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Fine Arts Brass Tour of the Dominican Republic, February 2004

Sunday 22nd February 2004 - Day One

As had been the case on the first two days of the tour - sleep was becoming a rare commodity. Our trip to the Dominican Republic was an over night journey. Our plane took off on time 01.55am. I can never sleep on planes anyway, so resolved to read. I had sat next to an American (southern by the sounds of it) on the plane. He asked where I was bound for and when I told him I was off to the DR, he said that all Americans had been told to leave nearby Haiti because of the civil war that was developing. The long queue at immigration control in Miami (for the second time in a week) was not a welcome sight. The green card they make you fill in is always a source of amusement. I remembered the Frank Zappa piece ('Welcome to the United States') that ridicules this whole farce. I mean - as if you're going to tick the yes box when asked if you're a terrorist. I ask you? Luckily the wait at Miami was only two hours. This soon passes when you've got to get from one side of the airport to the other via the transit shuttle. We soon found ourselves in our next departure lounge drinking a tall cappuccino from Starbucks. Some how I managed to get into an argument with Sam over the virtues of Wagner. I can't stand the tedious twaddle myself - Sam thinks otherwise (although you must remember when Sam's not playing with us, he earns a crust as the tubist of Scottish Opera!). Having said that, I suspect Sam was probably more argumentative than usual as we'd been teasing him over his 'school boy error' of wearing socks with sandals! I'm sure the lack of sleep hadn't helped his demeanour that morning either. We soon kissed and made up and our flight to the DR passed without incident apart from the landing in Santo Domingo. As we hit the runway, the plane's left side (the side I was sitting) seemed to lunge violently to the left, making the pilot increase the engine speed. For a moment I thought the landing was going to be aborted and he was going to take off and try again. I was probably becoming paranoid. Certainly when I asked the guys about it later they'd all slept through the landing so it couldn't have been that bad.

Waiting for us at the airport was Mr Andy Ashcroft, the British Ambassador. It seemed strange to be finally meeting him. Our trip to the DR had been over a year in the planning and during the last year we had spoken many times on the telephone and exchanged numerous emails. As we shook hands finally it was like greeting an old mate. The climate here was noticeably different to Costa Rica - highlighted by Andy as we shook hands - "Welcome to the Caribbean", he said. Andy took us straight to the hotel - The InterContinental with no expense spared. It's beautiful - my view from the window is of the blue Caribbean Sea and palm trees. I wonder how the weather is back home. Like I really care! The view from my windowThe view from my window

After checking in, Andy leaves us until our prearranged rehearsal on the Oskar Bohme Sextet. As Andy plays trumpet, he is to join us in our first concert tomorrow night. I make straight for the room as the sleep deprivation I'm experiencing is hellish. I can see why it's a good interrogation tactic - people confess to anything when subjected to it. The others head for the pool almost immediately to catch a few rays. It appears their vanity is more important than sleep! I woke up just before our agreed rehearsal. Andy is a good player and his past performances in the Newham brass band in the early 1980's are paying off for him. He fits in with us easily. It should prove to be a good concert tomorrow night. After our rehearsal, Andy and a colleague of his visiting from London, David Shearman, take us to a wonderful restaurant in the old colonial part of Santa Domingo. I have the sea bass and it's divine. We all agree it was a good choice. As the others hadn't slept this afternoon, they start to flag about 10pm so we head back to our hotel. I'm cooking on gas though and decide to head for the Casino near our hotel. It is my first ever visit to a casino and I haven't a clue what's going on. The evenings here are as hot as the days so I'm glad of the air conditioning in our room.

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Monday 23rd February 2004 - Day Two

I made it down to breakfast just before 10am and spent the next half an hour eating bacon and eggs whilst watching the waves crash on the sand about 20 yards from where I'm sat. My morning paper (the Miami Herald) advises me that in nearby Haiti the opposition has taken the second biggest town. The situation there is certainly worsening. We decided back in Costa to rehearse on the free mornings we have here and kick off this morning with a good session. On returning to my hotel room there's a message left for me from Andy to call him at the Embassy. After several attempts to get through I eventually got to speak to him. He tells me that since leaving us the night before he'd had a violent stomach bug that has meant the majority of the night was spent on his toilet. We're both convinced it wasn't our restaurant as we're all fine and he said it started as soon as he left us. He promises to keep me updated as the day goes on, but says he fears he won't be able to play in tonight's concert at the Conservatoire. I decide to take a walk into town. I bought a couple of paintings this afternoon (all the pictures here are really colourful and incredibility cheap). After a quick beer and toasted sandwich in the one of the numerous squares in the town, I head back to the hotel. Our first concert in the DR is only two hours away. There are three messages on my hotel phone from Andy when I return. When I get to speak to him again he tells me his condition has worsened and as a result there's no way he can play in the concert - or even be there for that matter. He resolves to take the knock-out medicine the Doctor has prescribed him and get some sleep. He also tells me of the 'fun' he's been having throughout the day because of the current Haiti crisis. (He is also the Ambassador for Haiti as well as the DR). We both manage to chuckle at the irony of his first performance on trumpet in the DR, the crisis in Haiti and him being the worse for ware since arriving here in 2002 - ALL on the same day.

I knew the concert this evening would be a success before we'd even played a note. The audience were shouting and cheering like men possessed. It's always great doing concerts like this as you really can't lose when so many are wishing you on. I introduced all of our items in English and for some reason they received a round of applause afterwards. Like our Costa Rican concerts last week, the most successful items in our programmes are either the jazz numbers or the fast classical pieces. The local music here is called 'merengue' and is like very fast salsa music. When we play fast music they go wild. It'll take me a while to forget the roar we received after we'd played the Flight of the Bumble Bee. We were met with a barrage of autograph hunters after the concert - fame at last!. As our concert began at 6.30pm this evening, the night was still young when we'd finished. We decided to head out from our hotel in search of some food. I had got talking to a visiting doctor in our hotel who'd advised me to go to nearby 'Charlies' for 'the best steak in town'. We took his advice and he didn't let us down. No one here seems to eat potatoes. Our steak was served with a choice of yucca plant or fried banana. It was delicious just the same. FAB after our 'Charlie's' steakFAB after our 'Charlie's' steak
We all headed back to the casino afterwards and after losing $30 on the blackjack table, I decided to call it a night. I should have stayed as I found out later the others had won $300 between them!

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Tuesday 24th February 2004 - Day Three

A call on my hotel phone at 9.20am woke me. It was Andy to say he was feeling better and would like to include a movement of the Bohme Sextet in tonight concert at the Embassy. I readily agreed and fell back off to sleep. Breakfast equalled the previous morning and I read this morning that America had decided to send 50 marines to guard their embassy in Haiti. As we left breakfast I heard Sam warming up in the practice room. He was serious when he said we should rehearse every day! It's not easy practicing when the sun is shining and the palm trees are swaying in the Caribbean breeze. The afternoon was spent around the pool with the most difficult decision being the choice for lunch. Our driver came for us at 6.15 and we soon found ourselves in a traffic jam. It seems no matter where you go in the world these days, the sheer quantity of cars makes fast travel almost impossible. The Embassy in Santa Domingo bears an uncanny resemblance to the high commission we stayed out in the northern Nigerian town of Kano back in 1996. Andy Ashcroft joins us in concert at the EmbassyAndy Ashcroft joins us in concert at the Embassy
I remember remarking back then that it reminded me of a little piece of Kent planted in a different part of the world. After setting up, Andy insisted we got ourselves a drink. I ask the barman for a G & T and watch amazed as he fills my glass half full of gin and tops up the rest with ice and tonic. There's no chance of drowning the gin with these portions! I resolve to refrain from having another until after we've played for fear of falling over. Andy introduces us to the guests as they arrive. Like last week, the party is made up of sponsors and important businessmen together with miscellaneous Ambassadors. Our programme appears to be going down very well and as I call for Andy to join us on stage for the Bohme Sextet, a huge roar of approval (mostly from his Embassy Staff) encourages him. The British Embassy Residence, Dominican RepublicThe British Embassy Residence, Dominican Republic
Andy plays splendidly and appears completely cool with the occasion. I dare say if the roles were reversed we wouldn't fair anywhere near as well! I suppose the Ambassador's role is full of surprises and tonight's event is another to take in his stride. We perform for about an hour in total including a couple of encores. At the drinks party afterwards, Andy introduces me to the Governor of Puerto Plata. We are performing a concert for her on Thursday evening. She tells me she is really looking forward to our visit. Her enthusiasm convinces me she means every word. After the rest of the guests leave, I got chatting to Kevin (Andy's No. 2 at the Embassy and also the Embassy Consulate). FAB with Andy & Kevin (the Embassy No 1 & 2)FAB with Andy & Kevin (the Embassy No 1 & 2)
He tells me of a very interesting few days he's had dealing with a couple of British drug traffickers caught in Puerto Plata. I'm still feeling tired in the evenings here and resolve to turn in early at midnight. The others decide to hit a few of the local bars. I find out the next day they eventually make it back to the hotel at 5.30am!

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Wednesday 25th February - Day Four

We were up early this morning as Andy had arranged for a press conference in the hotel at 10am. I went down to breakfast and had my eggs on toast whilst watching the sea. It's getting almost blasé to me - this morning ritual! We met Andy in the foyer and it was obvious he'd already done half a days work before meeting us. The situation in Haiti was worsening by the hour and he'd spent most of the morning on the phone to the Foreign Office in London keeping them informed of the situation. He told me that the Embassy has 75 registered British Nationals in Haiti which, if it came to it, would need to be rescued. This would be done as part of the American evacuations. The big issue as far as he was concerned, was if to send for the special British team that deal with quick fire evacuations like this. The team (of about five) would go to Haiti to work with the Americans in getting as many people (Andy said the registered 75 would probably double if it came to it) out either across the border or out via the airport. Suddenly our press conference seemed very unimportant. Like Coast Rica last week, peoples timekeeping is nonexistent. When they did arrive the photographer took lots of unusual shots. It made a refreshing change from the normal "hold your instruments up as if you're about to play" - flash - "thanks, that's all we need" shot we normally have. I'll look forward to seeing these I thought. The journalist asked all the normal questions you'd expect and I think I managed to give all the normal answers. It's no surprise that journalists make things up without actually interviewing the person they're supposed to be seeing. I'm sure I didn't say anything she wasn't expecting. Having said that, she did ask me what WE got out of visiting the DR which I wasn't expecting. I had to think about this one and remarked that it was really encouraging to us that audiences here seem willing to listen to anything musically. It's as if their musical pallet is wide open to exploit. The people seem to come to a concert with no preconceived idea of what to expect. I have been constantly amazed at the reaction our original works have received both here and in Costa Rica. Quite honestly I'd have said they went down better than the more typical Classic FM fodder we play. It's almost an exact reversal from the UK as a result.

After the press meeting, Andy and myself went back to the British Embassy in order that I could photocopy some music for today's workshop at the conservatoire. I didn't know what to expect of the Embassy, but I didn't imagine it to be anything like as busy. It seemed the whole staff were rushing around with bits of paper and answering calls for the entire hour I was there. I also got to see why the Foreign Office back in London refer to Andy's staff as the 'Bond Girls'. Quite honestly, I wasn't sure if I was at the British Embassy or a model agency!

Andy seemed to have the telephone glued to his ear for the whole time I was there. Quite honestly I was glad to leave - I needed to relax by the pool again, the stress was too much to handle. Andy's driver took me back to the hotel. As I sat in the comfort of the air-conditioned motor, I was trying to get my head around the fact that people actually work here. It's hard to believe that people can wear a suit and do a days work when you look at the sea and the beach. I also couldn't get my head around the driving. It seems to be a 'free for all' with no rules. You drive where you like, in any direction, in spite of what the traffic lights or signs say. The overriding motto seems to be 'who dares wins'. I met the others back at the pool on my return. They'd had a very stressful morning deciding whether to lie on their backs or their fronts as they worshiped the sun god. This afternoon had been designated as workshop/concert at the conservatoire. We arrived at 3pm to find most of our students already waiting for us in the hall. I noticed that unlike Monday night's performance, the air conditioning had been switched on prior to our visit. We were soon set up and stuck into it. We started with the Barber of Seville Overture. As we launched into the main theme I was aware that the lights were becoming gradually dimmer and then, 'pop' - we were plunged into complete darkness. We carried on playing for a few more minutes regardless - thinking they'd come back on again - but no, it wasn't to be so we stopped. As we did so, I heard Andy's voice telling us it was a power cut and it would take a minute for the Conservatoire's generator to kick in. He was right. We carried on from where we'd got to, and completed the piece. The student's applause was very enthusiastic. As Andy was too ill to perform the Oscar Bohme Sextet on Monday night, we decided to give it it's full airing this afternoon. I did get the impression this 'classical' chamber music wasn't quite to the students taste. We chose Michael Torke's August for our next piece. We didn't get too far into it before we all began to struggle through the now lack of air conditioning. When the lights had gone off a half hour earlier so did the air conditioning. As we were now powered only by the school's generator, the air conditioning hadn't been switched back on. Torke's August is a very demanding piece physically at the best of times, and five minutes into it I was sweating obscenely. Sweat was running down my face and into my eyes. I noticed Richard was forced to stop completely in order to wipe his face to maintain some sort of embouchure. When we finally got to the end I felt as it we'd all run a marathon. I can't say it was our finest performance of the piece to date - we were just glad no one had keeled over as a result! We finished our little concert with our version of the Metheny's 'Better Days Ahead'. There's no doubt the students prefer this sort of stuff by the applause it got. After a few questions from the teachers about FAB's history the lights finally went off completely and we resolved to complete the workshop outside. By now it was getting cooler anyway as the afternoon passed into dusk. As we carried our equipment outside, Andy informed me that the school would have turned off the generator to save money. I was brought a coffee by one of the students. Before I could say no, she had handed me my espresso and had tipped in two heaped teaspoons of sugar. For some reason I finished it wincing with every sip.

The workshop continued with the students playing to us individually. The Conservatoire WorkshopThe Conservatoire Workshop
First up was a trumpeter from the National Symphony Orchestra playing the Hindemith Trumpet Sonata. His performance was commendable and set the bench-mark for the others to follow. The standard here on the whole was very good. Over the next hour or so we heard several other trumpeters, a horn, a tuba and a couple of trombones and we took many questions on all aspects of brass playing & music. Andy translated the whole afternoon into English for us and vice verse. I think it was agreed by all that the 3 and a half hours spent at the conservatoire this afternoon was well worth the effort.

The evening was spent in the company of Andy at another of the fabulous restaurants that are in abundance in this part of town. Andy dropped us at our hotel and the girls decided to head for bed. The chaps made an executive decision to hit a few of the local bars. For the next hour we shouted our conversations to each other as the merengue music blaring from the speakers above the bar gave us no alternative. By 1.30am Sam was making his excuses and so Richard and me headed for the Casino. Two hours later and $65 down I decided enough was enough and my bed beckoned.

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Thursday 26th February 2004 - Day Five

This morning was our first early start since we've been in the DR. I was up for 8.30am in order to pack my case as we were to leave for the beach resort of Puerto Plata. You soon learn that there is no rush for anyone in the DR it took the five of us over an hour to check out. The journey ahead was to take the next four hours with two stops along the way at the DR's 'Welcome Break' equivalents. It will shortly be the presidential elections here and every 50 yards for the next four hours, we were treated to the smiling faces of the different candidates on roadside placards. The candidates seemed to include Saddam Hussein and Betty Boothroyd look-alikes from what I could see.

Looking out of the window on route I was amazed at just how green Costa Rica and the DR are given the heat and yet, they both manage to look completely different. I wasn't surprised to know this was the place they'd filmed Jurassic Park. In comparison, Costa's greenery is more to do with plantation & rain forest and the DR's is grassy; hence the many fine golf courses. We were all glad to finally reach our destination as 2pm approached. Our minibus was proving a little cramped for the five of us plus instruments and our suitcases. Equally the air conditioning in the bus seemed to be inconsistent in blowing both hot and cold air at us. Our driver didn't exactly know the location of our first point of call - the governor's office. As a result we must have stopped to ask at least half a dozen locals its whereabouts. All were eager to help, but each had it's own differing set of instructions on how to get there.

When we did arrive (it took us 40 minutes to find it!), we were shown to the Governor's office by Jackie (her PA) a friendly but very large, short lady. She made us coffee and brought us water until the governor could join us. When she did arrive she brought with her a TV crew. Almost immediately and before we could say hello again, I had a microphone thrust into my hand and a TV camera pointed at me. As I looked at them, I noticed they all had expectant smiles on their faces so I seized the initiative and explained who we were and why we were there. I found out later that I was inadvertently recording an advert announcing the fact that we were to appear live in concert later that night. It would have been nice to have had some idea of what was going on, I thought.

On leaving the governor's office we were driven to our hotel. This (all inclusive) complex was to be our base until returning to England. As I got off the bus the porter came rushing up to me to say: "Welcome to Paradise, Sir". I nodded in agreement but secretly thought it wasn't how I'd envisaged it. It turned out this was the name of the resort. On venturing from our rooms we all noticed was how fat everyone appeared to be. For the first time in my life I began to question whether I shouldn't put on a few more pounds myself in order to fit in! Our resort was dominated with North American tourists who come here to eat and lie in the sun. As we'd missed lunch we made for the snack bar. The only time food is not available here is between the hours of 1am and 7am (luckily you can get room service between these times). As I tucked into my cheeseburger and chips I wondered how long I'd survive if I lived here permanently. It's certainly hotter (and more humid) than Santa Domingo. Our bus met us at 6pm to take us to the concert venue. Andy had said many months ago that the concert would be outside in order to be of benefit to the locals. We were taken to a park in the middle of town which, although had a beautiful ornate bandstand, had had a specially erected platform for our performance. Our platform in Puerto PlataOur platform in Puerto Plata
On our arrival we met with Andy Ashcroft again who had been in town all day dealing with the sad case of the two British drug traffickers. One of them, a male 35 yr old former drug addict, had died a week earlier after trying to consume 28 bags of cocaine. Kevin the British consulate had told us after our concert at the Embassy that 17 of the bags had burst in his body sending him into wild convulsions. His partner was allegedly innocent of her partner's intentions and had found him in this state later in the day. Before he died he insisted that she wouldn't take him to hospital and as she was unaware of his problem, he died. Consequently, she was being held by the authorities as an accomplice to his crimes.

Our performance tonight was televised on three different TV channels here in Puerto Plata. One of the 3 TV channels broadcasting our concertOne of the 3 TV channels broadcasting our concert
Andy Ashcroft translated my introductions as we performed. On his advice we kept our programme as light as possible with as much rhythmic diversity as we could muster. Our Metheny, Gillespie, Pastorius and Corea repertoire was given a severe bashing tonight. There was no place for any 'classical' music. Before the concert, and during the interval, the sound engineer treated us to the loudest and fastest merengue his speakers could handle thanks to some CD's he'd brought along. As a result, we sounded very tame when we started to play. I was particularly frustrated to note that after the concert had finished, he replaced his fast merengue music with his 'best of Richard Clayderman' CD. He did us no favours, but Andy assured us that the audience had enjoyed it. This seems par for the course when ever we play abroad. I'll never forget our reggae support band in Nigeria once!

As we left the stage an old man approached Angela to say: "Thankyou - God Save the Queen." She could only nod her head in agreement. Our evening was spent back at 'Fatsville' as I've named out new resort. As we'd missed dinner because of our performance, we had to make do with the snack bar for the second time today. It was yet another cheeseburger & chips. Oh, for a piece of fruit. We said our goodbyes to Andy tonight at the resort as he was heading back to Santa Domingo early in the morning. Before he left we had talked of a return by us in the spring of 2005. I hope it happens.

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Friday 27th & Saturday 28th February 2004 - Day Six & Seven

The Governor of Puerto Plata had arranged for us to have two days holiday at the Paradise complex as a result of our concert last night. FAB with the Governor of Puerto PlataFAB with the Governor of Puerto Plata
The days were spent on the beach reading and deciding what to eat. It was hellish. I spent most of the time wondering what it was like back home - I'm sorry, I'm lying! What a fantastic two weeks it had been. It certainly beats working for a living!

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