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Tour of Russia as US Cultural Ambassadors

By March 5, 2016Blog


“One of Music’s ‘Next Big Things’” – SPIN

Several years ago, amidst the bustling SXSW music festival, the indie rock band Filligar hurriedly packed up their gear as the next band took the stage. Little did they know, one festivalgoer who had just caught their performance worked in the U.S. government’s cultural outreach program. Inspired by that set, she later contacted the band and steered them onto a course which has since taken them on a series of unlikely journeys across the globe.

For the past few years, the indie rock band Filligar —which includes Casey Gibson and brothers Johnny, Teddy, and Pete Mathias—has served as U.S. Arts Ambassadors at the appointment of the State Department. They’ve performed in the mountains of Azerbaijan, the deserts of Kuwait, the Amazonian basin of Guyana, and last week returned from the heartland of Russia in the sub-zero dead of winter.

Each of these tours aimed to showcase American arts, bringing America closer with the world through a glimpse of American life beyond the TV or In Azerbaijan, a country that means “The Land of Fire,” the band hurriedly plugged in before stepping on-air in front of millions of viewers of “Salam Azerbaijan!,” which was later explained to be the “Azeri equivalent to ‘Good Morning America.’” Just a few days later, in the largest outdoor amphitheater in Baku, they were joined onstage by local musicians to perform a cover of “Xezerin Sahilinde,” a fan-favorite by the legendary Azeri rock band “Xuhu.” In a mountainside town near the Iranian border, they held an outdoor concert in the square, an event that was staged in part by the local Harley Davidson biker chapter.

In Kuwait, the band took part in the al-Qurain Cultural Festival, performing in front of foreign dignitaries from across the Middle East in the same museum that Saddam Hussein raided during the Persian Gulf War. Yet, while the band travelled in a bulletproof van, the overwhelming spirit of the trip was one of friendliness, laughter, and a shared passion for music. The band jammed with local punk bands, heard original songs written by students at a high school music class, and sang with Iraqi rockstars.

In Guyana, Filligar travelled deep into the jungle interior to perform at the Rupununi Music Festival. Amidst Ukrainian folk artists, Brazilian capoeira, a West-Indian vocal group, and an ensemble comprised of the resident Macushi tribe, Filligar performed songs that were borne out of their teenage beginnings in a basement in Chicago. When their set was done, they sat down at a picnic table with the Prime Minister, local farmers, and musicians. Traversing via Jeep across a jagged road that carved its way through the tropical canopy, the band returned to Georgetown to perform at the Ambassador’s residence, a local elementary school, and a rehabilitation center for the physically and mentally disabled.

A few days ago, the band returned from a trip to Russia. There they headlined at the Old New Rock Festival in Yekaterinburg and were given a glimpse into Russian life. One morning, they performed live on a radio program that broadcast to millions from a local bar, as part of a celebration of the life of David Bowie. The next, they traveled by Embassy motor vehicle through the snowy Russian forests to the town of Alapevysk, where they were greeted with cakes at the entrance by candidates for a beauty contest. That night, in a Stalin-era theater on the outskirts of Siberia, they gave a workshop talking about American music, put on a concert at the local Palace of Culture, and joined in at an after party at a local hotel, where they jammed until the early morning with local rock bands—toasting to new friendship with Russian hockey players, bikers, and community leaders alike.

A few days later, they would return to the city to visit the children of Alim orphanage—and would close the night and the trip with a concert at one of the premier nightclubs in the Urals region. And there were many more moments such as these in their travels across the globe. In a time of heightened tension between the United States and Russia, the West and the Middle East, and old societies and new, a rock band from Chicago has traversed the globe and encountered commonality that rarely receives attention. Through music, barriers broke down and gave way to cross-cultural understanding in an unusual rock n’ roll narrative that has yet to Filligar headlines Troubadour in Los Angeles on March 15.