ROGERS PARK — Rogers Park's hometown bluegrass band Henhouse Prowlers recently took their brand of Americana music outside the U.S. — and across an ocean — to Pakistan.
Established in 2004, Henhouse Prowlers is comprised of members Ben Wright, Jon Goldfine, Aaron Dorfman and Kyle O’Brien. Their recent world travels have been funded through a program called "American Music Abroad" sponsored by the State Department.
To be considered for the travel grant, the band learned a West African song and performed it for a group of politicians and dignitaries. Shortly after the quartet took that stage, they were on their way.
Henhouse Prowlers with a group of elementary school students in Pakistan. [Henhouse Prowlers]
“We started with West Africa and then East Africa, and now I can’t explain how we have ended up traveling to all these countries,” Wright said. In Africa alone, the band has traveled to 11 different countries to perform for locals.
While in Pakistan this spring, the band discovered Qawwali music, which members say they became "obsessed" with. Qawwali musicians work in a groups of 8-10 to harmonize with each other vocally while playing the tabla and/or the harmonium.
While bluegrass and traditional Pakistani rarely intersect, the band said they found similarities between the two genres when they collaborated with Hamza Akram’s band.
Henhouse Prowlers performing with Hamza Akram's Qawwali band. [Youtube/Arif Vlogs]
“When we were there we actually got the opportunity to perform with Hamza Akram, a famous Qawwali singer, and his brothers,” said Wright, who learned banjo after he bought one at the Old Town School of Folk Music in 1999 when he was 23. "The tradition of Qawwali singing has been in Akram’s family for 26 generations."
While in Pakistan, the Prowlers did have occasional moments of culture shock; they landed on the heels of a European tour and had just traveled from Siberia to Qatar to Moscow in the span of a few days. Every day was filled with new experiences.
While in Pakistan, a running joke developed in the band after local media learned Dorfman had fallen in love with gulab jamun, a milk-based fried dough ball dipped in sugary syrup. In turn, locals served it to him every chance they got.
“I was asked as soon as I landed what my favorite food was and the first thing that came to mind was gulab jamun,” joked Dorfman, who got his bachelor's degree in jazz guitar performance from Northern Illinois University.
The culture, food, and politics were all overwhelmingly different, but the band said adjusting to Pakistan's wide wealth gap was the most jarring acclimation.
“The disparity between the rich and poor is so apparent in countries like Pakistan. It really takes you aback, especially when you return to America. You can’t complain about things for a while,” said band member Jon Goldfine, a Chicago native whose dad played trombone and mom sang opera.
In addition to collecting unprecedented experiences, new favorite foods, bits and pieces of foreign languages and a handful of souvenirs, the Henhouse Prowlers say their greatest takeaway will be the musical influences they've brought back home.
Mixing unique world sounds with Americana roots music will be a challenge, but the band said they hope to strike the right balance while evolving their sound.
“We try to bring back as much as we can and incorporate it, but we are still a bluegrass band,” said Dorfman.
Henhouse Prowlers performing an American folk song with Rubab player, Saad Azhar Khan Yousafzai, in Islamabad. [Henhouse Prowlers]
In return, the band's contributions to the countries they visited as part of the American Music Abroad program were expected to be bridge-building experiences with other cultures and countries.
"It’s different from stiff diplomats shaking hands behind closed doors — it’s real people talking to real people,” Wright said. “You aren't there to toe the government's line. In Pakistan I had an interesting conversation with an older gentleman, and I didn't agree with all of his views, but we both recognized that our experiences are completely different. These are the little windows that open you up into someone else’s perspective.”
The band plans on continuing to travel around the world while also performing in Chicago. They have upcoming gigs scheduled in Czechoslovakia, Germany and Belgium, among other countries.
And they are still on the hunt for the best gulab jamun.