The Magic Carpet.

A short motivational tour.

     If students seem discouraged, I often tell them that playing an instrument can take you to amazing places all over the world, and that I never imagined when I took up the trombone that it would take me to The Great Wall of China. To me, the trombone was literally the reason why I got to see one of the most famous sights of the world. Twice now.

     But I’m only one of a huge number of professional musicians who’ve travelled to various corners. What further experiences must they have had? It’s mind-boggling, because the stuff I’ve seen and done is mind-boggling in itself, crazy, sometimes surreal, and all down to my instrument. This isn’t about to be a list of famous sights like The Great Wall (though Niagara Falls, Sugarloaf Mountain, Sydney Opera House, the pyramids at Teotihuacán, Hiroshima Peace Park, The Great Barrier Reef and many more could be dropped in here…!), this is a condensed tale of the crazy stuff, a tour of some of the weird and diverse places and situations that have literally made me wonder at the time…

…‘How did this happen? What am I doing here?!’ 

     Strolling with colleagues past the Moulin Rouge club in Paris in 1988, I was startled, to say the least, when a side-door to the club burst open and two men ran out carrying a huge live alligator. They dumped it on the pavement only a few yards away. I guess it was part of one of the exotic acts within, and was therefore pacified to the eyeballs with tranquilisers. But if it hadn’t been it would have had my leg off before I could say Sacré Bleu. The guys threw it in the back of a van and off it went.

     After finishing work, teaching in Moldova, we were taken to some wine caves. Just outside the capital, Chisinau, these are enormous, and stretch for 20 miles underground. You have to be driven round only a small section of it. There are two million bottles of wine here, and some of those are Putin’s private stash. After our tour, we were ushered into an empty cave, a traditionally-dressed klesma band leapt out from behind a wall and started playing, and up came waiters with a feast of Moldovan titbits, and three large flagons of wine, white, red and dessert. There were only four of us, it was only about midday at the latest, yet it was just right that we ate and drank everything. What a lunch.

     Way up in north Sweden, the brass group I was working with was treated by the locals to a trip to a tannery. Hungover, freezing cold, with the stench of cured hides filling the barn, the old thought popped into my head, ‘How did this happen?’

     On the same trip, in the south of the country this time, we went into a dark pub where bearded ladies stood at the bar and a dozen dwarfs sat round a table, drunkenly arguing and kissing each other. The circus was in town.

     In 2010, when the World Cup was in South Africa, I was asked to go and demonstrate the vuvuzela on Radio 3. I’d never played one in my life, hadn’t even heard of it till the football started. Fortunately the idea fell through. But it seemed crazy to be asked to be an expert on something I’d never heard of.

    Taking auditions in the Yerevan Music Conservatory in Armenia, we went down to the very bowels of the building, a labyrinth where the percussion department lay. In a small, echoey box of a studio, a drummer started playing Bolero for us. In this confined space he was standing only yards away, started quite solidly and got louder and louder. It was deafening and absolutely insistent. I looked at my Polish interpreter, she had a look of real terror on her face. We had to shout a lot to get him to stop.

     Calmer times in Minsk, where an ancient brass professor locked the two of us in the rehearsal room, in which I’d been coaching for most of the morning, took out a book from a shelf, reached in and withdrew a bottle of brandy. I had no choice but to share a glass and several top-ups with him. He spoke very little English – though more than my Belarusian, of course – but we happily spent time looking at the pictures on the walls of his proud youth as a horn player. It was only about 11.30 but this convivial drinking of spirits really is a thing in eastern European and ex-Soviet countries.

     On my way to a post-concert reception in Killaloe, west Ireland, I popped into a local pub with a couple of the clarinet players, who were both Irish. I had my alto trombone with me, the case was spotted by the locals and I was encouraged to give them a tune. So I got it out and played the first tune that came into my head, which was ‘When the Saints Go Marching In’. The locals were extremely kind, and cheered and clapped, though as we left shortly afterwards I was unsure of any religious connotations, and asked one of my colleagues. ‘You couldn’t have made a worse choice’ he told me.

After the reception I had to hitch to my guesthouse as it was several miles down Loch Dern. I got picked up by some spaced-out kids and their English teacher in a Scooby van. Ended up talking Shakespeare and playing the sunrise in on the lochside, Londonderry Air at dawn.

     In Groningen in north Holland, a friend and I stumbled into an Irish pub on a cold Sunday afternoon. A band were playing, in full flow with violins, Irish flutes and a bodhran drum. The anomaly of this was striking; is this really happening here?

     Another pub, this time in Vaduz, capital of Liechtenstein. The one nearest the stage door of the concert hall, when a thirsty Philharmonia brass section charged in there in the interval of the show, we were surprised to find, in this tiny town in this tiny country on a snowy night, that it was a full-on strip bar.

     Surely one of the weirdest things I’ve ever been involved in, a flash mob in Warsaw central train station. You couldn’t make it up. For a youth orchestra I was working for, I arranged then conducted a piece for the full orchestral brass section. The players, about twenty of them, strode in one by one from all directions, playing as they went. A crowd instantly gathered, by us on the concourse and lining the galleries above, with their phones taking videos and children all excited. It was wonderful.

     An occasion of real surreality and wonder at my surroundings: I once had a meeting in a room in a top hotel in Barbados with Larry Adler and Christopher Biggins. And as the trombone section came out of a restaurant in Los Angeles Billy Connolly swept past and threw some coins delightedly into a beggar’s McDonalds cup.

     Not just TV people on the Travels with my Trombone. I saw Roger Federer in the lobby of a hotel in Melbourne, and shook Gary Lineker’s hand in the interval of a concert in Nagoya.

     Possibly the best one, and totally self-generated. I spent a morning and afternoon shooting round the mostly-slum area across the river from Yangon, capital of Myanmar, on the back of a moped. The bike belonged to Lin, a young student who’d picked me out a few days before and was my guide for the day. We took a ferry across the river, then shot off, taking in a shanty village – just a few shabby dwellings round a stinking pond, a traditional weaver tent, a pottery tent, and a snake temple before reaching lunch at his mother’s café in a small town. The snake temple was, I suppose, the really far-out moment of ‘How did I get here?’, with about twenty large fat snakes sliding slowly around inside the small pagoda.

And there was The Great Wall of China.

     There are of course lots and lots of similar situations and experiences, less surreal, less ‘What am I doing here?’, just happy. Often they’re as a result of my penchant for taking off on my own, not doing the group thing and finding stuff for myself. Often they’re quite accidental, or influenced by alcohol. All amazing times though.

     I loved riding in tuk-tuks in Bangkok, shooting round the city in these wild little boxes. I like boat trips too, and a cruise up the Potomac, past the real Water Gate, and a catamaran jaunt up the Brisbane river were both great fun. Though you can’t really jaunt in a catamaran, they shoot from pier to opposite pier like dragonflies across a pond.

     In Malaysia there was a trek through the jungle, and a visit to some huge caves high up a hillside, which contained brightly-coloured temples. I’ve enjoyed the atmosphere of pool halls in Buffalo and Buenos Aires. Here, the group of teenagers on the next table expressed every win, every good shot, every moment of joy by grabbing each other and dancing a tango.

     I spent a ludicrous and probably foolhardy night at someone’s house in Finland. We’d met in the pub, he told me he had a sauna in his house, I’d never had one, not a real Scandinavian one before, so I went with him to try it. It takes about an hour for a sauna to get itself going, so we spent the time drinking vodka, which I never do, and he sang songs in Portuguese, accompanying himself on the lute. This was in the basement of a stranger’s house in Helsinki. Most of the time I really thought he was going to murder me, and I kept my eye on the lute case, which I reckoned I could clobber him with if he got the knives out. This should really be on the surreal list, but it doesn’t fit the title ‘How did this happen?’ because it was entirely my own fault. Poor Helen woke up in England the next morning to find an email from an unknown name in Finland, asking if I was OK after ‘the incident’. I’d fallen over in the sauna. Shouldn’t have taken the vodka in there. Also my fault.

     Snake Alley in Taipei was fun, but not as scary as I’d been told. I also came across a vibrant street theatre performance going on in a big tent nearby. The bright costumes and oriental gongs were enthralling. And there was a lovely little incense- and fruit-filled temple on the same dark street. A less destructive self-driven evening than Finland. Tokyo fish market at 5am is a must for anyone visiting the city. And, also making the most of some empty hours, a stroll on the wide promenade by the Caspian Sea one morning in Azerbaijan was a highlight. Across the vast water, a sea much bigger than Great Britain, way past the horizon, lay mysterious Iran and Turkmenistan.

     I’ve smoked shisha, which feels naughty and exotic to me, in Georgia and Katowice. I’ve embarrassed my colleagues by singing Karaoke in a bar in Madrid. ‘500 miles’ by The Proclaimers.

     And one cracking experience, doing the dune-jumping in a jeep in the desert outside Dubai. Followed by a short camel ride, an Emirati barbecue, belly dancers and more shisha.

     And these are just my lists. Or just part of my list. There are so many other musicians, far more experienced and widely-travelled than me. How many stories, spectacular sights and mad experiences must there be?

     It’s almost as if my trombone case itself is some sort of magic carpet. Keep practicing folks.

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