Letter from Uzbekistan

Spoiled meat, fermented mare's milk and a president who says he'd rip off his kid's head -- such is Wil Wuerdig's life as a musician in Central Asia

By now, the musicians' path out of Houston to what many see as the greener pastures of Austin, Nashville, New York and Los Angeles is well worn. To say that Houston-bred Wil Wuerdig -- the singer-guitarist of the alternative Southern rock band Raindance -- is not on that path is an epic understatement. You see, Wuerdig is basing his career in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. Racket and Wuerdig recently fired a few e-mails back and forth about life as a working musician in one of the world's sleepiest and most unfashionable capitals.

And life is, in a word, difficult. Where many American musicians are somewhat spoiled for choice as to which clubs to play, Wuerdig has no such abundance. Nothing in the country is allowed to stay open past midnight. Well, there is one exception…"Of course there's one club open after hours," he writes, "and that just happens to be owned by one of the president's daughters."

Uzbek President Islam Karimov often sounds less like a statesman than like Soprano family lieutenant Paulie Walnuts. In 1999, after alleged religious extremists hijacked a bus, Karimov went ballistic. Agence France-Presse reported this gem: "I'm prepared to rip off the heads of 200 people, to sacrifice their lives, in order to save peace and calm in the republic…If my child chose such a path, I myself would rip off his head." (As his daughter's head remains firmly attached to her body, it's apparent he doesn't view operating a speakeasy as harshly as busnapping. And while we're on the subject of boozy presidential daughters, perhaps Dubya would have more success with Jenna if he threatened her so imaginatively.)

So why is a Houston musician living in a country run by an apparent human guillotine like Karimov? Love and diplomacy. Wuerdig's wife, whose surname he now bears instead of his birth name of Van Winkle, is a German diplomat whom he met at the Last Concert Cafe's annual Watermelon Festival. When Ms. Wuerdig's term was up at the Houston consulate, the German foreign service offered her a choice of reassignment in Karachi, Pakistan, or Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire. Since neither of these is considered a plum posting, the Wuerdigs fought to wangle a move to the relative garden spot of Tashkent. After playing a farewell show at Houston's Chameleon Club, Wuerdig shipped out for Uzbekistan on Thanksgiving Day, 2000.

Wuerdig spent the first few months getting acclimated to Uzbekistan. He writes that there are water and power shortages every day. And then there's the phone system…"Last August somebody climbed the telephone pole and stole the cable from our house that connects us to the phone system," Wuerdig writes. "After bribing them about $40 they finally hooked us back up. A month ago the line caught on fire and after a week of arguing they re-connected us but reversed the lines. We had a hooker's number and she had ours."

Uzbek food and drink also took some getting used to. Tony Avitia of I-45 told Racket that his first mission after moving to California was hunting down places to buy Tony Chachere's seasoning salt and Shiner Bock beer. Wuerdig had it a little rougher. In addition to a vodka Wuerdig likens to paint thinner, Uzbeks enjoy tippling on fermented mare's milk. "They milk a horse and put the milk in a bag to help it sour faster," Wuerdig explains. "It ferments and they drink it as if it were champagne. It's elegant and only for special occasions…Got milk?"

Wuerdig credits his wife's vegetarianism with saving him from several bouts of food poisoning. A typical Uzbek grocery is stocked with rotten, dried meat and funky, melted cheese, but also plenty of carrots, onions and potatoes -- staples that made up virtually all of their diet for the first four months of their stay. "When we leave I will never look at those three vegetables again," he vows. "Whenever I'm in the U.S. or Germany I eat as much junk food as humanly possible without having a heart attack."

After getting over the culture shock, Wuerdig set about relaunching Raindance in Tashkent. Prospective bandmates saw him as the rich American. After all, didn't he already have a CD -- the locally produced, independently released Shake It Baby -- on shelves in America? "I was asked for cash to practice, to record, to play live, to learn their music, everything," he writes. "It took me a while to find good musicians that would do it for the love of music."

Eventually, Wuerdig got the band up and running. Their gigs have been almost exclusively at hotels and embassies. Raindance narrowly missed out on a truly historic gig as the first rock band to play in bordering Afghanistan. "We offered to do a free concert for the troops during the war but due to security concerns they declined at the last minute," he writes. "We were literally packing our gear to drive out to the base when new fighting erupted and they called us to cancel. I'm still kind of sad about that…Of course I'm also happy not to have had my head blown off and a bassist with two arms."

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