You can buy it here digitally: https://prestonreed.com/what-you-don-t-see
Your purchase will help fund the recording and manufacturing of my next album! Thank you for your support 😊♥️
You can buy it here digitally: https://prestonreed.com/what-you-don-t-see
Your purchase will help fund the recording and manufacturing of my next album! Thank you for your support 😊♥️
I really enjoyed doing this podcast interview in front of a live audience at the NAMM Show in January! Thorough research, thoughtful questions…and some laughter 🤣
I thought I would share a live concert video from my concert in Aberystwyth, Wales September 2017.
“Delayed Train” started off life as a tune called “Train” on my 1995 album Metal. The tune uses metal fingerpicks percussively to create an aggressive, metallic texture.
Over ten years later – after appreciating the delay-infused playing of U2’s guitarist The Edge – I revisited “Train”, this time playing along with a digital delay effect to amplify and extend the rhythmic groove. I also added a new section in the middle and some other riffs and refinements.
I hope you enjoy it! Please share it! 😊🎶🎸🚂
“Delayed Train” is on my album In Here Out There, available via the music page at prestonreed.com
I will be offering a 4-day acoustic guitar workshop this coming July at my home in beautiful southwest Scotland. If you are a guitar player interested in learning my integrated percussive approach, this will be a thorough, in-depth opportunity to gain the foundations of my playing style – a style that has been a major influence on many of today’s top players. All ages and skill levels are welcome.
In order to ensure the highest quality learning environment, space will be limited.
For more information, click the link below.
Hope to see you in July! 😊
I want to share an experience I had traveling with guitars last summer.
I was dropped off late to Toronto Airport to catch a flight to Beijing. I had two acoustic guitars in professional carbon-graphite flight cases as well as a large suitcase. I had planned to check all three pieces as usual, but the airline (a Chinese airline called Hainan) refused to accept the guitars at the ticket counter. Rather, I was told I had to carry them to the gate myself, where the airline would then check them. I had never heard of this before, but they were adamant that they could not check the guitars at the counter.
I was made to fill out a form and charged $160 Canadian for excess baggage and “special handling”.
Without thinking about what was in the cases, I received my boarding pass, watched my suitcase go down the belt and headed for the security line with the guitars.
While standing in the security line I realised that I had a cherished possession in one of the cases – an original Leatherman multi-tool I had purchased in the early 1980’s for $75 – a lot of money back then. I liked to have it with me when traveling. It gave me a comforting feeling of self-sufficiency and preparedness. It had come in handy many times over the years.
Since I always checked my guitars at the ticket counter, it never occurred to me not to keep the Leatherman in the flight case along with spare strings, string-changing tools, picks etc. It had two blades on it and would not be to be allowed through security.
In a panic I headed back through the line and back over to the Hainan desk. There was no one there. The Hainan employees had all gone to the gate. I asked a neighbouring airline employee if there were any way to contact Hainan. They didn’t know.
I spoke to the security employee at the x-ray machine. As I was late and the plane was boarding, there was no time to save the Leatherman by mailing it to myself or finding a friend in the area to keep it for me. I had to give it up.
I was angry at the airline for what ended up costing me a fond (and useful) possession. Confused and distracted by their inexplicable – seemingly paranoid – requirement, as well as being in a rush to make the flight, I had forgotten to think about what was in the cases.
When I arrived at the gate the airline took the flight cases from me and wrapped them in bubble plastic as if they were ultra-fragile items. How ridiculous! I can only think this airline must have been involved in lawsuits about damaged musical instruments…or perhaps they didn’t trust the Toronto airport baggage handlers?
To my surprise, the rest of the journey went well. The flight crew were nice, the food was better than usual, the in-flight movies were decent, and I was wonderfully taken care of by the airline staff at Beijing Airport, meeting me as I got off the plane, escorting me through immigration and customs, and getting me through the airport to the connecting flight to Guangzhou in another terminal.
I can only say I have learned once again to expect the unexpected when traveling by air with guitars. In over four decades of air travel I had never come across a situation like this.
Since that experience, I keep nothing in my flight cases but the guitars.
My own personal 2016 was such an enormous year that I feel the need to write it down. It was amazing not only for the vast traveling I did, but for all the experiences and challenges I had along the way.
The year took in fourteen countries on three continents. It involved high-speed train travel, intercontinental air travel, international travel by car, and international overnight ferry rides.
The best way to do this is by a month-by-month recap.
The first half
January was quiet, which is to say I was home playing guitar and writing music.
My travel activities began with a short tour of Ireland in February, which included two relaxing days off in Galway. If you ever go to Galway, there is a great fish and seafood restaurant called Oscar’s. I will definitely be going there again on my next tour.
In early March, a few days after returning from Ireland, I had a major foot operation. It took three months for my foot to heal, but I never stopped moving from the beginning, first on crutches, then limping slowly, and finally walking more and more normally as the weeks rolled by.
In April, less than six weeks after the surgery, I was playing at King’s Place in London as part of an Americana-themed show for the Rimbaud and Verlaine Society.
In May I did a video shoot for my tune “The Last Viking” with a talented filmmaker named Alan McMaster. The seven-minute video was shot at scenic locations around the area where I live in South Ayrshire, Scotland. It tells an entertaining story that Alan had visualised from listening to the tune. It contains a lot of classic black-and-white gravitas. As a film and cinematography fan I appreciate the nod he makes to some of my favourite directors — Ingmar Bergman, Ridley Scott and others.
Early in June I played a concert in Rothesay on the Isle of Bute, a scenic 40-minute ferry ride from Wemyss Bay near Glasgow.
Later that month I flew to London to be a mentor on episode seven of Sky Arts Guitar Star. It a was an intense eight-hour video filming which included an interview, mentoring sessions with two guitarists, and a performance along with fellow mentors Mike Dawes and Nitin Sawney. The program aired at the end of July (I still haven’t had a chance to watch it, but I hear I went over well).
Canada, China, the U.S. and London
Starting in late July, the pace quickened. I would play in ten countries over the next four months.
On July 19th I flew from Glasgow to Kingston, Ontario to perform at the Canadian Guitar Festival. It was great to play a concert alongside Canadian guitarists Don Ross, Antoine Dufour and others on Saturday night.
It was the first time I had seen Antoine since we toured Europe with Andy McKee as the Guitar Masters in 2012. He told me he liked my new video.
The promoter of the festival, Del Vezeau, a tall man with a droll, sardonic wit, asked me to be a juror for the guitar competition the next day. I accepted.
It was fascinating — not to mention an honour — to adjudicate my first international guitar contest. Don Ross, Antoine Dufour, Justin St. Pierre and I sat around a table in a trailer listening to twenty-seven contestants via an audio monitor. The whole process took about four hours. When it was time to decide the winners, I was surprised at how quickly we all agreed on who they were and why, despite being very different guitarists ourselves.
From Toronto I flew to Guangzhou, China for a fast-paced tour of seven cities, traveling mostly by high-speed train, but also by air and by car. Every day I saw amazing things, met warm friendly people, and had stupendous meals.
I shared the stage on the tour with a wonderful Chinese guitarist named Song Yi Fan. When we met he told me I was his hero, and that he had studied my music for many years. Although “Ivan” used some of my best-known techniques, he had his own compositional sound and vibe…a sort of modern take on traditional Chinese music. It reminded me of an interview I once heard with the great jazz pianist Bill Evans, saying his influences were Nat Cole, Bud Powell and Earl Hines. Really? He didn’t sound like those players. He sounded like himself. And so does Song Yi Fan. We became good friends.
One of the shows on the tour was the Beijing Guitar Festival, where I found myself sitting around a table with Don Ross again, this time for a post-festival dinner with the staff and players.
At the end of the China tour I flew from Shanghai to Richmond, Virginia to join Andy McKee and Craig D’Andrea for two Guitar Masters shows, followed by five days of teaching and performing at Andy’s guitar camp (the Musicarium) in upstate New York alongside Andy, Craig and Thomas Leeb.
It is always a pleasure to work with Andy. As much as I admire his playing, I admire his character even more. For many years now he has told audience after audience and interviewer after interviewer about me and my influence on his music and playing. I am honoured to be one of his guitar heroes.
Two students at the workshop had come all the way from São Paulo, Brazil. On the last day they presented me with a hard-bound book written by one of their friends – a guitarist named Yuri Federsoni – who had interviewed me extensively via e-mail over the course of the previous year. It was his graduate university thesis: A Téchninca Integrada De Violão Percussive De Preston Reed (The Integrated Percussive Guitar Technique Of Preston Reed).
I felt very honoured.
When Andy’s camp ended on the 19th of August, I was tired. A month of traveling, time zone-switching and exceptional summer heat — everywhere I visited — had taken its toll. I was happy to head home to Scotland for a short break.
In September, after having been home for three weeks, I flew to London for a concert and a workshop at the London Acoustic Guitar Show at the Olympia Convention Centre. One of the guitarists I had mentored on Guitar Star — a young woman named Becky Langan — was at the concert and said hello afterwards. It was nice to see her again. Unfortunately, she hadn’t won the competition and seemed discouraged. I told her to keep on playing.
Our great European adventure
In October my wife Catherine and I took our car — a Ford Mondeo diesel estate — on an overnight ferry from Newcastle, England to Amsterdam for my first real solo concert tour of Europe. I have been playing and touring in Europe since the early 1990’s, but always sponsored by guitar manufacturers and usually playing in music stores or at music merchandise conventions like the Frankfurt Muzikmesse.
This time I would be on my own, playing real concert venues.
The ferry trip over was wonderful. It was a huge, cruise ship-sized ferry operated by an old Danish company (DFDS). There were bars and restaurants everywhere. We had an excellent meal in one of the restaurants.
I have to say, it is a special experience to sleep on a big ship. To wake up in the middle of the night and see the sea rushing by outside your cabin window and feel the gentle pitch and roll of the vessel as it courses through the waves is an amazing sensation. I found it both mesmerising and relaxing.
The last time I had slept on a ship was on the French oceanliner Liberté crossing from France to New York in 1958. I was three then. I plan to do it more often.
Catherine loves to drive, anytime, anywhere, which is fortunate for me. She did most of the driving on the tour, giving me the opportunity to take power naps en route to the venues.
When we arrived in Amsterdam she was apprehensive about driving for the first time on the right side of the road in our right-hand drive car. So was I. Catherine had driven quite a bit with me on tours in the U.S., driving U.S. rental cars, but this would be different. Or so we thought. As it turned out, she was driving like a Continental European after a couple of minutes.
I had the same worry when I took the wheel for a little while later that day. Would I have trouble adjusting? Once I was underway it became a non-issue. If you know how to drive, you know how to drive anywhere.
We covered four thousand five-hundred miles on the tour, much of it on aggressively fast German autobahns. It was never a problem.
After disembarking in Amsterdam, we drove all day to bohemian, romantic Prague, Czech Republic where we spent two days eating, drinking, relaxing and exploring.
On our third day on the Continent we headed south from Prague to Bratislava, Slovakia for the first date of the seventeen-date, five-country tour. I played in Vienna, Dresden, Berlin, Düsseldorf, Nice and many other fantastic cities over the course of four weeks.
Google Maps on my phone was our navigator. It got us everywhere. It found us alternate routes around road construction, road closures and traffic plugs. It is an indispensable miracle of technology.
Here is an example:
Late on the first day, as we neared Prague at around nine o’clock in the evening, we came upon a road closure with a detour sign. Once we had exited the highway Google Maps took us through a serpentine maze of pot-holed roads — through tiny hamlets and dark, uninhabited countryside — for about fifteen minutes. Some of the roads were narrow, steep, winding and unpaved. We never saw another detour sign to guide us. With the constant turning onto new roads I completely lost my bearings. At one point I thought to myself, if we lose the GPS now we’re fucked. Then all of a sudden it put us back on the highway on the other side of the closure.
Despite having been a touring musician since the late 1970’s, it is now hard for me to remember what life was like before GPS navigation.
One of the most beautiful cities we visited on the tour was Passau, Germany in southern Bavaria, not far from the Austrian border. A small, medieval city situated on an island surrounded by three rivers, replete with well-preserved architecture, cobblestone streets and meandering alleys, it was a delight to wander around for two days.
One day while in Germany in the middle of the tour, we parked the car at Cologne Airport and flew to Nice, France for a concert at the Nice Acoustic Guitar Festival. Before flying back to Germany, we had the chance to visit the old part of Nice for some sightseeing. The architecture and atmosphere in the back streets and alleys reminded me of Rome, and indeed, Nice was once part of Italy.
Arriving back in Germany, we drove from Cologne to Kassel. When we parked the car near our hotel, I noticed the left driver-side rear tire was low. We drove to a nearby garage and learned that the tire was fatally leaking, so we limped the car back to the hotel parking lot, grabbed my gear and took a taxi to the venue for the show that night. We had organised emergency roadside assistance before leaving home, and the next day a mechanic showed up, removed the wheel and showed us a huge rip in the inside sidewall of the tire. Luckily it hadn’t blown out on the autobahn earlier, and luckily we had a day off in Kassel to get it replaced at a local tire shop.
There were many famous, character-filled venues on the tour, many of them atmospheric subterranean cellars like the Smaragd Cultur Café in Linz, Austria. I was amazed to hear from one of the owners there that they had put on nearly ten thousand shows in that room over the past twenty-five years.
One my favourite venues was a small street-level metal rock club in Düsseldorf called The Pitcher. The sound was brilliant, the audience was incredibly appreciative and enthusiastic, and the owner was a warm friendly man with a braided beard named Uwe. He enjoyed the show so much he contacted our agent and demanded that we come back next year.
My Bailey baritone and jumbo acoustic guitars sounded fantastic at all the shows I played all year long. There may be no greater compliment on your live sound than having a German sound engineer come on stage after sound check to inspect your guitars and gear and ask questions. It happened regularly.
I have always loved exploring the old sections of European cities, whether on my own or with Catherine if she is traveling with me. With such an abundance of those on this tour, we were out every night — be it a gig night or a night off — combing alleys and side streets in search of atmospheric bars. We always found a place to hang out…usually a quirky neighbourhood bar full of locals wondering why we were there. We did our best to be proactively friendly, and were rewarded with entertaining, sometimes language barrier-leaping interactions.
I have always noticed a sadness that comes as I near the end of something that I have given everything to, whether it be a recording project or, in this case, four months of intense traveling and performing. I was feeling both the exhaustion of such a massive outlay of energy…and a feeling of melancholy that it was about to end.
The last show of the tour was a concert for the Oberhausen Guitar Festival in early November. The venue was a large room at the back of a popular Polish restaurant called Gdanska, named after one of Poland’s big cities. It reminded me, wistfully, of Wrocław, another Polish city I had played in twice in the past few years.
We took the ferry back to Newcastle from Amsterdam the next day for what I thought was the end of the year’s adventures.
One more trip
One afternoon, after having been home for about ten days, I received an urgent phone call from Krzysztof Pełech, the artistic director of the Wrocław Guitar Masters Festival and Competition. Tommy Emmanuel — the figurehead of this year’s festival — had had to cancel at the last minute. The festival was next week. I was asked to come in his place to adjudicate the competition and perform at the awards ceremony.
Catherine and I headed to the airport for four intense days in Poland. This was now my third visit to beautiful Wrocław. I had first played there in 2011 at the Wrocław International Guitar Festival along with Paco de Lucia and others, then again for the Thank You Jimi Festival the following year.
The place feels like home now.
Festival duties and activities included a gruelling twelve-hour adjudicating day with fellow jurors Martin Taylor, Krzysztof Pełech and Piotr Restecki, followed the next night by the awards ceremony and concert performances by me, Martin and Piotr, as well as performances from each of the winners.
The guitarists who won were awesomely good, as were many of the other twenty-one contestants. Interestingly, all three winners were nylon-string players despite Tommy Emmanuel’s dominant steel-string influence among the contestants. I marvelled once again — as I had in Canada — that all four jurors agreed very quickly on who the winners were, with very little discussion.
After the awards night was over, we joined staff and participants for what turned into an all-night party in two bars in the city center. I spent time with several contestants who had not won. They were simply happy to have been part of competition, inspired by the players they had competed against, and itching to pick up their guitars again. The courage they had mustered and the effort they had put in had, in the end, given them something positive to take back home. They would continue following their dream. I don’t doubt I will be seeing them again.
It was an honour and a gift to serve as a juror for such an inspiring event…not to mention in a city I already knew and loved.
At a workshop in London earlier this month I was asked if I had ever had to deal with any physical problems related to playing guitar, and specifically tendonitis.
Many times over the years guitarists have asked me a similar question, so I have decided to offer an account of my experience with it, for what it’s worth.
Tendonitis, carpal tunnel syndrome and other repetitive strain injuries strike fear in the hearts of musicians. We have all heard stories of great players in their prime who were no longer able to play — in some cases ever again.
As musicians we want to get better and excel at our craft. That tends to make us push our physical limits in striving to improve — and pushing your physical limits can put you in the zone for a repetitive strain injury like tendonitis.
My path to recovery from a personal crisis with tendonitis may not work for every musician suffering from it. Indeed, it may not work for any other person but me. I was neither a doctor nor a scientist when I was confronted with a scary situation that necessitated a solution. I want to share the story of how I dealt with it.
Many years ago, around 1981, I had a sudden, acute onset of tendonitis. It affected both hands. It was crippling and painful. And I had no idea what was wrong. As a working musician I was terrified.
At the time I was living outside of Hartford, Connecticut, working on material for my third album. I was broke and had a run of gigs coming up that were needed to pay the rent and the bills for the month.
It was crucial that I be able to play those gigs.
But my hands had swollen up like lobster claws. My fingers looked like thick, red chorizo sausages. They were screaming with pain — whether I played guitar or not.
In a panic, I went to a doctor (I never went to doctors). After looking at my hands and listening to my story, he told me I had tendonitis and would have to stop playing guitar until it went away. The treatment? Take aspirin and put ice on your hands.
I was a jogger in those days and subscribed to a running magazine. There was an article in a recent issue about tendonitis that basically said the same thing the doctor had said: stop running and put ice on the inflamed area. It went on to say there were some things — e.g. minor injuries and sprains — that you can “run through”, but that you should never try that with tendonitis. The writer added in the last paragraph: “Once you get it, it’s the devil to get rid of.”
Unfortunately, neither piece of advice was an acceptable solution. I had to be able to continue working.
Everyone else I spoke to about it — friends, family, fellow musicians — produced the same look of fear and bewilderment. No one had any advice other than inactivity.
I was afraid my career was over.
The terrifying thing about acute tendonitis is that it can seem to have come out of nowhere. It can be hard to imagine that it could have come from you, or be the result of something you are doing.
As I was in physical agony and the advice I received all around was unhelpful, I set out to be a sleuth and try to figure it out on my own.
First, I asked myself, what have I been doing differently — lately — that could have brought this about?
Well…I had been feverishly practicing a new, difficult, high-speed fingerpicking tune called “Accufuse”.
I was in a state of limbo waiting to find out about a possible record deal.
Winter was setting in. It was cold and the air was very dry, which was causing me to tense up physically.
In general I had been pushing myself hard, worrying constantly about money and career progress.
And then it popped into my head to check my guitar tuning.
It was a whole step sharp.
I had been practicing on over-tensioned strings without knowing it. That was a dangerous thing to do…and probably the trigger for the attack.
A strong case was forming that I had done this to myself.
The next thing was to find a way to treat it.
When I tried putting my hands on ice it did nothing but make them feel numb. The background feeling of tension and quivering weakness was still there.
I asked myself, if ice doesn’t make my hands feel better, what would make them feel better?
I had noticed when I took a shower in the morning that the hot water felt good on my hands.
I went into the bathroom and ran hot water over them. It felt wonderful, made my hands relax, and reduced the pain.
So my therapy would be hot water, not ice.
Over the next few days I filled up the bathroom sink with the hottest water I could stand and immersed my hands in it for several minutes whenever the weakness and pain started.
After several days I began to feel my hands coming back, and with it an insight into what I had been doing — or overdoing — that had brought me to this place.
After several more days of self-administered hot water therapy I resumed practicing in micro bits — one minute the first day, two minutes the next day, five minutes the third day — paying attention to what felt good and what didn’t, how my hands were feeling generally, and what I was asking myself to do physically. As soon as my hands registered any feeling of fatigue or pain, I stopped and headed straight for the hot water.
For the shows coming up, I concluded that over-practicing at home — not performing shows — had caused this. Maybe if I continue the hot water therapy and kept the practicing to an absolute minimum, I could get through the shows.
My plan would be to immerse my hands in hot water before going on, play the gig at the most relaxed, undemanding pace I could, and then return my hands to the hot water immediately afterwards.
But what if I was wrong? What if this pushed the tendonitis in the wrong direction? What if I physically failed on stage? I would just have to see what happened.
To my utter shock, the first show went great. I was able to play, and not only that, it felt wonderful to play again. I was amazed to observe my hands playing normally for an audience, and without any pain.
From this I learned that there was a huge difference in the way I was using my hands, body and muscles when I performed versus when I practiced.
After the show, my hands actually felt better than they had in weeks. Stronger, more relaxed, less inflamed. My hands — and tendons — seemed to have no problem playing music in front of an audience.
It was my practicing — or the way I was practicing — that was causing the tendonitis.
Subsequent gigs went the same way. My hands felt better and better with every gig. The swelling and the redness were disappearing.
I had played myself into the problem. Now, through becoming aware of what was going on and communicating with myself physically, I was playing myself back out of it.
It was an empowering discovery that the way back from tendonitis was not to stop playing, but to work with it and keep playing.
The entire ordeal from onset to full recovery lasted about six weeks.
Looking back, I realise that I solved the problem myself because I had no choice. There was very little useful information or research available at the time. In desperation I decided to listen to what my hands were telling me and use my intuition to support what they told me they needed…which was, in the end, for me to pay closer attention to what I was doing when I was practicing.
Getting rid of tendonitis was not about giving up playing guitar. That would have been a disastrous choice. Stress, fatigue and over-practicing had brought it on. Finding my way back had everything to do with changing how I was communicating with myself and the kind of energy I was putting into my hands.
Tendonitis is a tricky condition, intimately connected to your emotional state as well as your physical behaviour while playing your instrument.
I have felt the beginnings of tendonitis coming back multiple times in the decades since. But now that I know the warning signs, I know what to do — and what to stop doing.
Bringing awareness to it always makes it go away.
If you have made it this far in this post, then here is some parting advice:
Never give in to tendonitis. Yes, once you get it, it must be carefully babied. But remember that it’s you who created it, one way or another. And it is you who can make it go away…by communicating with yourself.
Do you have a tendonitis story?
If so, how did you deal with it?
What advice would you offer to others?
I first heard John Fahey‘s solo acoustic guitar playing on an album when I was a teenager. I liked his strange, minimalist, visually and emotionally evocative instrumental compositions, performed in open tunings in an alternating-bass fingerpicking style.
I found his guitar playing accessible and was able to figure out how to fingerpick from his record America.
The discovery of alternating-bass fingerpicking and its strong, stable rhythmic foundations accelerated my creativity and set me on a path of writing guitar compositions in that style.
For my 17th birthday my sister took me to New York City to see John Fahey play at a club called Max’s Kansas City.
He walked on stage, sat down on a wooden chair, put a large mug of red wine and a towel on the floor next to him and played a continuous improvisation for thirty minutes or so.
Then he stopped, wiped his face with the towel (it was quite hot that day and there was no air conditioning), downed the entire mug of wine, scanned the audience briefly, and played another rambling improvisation for another half hour.
Then he left the stage.
He had never said a word to the audience.
It didn’t matter. It was an awesome concert.
(Years later when we talked about that show, he told me he hadn’t spoken to the audience because was scared to death.)
In the years that followed I was able to meet him (I sent him my first album in 1979 and he sent me a Christmas card saying positive things about the album which gave me a huge boost of confidence) and open many shows for him around the U.S. in the early 1980’s. I even slept on his couch for a couple of nights — the biggest, most comfortable couch I have ever experienced to this day — when I was touring in Oregon.
He was always supportive of my music, my playing and my recordings, for which I was — and still am — deeply honoured and grateful.
From John Fahey’s music I learned about freedom, courage and truth — the freedom to be yourself and trust your own ideas, even if they were different. The courage to show the world who you are, alone on a stage, on a solo instrument. And the importance of telling your personal truth — your unique story — through your art, whatever form that art may take.
John was a quirky, fiercely individual person — a really nice person with a wonderful sense of humour who cared about other people. Despite being a producer and record label owner, he was not built for the music business and seemed tormented by the politics and egos that went with it.
Unfortunately he had a self-destructive alcohol problem which eventually cost him his life.
I see John Fahey as the father of solo acoustic steel-string guitar playing. His pioneering record label (Takoma), the albums he produced for it, and the artists whose first records came out on it gave birth to the instrumental genre we now call acoustic fingerstyle guitar.
Guitar players today who pick up an acoustic and think about performing a solo composition on YouTube owe John Fahey a debt.
He started it.
I had always wanted to see Odessa, ever since watching the 1925 Sergei Eisenstein film The Battleship Potemkim in high school. The brilliantly-conceived scene of horror and tragedy distilled into an ironic symbol — a baby in a buggy rolling back down the steps after the mother has been shot by the Czar’s Guards — had stayed cemented in my mind for four decades.
When I was offered a chance to perform at the UNESCO International Jazz Day Festival in Odessa at the end of April, I was thrilled.
With the political crisis Ukraine is in right now, I knew there were some risks…but I was willing to take them for the chance to experience the city.
Odessa is now, after Russia’s recent annexation of Sebastopol and Crimea, the largest port of the Ukraine. It is a vibrant, safe, cosmopolitan city of tree-lined streets, gardens and parks with multiple museums, a grand concert hall, a period-defining opera house, outdoor cafés, restaurants, bars and colourful street culture.
It is a city to stroll through, relax in and explore. The people are friendly, the food is wonderful and international (although my favourite was the Ukrainian food — the variniki dumplings are incredible), the architecture stunning and the ambiance decidedly romantic.
My Ukrainian guide and translator during my stay — a six-foot tall woman named Olga Kravtsova — gave me a tour of the centre of the city the first day, starting with the Potemkin Steps and a vista of the port and the Black Sea spreading out behind it (I told her it was the first time I had ever seen the Black Sea. She said, “Make a wish.” I did).
Olga had many stories to tell about the history of Odessa — of the illustrious personages who had built the city (Odessa is only 220 years old), the famous writers and artists who had lived there (Pushkin, Gogol, Tolstoy and Tchaikovsky all lived in Odessa at different times), and some interesting facts (e.g. while walking along a cobblestone street, I was told that the stones came not from the countryside around the city but rather were ballast stones from ships that had visited the port).
We walked across the famous “mother-in-law” bridge built by one of the city’s founders — the Duke of Richelieu — to keep his mother-in-law at arm’s length. The rickety, romantic bridge is the traditional scene for “first kisses” and marriage proposals, and has thousands of padlocks attached to the railings symbolising bonds of love…and now endangering the bridge’s structural integrity.
One afternoon when I stepped out of my hotel (the Londonskaya Hotel, one of the city’s landmark buildings on the lovely, park-lined Primorsky Bulvar), a strolling couple stopped and looked at me, wide-eyed. “Are you Preston Reed?” the man asked. He had just seen me in a video and couldn’t believe he was seeing me in the flesh. He and his partner were down from Moscow for a break.
That’s the kind of city it is.
I played two performances while I was there, one in the beautifully restored 19th Century Philharmonic Concert Hall and one in a park in the city centre the next night. The audiences for both shows were warm, appreciative and enthusiastic.
Afterwards, my hosts expressed relief that there had been no political disturbances at either of the shows.
During my time there I observed two gatherings of pro-Ukraine supporters (at the top of the famous steps) equipped with megaphones and Ukrainian flags, but the gatherings were peaceful.
A city with a strong sense of pride and identity, Odessa has all along tried to stay out of the current political conflict.
The feeling I got from the people I met there was that they were not going to give in to the fear and politically-motivated provocation in the air.
Sadly, despite Odessa’s bid for neutrality, it is being dragged into the conflict by outside elements.
I left Odessa on Friday, the first of May, in the morning. A few hours later armed pro-Russia supporters took over the Trade Unions Building. Forty-six people died that day, most from smoke inhalation when the building caught fire during Molotov cocktail exchanges with pro-Ukraine supporters.
It was shocking to hear about violence and death in the place I had just left. Everyone I had spoken to while I was there was expecting trouble in the near future from the pro-Russians, but certainly not a tragedy of such magnitude.
I was worried for the friends I made while was there, but they are ok — for now.
I hope the people of Odessa and the Ukraine survive this test of their solidarity and identity as a nation.
It is a special place that I want to visit again.