Jamie Hale: Kazakhstan - November 1998

Jamie Hale: Storyteller


1998 was our busiest year for touring. We managed over 100 flights in 9 months, and whilst most went without a hitch, it was only realistic that some, eventually, would go wrong.

We’d been invited by The British Council to perform in Almaty, Kazakhstan’s former capital city. The British Councillor there was from Penicuik, near Edinburgh, and was so homesick that he regularly brought out bands from Scotland, not only to do their own gigs, but also to perform with local musicians. Our brief for those 5 days was to play three gigs with the band, and for Martyn to perform a piece written by a local composer, accompanied by the Kazakh State Symphony Orchestra.

The time leading up to our first trip into Central Asia was typical of our insane schedule of the time, namely, finishing off a tour a few hours before check in time for another trip. Our last date of a Scottish tour was in ‘The Liquid Rooms’ in our home town of Edinburgh, and with an early finish time of 10pm, this allowed us the luxury of being able to go to our own homes, unpack, wash our clothes, dry them, pack them all again, say hello to the family, say goodbye to the family, get the passport, and go to the airport.

A 4am coffee was most definitely in order as we checked in for the first flight of the day. Travelling as a band can usually rack up the excess baggage bill to an eye-twisting degree, and this time was no exception.

"That’ll be £2500 please Mr. Bennett." A resigned Martyn reached for his wallet. "Hang on… Martyn Bennett??" The check in man pondered for a while, scanning our tired faces. "I recognise you guys from the telly!!"

With more pondering, and having taken a shine to Deirdre, the check in man bucked the airline trend and let us go straight through to Almaty without having to pay any excess. What a very nice check in man!

A short hop to Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport later and with 5 hours to spare before the Almaty flight, Martyn and I decided to spend the morning sight seeing and coffee drinking in Amsterdam. We soon got rid of the sight seeing idea, and stuck with the coffee plan instead. With last minute timing, Kirsten and Deirdre were met at the departure gate by the smiley faces of their band mate and sound engineer, and our Central Asian abyss could at last begin.

"That’ll be £2500 please Mr. Bennett." A resigned Martyn reached for his wallet. "Hang on… Martyn Bennett??" The check in man pondered for a while, scanning our tired faces. "I recognise you guys from the telly!!"

As the hours and the in-flight movies passed, our body clocks started to get confused. We’d been awake for at least 30 hours by this time, and were rapidly flying into a time zone 5 hours ahead of our own. Never mind, we were due to land within the hour, and bed wouldn’t be far away. As we started our descent however, our jumbo-jet banked sharply to the left and sped off in the opposite direction. With query written all over the passenger’s faces, the captain made the heart-sinking announcement that a severe snowstorm had hit Almaty, and it would be impossible to land there. We would have to divert to Baku in Azerbaijan, another 3 hours away. Our smiley faces quickly wore off as concerns for the trip grew.

Baku airport at 2am was the slap in the face we could’ve done without. A small airport, seemingly stuck in an ancient time warp, controlled by soldiers with 2 Kalashnikov rifles each, and a plethora of stray cats urinating randomly. The plan was to get us to a hotel until morning, although with only 5 taxis and a 15-seat mini-bus, this would take time, given that there were over 200 passengers. The four of us sat huddled together on our biggest flight case, waiting for another 3 hours whilst more transport was sought. We were wilting fast.

The sun was coming up on yet another day by the time we got to the hotel. Looking at her flock of cross-eyed passengers, one of the cabin crew apologised as she asked us to be back on the bus in 4 hours time.
With a shower, 2 hours of sleep and an enormous breakfast, we started to feel almost human again. If only just.

Baku was an intriguing, but not particularly enticing place. Signs of extreme poverty and extreme wealth in every eyeful, with Caspian Sea oil refineries dominating the entire horizon.

We boarded our now familiar 747, and waited eagerly for news. If we left for Almaty then, we would make it just in time for the sound check of our first gig. Fingers and toes were crossed. The captain though, had other ideas. The weather was still far too bad to land in Almaty, and the airline needed the plane back. The only option was to fly back to Amsterdam. Disaster.

This presented us with quite a quandary. It was already the middle of the week, and we had to be back in Edinburgh on saturday night to play for the opening of the new Museum of Scotland. If the weather in Almaty didn’t improve, the entire trip would have to be cancelled. Bigger disaster. Still, we couldn’t control the weather, and decided to leave the re-organisation of our week to agents, promoters, airlines, and fate. There was nothing else we could do except sit back for 6 hours and watch the in-flight movie, again, and eat the same airline pasta, again.

We were due to land back in Amsterdam around dinnertime, and had planned a quiet night out to let our hair/dreadlocks down. The smiley faces were returning. Hallucinating with tiredness upon our arrival, we collected our 15 pieces of expensive and heavy cargo, and made our way to the airport hotel.

"There’s only 14 cases," sighs Kirsten as we loaded up the trolleys.

My suitcase was missing. My heart sank to my feet as I imagined some stray cats in Baku urinating all over my case whilst laughing at me. I suggested to Martyn, Kirsten and Deirdre that they should just go to the hotel while I sorted out this latest nightmare, but we were inseparable, and stayed together to have our night out at lost luggage instead.

Another 5 hours of unbelievable airline stupidity passed until I was finally re-united with my beloved suitcase. I was whole again. With knuckles dragging, we descended on our hotel with enough time for a short kip before trying to get to Kazakhstan all over again. There was a certain feeling of Deja vu as we checked in at stupid o’clock in the morning for our now overly familiar flight to Almaty. "That’ll be £2500 for excess baggage please Mr. Bennett."

We tried various methods of argument with the airline, but we simply didn’t have the strength or brainpower to fight, and we didn’t want to land our very nice check in man in Edinburgh in trouble either.

The weather in Almaty had thankfully improved to guarantee our arrival. With over 50 hours of trying, it looked as if we would finally make it! Time to sit back and watch the in-flight movie, yet again, and eat the same airline pasta, yet again.

After having made our way to the airport in Edinburgh late on Saturday night, our plane eventually landed at about 5am on the Wednesday in the snowy wilderness of Kazakhstan. The British Councillor and his party met us with beaming smiles and a huge sense of relief that we’d made it at last. We tried to be civil and as friendly as we could but the exhaustion was hideous and we could barely remember our names. Our body clocks had long since given up, and although we should’ve gone to bed for a good night’s sleep, the sun was rising over Central Asia, and it was time for breakfast.

A nearby restaurant had opened early for us to have our first Kazakh meal, although after one quick glance at the menu, we trusted our local guides to order for us. I was desperately hungry so asked if they could order me the dish which consisted of the largest physical amount of food. We waited ages for our breakfast. They must have had to take that time to prepare the almighty feast that was soon to be in front of me. As I’ve mentioned a few times, we were running on fumes, but Deirdre was looking especially ill all of a sudden. We’d had the same airline pasta for days on end, so this breakfast had become an important lifeline for the very real state of our wellbeing. At last, the kitchen doors swept open with a train of waiters carrying plate after plate of hot, big food. Everybody had received their food apart from me. Where’s mine? I thought to myself with fear and desperation. I’d never seen such a huge silver platter being carried with great pomp and ceremony towards me as my smile returned. There it was. All the food I’d waited days for.

“That’s a Kazakh delicacy,” our guides told me as I looked down at the smallest piece of lonely limp bread I’d ever seen.
“The vegetables, meat and potatoes are coming aren’t they”?
“No, that’s it”.

Everyone started to laugh uncontrollably, as I stared for minutes angrily and with utter disbelief, sadness, and confusion at my piece of dry toast on a massive plate. It’s hilarious when I look back, but at the time I was devastated. Deirdre had laughed too hard. She didn’t look well at all. “I’m just going out for some air,” she whispered. CRASH!! We looked around to see Deirdre collapsed into the coat stand, buried under a mound of hats, scarfes and coats. She was out cold briefly, and although we were very worried, it was almost expected and accepted.

The touring lifestyle. It can be so glamorous…

We had very little time in the ill-fated restaurant, as Martyn had to go straight to a rehearsal with the Kazakh State Symphony Orchestra. Deirdre, Kirsten and I were driven to the hotel where at last we could get some proper sleep. We had to muster some energy for our gig at night. This was the second of our planned gigs, as of course we’d missed the first one from having arrived two days late.

As the sun was setting over Central Asia, we woke up to face the Kazakh people for the first time. Our drivers met us in the hotel lobby, their arms open wide and with warm caring faces, determined to look after us like we were their own children. Our gig that night was in an enormous Irish bar. It seems that no matter where you are in the world, there’s an Irish bar! This was all becoming a little too obscure. Here we were, only a few hundred miles from the Chinese border, having travelled for so long to get here, playing in front of an audience consisting of many different Asian and Soviet nationals, and they’re all drinking dark Irish beer.

The gig was a real success. For us, being so tired helps you get into the zone for playing and mixing more easily, and the multi cultural crowd loved it. What felt like only minutes after the last note had been played, the audience, press and photographers had been ushered out of the building with a ruthless efficiency. The sudden silence was overwhelming. Then, like the start of an opera, the curtains covering the back wall of the stage dramatically opened to reveal a small door. We were escorted through into a long room with an enormous dining table in the middle. Around that table sat the Deputy Prime Minister of Kazakhstan, various dignitaries and business leaders, all welcoming us like long lost relatives. Surrounding them were countless waitresses and security personnel, all with their eyes fixed permanently on the walls in front of them.

“We are here to toast you”, the Deputy Prime Minister said with a rosy smile as numerous bottles of vodka appeared. None of us were big drinkers, and by that time all we wanted to do was to have a cup of tea and go to bed, but we didn’t want to be rude and we also really didn’t have the choice.

“We toast the fact that you made it after such a long journey”


“We toast The British Council for bringing you here”

More vodka.

“We toast electricity for powering your equipment”

More vodka.

I lost count and consciousness around 15 toasts later.

The next day was a right off. We didn’t have to play that day, but we were to be guests of honour that evening at a reception party given by the British Councillor and his wife at their house in the hills.

Martyn and Kirsten managed to peel themselves from their bed and were driven to Green Hill, a rural idyll just outside the city. Martyn was always keen to get to a natural wilderness wherever we may be. Deirdre and I on the other hand, were only capable of staying in our bedrooms, nursing the world’s biggest hangovers. Again, we woke up as the sun was setting, dressed up for the occasion, and were driven to the Councillor’s beautiful house in a salubrious suburb, heaving with people keen to meet us all. The welcome we received was as typically genuine and gracious as we’d had whilst being in Almaty. It was becoming very easy to fall for this country and it’s people.

On the day after, we actually woke up when the sun was rising. That day would be our last in Almaty before our hopefully less tedious flight home. It was the day of our biggest and longest concert, with Martyn performing with the symphony orchestra in the first half, followed by our own full set in the second half. Our venue for that night was a beautifully characterful opera house, with statues and busts of prominent figures from Soviet and Kazakh history adorning the public areas. The audience flowed in like a tidal wave. The energy they brought in with them was as positive and encouraging as you could hope for. Having mixed Martyn’s live sound since 1995, I was always in the fortunate position to be able to soak up that energy from the audience. Every single gig had been epic, but that night it seemed more than ever that we were making a real difference.

During the first half, Kirsten, Deirdre and I listened to Martyn’s performance with the orchestra from the stage wings. It was a dramatic sounding piece, with Martyn playing his pipes with his usual finesse and assurance. The temperature, noise and excitement had built into proportions probably seldom seen in that opera house by the time the curtain came up on the start of our gig. The oversized, family orientated crowd had filled every possible space in the auditorium, cheering to the extent that the homemade sound system could barely be heard. Between the front row and the stage, soldiers from the Kazakh army stood side by side wearing their green overcoats and hats, keeping the security in check. They had the look of total discipline on their faces, yet you could tell that they were loving this as much as anyone. At the end of the gig, I was invited onto the stage to take part in what felt like twenty curtain calls. We were each handed a bouquet of flowers from our hosts, and took the time to soak up the overwhelming emotions of a very special occasion.

This night was the epitome of why we did what we did. Of course the never-ending travelling, the constant changing of time zones and crazy scheduling exhausted us to excruciating levels, but the joy we could bring and receive in the live environment always made everything more than worthwhile.

Kazakhstan turned out to be one of the most inspiring, heart-warming, eye-opening and memorable experiences we’d been through, either as a band or as individuals. We were welcomed and looked after to a degree of unconditional generosity and enthusiasm that none of us had experienced before. We felt very sad to leave on that Saturday morning, but we had a gig in Edinburgh to get back to that night.

The usual airport nonsense resumed as we checked in. “That’ll be £2500 for excess baggage please Mr. Bennett.”