This month, I had the joy of being a guest at Muscular Dystrophy Association Camp in Burlington, WI. During our time together, the campers and I worked on writing a song about our time at MDA Camp. I recorded the students’ voices (heard here), then brought those tracks to my studio in TN, where I recorded the rest of the arrangement.
I wrote this song for my son, Theo, before he was born. Lesleigh and I decided not to find out our baby’s gender – we wanted to be surprised! It was a season of excitement, mystery, and eager anticipation of meeting our little one. We didn’t know much about our baby, but we did know these things…
– our baby would “dance”/kick every time we played music (rock, old country, Irish… the list goes on!)… and sometimes into the wee hours of the morning!
– We had a boy name and a girl name picked out
– We had one photograph: our ultrasound photo
The day after we got our first ultrasound, we closed on the sale of our very first house! The first piece of artwork to go up in our new home was the black and white ultrasound photo. We taped it on the wall of the empty bedroom that would soon be our baby’s nursery. Every day, we’d find ourselves in that room, just staring at the photo, imagining what this little one would be like. And that’s all we had to go on until our due date in Fall of 2018…
This song is for our beautiful boy, Theo. We love you so!
I’m writing from my hotel room in Dushanbe, Tajikistan. It’s beautiful here. As I look around the city, I can see snow-capped mountain peaks in the distance, two boys running down the street with a goat on a leash, birds darting through the air, thousands of butterflies (I don’t know for certain, but there must be a monarch butterfly migration happening), the air smells like firewood and fresh-baked bread, and I can hear kids laughing and playing in the distance.
Our last day in Kazakhstan was bittersweet. We were all sad to conclude our time there, as we felt we’d made good new friends, and really enjoyed every aspect of our tour.
The day started with a school visit which turned into an all out, festival-esque concert on an outdoor permanent stage with hundreds of kids in the courtyard. They were so sweet as they crowded the stage, practiced their english, and their voices were SO strong when we led singalongs, I didn’t even need a microphone.
After an extended, especially-enthusiastic autograph session where we were completely surrounded by kids shouting “Tony, please! Joey, please! Alex, please,” pushing as close as they could to try and have their card be the next one picked for a signature, we learned that the school had prepared a special, homemade lunch for us that we’d eat in a tent called a yurt. Resembling a teepee in some regards, the yurt had feast-ready tables set up inside with local dumplings called manti steaming hot and ripe for the plucking (yes dumplings can be ripe, and can also be plucked… from a plate).
We had fun at our next two stops as well: visiting with English Access Students and youth with different abilities (the conversation/Q&A was so extensive, it had to be cutoff for time), and we concluded our day at a pedestrian mall jamming with local guitarists, ukulele players, singers, and percussionists. To lead the event, I just asked each new person who showed up if they knew a song we could all learn. Every time someone came, we jammed on a new tune. Before we knew it, almost two hours had passed. We played everything from Celine Dion to Sting to Daft Punk, and even a couple Tony Memmel tunes. It was a blast.
The band and I relaxed at a local Georgian restaurant later that night, and recapped our amazing tour-to-date over khachapuri and drinks.
Our luggage was all waiting for us when we passed through passport control in Dushanbe. We were met at the airport by our new friend Mahmud who has been an AMAZING host.
He took us to a place known for its grilled kebab where we feasted on fresh bread, smoky, juicy chicken, flame-kissed lamb chops, steak, tandoori-baked meat pies, fresh cucumbers and the best tomatoes we’ve ever had. To give you an idea of the special quality, Joey says, “I’m not usually a tomato-guy, but these are incredible.” So there you have it.
Towering, snow-capped mountains peaked through the clouds as we descended toward the runway. This was our first introduction to Almaty, and a sharp contrast to the regions of Kazakhstan we’d previously toured. I took about 150 pictures of the majestic range in two minutes… just a little excited.
After baggage claim we met our new friend, Banu, from the U.S. consulate who brought us to our hotel to drop our bags before we headed to our first event: a presentation to teachers from around Kazakhstan about my own adaptive teaching work, and ways I’m working to encourage a new generation of people of all abilities to shine with their own unique talents.
Teachers are such a special group. Worldwide. As we engaged, you could literally feel the interest, the passion, and strong desire to learn from one another. When the music started, it got even more exciting: clapping, singing, and dancing ensued… These teachers really know how to boogie! In all seriousness, it was a powerful beginning to our work here.
Today, our visit was to Taldykorgan: an outer region, three hours one way by car, and a spot where U.S. programming has not been frequent, so I was eager to hopefully have a unique opportunity for impact and bonding between our two nations.
As we passed through rolling, green-and-grey rocky hills, and past lakes, fields and trees, I listened to music for a while, looked out the window, and did an interview with the documentary crew that is following our journey here.
The day was very full! Six hours in the van, a big public concert at a local theater (which rocked), a flash-mob-style concert in a local pedestrian mall (which also rocked), a visit to a local home where young people with various physical and cognitive differences work in community and are taught gardening and artistic craftsmanship skills to foster independence, a mini-concert at that home, a ribbon-cutting ceremony at a local business (I got to cut the ribbon… which is not as easy as it looks), and interviews with media.
At our flash-mob style concert, a woman who uses a wheelchair sat front and center, and was in tears watching the band play and hearing me sing. I needed help interpreting what she said afterward because she was speaking in Russian, but I’m told she said it was so important for her to see me there, and also for the people of the town to see me to hopefully continue to change minds about disability and what is possible.
When we got back to the hotel it was almost 11pm; we were all tired and returned to our rooms, so I ordered some exotic food: a Cheeseburger and fries. It was a salty, juicy, delicious way to cap the big day.
Up-and-at-em! The sun was shining and the early morning air was still and warm as we climbed in the van to make our way to the local TV station for a morning show interview. The local Aktobe network hosts were gracious and sweet, and we performed a song on the air, which is always fun.
In the interview, they asked us to share a couple of things that we’ve learned about Kazakhstan during our time here, and I thought you might find this interesting, too:
-By area, Kazakhstan is the 9th largest country in the world.
-During the Space Race era, cosmonauts took off and landed in Kazakhstan, and I’m told it’s still a significant hub for the current program. The design and engineering is ALSO unique to the U.S. space program because the U.S. design used an ocean splashdown and recovery method, and the former Soviet Union had an on-land retrieval system. I just learned a few basics, but my curiosity is PEAKED I’ll definitely be researching more on this.
When we arrived for our concert, we knew we were in the right place because there was an enormous banner (35 feet tall) with our photos on it to promote the event. Of course, we had to get a picture in front of the huge picture.
The concert itself was a great culmination of our time in Aktobe. The beautiful theater was packed with people: students from the music school, friends from the American Corner, and people with MANY different abilities all came to sing AND dance with us.
As a perfect backdrop, the symbol of friendship between our two nations was lit up behind us on stage on a bright LED screen.
I told the audience, “Our time in Aktobe will be two days we will always remember.”
After the concert we took photos with what seemed like the entire audience, signed autographs, and just had a lot of fun.
When we finally exited the theater, we heard people candidly singing songs we’d played amidst their small groups of friends. One that especially touched me was a group of youth singing part of a song I recently wrote about baby Theo. We heard them clapping and singing, “My Baby, My Baby, My Baby!”
As gifts to a few special friends who joined us to jam on stage, I gave my CD with a special message written to each person. As we loaded our van, the sax and piano player pulled up next to our car, windows down, and our song “We’ll Be On The Radio” bumping from their car stereo. For a songwriter, are there any greater candid moments possible?
I’d never been met at the airport by a frenetic crowd of cheering, eager new friends and fans of our music…. that is, until arriving in Aktobe, Kazakhstan for the first time.
As we cleared baggage claim at the airport, there was a large group there to meet us. They brought flowers and baursaki (which are kind of like donut holes), we signed autographs and took selfies, and we were just so deeply touched by their generosity and eagerness to meet us, and host us.
How any future airport arrival could ever compare to this, I do not know.
After a quick hotel check-in, we dropped our bags, grabbed our guitars, and were back out the door to a local music school. Here, more baursaki was served, AND to wash it down, local treats: camel’s milk and horse’s milk (“[Camel’s] milk: Does a body good.” That’s a slogan, right?)
Camel’s milk: Imagine milk with little curdled floaties that’s quite sour and warm, and packs a powerful taste-punch. The horse’s milk is similar, but also has a very earthy scent to it… a peaty, grassy quality. Our hosts were thrilled to share it with us, and watched us with excited, bated breath between each sip.
At the performance, we jammed with local musicians, including a phenomenal dombra player (dombra is a two-stringed guitar-like instrument). We are told there’s a saying here: “If you really want to know the soul of the Kazakhstani people, listen to the dombra.”
This idea exemplifies exactly why these tours are so very meaningful and important. You can learn so much about people and also share so much of yourself through music. You can come to understand the soul of a person because music notes are a sort of transcendent, beautiful language all their own. It’s amazing to have first-hand experience witnessing how impactful they can be: the conversations they can strike up, the hardships they can heal, and the possibilities they can encourage.
In the afternoon, we visited a local library that houses an American Corner. We played some songs, and even in that often quiet, more reserved library setting, had a great singalong and energetic conversation. The group was so sweet, and welcomed us warmly.
LAST, BUT NOT LEAST: It was Joey’s birthday, so we all went out to dinner as a big group, sat in the warm weather outside, ate some delicious food (khachapuri from a Georgian restaurant which was a really fun throwback to our recent tour), and enjoyed good conversation. The band went out exploring after dinner and enjoyed some time to unwind and celebrate this special man’s life.
The stars were brilliant on our overnight flight from Frankfurt to Nursultan, Kazakhstan. I was lucky to have a window seat as my sleeping schedule was on reverse-mode, so I just enjoyed looking out into the starry darkness and thinking about the tour ahead.
The hazy morning light broke early over the eastern horizon, and revealed the green and brown steppe landscape that stretched as far as the eye could see. Almost no dwellings, few farms, few people, just a wide, flat, vast expanse of land.
We checked into our hotel at 6:50am, and were informed that breakfast started in 10 minutes. We all enjoyed a great meal together: omelettes, coffee, fresh-squeezed juice, and “Kazakh Delicacies” (aka homemade horse-sausage).
You heard me right. More than any other meat, horse is widely available, and something people are very proud of. In fact, EVERYONE that I ask talks about horse. My favorite meal was a horse-and-pasta dish (“bolog-neighs?”) that was spectacular.
At first, it is a little strange to get around the idea of eating it, but you have to remember that where you are in the world really can dictate what food is not only appreciated, but available. The only sea nearby is a great grass sea (G.O.T. reference for ya). So you could look at it like seafood… It actually reminded me of pastrami.
We all took naps, and met up to walk around Nursultan (formerly named Astana). It’s unseasonably warm here. We’re at the bottom of Siberia, and the winters are long and harshly cold, but we brought the heat! It’s been in the 80’s, and will hit the 90’s this week.
Our first program was the next day at the modern, beautiful Paralympic training facility. After touring the dojo, volleyball courts, and weight room we held a concert and discussion in the main lobby.
We had been told a few times that people can be shy, so if they’re quiet at the concert, don’t be alarmed, and be assured they are enjoying it… This did not end up being the case, this time. The crowd clapped, cheered, and sang along to every song! We then had an extended meet-and-greet, and many selfies were taken.
I’m now on the plane to Aktobe, where we’ll have two events when we land today. To give you an idea of the landscape, roads, and infrastructure, it’s a two hour trip by plane, but we’re told would take twenty-three hours by car.
It’s also Joey’s birthday!! So, of course, we will be celebrating that all day (We love you, Uncle Joey (Lawrence)!)