Amsterdam: arrival and preparing for the IJMF

So to pick up where I left off, on the evening of October 8th, Ezekiel’s Wheels met up at Logan Airport to fly to Europe. It was a pretty uneventful couple of flights, and we were able to sleep for the most part. We had a layover in Iceland in the middle of the night, where we had absolutely no concept for the value of the krona and how much our sandwiches actually cost, and then we almost missed boarding our flight to Amsterdam since there were no announcements regarding when flights were boarding or taking off.

We landed in Amsterdam in the early afternoon on the 9th and quickly found a large cab that could transport all five of us plus luggage and instruments. Due to some miscommunication between myself and the bass shop I was renting an instrument from, as well as a general oversight in common sense, we took the cab all the way across the city to the bass shop, as opposed to straight to the hostel. It was a pretty expensive ride, but our driver was friendly enough and pointed out some of the sights from the highway. We were sure to give him a free CD. So all five of us (plus luggage) arrived at the tiny bass shop in the outskirts of the city. I rang the doorbell and the Dutch man who answered was extremely confused as to who we were, why we were there with so much stuff, and how we were all going to fit into a two-floor studio already packed with basses in various states of repair, tools, workbenches, lots of sawdust, and a few men whose only job appeared to be eating lots and lots of cheese.

I was shown three different instruments to try and proceeded to compare them all while everyone else waited out on the sidewalk. None of the instruments that we could afford to rent were perfect–they were all set up more for jazz than bow playing (which, to be fair, is what I asked for, but I was looking for an instrument that also sounded nice when bowed up high). The one I ultimately decided upon was a small instrument with a string length similar to my main bass, and had a bright, clear tone. It wasn’t as warm as some of the others, but it would atleast cut through on the high solos. The bridge was pretty flat, so adjusting to that and not playing two strings at once was a little tricky, and the action was higher than I am used to, but not impossible.

Anyway, I decided upon an instrument and requested a wheel to use to transport it around. He unfortunately didn’t have a wheel I could use, but he had a heavy duty case with backpack straps that he gave me, and so I proceeded to carry the bass around on my back for the rest of the week (which really gave me a new perspective on how large the upright bass actually is, as well as some insights on the life of a turtle). We quickly realized that we couldn’t carry all of our luggage plus the upright bass with us back to the hostel, which was about a half hour walk from the bass shop. Since the shop was also on a quiet street and we weren’t quite sure how to catch cabs, we decided to leave the bass, walk our stuff to the hostel, and then come back for the bass on our way to rehearsal at the Amsterdam Conservatory.

Walking a mile and a half across a foreign city after about 16 hours of traveling, not much sleep, and with lots of heavy stuff is no small feat. But we made it to our hostel over near Nieuwmarkt, and just right across the canal from Het Compagnietheater, where the majority of the festival would be taking place. We checked into our room–a huge 20-person dorm of small metal bunkbeds–and stored our stuff away in the extremely deep lockers in the hallway. We ventured out to find an ATM, and then parted ways to simultaneously complete two separate missions: Nat and I would head back to the bass shop to get the instrument; Jon, Pete, and Abigale would find us some food, and then we’d all meet over at the Amsterdam Conservatory for our scheduled rehearsal at 6 pm.

Nat and I got a cab back to the bass shop, where we settled up for the week’s rental (for less than originally quoted, and with insurance!), and then set back out (on foot) to the conservatory, which we were assured was a mere 15-minute walk away. The alleged 15-minute walk turned out to be closer to 40 (so many long walks carrying heavy objects!), though to be fair, we did get a little lost. To our surprise and delight, along the way we ran into some huge posters advertising the festival. The faces of a number of musicians playing were integrated into the poster’s design and we quickly found the floating heads of Pete, Nat, Abigale, and myself among them (we later found out that only one band member per group was supposed to be included, but we managed to get four). We also meandered down a lovely street next to a canal that was filled with houseboats before figuring out how to traverse a series of bridges that lead us to the conservatory.

Jon, Pete, and Abigale had beaten us there (and apparently had a difficult time convincing the man at the front desk that we actually had practice space reserved for us), and we met them up on the fourth floor. The current conservatory building is relatively new, so everything is shiny and bright and there were huge windows along one side of the room that looked over the city. For the next couple hours, we alternated between rehearsing and napping in the bass case. I also learned that “duwen” means “push” and not “ladies’ room”, but the Dutch are remarkably progressive, so no harm done.

After rehearsal, we found our way back to the hostel and put our instruments away (my rental bass spent a large portion of that week occupying most of the small office at the hostel). Jon and Abigale were exhausted and passed out in the room, but Pete, Nat, Nat’s friend Mark (who was able to come hang out in Amsterdam with us for most of the week), and I all went out to explore the neighborhood, fight off jetlag, and try some Dutch beer.

We stumbled into De Bekeerde Suster, which claimed to brew three beers on site (though the equipment looked far too clean and new for that to be possible), and fell in love with their trippels. On the way back to the hostel, we explored the area a little more, stumbling upon Dam Square and watching Nat try to speak Arabic while buying french fries.

The next morning, Jon, Pete, and I ventured out for breakfast and ended up exploring a nearby street market. We met up with Nat and Abigale at In de Waag, a restaurant inside of a large castle in Nieuwmarkt. On the way back to the hostel to rehearse, we dropped in at Het Compagnietheater to check out the venue. The receptionist was very nice and gave us a quick tour–we got to see the backstage crew setting up lights and the stage for the following morning.

We were able to rehearse a little bit in the hostel’s TV room, but were quickly yelled at by the cleaning lady for being too loud. After running through our sets a couple times as quietly as possible, we decided to go out and busk, so we could actually play at our regular volume. After meandering around Dam Square for a little while, avoiding the Roma musicians who clearly controlled the street music presence in the area and then getting drafted to hold orange balloons and pose in a group picture with some random Dutch man, we found a little area to set up and play. We played through our sets (and some extra pop covers) and quickly drew a small crowd. We didn’t end up doing quite as well as the morning rush hour on the red line in Boston, but we atleast collected a fair amount of small change, which is far easier to use around the city than the large bills dispensed by the bank.

After busking, we put our instruments away at the hostel, acquired some snacks (including a large bundle of carrots and other veggies, fruit, and nuts), and headed to the opening concert for the International Jewish Music Festival at the Portuguese Synagogue.

The Portuguese Synagogue is in the Jewish quarter of the city and is long and cavernous. Upon arrival, we were first ushered into an underground dimly lit cave-like room to register, get our official IJMF badges (almost as good as the Klezmer Idol medals), sign publicity wavers, obtain an assortment of maps and information about the city, and got briefed in the order of events for the next couple days. While waiting to get into the concert, we met some of the other musicians, including Gilad, the extremely friendly oud player from the Israeli band Alila, who we would hang out with often throughout the following four days.

The concert itself was a nice introduction to the festival. The synagogue was covered in lit candles as the only light source to highlight the performers. Opening the concert was Gerard Edery, guitarist, vocalist, and one of the judges for the festival. Following him was Mames Babegenush, a Danish brass-led klezmer band and the Audience Choice Award winners from the 2010 competition.

After the concert, we mingled for a little while before venturing out into the city to find some dinner (cheap falafel) and then to bar for a couple drinks before bed.

(Up next: a full report from playing at the festival!)

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