of a newer song I’ve written called “Try to Trade.” (*Take a listen and see the cool library space in this new video): 

Before the concert, our group went out for lunch and ate local river fish kebab-style. 

Fish kebab

When we arrived back at the library, the audience was politely seated at the desks that stretched across the room. I introduced the band and myself and said “even though this is a library, and it’s usually a quiet place, today I wanna hear some hands clappin’, feet stompin’, and voices singin’!” 

By the end of the show, it was an all out dance party… We had so much fun. Our new friends were very appreciative and seemed eager to practice English with us.

Group selfie after our concert!

That night, we went out for one final, large meal with our hosts in Baku. We walked back to the hotel together and said a long goodbye.

As we parted, our friends Fargani and Hickmat said to tell my son Theo that he has two new uncles. It was a really sweet thing to say, and a gesture of friendship that was both heartfelt and endearing. 

I’ve heard it said that if you want to get to know what someone’s personality and attitude is really like, travel with him or her. Perhaps that is why tight bonds of friendship form quickly on these tours. 

We woke up early the next morning, drove to the airport, and our eyes looked over Baku one final time on this tour before turning their gaze toward Georgia.

Easter in the Holy Land

Easter in the air

Happy Easter! I’m flying in the skies over Georgia, and in a few hours I’ll land in Dubai before making it to Amman, Jordan by nightfall.  

At home, my family is gathered around the TV watching “The Ten Commandments.” … if I am unable to be with them today, I’m glad to be traveling to a land of such historical, faith-filled significance: the place where the Jordan River flows, Mt. Nebo (the Mountain where Moses was shown the Holy Land and then passed away.), The Dead Sea, and more. 

Also, I found a surprise in my suitcase… somehow, the Easter bunny found me (even in all my travels). He left a card and some Reese’s Peanut Butter eggs (so good) in my suitcase. Thank you, Easter Bunneigh. What an amazing guy!) 

From the heavens above Georgia, I wish you a Happy Easter. The tomb is empty. He is Risen! Hallelujah! (John 20: 1-30)

A Tar Solo

Selfie with friends at the vocational rehab center

The morning was cool and clear, and our van pulled up to the gate of a campus in a section of Baku we’d not yet seen. We were greeted by a cheerful security guard, and led into a brick building where we were greeted by the head of this facility: The vocational rehabilitation center. 

Over tea, she told us about their mission. The center houses and trains teens and young adults with different abilities. They study carpet-making, pottery, music, dance, painting, and more. The hope is that they’ll learn to be expert craftsmen, and be able to make a good, independent living through their art when their time at the center is through. 

We toured the campus, met the friendly, smiling artists as they carved and weaved. The rooms smelled of wood and paint, and the quality and detail of the finished pieces was amazing. 

Spending time with new friends

One goal she mentioned really resonated with me. She said that the objective is to train the artists so well that people don’t one day purchase their art out of pity, but because the quality is undeniably good. I often say “In my practice, I strive to not be a good guitarist with one hand, but a great guitarist, period.”

After our tour, groups took turns singing songs, playing local drums, and dancing in traditional clothing. 

After that, our group went out for lunch and enjoyed some fresh-made lentil soup with lemon, local fish, and jasmine tea. 

Fish, rice, and vegetable medley

The afternoon was a performance at the music conservatory in Baku. It was a pleasure to be introduced to the U.S. Ambassador who attended the event, and then we had our concert. 

Preparing for our music conservatory concert

At first I’d wondered if the concert would be a formal event, but the students were eager to sing, shout, and dance with us, and we were joined by two amazing local musicians. 

One classical, operatic-style singer who performed a piece called “Sene de Qalmaz” with us, and then a local tar player. Tar is like the guitar, but it is played with four strings and has a different, more eastern sounding tone quality.

He came to the stage and said, could we play “My Baby”? (An original song about my baby boy, Theo, that our band had performed earlier) He said, “if it’d be alright, he’d like to add tar to our sound.” Did he ever!! 

Our team and our new tar player

After only hearing the song once, he wailed on the instrument, and it added a really fun, new element to our song. The audience went wild hearing the two styles, and the two regions of music blended together in a unique, cross-cultural harmony.

The tar

More to come… 

“Easy-Peasy-Lemon-Squeezy”

Khachmaz, Azerbaijan

Our first road trip of the tour was to a town called Khachmaz. It was about 2.5 hours by car. 

After leaving the high rises and thick traffic of Baku, the road flattened out before us in a long stretch of highway, and we started to see rural life. It was a common site to see a shepherd walking along the road with a small flock, and a staff while his sheep grazed. 

Road trips are different here than in the U.S. As someone who spends most of my life touring, it was interesting to notice:

1) There are very few places to stop. 

2) Everything is not all in one place when you do stop: we could use the restroom at one stop but drove further down the road to get a coffee. 

3) Even though there are lines and lanes, many drivers seem to prefer driving in the middle of the highway. My guess was to avoid potholes which seemed to dot the right side of the road. 

4) Bruce Willis advertises a local energy drink called “Hell.” Seeing his face plastered on these posters all day made us all laugh. (If you look closely to the left, you’ll see Hikmat photo-bombing in the window).

A familiar face!

Our friend and team member, Naza, brought her son, Elvin, along for the day. He was high-spirited, taught us games, laughed really hard, said a few English phrases like “Easy-peasy-lemon-squeezy,” and all around just brought a lot of life and joy to the day. 

Hanging with our buddy, Elvin

We arrived at the library, and setup our guitars at the American Corner. Rows of wooden desks, sun shining through the windows, and birds singing, it was a pleasant atmosphere for a concert. 

We broke for lunch and drove to a remote restaurant on the bank of a river. There were emus, flamingos, swans, and lots of other wildlife in the wooded setting. At the end of piers, out over the water, were cabin structures with dining tables. It was a unique, fun spot for lunch. 

Fargani ordered a mammoth feast for the table. Course after course was laid out before us: fresh, warm bread, sheep’s cheese, juice, greens, kebab, saj, and more. The band joked about the likelihood of playing our music very slowly that afternoon because of our full stomachs. 

Our kebab feast!

The concert was a highlight of the tour so far. The kids were SO excited to see us, had prepared signs, clapped and sang along to our songs, VERY high energy. One boy had even prepared to sing “Lucky Fin Song.” I handed the mic over and he sang the whole thing with the band in English. 

Concert selfie!

After the show, Fargani took us out for a unique tea-time. We sat in a cabin and the air smelled of wood burning. This is a special way that they prepare tea. A special-tea, if you will (wocka, wocka!). It was served with an array of preserved cherries, and nuts in fruity jams. Very tasty. 

Tea in Khachmaz, Azerbaijan

I’ll look forward to sharing more with you soon about our last days in Azerbaijan.

TV, American Center, and the Mall

A view of Baku and The Caspian Sea

Early Tuesday morning, our team picked us up in a van to make our way to the ATV TV station. 

We were special guests on Baku’s most famous morning show. There was a live studio audience and band. Picture “Live with Kelly Ripa,” Baku-style.  

We appeared alongside local singers and a poet. In addition to our art and music, we each also had differences and special abilities. The program set aside the full 2.5 hour time block to share our stories. 

From there, we visited the American Corner and led a workshop with local children with differences who study and play traditional Azerbaijani instruments. The U.S. has hundreds of American Corners/Centers around the world. If you’ve followed my previous tours, you’ll remember I’ve visited many of these in the past. There are English lessons, there’s a library, you can see American movies, learn about scholarships and travel opportunities, and the walls are lined with pictures of Redwood trees, MLK, Astronauts, Niagara Falls, and other iconic U.S. images. They’re really neat places.

During the workshop, we went around in a circle, each child told us his or her name, instrument, and played a little bit. At the end we had a collective jam session where our group learned some Azerbaijani folk music, and they joined us on “Stand By Me.” It sounded super-cool!

Jam session with local musicians

At night, we played a public concert in the middle of a large shopping mall called Park Bulvar. To my U.S. friends: though shopping malls have changed a lot in popularity in the last 10-20 years in the States, in many places around the world, they are some of the most booming, bustling places you can go. 

Large crowds of people surrounded the stage, stopped to get a selfie, to hear us sing, and to take a video.

Before we began our set, several new Lucky Fin friends came up to say “Salam!” and I met a mother of a boy who had Down’s syndrome who was so excited to meet us that she brought me a gift: a small, hand-woven carpet that she made herself. 

Group selfie with new friends in Baku!

More to come…

An American Band’s First Days in Baku

The night sky over Georgia

Our van is on the way south to a city called Salyan. Out my window to the left is the Caspian Sea, and oil derricks as far as the eye can see. To the right, a rocky, shrub-covered mountain range which contains ancient, pictographic carvings and paintings from thousands of years ago. Near the road, built snugly between businesses and industrial complexes, are homes that make up little villages.

I’m glad to have a moment to catch my breath, journal my thoughts, and to tell you about our first days in Baku.

Our arrival into Azerbaijan on Sunday in the middle of the night was eventful…

Speaking German, the jet pilot made an announcement, and the German-speaking passengers’ sighs indicated that there was an issue. We waited for the announcement to be repeated in English, and learned that our plane had made an unexpected landing to re-fuel in Tbilisi.

28 hour travel day!

We were on the runway for two hours waiting for fuel and a new flight plan. To pass the time, we played a crossword puzzle game on Joey’s phone, tried our best to stay awake, and fought jet lag, knowing we were only a one hour flight from our destination and 27 hours into our travel day(s).

When we landed in Baku, we were so pleased to finally meet our new friend, Fargani. I’ve spoken with him on the phone, and we’ve written MANY emails back-and-forth, but it was great to put a face to the name. He’d waited for us at the airport through the entire delay and greeted us each with a huge smile and a hug.

As we stepped out into the Baku night, the cool, fresh, misty air felt good. We looked out at the city lights, eager to explore, and to begin our mission.

After 1am we were at our hotel, and so hungry, that we all immediately ordered a sandwich from room-service, which we were grateful operated 24 hours!

The next day, our interpreter, Hikmat, met us at the hotel lobby, and gave us a 5.5 mile walking tour of Baku. We explored the city center, drank hot, delicious coffee, and snacked on sweet, sweet Baklava (Azerbaijani-style, of course).

Tony, Alex, Joey, and Hikmat

As history enthusiasts, it was beyond cool to walk through the ancient streets, to view the old, walled city and tower built many centuries ago, to see craftsmen weaving carpets, and to smell the tea, the pine, and the sea all at once. It was like a step back in time set right in the middle of a booming, modern city.

After that, we climbed thirty-three flights of stairs to get a closeup view of the Flame Towers. Three iconic buildings in the Baku skyline that stand on a hill high above much of the city.

The Flame Towers – Baku, Azerbaijan

There is a park in front of the towers that stretches toward the sea, and an eternal flame is lit like a solemn beacon at the end of a long path, as you walk among a stretch of gravesites.

Row after row, men and women, young, and old; all civilians killed during the Russian invasion here in 1990. This place is called Martyrs’ Lane, and I’m told that each year on January 20th, the anniversary, over one million people come to walk through the graveyard and to pay their respect. Hikmat was quieter, and noticeably transformed during our time here. Brutal, recent history. A wound that has not yet fully scarred.

Our days have been filled with music, education, and conversation, and our nights filled with more conversation and delicious local food like Shwarma, Doner, Kebab, Saj, and (my favorite) Dolema (seasoned, oiled grape leaves stuffed with minced and spiced lamb meat, cooked, then served with a white, yogurt-y sauce).

Our van just stopped outside of the central library in Salyan, and its time to go setup and do sound check. I’m eager to tell you more about this beautiful, fascinating country and people. More to come…

NEW ALBUM! – “This One’s For The Kids”

Our BRAND NEW ALBUM, “This One’s For The Kids,” is available NOW!

EXCITING NEWS!! We released a BRAND NEW ALBUM today!

This One’s For The Kids” is a rockin’, fun, full-length album with new takes on old favorites, and original songs that I hope you’ll love! I had so much fun writing, arranging, and recording these songs. Can’t wait to share them with you all…

We’re releasing this album digitally, which means it’s only available online right now. You can stream the full album HERE:

Click HERE to listen on Spotify!
Click HERE to listen on YouTube!
Click HERE to listen on iTunes!

Thank you for listening and sharing. We hope you like it!!

Love,

Tony & Lesleigh