Thursday, February 27, 2014

Plus three

The weather’s been warming up and the snow’s been gone for a while now, so naturally I started thinking about my bicycle. Today, finally, I got it onto the road. I don’t really have a good excuse for waiting so long, but I’m really glad I didn’t wait any longer. When I left the house right after lunch, the thermometer in the window read +3 (Celsius all the way) and the sun was shining. I didn’t really know how many layers to put on, but guessed correctly and had a great time in the sun.

The bike path is already in good shape. Municipal workers have cleaned up the winter’s debris and though there’s nothing green growing beside the path yet I certainly enjoyed being out in nature practicing my favorite sport. Whether I’m in good shape is another matter. It looks like I’ve been too easy on myself when I rode the spin bikes at the gym, and six kilometers into my ride I began to feel my legs and wondered if I should even shorten my ride a bit. After another six, however, I started to feel pretty normal and I ended up riding my planned 26 without big changes in pace.

Alla reports a second plus for the day. Last night she went to the supermarket and bought a few things. Unfortunately, she forgot to take the celery from the check-out basket when she loaded up her bag to come home. So she called the store and asked them to look for it, and today she went to find it waiting for her. I’m always impressed by the kindness and helpfulness displayed by Belarusian people to each other and to me.

And I can add a third plus: I received an invitation to give a lecture to a business statistics class at one of Minsk’s premiere (non-government) employers. I’ve given this lecture previously in English, but this time I’m gearing up to do it in Russian. I’m kind of excited over the prospect.

Monday, February 17, 2014


We went to a jazz club last night to hear some local musicians pay tribute to three or four American jazz legends. This seemed like a pretty safe bet, because we highly respect the local talent and Belarus can’t generally afford to import the very best foreign talent. (We got burned at the same club one time on a Bossa Nova show. The Brazilian “star” they brought in doesn’t actually perform in Brazil. She’s some sort of functionary in their Ministry of Culture, but here she posed here as a star. We were not impressed.)

We liked last night’s show a lot, but I can’t help commenting on one oddity. Every musical show in Belarus is preceded by an introductory speech. Whereas in the U.S. audience members may read the program notes before listening to a symphony, here everybody gets to listen to some lady who comes out ahead of the conductor and tells us a little about what the orchestra will play. Usually her speeches don’t go on so long that I ever minded, even when I didn’t understand a word, but they’re never as interesting as the erudite notes at the Boston Symphony. Anyway, that’s the deal. You always get a free speech with every concert.

This applies even where Americans don’t expect program notes. At the jazz show, the introductory speech started out pretty well. The master of ceremonies knows a lot about jazz and about the players in the American jazz scene. I forgave his racist assertion that blacks have a genetic disposition giving them an edge in saxophone playing since thoughtless racism happens here all the time. People here simply don’t experience much racial diversity. Anyway, although the introductory speech went on a little long, I forgot about it once the music started.

The speeches became harder to forget, however, when reinforced ever so long-windedly by more of them after every number. I generally stopped listening, but my ears perked up when the M. C. said that a particular piece had drive (драйв). I’ve heard this about some of the music in my dance classes too. In Belarus, it seems, we like to hear music with drive. Translating the word into English, we’re talking about the tenth definition of the noun form of the word in my big Webster’s dictionary. Since that seemed a little obscure, I thought I’d better check a big Russian dictionary. I got out our two-volume monolingual reference and, guess what? It’s not even in there. Music lovers here have appropriated an English word and begun using it regularly in a new way or at least in a context new to me.

I think I’m watching an evolution of the Russian language. Perhaps this one is still slang, but I suspect it’s going mainstream. This kind of thing has been going on for a long time. The French, for example, got the word bistro from the Russians. That’s not exactly how it’s pronounced here, but it means quick. A bistro, of course, offers food simple enough to serve quickly. Once again, a word has evolved into another culture. But anyway, I’m happy to go out to a bistro and listen to music with drive. Why not?

Monday, February 10, 2014

Vilnius Lindy Hoppers

Alla really wanted to go to Vilnius before her Russian passport expired, but I wasn’t so excited about it because the weather had been so penetratingly cold. She won me over when we realized that I could also go out dancing with the Vilnius Lindy hop community, who was celebrating ten years together last weekend. I knew a few Lithuanian dancers already because some came to Minsk when our local dance moguls hosted an event. The ones I met danced really well, much better than I, and I guessed correctly that I’d meet some good dancers if I went to their weekend events.

Studio before classes
In the spirit of compromise that brought us to Vilnius, I took advantage of only a small part of the Lindy hop events and festivities. I took two out of eight possible classes and went to one of three possible parties. The classroom boggled my mind. The Lindy-hop Club had a huge well-lit studio with a wooden floor and removable sound-proof partitions to divide the studio into two smaller rooms for regular classes. They also had a little bar/café, a separate office, a few pieces of soft seating, and a bunch of very amusing floor lamps in the style of the 1940’s. Here’s a picture of the studio immediately after they cleared away the floor lamps and the room divider.

The classes were really fun. They combined dancers of all levels and taught us things that would be new to all of us. First we learned how to dance to an unusual seven-count rhythm. Well, we learned the most basic steps. I liked the music and the steps well enough that I would have been content to spend the whole day working on it, but we moved on to “Wi-fi Lindy hop.” I had no idea what that would be, but it was about leading and following without touching each other at all. This forced us to pay attention to details we might otherwise ignore, since without the use of hands leaders had to give clues with their whole bodies and followers became more alert to these subtle indications of intent.

Later, I made it to the main party. I only stayed until midnight, and so only heard two of the three bands. I especially enjoyed the opening act, the Lithuanian Military Orchestra. Wow, these guys knocked my socks off. It was a huge group, playing Big Band music with the sweetest sound and the hottest rhythms. I didn’t think to inquire about whether they had any CDs for sale anywhere. I’d love to hear their music again, though of course I’d prefer to hear them live. Here they are, in the same club, from a couple of years ago. I even saw the same people reprise this routine. Great memories!

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Best jazzmen

Every year, Alla and I go to the annual jazz concert of the State Concert Orchestra, a group of talented and well-trained musicians. They play jazz with discipline and rigorous accuracy. The director, Michael Finberg, wants everybody to know that they rehearse up to eight hours a day and they work really hard. This year he decided to reward the musicians in his group. (Actually, it’s called a collective. This is, after all, a socialist republic.) For a reward, he asked the collective to nominate and choose the five best jazzmen of the year. Coincidentally, all five came from the collective.

Two very curvaceous assistants brought the awards out one at a time for the director to hand over to the musicians. The assistant with the bigger boobs brought out three awards and the other one brought out two. The recipients didn’t have boobs: They were all men. This makes sense. How can the best jazzman of the year be a woman? Especially when there are no women at all in the collective.

I loved the music, even as I pined for gender balance. As Alla pointed out, however, most American jazz musicians are male too.