A bit o’ this, a bit o’ that

Baku, Sunday 30th July 2006

It has been a rather hectic, windswept week this week and what follows is likely to be a fairly random clutch of (or at) recollections…

Starting at the beginning, I had not one but two of the Bentley boys come to town on Monday.  As I may have mentioned previously, Bentley supply BP with the database I am filling and their man Dave has come across from Aberdeen to visit me a couple of times.  He’s a good chap and we get on well both in the office and at the bar.  On this occasion he brought his colleague Colin with him and the three of us have been working hard while playing not so hard these last few days.  While Colin is staying a further week Dave has now flown home but not before we had a bit of a night out on Friday.

There is a new bar in town called Qbar.  It’s an open terrace bar (a surprisingly rare thing in Baku) on the second floor of a building in the Old City.  Three sides of the square have open views across the top of the Old City and towards the sea as you sit bathed in the orange/red light of what look like glowing three-foot tall jelly mould effigies of bedside lamps – imagine the sort of lamps you might see in someone’s apartment in Buck Rogers or Battlestar Galactica and you get the idea.  It’s a very pleasant space with simply frightful service (I had already been there twice and walked out both times having got bored waiting for the drink to arrive) and it was here that Dave, Colin and I met a larger group of BP folk for drinks after dinner.

Having had a couple of glasses of wine with dinner I decided to stay with the grape and drink Port as mixing one’s drinks can prove particularly foolhardy with size of the measures served in Baku.  Two glasses later things were going swimmingly; then one of our party decided it was cocktails all round and I was told in no uncertain terms that I was going to have a double Alaskan Ice Tea.  It is a concoction that I had never heard of but a quick look at the small print soon made clear what was to come.

My love of Long Island Iced Tea has been well documented in all details but the recipe and for the record it is a single shot each of white rum, tequila, vodka, gin and Cointreau topped off with a little lemon juice and some cola.  It sounds lethal and it is but mixed correctly it tastes very similar to an actual iced tea and goes down just as well.  Heading north across the state border strips away the niceties and leaves you with a drink that is far less artful in its intentions.  Start with the same five shots, forget about the lemon and the cola and throw in a shot of Blue Curacao instead: voila one Alaskan Ice Tea.  The sweetness of the Curacao goes part way to fulfilling the cola’s role and taking some fire out of the alcohols’ flavour but you are still left with an uncompromisingly robust combination; and it’s blue.  I only had the one as I was called away by a ‘phone call but it was enough to put a spring in my step.  The next morning I discovered that the party had continued for a further couple of hours after I left – probably just as well I didn’t stay!

A different set of Bentley boys turned up on Tuesday night as the Amsterdam to Beijing Rally swept through town.  If you have car registered before 1974, thirty thousand Euros for the entry fee and the desire to drive that car ten thousand miles in a month across all manner of terrain then you too could have joined the hundred and twenty-strong cavalcade that is currently heading east at a rate of five hundred kilometres per day.  They all stayed the night at the Park Hyatt before catching the ferry to Turkmenistan on Wednesday so I got a good look at all the cars, some good photos and a great view from the office balcony as the police stopped the traffic for them all to file out in procession when they left.  It was a bizarre mixture of vehicles ranging from a couple of VW Beetles and DAF coupes (I didn’t know DAF even made a coupe!) through to a rare Mercedes gull-wing and at least half a dozen Bentleys.  They in turn featured two distinctly different rarities: a 1920’s beast in British Racing Green of type much loved for winning Le Mans and a huge limousine on Monaco plates that I was told had bespoke aluminium coachwork by Mulliner.  Throw in a generous assortment of mostly fifties-era Jaguars, a couple of excellent old Porsches and even a fifties Cadillac Eldorado and there was something for just about everyone in the car park.  Coming from a nation where most ‘old car’ aficionados keep their pride and joy locked in a climate-controlled garage for ninety percent of the year I found it very refreshing to see a group of equally devoted owners who were prepared to use their automobiles the way the maker intended and drive them for enjoyment.  If I ever have the time the money and the vehicle you can count on me to join in at the earliest opportunity.  Bonne route to them all.

I joined a couple of friends from work this afternoon and we had our own little rally.  Both men have four-by-fours and they fancied trying out a couple of tracks outside the city.  In places the tracks developed a habit of disappearing and we found ourselves bouncing around like tennis balls in the scrub.  It is also quite disconcerting to be heading across a seemingly open, level plain and then discover a huge crack in the ground left across your path by an earthquake that occurred way back whenever. We had a very good time though.  The challenge of the driving (for me the navigating) kept us all on our toes and the scenery while being desolate was often very handsome with colourful sedimentary formations in cliffs and on hillsides, occasional dramatic rock outcrops and some meandering old riverbeds.  We covered a lot of miles and if you will pardon the unintentional pun it was indeed good to get off the beaten track for a bit.  Perhaps more of the same soon.


Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun…

Baku, Sunday 23rd July 2006

It would appear that I’ve been making a bit of progress at work.  The data that I have been working with for the offshore part of the project are now deemed to be in good enough order for me to have been asked to work on the project’s onshore data as well.  I appreciate the show of confidence from those who have asked, especially when bearing in mind that the new task has the same deadline as the offshore part (end of September) and involves learning how to work with a completely different group of companies, people and systems.  Methinks the next couple of months are likely to be rather busy…

The new work has started with meeting some new people and visiting some new places so I have found myself spending a lot of time on the road these last few days, often in the company of BP drivers who I have not met before.  What a curious selection of fellows they are.  As the project nears completion and staff levels reduce we have equally reduced the number of cars and drivers in the transport pool.  Having heard various opinions in recent weeks regarding the process of choosing which drivers stay and which drivers go, I am starting to think that the longest serving drivers are likely to be those who exhibit the correct amount of mild eccentricity.

BP drivers have to undergo some comprehensive training and tests in defensive driving techniques and similar before they are allowed to drive for the company.  Just to make very sure no-one ‘forgets’ his training, all BP vehicles are fitted with a “driveright” device which essentially acts as a digital tachograph and records journey times, speeds, acceleration and braking.  All drivers are expected to be virtually identical in their conduct behind the wheel.  In Baku this even appears to extend to the choice of music with every vehicle’s radio defaulting to 107.7FM Europa Plus: a Russian language equivalent of London’s Capital Radio with a similarly short play list, the same excessive repetition of the same half dozen adverts and some comparably self-congratulatory sounding presenters.

The description so far no doubt sounds rather dull but human invention always finds ways to circumvent restrictions and this situation is no exception.  A few days ago I paid my first visit to the Sangachal Terminal: a huge site about forty-five minutes drive out of the city where BP’s offshore oil comes on land for distribution and where the offshore gas is soon to start doing the same.  My driver for the trip was a man in his mid to late twenties called Elmar.  He’s a pleasant chap, quite talkative (some the older drivers are silent statues) and as I learned that day quite a music fan when the right song comes on.

It was a hot sunny afternoon (once again) and we were heading quietly down the highway with the air-conditioning whispering and Europa Plus on the radio.  Elmar and I were mostly saying nothing apart from making occasional comments about the surrounding traffic – something that is easily done with the shows on display from so many of the other drivers.  A propos nothing in particular Elmar suddenly asked me if I liked music.  I said yes.  The opening bars of Nick Cave and Kylie Minogue’s duet “Where The Wild Roses Grow” had just started playing on the radio.  The next thing I knew Elmar had grabbed the volume control and Nick Cave’s deep, dark and dangerously dolorous tones were ringing out so loud I thought the nearest speaker was about to propel itself out of the dashboard and land in my lap.  We continued down the highway in respectful (?) silence as every last note and breath of the couple’s sad tale reverberated around the car at a volume on the brink of distortion.  It was one of those rare moments where the song was not cut abruptly short by a jingle but allowed instead to play right through.  Perhaps Elmar had learnt to expect this as his casual but instant reduction of the volume back to ‘normal’ was perfectly executed at the song’s conclusion.  Neither of us said a word for several minutes after.

A couple of days prior to the Nick Cave Experience I was picked up by a different chap; who’s name I have yet to learn; for a run from the yard to the Hyatt office.  When I got into the car he didn’t have Europa Plus on the radio or indeed any of the recognised alternatives that populate the preset buttons.  After a few minutes’ conversation accompanied by a couple of pieces of ‘music’ I had been made l aware in no uncertain terms that this man considered himself a jazz fan.  I say ‘music’ in inverted commas and “considered” because the noise being emitted by the radio at the time was the soulless, brainless mush that one commonly associates with lifts, lobbies and shopping precincts.  Add the sound of the driver’s clearly audible, seemingly laboured breathing to the equation and one further comparison sprang more clearly to mind: that of sitting in a porn cinema in the nineteen seventies.  The impression was exacerbated by his appearance: middle-aged with spread, long slightly greasy looking hair combed back from a beyond-receding hairline and a sizeable paunch clothed in a shirt of eye-catching black and white print material.

Never judge a book and all that: he soon proved to be a very nice bloke and we chatted about this and that during the trip.  He’s taken me for one other journey since and the jazz radio station was playing some half-decent music on that occasion – things are looking up.  I’d imagine we’ll meet again before too long (assuming the heavy breathing doesn’t suddenly become too much of a labour first) but in the meantime there’s always the question of which ‘new’ driver I might meet next.


I wouldn’t want to be a goat here this morning…

Baku, Sunday 16th July 2006

It is still very much high Summer in Baku and there are a couple more noteworthy seasonal observations worth making.  One that made itself particularly evident last night is that it is currently dacha season for the city’s well-to-do folk.  Traditionally a dacha is a country house or cottage in Russian and it appears that anybody who’s anybody round here has one about forty-five minutes or so out of town.  Once the temperatures reach a certain level there is a mass exodus and everybody disappears out into the country for a month or two.  It’s similar to les grandes vacances of Paris but with two distinct differences.  Firstly, unlike the Parisians the Bakuvians (I believe that is the correct term) don’t go so far away from the city that they can’t continue working during the week, they merely extend their commute by half an hour or so.  The result is that in Baku the traffic is still dire most of the time Monday to Friday, while in Paris there are so many fewer cars that they happily close one of the main roads next to the Seine for a month and turn it into a beach.  Secondly and somewhat conversely, while Paris still has enough Parisians (and tourists) left behind to keep the city alive outside working hours Baku is a virtual ghost town at the moment.  A small group of us met at The Lounge last night for a drink and a snack before heading downtown to continue the night.  We arrived, went round four different places in half an hour and walked straight out of each one without even approaching the bar: the city was dead and it was barely midnight.  It was back to The Lounge for us…

Summer also sees a growth in the variety and number of street hawkers around town.  Baku’s streets have constant population of people offering all manner of goods and services.  There are old men and women selling sunflower seeds and toasted nuts in little cones of folded newspaper, people selling mobile ‘phone top-ups, men with cameras offering to take your photograph next to some sort of artefact such as a shabby and weathered approximation of a Teletubby; there’s a bit of everything here.  I fear those men with the cameras are going to disappear relatively soon: the novelty of the photograph may yet be quite fresh in this city but the digital camera and particularly the ‘phone camera are sweeping into town so fast that this little corner of the world could become one of the most short-lived sites in history for mass use of 35mm film.

These people are currently joined by a number of others – almost exclusively young men – who are offering Summer fruits by the bucket load, literally (albeit small buckets).  I’ve been offered strawberries, raspberries and a little more besides on several occasions in the last couple of weeks.  As agricultural Azerbaijan appears to be a world away from the forced farming, fertilizers and pesticides that surround much of the produce available in Britain I’m sure these wares are worth every penny of the undoubtedly reasonable price that will be demanded (even allowing for the mark-up that will be added for me being an obvious foreigner).  What on earth am I going to do with an entire bucket of strawberries of though?  Might have to have a Summer Fruit Party with a few friends or similar…

A couple of days ago I encountered a street sale with a difference.  It was half past seven in the morning and I was on the drive to work, sitting in the front passenger seat with the window down.  The drive is eastwards and the low sun makes seeing details ahead quite difficult in places.  Looking down the straight, empty street there was a crossroads with traffic lights a hundred yards ahead and young boy of about ten or so was standing there holding something out into the road at arms length; it was about the size of balled up handkerchief and totally unidentifiable at that distance.  We arrived at the junction and stopped at the red light (BP drivers are trained to observe such things) and I found myself on perfect eye level with the young boy right next to me by the open window.  Beneath a mop of dark hair he had striking grey eyes, within which was a look I could not immediately define.  In his hands he held not a handkerchief but a very small grey rabbit that he had been holding forth by its ears.  Neither of us said a word.  I looked away, the lights changed to green and we drove on.  I’ve not seen the boy since; I would guess he either made his sale that day, gave up or changed pitch.  I wonder what has become of the rabbit…

One last thing worth mentioning in case it hasn’t made the international news due to other stories – mostly Israel-related no doubt – taking precedence: the BTC pipeline was given its official inauguration on Thursday.  For those who don’t already know, it’s an oil pipeline that runs over one thousand kilometres from Baku via Tblisi to Ceyhan on the Turkish Mediterranean coast (hence BTC) that has been built over the last few years by a BP-lead group of companies.  Various folk are trumpeting its significance as a major break from the energy sources controlled by the OPEC states and Russia and the reported scale of the inauguration event certainly suggests that a lot of people from around the world have taken an interest.  On a local level I can safely say that Azerbaijan (whose oil is filling the pipeline) must be very proud of the achievement if the scale of Thursday night’s fireworks is anything to go by.  I don’t know if it’s the acoustics of the local topography and buildings, the height at which the fireworks were detonating or type of gunpowder they use here but as I walked through the city that night it sounded like war was breaking out.  The explosions were deafening and so strong that every parked car that had an alarm had its sirens and lights going off.  It was an impressive display though; Baku might be dead in the Summer but people here still know how to party when they want to.


The beautiful game?

Not much sleep over the weekend but quite a lot of football and associated drama.  Came within inches of crashing a party hosted by the Italian Ambassador to watch the final last night – could have been an entertaining atmosphere considering the antics that took place on the pitch.  Shakespeare’s Pub ultimately proved to be a perfectly usable alternative venue.

Work continues here in the face of new and intriguing technical hitches: computers can be so gloriously frustrating sometimes!

Hot in the city

Baku, Sunday 9th July 2006

The joys of Summer are most definitely upon us here in Baku.  Travelling around the city is far from dull at the worst of times but at this time of year the warmth and the sunshine seem to be bringing a little extra colour into life.  This can be seen literally when walking around the city centre: the clashing combinations of colours and designs that people wear around town are reaching new heights of vibrancy (and in some cases outright garishness).  The numerous pairings of mothers escorting their daughters provide some of the best examples.  They walk together down the street, often with arms linked, and mother will be usually be wearing a long skirt and a top in conservative cuts and hues while her best-beloved will be sporting anything from a hip-hop-esque outfit or an eighties pop star look through to ‘traditional’ Summer dress in floral print or any combination of such.  The young men of Baku – often also strolling with arms linked – are not to be outdone in this sartorial shoot-out and they too display an impressive range and blend of styles.  For all their diversity these people are united by the single fact (and slight irony) that their modern, ‘western’-inspired outfits would look totally out of place in Europe or America right now but it is marvellous to see such individuality and creativity in motion.  One wonders how it might evolve over the next couple of years.

On the roads we are currently enjoying the thrills of the wedding season, as indicated by the large number of wedding limousines plus attendant cars that can frequently be seen haring around the place with hazard lights flashing, horns blaring and most vestiges of road sense even more conspicuously absent than usual.  These are not simply corteges trying to get to the church or mosque on time but apparently a rather time-corrupted enactment of an old tradition where the bridal vehicle goes chasing off around the city in pursuit of good luck with all the well wishers following in close formation.  The limo is typically a white Merc S-Class with bows on the door handles and a long, wide white or pink ribbon running full length from headlight to taillight a bouquet of flowers perched on the front end of it.  Chase cars are a random assortment of personal transport (lots of Ladas) and usually have little red bows affixed to the door-handles and windscreen wipers (I believe the red harks back to the traditional Azeri marriage colour).

Thankfully some of these madcap dashes are kept vaguely in check by a pace car: that is some chap with a video camera filming from the back of a vehicle that’s leading the bridal car.  Some folk use pick-up trucks, others hatchbacks with the hatch open but the one that gets me every time is the cameraman squatting in the back of an estate/wagon model Tofas taxi with the hatch open.  I can’t help wondering how many of these brave/reckless souls find themselves lying on the road in the middle of a near-death experience each year but they keep doing it; and for what?  I can’t think of many things less interesting in the course of a wedding video than half an hour’s footage of Merc’s radiator grille wobbling around on the screen in heavy traffic.  An Azeri friend of mine has invited me to her wedding in October and I will be most curious to see if any of this takes place and if I will be expected to get involved; watch this space…

The other seasonal sight on the roads is the country folk driving into the city to sell their latest harvests of fruit and vegetable produce.  The chariot of choice appears to be the trusty old Volga: a large Russian saloon car that has been in production for at least fifty years and can still be bought brand new today.  During the decades the basic body design has evolved from semi-cool looking Americana pastiche to something quite unique and ugly while the underpinnings have remained as basic and as tough as a tractor’s.  The formula is simple: first take one seriously battered sixties-model Volga with full roof rack fitted – the more dilapidated the better.  Second, load boot, roof rack, back seat, passenger seat, foot-wells and any other spare space in the vehicle with produce, bearing in mind that if you are able to close the boot or see out of the side windows and your car isn’t twice its usual height you obviously haven’t loaded enough produce.  Third, drive the two- or three-hundred kilometres to the city, not forgetting to take a couple of Manats with you to bribe the traffic cop in case you get pulled over for being seriously overloaded.

On the way home from work yesterday we drove past a perfect example of one of these cars parked on a city street.  How it got there I’ll never know: the back end was so low the bodywork was virtually kissing the tarmac and the front end was so high I’d swear you could have passed a cigarette paper between the front wheels and the road.  My driver told me that people frequently load one to two tonnes into these cars and that you will often see them crashed on the main highways leading into Baku, usually because the driver fell asleep at the wheel.  Of those that do make it, the drivers who get stopped by the police apparently get away with a bribe of two Shirvan to be allowed to continue on their way.  Two Shirvan is twenty thousand old Manats, equalling four new Manats, about four and a half US Dollars or two pound forty in Sterling.  Put in a local perspective it’s the price of a bottle of imported beer or a gin and tonic in most bars in the city.  Can’t see it happening in England somehow…


Nice Weather for Kites

Baku, Sunday 2nd July 2006

This appears to be a weekend choc-full of sport.  With the football World Cup, a Formula One GP, a motorcycle GP, tennis at Wimbledon and the start of the Tour de France all going on (among other things) there must be a lot of people out there wondering how they’re going to fit it all in.  Personally I have settled for a set’s worth of Agassi versus Nadal and a couple of football matches, including of course England’s woeful defeat at the hands of a much aided and abetted Portugal.  The choices of referee for some of the recent matches have been interesting to say the least but I think putting three Argentinean officials on the field for an England game just about takes the biscuit!  Moving swiftly on…

Highlight of the week has been Tuesday night where Ayla and I concluded our participation of the Baku Jazz Festival with an international double.  Our first stop was at the Heydar Aliyev Palace to see a very special guest give the official closing performance of the festival.

I was first introduced to the music of Herbie Hancock about fifteen years ago.  Having recently started playing a bass guitar and become dep rehearsal player in a band with friends at school, I found myself getting to grips with the line for Watermelon Man one day.  It was a great piece of music that I neither played well enough nor fully appreciated the significance of at the time (being a bit of metal fan then) but I got there eventually.  The album Head Hunters found its way into my collection a while back and I’ve kept half an eye open for what Hancock has been doing over the years, noting that his love of experimentation has taken him in all sorts of different directions with greater and lesser degrees of success.  When the opportunity to see him play live presented itself – and in Baku of all places – I knew it was time to book tickets.

The line-up as billed was pretty simple: Hancock on piano plus drums, bass, guitar/vox and violin/vox.  What the billing couldn’t take into account was Hancock’s three synthesisers plus Apple and rack and the extraordinary array electronic extras and effects that all the other musicians had at their command.  When Hancock walked on (late), introduced the guitarist as being from Benin and declared that the gig was to be their first of a European tour as a new band with a new sound, there was no doubting that experimentation is still his raison d’être.

A quick mention should be made of the guitarist in this regard because he has some impressive tricks up his traditionally-attired sleeve.  He alternated between two guitars – an electro-classical and a semi-acoustic electric – and his left foot hovered over a bank of effects for them while his right foot controlled an other bank of effects for his vocal mic.  He took a solo spot where he sampled himself beating out different rhythms on the guitar and playing a melody, looped them all simultaneously and sang over the resulting piece of music.  Very impressive.  For those who are interested the man’s name is Lionel Loueke.

If I had to choose one word to summarise the gig: hardcore.  Friends of mine once commented that the band photograph in Head Hunters makes them look like they’ve landed from an other planet with Hancock helming the spaceship.  On Tuesday night’s evidence I’m prepared to believe that the effect was entirely deliberate: Hancock had moments where the music he was playing sounded decidedly otherworldly.  Some of the improvisation work was so syncopated and modal that keeping track of the structure required serious concentration on the drums and bass.  There’s no doubting that all five players knew exactly what was going on though.  On numerous occasions the music seemed to energetically approaching approaching the verge of anarchy only to be brought back into sharp control by a crisp ensemble change of dynamic, after which the head would usually reappear and order would return.  Briefly.  Not being a seasoned jazz fan I was probably out of my depth and missing a lot of cunning stuff but I still had a great time working out what I could.

While I wasn’t keeping a strict count I think the main set only comprised five compositions: a piece Hancock wrote in the sixties, three new ones and at the mid point a fantastic interpretation of a traditional Azeri song (beautifully sung by the female violinist/singer) that had the crowd cheering wildly.  It felt a bit short until I flicked the ‘phone back on to check the time and realised that each piece must have lasted ten to fifteen minutes as they’d played for over an hour.  As if to make sure no one felt disappointed the encore piece was a twenty minute workout of Chameleon and it rocked.  We left happy but we left fast because the next gig was the other side of town and the clock was ticking.

Maria Joao was supposed to perform on Monday night but there was apparently a delay at Austrian Airlines which meant she wasn’t able to arrive in time so they decided to postpone her until after Hancock’s gig on Tuesday.  As Joao is Portuguese Ayla and I conjectured less charitably that she had been up celebrating her national team’s football success too long on Sunday night and had missed her flight that way.  Either or it makes no odds as she was well worth the wait.

The venue this time was the 1033 Club, a hotel disco space owned and run by the Hyatt.  I am told that Joao has been incorporating a lot of electronic beats and sounds into her work so in that context the venue made sense.  It transpired however that for this gig she was performing a straight voice, piano, bass and drums set and for that the venue was entirely unsuitable, having very ‘live’, reverb-riddled acoustics and no intimacy of atmosphere to settle the audience.  Indeed it was most upsetting to find that more than half the audience was happy to talk loudly over the entire performance even after Joao had made a direct request after the first song that the conversationalists shut up so that the rest of us could enjoy the music.  I put up with it for so long and then went to sit on the floor in front of the stage so that I could hear the musicians a little better.

That might sound a little extreme but Joao was worth it.  Hancock may have headlined the festival as the most famous act on the bill but Joao takes the prize for the most heartfelt and emotive performance; and I do not speak as a long-standing devotee: I’d never even heard her name until Ayla recommended her, let alone her music.  Where Barbara Leah Meyer used the same line-up to offer polished standards in measured tones Joao used her voice as melodic and percussive instrument and delivered every single tone and phrase with such conviction and verity one could not help but take an avid interest.  That she was doing so in such an awful venue and in the face of such an unsympathetic crowd made me admire her all the more; and it was her birthday.  I could try drawing comparisons with Kate Bush, Björk and/or Tori Amos but none would really come close enough to the reality to do justice.  Go see her perform and make of it what you will.

Closing on one further musical note, I have just finished reading “1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die.”  Being written mostly by American and British music journalists it has a certain slant towards those nations that some may wish to argue with but it also offers a fascinating view of musical history from 1955 to 2005.  I thoroughly enjoyed it and would recommend it to anyone who has even a passing interest in ‘western’ popular music.  Head Hunters is in there…