by Zazie Tobey, staff writer
Blankets hung from the windowless walls, and egg cartons were pinned to the low ceilings of a El Guasmo Youth Orchestra practice room in Guyaquil that looked more like a storage room than anything. The recycled cardboard and soft blankets served as an aid for acoustic sound, and a group of adolescents and teens gathered around ready for a musical performance. The Red State Ramblers crowded into the padded room located in the village of Zaruma and played traditional Appalachian music for the Ecuadorian audience. This was one of many stops on the tour, but for Global Studies professor Jeff Keith, it was the most memorable experience of his travels. The Ramblers were demonstrating fiddlestick rhythms for the teens. Ron Pen, a member of the band and longtime friend and professor from University of Kentucky, picked a student out of the audience to try fiddle beating, the language barrier standing strong between them. The young man enjoyed the fiddle stick and tried a slide whistle that Pen suggested next. As he explored the new instrument he lifted out of his social shell, loosening his facial expressions, finding joy in the loopy whistle noises. The language interpreter later told the Ramblers that this young man had just lost his father, and this brought him intense joy in a time of pain.
“These were typical of the interactions we had,” said Keith.
Together, Keith, Kevin Kehrberg, Ron Pen, Nikos Pappas, and Will Bacon make up the Red State Ramblers, an old time Appalachian string band based out of Kentucky. The Ramblers toured around Kyrgyzstan last January and just returned Oct. 28 from a tour in Ecuador, strumming up a storm at festivals, workshops and concerts for a little over a week. The band members have been close since their days at the University of Kentucky, where fellow band member and “fairy godfather” (as described by Keith) Ron Pen, taught many of them music and stayed connected, helping with the band ever since.
One morning during the Kyrgyzstan tour Pen received an e-mail from the Ecuadorian Embassy, looking to recruit a band for a festival presenting Rural American culture, a year-long event intended to expose Ecuadorians to a new view of American culture. The Embassy was interested in the Red State Ramblers because they believed they could accurately represent rural music traditions and redefine the characteristics of American music for Ecuadorians, broadening exposure past American Pop culture and the top twenty radio hits broadcasted out of cities, to give folks a taste of the backcountry, flat-footing, fiddle-strumming, banjo-picking side of America.
The Ramblers graciously accepted the gig.
While en route the flight attendants distributed pamphlets, courtesy of the State Department, which Keith fondly referred to as “packets of fear”. The packet was intended to inform travelers about Ecuador’s dangers as it folded out into sections on crime, disease, political unrest, and other warnings of serious danger.
“I was delighted to get to Ecuador and see it’s a pleasant place full of fabulous people,” said Keith. “There were plenty of safe areas. It was great to see just how amazing it was.”
“I was really only worried about where my DEET bug spray was,” said Kehrberg. It turned out to be dry season anyway.
The Red State Ramblers played music in a number of places in Ecuador. They flew into the city of Quito, the only location that they did not perform in. From there the band traveled to Quenca, an indigenous village, Loja, Zaruma, Machala, and ended with Guayaquil. In each location they played in venues such as the Rural America Festival’s indoor venue, an indigenous village, the Bi-National center in Guayaquil, in churches, schools and community center spaces.
“In Zaruma there was a threat of rain in a small town square perched on a summit, so we were moved into an incredibly ornate church, playing in front of the altar to a bunch of pews,” Keith said. “Mass ended and ten minutes later the concert started.”
The venues were very welcoming to the Ramblers, greeting them with a rush of autograph requests, but how up to date the building’s safety codes were was questionable.
“Once while we were playing, rain began to come through the roof,” Kehrberg recalled.
The Ramblers had to adjust to the relaxed nature of Ecuadorian culture in respect to their busy tour schedule.
“As musicians we’re used to, ‘if you’re not here by eight, we’re going on without you,’” said Keith. “But the culture was much more relaxed about time – we had to get used to the fluidity.”
At the last concert at the Bi-National center, Kehrberg fondly remembers the response after the show. The director of the center and the American consulate general David Lindwall approached the band after with a flood of compliments, saying that the Ramblers’ music touched hearts and was a powerful tool for communication between people and culture.
“It wasn’t until this last evening that I pictured it beyond a level of entertainment,” Kehrberg said. “We were helping to bridge something that was bigger than I had imagined… It was all very new to me. The farthest south I’ve been has been Mexico. I prepared a bit more than needed, but it was a wonderful experience.”
For now the Ramblers are taking a break from international tours, but they still have gigs lined up for the winter season. In December they are performing at the last concert in a Fall series sponsored by the University of Kentucky with the help of band member Pen.
“Old time music is a small community,” said Kehrberg. “This is a homecoming of sorts.”
While the Ramblers are back enjoying the comforts of home, they plan to continue expanding the tight perimeter of Rural Appalachian culture and old time string music into unacquainted territories.