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August 10-17, 2010 LAOS Vientiane / Vang Vieng / Luang Prabang
  The Hunt
  Steve & Gary scour northern Laos in attempts to find local traditional instruments & musicians. The search proves to be more challenging than expected.
  That's No Place For a Guitar
  Steve & Gary grow tired in the Lao heat and opt to partake in the ill-advisedly carrying of precious items down river on a tube while avoiding techno and stray hitchhikers.
The Show
  Steve and Gary get a taste of local village life as they hop on the back of Kai and Thongs motorcycle and cruise to a local Hmong Village.
Riverside Muppet Session  
Steve and Gary pop a cold one overlooking the mighty Mekong; a scene that inspires Steve to bust out a series of rhymes ... Laos style.  
Recorded in Luang Prabang, August 15, 2010

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Laos: A Challenging Hunt  
Gary and I were both officially ready to begin our year on with a trip down the backpacker-soaked trail of Vientiane through to Vang Vieng and ending at the World Heritage City of Luang Prabang. Armed with our new sexy SonyHD NXCAM, a new ukulele to accompany your obligatory acoustic guitar, and our first ever sponsor, we hit the road.

Seetha Palace Hotel offered us accommodation for two nights upon arrival in Vientiane. It was very gracious of them and our first official sponsor of the show. The setting was French Colonial and they were even so gracious as to pick us up at the airport in their London taxi. Thomas, the General Manager might have been a little unsure of our reason for being in Laos even though we were rather clear on the welcome letter. He was great as he arranged a special Lao food tasting with their head German chef, Ralf and encouraged the filming of many rooms (which is not really content for the show but we obliged). We filmed the cooking affair as On The Beat and Path got cuisine’d out.
The days in Vientiane were wet and this initially slowed our production. Nowhere have we experienced rain but it was to be and we tried to make the best of it by setting up in the hotel lobby playing improvised Lao folk songs and performing silly skits for whoever wanted to watch. As the rain finally stopped we hit the trail in order to get footage for Part One: The Hunt. I wanted to find some local musicians who played the Khene (a local bamboo reed instrument) and the Saw (a violin-like instrument). We found a music school that had all the necessities including people and local instruments. Regrettably, we were on our own in terms of language and as Bill Hicks once famously said, “they looked at us like a dog that was just showed a card trick."

We attempted to put our mission into action and use music as our language of communication. That seemed to have minimal effect as the shop owner (name pronounced “Pissy” but I am sure it has different cultural meaning in the Golden Triangle) began to sing some Lao lyrics when I attempted to play some of their instruments. We even jammed a little as he played the Xylophone (out of tune) and I accompanied on the guitar. In terms of content, it wasn’t a failure but there was work to be done.

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We hired a Tuk Tuk driver and he happily took us around to the ‘sights’ to get what we call ‘context footage’. We enjoyed the local temples (Stupa That Luang) and monuments (Victory). We filmed the escape of some birds, the passing cars and attempted our luck at conversing with the locals. Some moments were better than others.

Vientiane, being the urban hub of Laos, wasn’t giving us the rural feel that we were looking for so after a late night partying with two young German travelers, we hopped on a bus en route for Vang Vieng.
Bonus Scenes
  Fly Randall Fly!
  Steve & Gary do their part to free a few birds. Of course, they may have also played a part in making sure more birds are captured. Sometimes you just can't win.
  The Market Dare
  Gary and Steve compete for the most ridiculous outfits they can buy each other for US$5 at the Luang Prabang night market. They had some help.
  Monk's Alms and Problems
  Steve and Gary wake up very early in Luang Prabang to offer the local monks their daily alms only to discover that they'd first need to break out of their hotel.
  On the Beat and Path Goes Cuisine
  Steve and Gary are gifted with a feast of Laos delights prepared by the Seetha Palace Hotel's head chef, Ralf Haupt. It was so good, Steve even ate the seafood.
  T-Shirt Shopping for the Muppet Sessions
  Steve and Gary weren't finding much music in Vientiane, so naturally they resorted to buying some new t-shirts to change their luck. Steve ends up getting what he refers to as a "lawn mowing shirt," and Gary goes for pink. Is luck really the problem here?
Now I was in Vang Vieng seven years ago and remember referring to it as the ‘Wild West’ without the gunplay. No paved roads, few people, food was cheap, beer was plentiful and it was extremely laid back. Now it is Northern Laos’ closest option to Fort Lauderdale (or wherever kids from Michigan go for spring break). The river, normally enjoyed for a long day of tubing and fishing is now riddled with bars offering free whiskey, pink eye and a reason to not actually go tubing. I am not trying to paint the message that things have gotten worse in Vang Vieng. Not at all. Just different. And we have no one to blame but ourselves. But when we made a stop to play some music on the shore line and there were 12 year old boys drinking whiskey and smoking butts, something appeared ‘off’.

We did manage to get some incredible shots in Vang Vieng. The caves, cliffs and mountain setting allowed us to be fully inspired (note: Mountain Week airs September 1, 2010). Once again, we weren’t too lucky in finding musicians as bars opted for DJ music over live local music and residents of nearby villages were more confused about our arrival than welcoming. Seeing as most young foreigners in this town come to drink or smoke opium, I can understand why we may not be as welcome as we had hoped. Regardless, the greens of the tea fields and the cloud’s ability to dance with the mountaintops were truly amazing and we enjoyed our time eating, drinking and being merry in this little hideaway.

After two days of living the backpacker life and meeting people like Stella (20 something hopeful with a wicked past and a family she can’t trust), Maria (Ecuadorian DJ and nature lover with a gentle stroll and easy on the eyes), Tom & Jessica (a cute-as-can-be young couple in so much love and so obviously enjoyed each other so much that is was almost too easy to hang out with them), and of course, the ‘doublemint triplets’, we headed north yet again for the six hour journey to Luang Prabang.

We still did not have the footage for an episode and we had been in Lao for five days. We had copious amounts of Bonus Scene footage and content that can fill a screensaver but in terms of what the show was about, music, we were drastically behind. We checked into a simple guest house across from the Mekong and headed quickly to dinner before a session shoot at the night market. While at dinner I had an ‘itch’ to visit a local guide shop. I got up, left Gary to his thoughts and ventured across the street. The shop had some people waiting in line and with some curry and BeerLao on the way back at the restaurant, I was in no mood to wait. Across the street I noticed a quaint guide house with an old refurbished BMW war bike adorned with sidecar parked in the lobby. I must say the bike, coupled with the unarmed bombs in the lobby, (hopefully) peaked my interest.

“White Elephant Tours” was a local guide outfit co-run by a Canadian fellow but it was Kai who happened to be working. Kai was well educated, well dressed and was very welcoming. I told him of our show and what we wanted: an opportunity to go into some villages and meet with some local musicians who play local instruments. While no such tour was offered, Kai proceeded to tell me that he was from the Hmong (pronounced “mong") Village and he knew of many musicians. We arranged to meet the next morning at eleven for our adventure.

The morning after the night market hunt for bibs, slippers and cobra whiskey, Gary and I met Kai and his friend Thong (also from the Hmong Tribe) and off we were for a musical adventure. We hopped on to the back of their motorcycles with guitars, cameras and weaved through the Luang Prabang traffic on our way to the rural countryside. Once arrived, it didn’t take long for word to spread and as the village musicians gathered and kids stormed in, we realized we were about to be part of quite a show.

Xouahou was the main performer and he took pride in his culture. He dressed in traditional garb and while we were setting up, lost in our own responsibilities, he let out a blow into his Khene and began his stomp-like dance around the dusty floor in the centre of the courtyard. The Khene requires continuous breath. The fact that he was dancing and moving and jumping and spinning and never missed a breath on his instrument was testament to his abilities, skill and passion for performing. Local flute and nca (mouth flute-like instrument) player, Yalee, was next and humbly played a few traditional songs. Gary was quick to note how cute it was when they clapped for themselves after each song. We do the same.

Kai also invited a Shaman, Touvang, to demonstrate his traditional dance of luck. A Shaman would be invited to celebrations like new years or a wedding and bring luck to the people at the party. The dance involved singing and tossing two pieces of double-sided wood into the air. If they both fell up, that was good. If they both fell down, that was good, if it was one up and one down, he just threw them again so it appeared everyone always won. How wonderful.

As kids played with my ukulele, and I danced with Xouahou, we gathered footage and made some friends. Kids from this village have never seen a guitar before so I was delighted to be able to sing a few songs for them as they just sat, stared and smiled. The Lao community is a conservative bunch, rather shy, but when those smiles are unleashed it is an incredibly infectious glow.

Kai and Thong were also able to arrange some time for us at the local Children’s Cultural Centre where we threw down an impromptu jam with some local kids on drums and the xylophone while others played on handphones, gazed at my sticker-adorned guitar or stared at Gary’s hair. These kids were great musicians and after about seven minutes of jamming (I was using my acoustic guitar as a drum at this point) we all managed to stop brilliantly at the exact same moment.

The worry of lack-of-content and not meeting any musicians was now put to rest. We celebrated with a ‘muppet session’ and some cold Beer Lao atop the Phousi Mountain and called it a shoot.

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Mission: On the Beat and Path provides a window into the planet's love and longing for music, using music as the primary language of global communication in order to develop a multi-media outlet for the sharing of music, travel and friendship.
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