If you were to drill a hole from the base of the Calgary Tower straight through the Earth, you would come out near the coast of Australia, somewhere in the Indian Ocean. Technically, I suppose I could be further away from Calgary as I sit here in Istanbul, two blocks from the Hagia Sofia. But I feel about as far away from Calgary as I ever have.
I’m in Turkey to perform at the invitation of the Canadian Ambassador to Turkey, Mark Bailey. The ambassador contacted me (through Fast Forward Weekly’s international bureau, honest!) about staging a journey that would bring some authentic western Canadian music to this distant, but very central, part of the world. Naturally, I accepted and as a result the last three weeks have seen me crossing continents and oceans and time zones by the dozen. (Well, officially only nine time zones, but that’s still pretty far.)
THE ROAD TO TURKEY
I begin my journey in Germany, performing twice in four nights in Dortmund (where I see a Kris Demeanor poster on the bathroom wall) and in Solingen. I’m then off to London to stage a solo version of my play Don Coyote. My host there is an amazing artist named Beth Derbyshire, who puts on a monthly cabaret in her studio called S.T.E.W. The June instalment of S.T.E.W. pairs me with a London filmmaker named Maria Marshall, who presents an eight-minute spaghetti western called Lollypop, complete with an original score by Blur’s Damon Albarn.
I arrive in Ankara and meet up with my girlfriend, Amanda. My first Turkish gig is a few nights later at a Turkish country-and-western bar, Amarillo’s Grill. If it wasn’t for the large Turkish flag onstage, this bar could easily be situated anywhere along Highway 22. Ankara is a government centre and lots of western diplomats and embassy staff head to Amarillo’s for a glass of Efes, the national beer.
As I climb onstage, I’m a little struck — here is my first gig in Central Asia, or the Middle East, whichever exotic title you prefer — and the place feels about as foreign as The Palomino. With the mostly ex-pat crowd, people get my jokes and even sing along when they know the words. The staff from the Canadian embassy is well represented in the audience and I sense a bit of homesickness among them, although that might be the wrong word. The people who work in the foreign service choose to leave Canada in order to work on our behalf abroad and they frequently add an extra year to their postings. In fact, homesickness is definitely the wrong word: What I feel in the air is a passion for Canada.
At the end of my first set, a Turkish violinist who is also scheduled to perform at the upcoming Canada Day celebration approaches me. She’s come to check out this Canadian country singer. With a confidence I instantly recognize, she tells me she wants to sit in on the second set. I give her the look you give to a stranger who asks to jump onstage with you and somehow knew she had what it took. Safek plugs in her white electric violin and we introduce ourselves as the Turkish-Canadian Country Connection. She is a hit. Classically trained in Turkish music, she brings a very different and very cool sound to my show. Country and Middle Eastern, I guess.
The next morning we are bound for Alanya, a city of 150,000 that balloons to 1 million during the tourist season — and with good reason. Situated on the Mediterranean, the beaches are endless and the sea is as blue as one can imagine. A Byzantine-era castle overlooks the port. In Turkey, you can’t help running into history. It truly is the cradle of civilization and that was something I couldn’t grasp until I experienced it.
That night I play a western-themed steak house, The Big Horn Café. This isn’t the most memorable gig. It is a well-intentioned but ill-prepared venue. What had been booked as a two-night stand is reduced to a single night. Ah, life on the road.
We make the most of the unexpected night off. After a nice dinner in the port, Amanda and I go for a walk on the beach and I ask her to marry me. She says “Yes.” Sometimes a cancelled gig is a blessing in disguise.
We are up early to travel to Istanbul for two days of sightseeing, but I won’t bother with that part of the trip, because there are no gigs, and also because I get very sick. All I see of Istanbul is the bathroom. We return to Ankara for the big Canada Day performance and the Ambassador’s residence is buzzing with activity. The event itself goes over perfectly. Attendance is better then expected — for the first time all week it doesn’t rain, and word has it that the imported cowboy singer does alright too.
I’ve sung before bigger crowds, but I tell you, as I take the stage to sing the national anthem and look out over the crowd of international military and diplomatic personal, I feel, maybe for the first time, how important this performance is. This isn’t the usual music crowd. This is a group of people who have dedicated their lives to bringing the world together. These are the people who deal with the stories we see on TV first-hand. They choose to live far from their homes and loved ones to dedicate themselves to work that too often goes unappreciated. Some are young people, some are veterans, but all have that commitment, that passion for their respective homelands, and all hold a personal belief in making the world a better place. It is inspiring. And among them, I have been chosen to sing “O Canada.” I have rarely felt so proud in my life.
After 10 days in Turkey, the writer in me wishes I had some deep insight into the culture or the community. I could list dozens of Turks I met who I will always remember. Pril, who helped me find a ring for Amanda. Hüsnü, our driver who never seemed to sleep. Simin and Kaan, who got me on heavy rotation on MaxFM 95.8, an Ankara Station with some 200,000 listeners. But the real insights I’ve gained are about myself and my role in this world as a Canadian.
Canadians are travellers. Albertans in particular have travel in our roots; no matter who they were, our ancestors had to travel to get to where we are today. And it is in travelling to distant places that I’ve found my greatest passion for my country. It’s in travelling that I’ve found the courage to commit myself to the woman I love. It’s furthest from Canada where I’ve found my countrymen and women who are most committed to the ideals of democracy and equality — the ideals that make Canada the home I love.