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Back Roads Beat

Tragicomic Tones in Turkmenistan

By Published: August 13, 2007
I didn't fully grasp the danger I'd put myself—and him—in until a couple of days later. The saying "the walls have ears" is true to an unknown degree, with hotels and popular tourist gathering spots reportedly bugged and video cameras required by decree in all public places (if they're actually that prevalent I missed some). A Turkmen man cooperating with a BBC reporter last year was arrested with other associates and sentenced to seven years in prison on what they said were manufactured charges by security officials who planted weapons in their car. Human rights groups regularly report journalists have been imprisoned for lengthy sentences, sometimes tortured or killed in custody (although the death penalty is officially banned). Prison conditions are as bad as anywhere in the world, according to outside governments and individual narratives.

In a more day-to-day reality, Radio Free Afghanistan reporter Faizullah Qardash described his experience while part of a delegation from Kabul a month after my visit as completely sheltered and supervised. He said aside from the official presentation by Turkmenistan officials the media was allowed to cover, he was unable to conduct a single interview or get any response whatsoever to even nonpolitical subjects. He was also prohibited from talking to any Turkmenistan citizens and officials ensured he didn't get the chance (the same is true in reverse, as local journalists cannot talk to foreigners without official permission).

"I don't know, maybe it was because I was part of the official delegation, but our escort did not let us to leave the hotel, even to go shopping," he told Radio Free Europe. "When I suggested going out, they said it's not allowed."

With my freedom still intact, I set off for the British Pub down the street, still a bit dazed.

It's a much more contemporary place, part of a group of clubs surrounding an outdoor courtyard with a cookout and yet more music. The atmosphere inside is an upscale sports bar with TGI Friday's prices only the privileged can afford, TVs turned to VH1 and a big picture of the Beatles behind the main stage. Clusters of English-speakers in business and casual attire packed the place, although the tables nearest the stage filled last. They devoured a menu of burgers, pasta, pizza, and fish and chips—plus, as seems to be the case in most of this part of Asia, a lineup of alcohol and tobacco longer than the food listings. For reasons not explained they didn't have the first few things I asked for, so I settled for tea—which did the British no credit at one of the few consumables they're good at as I ended up with a small pot of lukewarm water and a tea bag.

At least I got my timing right. I'd been there a couple of nights earlier and was told a rock band was playing that night starting around 10 p.m., but the Turkmeni Blues Band (or something like that) was scheduled Saturday. A jazz trio played several days before my arrival, a guitar threesome an expat businessman said had legit Django chops ("It was real jazz. I was a bit surprised"), but the blues band seemed to be closest related thing anywhere all weekend.

I got luckier than I might have hoped.

The opening set by the guitar/bass/drums trio was a West Coast/light mainstream jazz gig, similar to Lee Ritenour tackling Wes Montgomery standards on Wes Bound. The musicians looked to be in their early 20s, were clad in basic street clothes and had basic but functional gear.

The Ritenour/Montgomery analogy isn't casual—the trio's first song was something from the aforementioned album, with the guitarist punctuating lead lines with a mix of bent tones and chorused strums. After repeating a riff numerous times as a bridge he assembled a collection of short stories as a solo, mostly a progression of strums working their way up the fretboard, which he collapsed before moving onto a new tale. Aside from not really being linked and failing to end on a suitably high climax, it was much more accomplished than I expected.

He played it safer on "Fields Of Gold," doing an almost entirely lyric-based solo with a few tonal changes and strums. Also, his co-players weren't contributing anything except a rhythm section, a pattern continuing the entire set.

They tackled Latin by adding too much reverb to the guitar and Marley's "Wait In Vain" as background comfort food, but a slow end-of-set blues/fusion piece I didn't recognize featured the guitarist on a long progression of one-bar improvisations ending in note and chord twists. Again, there wasn't a central theme, but the overall impact was worthy.

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