Dr. Banjo » Notes From The Road » The Wernicks in Russia

The Wernicks in Russia

Pete and Joan Wernick and Justin Hoffenberg have returned from headlining the first-ever Russia-America Bluegrass Jamboree. The event took place July 20 and 21, 2010 in the cities of Vologda and Semenkovo in “deep Russia”, an overnight train east from St. Petersburg. Many of the following photos, and the text below are courtesy of Robert Palomo, an American musician living in St. Petersburg, who played bass with Pete, Joan, and Justin.

4-minute video reports from the U.S. Consulate

From Pete

It’s great to be back home, and to have had such a wonderful trip. We were treated very well by our hosts, and the audiences really took to the bluegrass. A lot happened in one week, and I was especially glad to get acquainted with several Russian bluegrass musicians. We played together several different times, and I had the chance to offer some bluegrass help to both of the bands we met.

Bringing the sound of bluegrass this far (10 time zones) is something I’m sure Bill Monroe would have approved of. The hunch of the the U.S. Consulate, that this music might connect two distant cultures turned out to be true.

This 15 year-old girl is a good picker, and the banjo I’m signing is borrowed as she has none, and lives in an orphanage. Liza will be getting a new Brian Friesen Eagle Banjo from the Deering company later this year, supported by the Friesen family. The presentation will be made in Moscow. That is exciting!

Our trip was arranged expressly for the purpose of bridging the gap between Americans and Russians. Thanks to all the positive attention we got, from concertgoers, from the media, and from the various officials in the Consulate world, both American and Russian, it seems it was a successful effort. I felt a serious responsibility, representing America to such a large number of Russians, and representing bluegrass music as well.

The main Jamboree event we played was in the town center of a sizable city amid ancient buildings. Vologda is in a farming area, famous for butter, ice cream, linen, and lace (not bad!). The people there are used to long winters, hard work, and quite a lot of loss. They can be high spirited, and really believe in festivities, and in their kids. So we got some good tastes of those aspects, and enjoyed three very elaborate “official” type meals with Russian and Consul hosts. A second performance took place at a historical museum comparable to Williamsburg.

Considering we were in Russia only a week, we experienced a great deal, and as Robert Palomo (our bass player) said, like many others, felt changed by the experience.

As I took care to communicate to our Russian radio audience and at two ceremonial functions, “I am honored and especially happy to be part of a bridging of the gap between our people because of my own history. My grandparents all fled Russia about 100 years ago, and growing up in the 1950s, I was taught to fear Russians. I like it so much better when we can reach out and be friends and share what we can.” My remarks were faithfully translated by Vera Savko and Eric Johnson of the U.S. Consulate, who also did the lion’s share of the facilitating of the trip. My deepest thanks to Vera and Eric!

Pete stirs up the crowd for a sing-along – The whole crowd actually did sing along with all 3 bands on Rollin’ in My Sweet Baby’s Arms. Absolutely incredible experience!

“It’s certain that during the Jamboree week, thousands of people in Russia saw and heard American Bluegrass music for the first time. If the live shows were any indication (and I think so) they loved it. Bluegrass is real people music, not to mention a lot of fun. It connected, and I’m sure we haven’t seen the end of it.There was a great deal of TV coverage of the shows, Pete and Co. did local internet and radio interviews where they played Bluegrass. Pete gave away many CDs, videos, and books. Many people attended the master classes given by Pete, Joan, and Justin, even if they didn’t all participate directly.”– Robert Palomo

The excitement of the media people and of the musicians and concertgoers we met, tells me we’re on the right track. Bluegrass is definitely a good choice to get across barriers. While we have classical music in common with Russia, especially St. Petersburg, bluegrass generates a different kind of enthusiasm. It’s so accessible and energetic, and thrives on interaction. So in advance of the trip I suggested we do a few sing-alongs. Though the Consulate was skeptical, they agreed to hand out lyrics sheets at the show. We got good response on “Y’All Come”, “Two Dollar Bill” and “Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms”. Yes!

Shortly after Joan and I sang “Give Me My Flowers While I’m Living”, an audience member left and got a beautiful bouquet for us, and presented them to us at the intermission!

Here is a link to a nice bunch of captioned photos, and a report from Robert Palomo:
[sorry, this link no longer available]

Have a satisfying summer! Hope to see you down the line.

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