June 14, 2003 - City Paper: How an ex-rocker from Nebraska made it to No. 1 on Estonia's pop music charts while serving in the Peace Corps in Estonia

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Estonia: The Peace Corps in Estonia: June 14, 2003 - City Paper: How an ex-rocker from Nebraska made it to No. 1 on Estonia's pop music charts while serving in the Peace Corps in Estonia

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How an ex-rocker from Nebraska made it to No. 1 on Estonia's pop music charts while serving in the Peace Corps in Estonia

How an ex-rocker from Nebraska made it to No. 1 on Estonia's pop music charts while serving in the Peace Corps in Estonia

When Douglas Wells joined the U.S. Peace Corps and prepared to depart for a tour of duty in Estonia ten years ago, he figured he was leaving his semi-professional life as a rock musician behind him for good. The native of Nebraska, then 27, had played in a series of bands in high school and then in college. He dreamed of stardom in the United States. But his big break never came.

He brought along his guitar when he came to Estonia—working on the island of Hiiumaa as a small business consultant—playing it mostly to relax at night. But one day, for fun, he sat in with a local rag-tag Estonian band called HEPT (the acronym for the Estonian Agricultural Technological College in Hiiumaa.) Off and on, he would play with the band at gigs on the sparsely populated, windswept island. Sometimes, he'd also jot down some lyrics, scare up a tune, and the band played it. The band was paid for performing, but Wells wasn't able to accept payment himself because of Peace Corps prohibitions against volunteers living on anything other than their U.S. government stipend.

Wells, who is now 38 and works in the U.S. Foreign Service in Hong Kong, recently published a book about his adventures on Hiiumaa entitled, In Search of the Elusive Peace Corps Moment—Destination: Estonia. The following is an excerpt from the book about how he and the Estonian band he played with suddenly, if briefly, shot to fame:

I had written a half-Estonian, half-English song about how I had been rebuffed while trying to impress a local island girl with my fractured Estonian. I called it "Kas Sa R??gid Inglise Keelt?" ("Do You Speak English?"). My fellow band members enjoyed it and we played it to rave reviews throughout the summer. It became so popular in Hiiumaa itself that we decided we should try to record it, along with some other tunes. So one day, we dragged our equipment to an abandoned building, formerly the collective farm headquarters. It was all very low-tech. But we did our best to create a credible, makeshift recording studio. We put the mixing board in what had been the director's office, the lead guitarist in a broom closet, and the drums where the secretary used to sit. I seem to recall we did lead vocals in the bathroom. We had cables running everywhere and, with the help of the mixer board and some mysterious homemade black boxes, we managed to do a simple two-track recording: instruments first and then the vocals.

We recorded the entire tape of six songs in about ten hours, with lots of food, beer and cigarettes to keep us going. Finally, around midnight, we had the finished product and everyone took a copy home.

I expected the typical basement tape sound, but the quality turned out to be rather good. I had kept the master tape so I made copies for my friends and family. One of the guys in the band also gave a copy to the engineer at Hiiumaa's ten-watt radio station and they started playing it. The tape became popular on Hiiumaa Radio—with its listening audience of barely 10,000. The song I wrote about being given the brush-off by the local girl was particularly well received. The newness eventually wore off, though, and the tape was relegated to the station's archives.

A month later, I was standing in line at the grocery store, half-listening to a national radio program broadcast from Tallinn to the whole of Estonia; it was being piped in through the store's intercom. When the news ended at the top of the hour, I heard the disk jockey say: "And now, here's a song by an American named Douglas Wells, playing here with a band from Hiiumaa."

I nearly dropped my groceries.

As the song blared through the store, I looked around and saw that several people were looking at me and smiling. A woman behind must have read the astonishment on my face because she nudged me and said, "Didn't you know your song is on the charts?"

"The charts?!" I stood dumbly, trying to digest what she'd said.

Finally, at the prodding of a couple other customers, I jumped out of line, ran over to the newspaper rack and frantically flipped through the pages of one of the national newspapers.

I traced my finger down the page that listed Estonia's top 10 songs of the week, based on the number of times a song was played on national radios. There we were: "Douglas Wells and HEPT, "Kas Sa R??gid Inglise Keelt? " That week, the song was No. 10. Two months later, it hit No. 1.

The irony wasn't lost on me that I'd struggled for ten years in different bands back home and had to come to Estonia to finally get a hit. The fact that my first recording success was with me singing in heavily accented Estonian about getting rejected by a local girl made it all the more unbelievable.

The requests on national radios for the song to be played poured in. The popular KUKU Radio on the mainland interviewed me on the air. They told me they heard the song was going to be declared an Estonian Gold Record—though nothing ever came of that. A Sunday morning TV program had me on to banter with the host in Estonian, to demonstrate, apparently, that it was indeed possible for foreigners to learn the vowel-laden native language. They then had me lip-synch to a recording of the song, dancing around with a microphone. It was all a bit embarrassing—though apparently memorable. Even years later, people would approach me and ask if I wasn't "that guy who sang on TV?" In the end, I didn't make a cent from the record—but that was fine with me. I didn't want to draw the ire of the Peace Corps for taking forbidden gifts or money.

One thing I did want to do was to make a better recording of our songs. With excitement, I told the other band members about my plans to go to a professional studio on the mainland.

But it never worked out.

I was left with the original master tape—and some great memories of my short time in the limelight.

Listen to Kas Sa R??gid Inglise Keelt.

The above excerpt was republished with the author's kind permission. For more about the book by Douglas Wells, see Xlibris.

Some postings on Peace Corps Online are provided to the individual members of this group without permission of the copyright owner for the non-profit purposes of criticism, comment, education, scholarship, and research under the "Fair Use" provisions of U.S. Government copyright laws and they may not be distributed further without permission of the copyright owner. Peace Corps Online does not vouch for the accuracy of the content of the postings, which is the sole responsibility of the copyright holder.

Story Source: City Paper

This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; COS - Estonia; Writers - Estonia



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