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A Soft Drink and a Song in the Hills of Pakistan

TEDxPiscataquariver

9/8/2017

Portsmouth, NH

In 2012 my bluegrass band, Della Mae, auditioned for a program called American Music Abroad.

The American Music Abroad program is funded by the U.S. Department of State and administered by the Association of American Voices.

Every year American Music Abroad auditions and carefully selects 10 American bands to travel the world for cultural exchange, and to target populations with little to no access to American music. These bands, ranging from Jazz to Cajun and folk to Blues, perform concerts embassies and orphanages, teach at schools and give master classes, they learn from local musicians and then collaborate with them at public shows.

We were encouraged to audition by another band we knew who had traveled throughout Indonesia with American Music Abroad. And we thought, why not? We needed a gig, and this paid well and if we were lucky they'd send us somewhere with a beach during the coldest parts of the New England winter.

After anxiously awaiting the news we found out that we were chosen to go on an extensive 6 week tour of 6 countries!

Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan.... our first stop would be Islamabad, Pakistan.

I won't lie, I had to look up where most of these countries were located.

When we announced the tour the concerned messages poured in from our somewhat protective fan base.

At that time in 2012 we were one of the only all female bluegrass bands in existence. Don't go! They said. Think about your safety, its too dangerous for a bunch of women.

After all it was just a year before that the US had killed Osama Bin Laden in his Pakistan compound. Things weren't exactly friendly between the nations.

I won't lie, some of these messages started to get under my skin.

I worried.

I read the news obsessively.

I even wrote my own will that I sealed in a small envelope and left with my boyfriend at the time (my husband now).

After much thought we decided that this was an opportunity we couldn't pass up. We said our goodbyes and packed our bags, ready for the sweltering heat in Pakistan, to the below zero temperatures we'd find in Kazakhstan.

The flight to Pakistan was uneventful until we changed planes in Qatar.

As I entered the cabin a hush fell over the plane.

Almost all the passengers all the way back to the bathrooms were men in traditional Pakistani dress. Many of them had just returned from a trip to Mecca and were wearing Ihram clothing, which looks like similar to a toga made out of terry cloth material. Something I had never seen before.

I uncomfortably lowered my eyes and walked to my seat, feeling the stares of these strange men.

Immediately after we sat down a worried stewardess rounded us all up and relocated us us to an “all female” area of the plane.

There wasn't much we could say to one another, but it was obvious we were all feeling

like we could have made a mistake.

What if those people at home were right?

Hours later we landed in Islamabad to a milky evening sky, and thousands of people straining against the airport gates looking for family members who had made the pilgrimage.

We were picked up by our Public Affairs Officer and some other foreign service officials. They ushered into a government bomb proof vehicle, and drove us to our accommodations.

Along the way they told us our hotel rooms had been cancelled because of a bomb threat, but not to worry, we were staying in the beautiful little cottage on their compound.

That night in the middle of our half hallucinatory jet lag we heard the call to prayer and ventured outside on the balcony to listen.

The man who was care-taking for the cottage quickly shooed us back inside, “It's too dangerous.... women can't go out after dark”.

Later as I tried to sleep I couldn't shake my uneasiness....

Everything felt so strange and so foreign to me; a woman who grew up in rural Vermont. I had gotten an undergraduate degree in Anthropology, but nothing had quite prepared me for the culture shock I was experiencing.

I tried to push away the uncertainty that kept nagging at me. But, at this point, there wasn't much to do but tell myself to be open to whatever should happen.

Our first show was at a women's college in Islamabad.

I was standing backstage when I heard a low rumble followed by screaming.

The sound would repeat itself every couple of minutes.

Fear washed over me and we gathered together to try and figure out what was going on.

Just then one of our hosts ran in and said they were going to open the doors to the auditorium early because the girls were about to tear them off their hinges.

Turns out I had mistaken the screams and pounding for protest and anger, when in reality it was excitement!

The next moment we found ourselves in front of hundreds of school girls who sang, hollered and c