Journey to the White House, Chicago style

By Colin Shively

On All Hallows Eve, the White House was surrounded by witches, ghosts and pumpkins and outside on the steps stood a leopard-print clad Michelle Obama. Music was heard coming from the North Lawn as skeletons with musical instruments danced around the crowd.

It was Halloween 2009 when Black Bear Combo, a musical group that was formed in Chicago seven years ago, journeyed to Washington, D.C. to take part in the Halloween festival that took place at the White House. Children dressed in costumes lined the lawn to meet the Obamas and receive treats as the skeleton band performed their self-written melodies.

Black Bear Combo comprises Gerald Baily on trumpet, Dersu Burrows on bass drum, Ehsan Ghoreishi on accordion, Rob Pleshar on sousaphone, Andrew Zelm on euphonium and Doug Abram on saxophone.

“These are the moments that I probably won’t forget for the rest of my life,” Ghoreishi said. “When we played for the president, the energy coming out of the band was amazing. We all had an extraordinary energy coming from us because we were performing at one of the most important places in the world.”

Black Bear Combo has a long history of performing in Chicago, Ghoreishi said. The band has performed at the House of Blues and at other events such as birthday parties and funerals. Black Beer Combo got the gig at the White House when Red Moon Theater, 1438 W. Kinzie Ave., approached them and asked them to be the skeleton band of the production.

Red Moon Theater was asked by the White House to put on a Halloween production because of its extensive experience in artsy, fun plays. Black Bear Combo has worked with Red Moon Theater on numerous occasions and was a perfect match for the sound Red Moon was looking for.

“They were looking for a band that was able to be mobile, a band not attached to microphones with a distinct and fun inspiring sound,” Ghoreishi said. “The cool thing was that we were able to play anything we wanted. We had free reign over that.”

The founding member, Abram, said the sound of the band is inspired by Eastern-European sound, like the band Balkans. That combination of musical instruments was perfect for a Halloween sound and entertainment, he said.

Rebecca Hunter, executive producer of Red Moon Theater, said the best part about being invited to perform at the White House Halloween event was that they are bringing some of Chicago’s best performers.

“It is a great feeling when our work is recognized,” Hunter said. “And when we got an invitation to the White House, we were all just amazed. It is a great recognition. As for Black Bear Combo, there wasn’t a better band for the gig. They have the perfect sound and setup for this type of event.”

Playing at the White House is no easy feat, Ghoreishi said. Before even arriving in Washington, D.C., the members had to acquire security clearance.

Ghoreishi said even after entering the White House grounds, they had a Secret Service escort wherever they went, even when they wanted to use the restroom or get water.

“During the private party, Tim Burton was there and he wanted a copy of our album,” Ghoreishi said. “We were all scrambling around trying to find an escort to our changing rooms to get [Burton] a copy. We finally found one. Security was tight there. We had to watch where we marched while playing.”

The festival held numerous other performers, Hunter said. There was a fairy in a big plastic ball, a woman dressed as a tree and Star Wars characters gallivanting around the North lawn as children lined up to meet the Obamas.

“It was just an amazing experience and a great privilege,” Ghoreishi said. “We were the only performers allowed into the private party because they needed music. Playing for the president was just remarkable.”