A new friend told me of his impression of Saudi Arabia: “It’s beguiling.” He said. Beguiling… what a word. It’s been on my mind ever since he said it.
With all of the newsworthy events happening here all the time, in many ways, things are peaceful. The scorching summer heat has broken and given way to temperate days and breezy nights. I’ve not needed more than a t-shirt, and I’ve been comfortable in jeans. Perfect human temperature. People outside. Cafes full. Picnics. Pleasant.
With that in mind, another new friend said, “by all accounts, this region is still one of the more (if not most) tense places to be in the world right now.” Armed guards, military checkpoints, hummers with gun turrets, missile strikes, armored cars, and even tanks are daily realities for the people here. It’s interesting how quickly familiar it all becomes. World interest is focused here. Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Israel are all within a couple hours of one another by jet.
American and Russian military aircraft do almost constant flyovers. The roar of the powerful engines is simultaneously exciting, invigorating, and a “whoa!” kind of moment. They rattle the walls, shake the very ground you stand upon, temporarily delay conversation until you can hear again, and they’re as common as the bells of a clock striking on the hour.
Today, I saw a Kentucky Fried Chicken as a backdrop to a convoy of heavy military armory traveling down a main road… a good illustration of this place: Peaceful, and stirring. Strong, and fragile.
One more new friend said, “It’s important to keep perspective. What you know from a nation’s government or from certain sects of people can’t possibly summarize a city, a state, or a nation that is made up of millions of hearts and minds. I hope you’ll be able to help share about the people here, goodness you see, generosity you experience, and friends you make.”
I’m mulling over these quotes and others, and looking forward to sharing something amazing with you soon… Wait until you hear about our day yesterday. Stay tuned.
After writing this, I learned of the recent violence in Florida. I’m aware that this event sheds a spotlight on the relations between our two nations. I plan to continue to share what I see on the ground here. Our band sends our love and support to those hurting from these events.
As we flew in on Sunday, I studied the flight map in wonder as we flew high above ancient cities of the world: Athens, Cairo, Jerusalem and Baghdad, with our course set for Riyadh in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (everyone here refers to SA as “The Kingdom.”).
In the descent of the airplane, passengers are reminded in an overhead message that it is forbidden to bring alcohol or explicit materials into the kingdom. A friendly, firm reminder to all who travel to say, “Welcome, AND/BUT there are certain rules that are to be followed.”
As I exited the airplane, the immediate thing I noticed was the change in fashion: most men wearing thobes (long white robes) with ghutrahs (red and white headwear) – Cleanly pressed, proudly worn. Most women wearing hijabs, niqabs, burkas (but not all women). Many people also wear super-sharp watches, the new bluetooth Apple earbuds, slick sneakers, and designer sunglasses.
The pace of life is really interesting to me. Traffic operates like it does in most big cities I’ve been in, but on foot, people go about leisurely… I’ve seen hardly anyone hurry, I’ve seen no one run (except visitors at the hotel gym) – just a confident, mellow stroll. Always.
Cafes are full of people all day long, and well into the night. People sip coffee, talk with friends (all sit with members of the same gender – unless you’re in a family section of a restaurant which is partitioned from the singles area… though some restaurants are changing), they smoke, vape, and drink tea and coffee. Because it’s so hot during the day, many people make the most of the night. You can get coffee, tea, and good food until well after midnight.
We spent a good amount of time in a place called Oud Square, and had a phenomenal Lebanese meal with a new friend from the embassy: Hummus, veal, lamb, chicken liver, walnut paste, all fresh and deliciously prepared… The food has been exceptionally exceptional.
Serving as a cultural ambassador of the U.S., it’s been my distinct joy and pleasure to get the opportunity to go to oft-untraveled places by folks from America, to learn a little more than what is able to be relayed in two-minute news pieces, and to relay as many interesting details to you as I am able.
Through countless conversations with local teachers, diplomats, musicians, artists, entrepreneurs, and children, I’m learning first hand that this has been a place of some tension, and people share their awareness of some of the scrutiny in the eyes of the world (I’m constantly asked by local folks what my thoughts were about SA before coming here, and what they are now).
I can tell you that people have welcomed me generously (Maybe the most generously I’ve ever experienced. The hospitality is remarkable.). I know I’m in a place and time that is very exciting. Everyone I’ve met is talking about change. Some love it, and can’t wait for more. Some have said, “It feels weird, and it’s hard to keep up.”
As a preview of my next blog, I’ll share one last thing for today: I’ve been told constantly that everything we’re seeing happen here was not happening even three years ago: meetings with artists out in the open, visiting an all girls school for a discussion and concert, public jam sessions where two years ago people would have had their instruments confiscated and likely broken for doing what we’re doing. Not the case this week.
It’s a beautiful land of generous, thoughtful people, vast sandy deserts, the Arabian Gulf and Red Sea, oil, American/Saudi close-knit history, and fighter jets flying overhead constantly as a reminder that there is a lot at stake for this land and people at all times. I can’t wait to see and share more in the days ahead.
As the plane turned onto the runway, throttled forward, and sped down the pavement, I found myself as prepared and calm as I’ve ever been. I’m in the middle seat between two strangers, listening to my favorite music playlist, bound for Washington Dulles airport, then Frankfurt Germany, then Riyadh Saudi Arabia by tomorrow morning U.S. time (tomorrow night Saudi time).
Last Thanksgiving, I was in the parking lot at Wal-Mart with Lesleigh and 2-week-old Theo when my phone buzzed in my pocket with a call from the U.S. Department of State. I was told that the U.S. Embassy and consulates in Saudi Arabia would like to invite our band on a cultural diplomacy mission to share our music and story. The tour was planned for February until the government shutdown happened. We were postponed until summer before finally confirming a tour for December 2019. It’s been a full year of anticipation and planning, and it feels great to be beginning this journey which we’ve prepared for these many months.
Lesleigh and Theo brought me to the airport today. We hugged, prayed, said goodbye, and Theo saw me off in his own way too:
It’s amazing to be present in the noticeable growth we’ve experienced as a family this year.
For my first tour without my family (April), my heart was so full and hopeful that Les and Theo would do alright while I was away – he wasn’t sleeping through the night, he seemed so little, and I had to step up and forward into a year of work away from home, trusting we’d still have the close bond we’d formed though I’d be gone so long.
It’s been a year of practicing gratitude for the purpose and path we’ve been called into, and with that in mind, looking forward into life ahead with trust and eager expectation.
These next 10 days will conclude my final international tour of the year. It’ll be my 17th country visited for the U.S.A. in three years, and my ninth international mission this year. Awesome.
What a way to conclude: Saudi Arabia. We had a good briefing by phone with colleagues in DC and in SA. We are getting a good feel for what to expect, and how to have the best tour possible. Some details are known. Many are not. We’re pushing forward with SO much excitement about the days ahead.
The plane is descending into Dulles. Here we go!! Have a wonderful remainder of your thanksgiving weekend, and travel safely. Thank you for your constant encouragement, support, and love. I can’t wait to share more with you in the days ahead.
In the fall of 2009, I packed my 1998 GMC Jimmy to the brim, cleared a nest in the back for a sleeping bag and pillow amongst the PA system, boxes of CD’s, mic stands, and suitcase. I left my apartment in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin to set off for a grand adventure – a 3 week tour of the eastern United States of America. My first ever. My first of many, I hoped.
Before my first show of the tour (at a place called the Barking Spider Tavern) in Cleveland, I remembered thinking, “Wow, I’m playing a concert in Cleveland… This feels kinda big.” On the surface, it may appear to be a modest jump from one midwest city to another, but it meant the world to me at the time… I was taking a step from hoping, studying, and practicing to be a professional musician, into living it. (One clarifier: studying, practicing, and hoping on the next step should never stop. These things just have seasons where focus rests most heavily on one of these disciplines or mindsets).
One of the most frequently asked questions I get is: “If you weren’t doing music, what would you be doing?” That question sometimes stumps me for a second. I think of my love of teaching, sports, food, writing and reading. I know I have a variety of interests, and a little talent for a few things.
A few times in these past 10 years, I’ve wondered if I’d be forced to consider one of them more seriously out of necessity: During car trouble in rural Kansas that disrupted a full week of a tour, landing in the hospital (pneumonia and dehydration), two car accidents (one really big one with a drunk driver that hospitalized Lesleigh in Indiana), low-attended shows after long drives, etc. These life events make you think hard about what you’re doing and why you’re doing it, who you really are, what you’re made of, and what you rely upon. Now, I count it all joy!
What I come back to is this: Foundation. I know that I am designed with a purpose, and that there is older, truer wisdom to rely upon than the fleeting happinesses that come and go from day-to-day, and moment-to-moment… Striving to teach and to shed light in the world is often confronted with darkness; but pressing onward, I aim to live into what my foundation is, and to cherish and protect what true joy is built upon as a daily discipline. This wisdom is what holds me up, propels me, guides me, and sustains me:
2 Corinthians 4: 8 “We are pressed on all sides, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body.”
And just like the old gospel song, I sing with my mind, mouth, and heart: “I’ve got peace like a river, joy like a fountain, and love like an ocean in my soul.”
10 Years down. The beginning of a lifetime of service through music and ministry. Thank you for all of your love and support around the world. I work every day for your joy.
I’m 39,000 feet in the air on my way to Hong Kong, then Dallas, then onto Nashville by Monday night. My trusty earbuds are playing my favorite travel playlist, and I’m thinking about the week I just had teaching in Thailand: new friendships, the impact that was made on me (and that I trust that I was able to have on others), and overwhelmed with thankfulness for the opportunity to teach in the first American Music Abroad Academy this week.
I arrived in Thailand last Saturday afternoon, and immediately got back into the swing of learning my way around a new place, a new currency, and a new language. I had an hour to pick up a few supplies before my first meetup with teachers and program participants at the welcome gathering party.
American Music Abroad Academy is a brand new program. The goal is to invite U.S. embassies and consulates from around the region to nominate outstanding musicians to come work together with American musicians, teachers, and entrepreneurs.
32 musicians, 13 countries, all meeting in Bangkok for an intensive entrepreneurial musical summit! Each participant has been involved with or touched by a previous AMA program, and this week was an opportunity to build on those friendships and collaborations with more time and depth.
I had the joy of teaching nine of those students in my singers-and-songwriters class. This eager group made me so excited to wake up each morning, and meet them at our classroom where we unpacked what makes a great song a great song, the importance of being as strong a businessperson as you are a musician, and the process of creating brand new music ourselves. We wrote five new songs in five days. Prolific!
I use the term teacher/student with humility and care. I learned so much this week! My phone and notebook are packed with new information to take back to the States with me…
Singers and Songwriters
What a group! One of my singers has millions of YouTube views and is a huge star in his home country of Kyrgstan, another is a Forbes top 30 under 30 in Asia, another is beginning a solo career and launching her first album soon, one sings like a bird and could be the next Mariah Carey, another spoke very little English, yet played guitar so well that he accompanied almost every songwriting collaboration during the entire week, another is navigating the music business in a particularly competitive, uphill battle with trying to change the system that she works within in her country; I met folk-pop ukulele players, commercial music makers, and musical theater composers and performers whose talent, questions, and work ethic blew me away… That is probably a run-on sentence, but come on! The room was stacked with fascinating people that I have to tell you about.
I was particularly excited to connect with people I’ve worked with on previous tours.
Though personalities, styles, and backgrounds were all different, I was especially struck by the amount of hunger to learn and the generosity of thought and ideasharing that took place between members of our core group.
With a markerboard, a guitar, and a pocket-sized Bluetooth speaker as my tools, I was able to fascilitate discussions, help try to clear creative log jams, and offer and insight and wisdom I possibly could. I love teaching, Problem-solving, playing and talking music and business.
My most sincere hope and takeaway is that all participants return to their home countries ready to meet challenges they encounter with resilience, optimism, AND creativity.
My flight just touched down in Hong Kong and my layover is quite tight, so I have to run for now. More to come soon…
AMA Academy is in full swing, and I’m already so impressed by these students! Musicians from all across Asia, coming together to learn about music, business, and entrepreneurship, to work on collaborations, and to build friendships… such an honor to be teaching here in Bangkok this week!
Looking out my airplane window at the vast blackness of the sea below, glowing cargo ships began to appear. First a few, then many, then… the land.
Even at 12:30am the airport was jumpin’. I waited through the customs line, and was eventually admitted entry to Singapore for the second time in two years.
A quick 30 minute cab ride took me halfway across the country to the downtown area where my hotel is. I checked in, called Lesleigh and Theo, and ordered a late night meal. By 3am, I was asleep to prepare for day 1!
My friend, Allyson, from the US Embassy greeted me at the hotel lobby with a smile and a hug. We worked together extensively on our band’s previous program, and she was eager to program me again while I was in the region.
My first visit was to a place called Cheshire Home – we were greeted by Kenny, a high-energy overseer of the facility. He gave us a tour, showed us a slideshow, and told us about the residents there: it’s a home for people with cognitive and physical differences and disabilities. They learn life skills and build community, and also enjoy musical guests from time to time.
I learned one song in Chinese that I was told they liked, and they joined me for many songs on their tambourines, shakers, and soda-cans-turned-percussion instruments.
I then had an extensive interview with a journalist named Kannan from Storm Media. He was a friendly, curious reporter with many questions about my music, influences, and especially my mission. Check out the full piece here: https://storm-asia.com/tony-memmel-guitarist/
My third stop of the day was a 19th century mansion turned local venue called Kult Kafe. The crowd was great, and we enjoyed some singalongs and good company on a warm Singapore night.
I’m in the air now on my first flight of three in the next thirty hours or so:
Nashville to Chicago to Tokyo to Singapore! The first of two countries I’ll visit on this journey.
If you’ve followed me for any length of time since November 2017, at some point you have probably seen this video:
These highlights, songs, and smiles capture with such amazing clarity and depth who we are and why we do what we do. This will be my second time working with the U.S. Embassy there, and I can’t wait to build upon the amazing work we had the opportunity to do together previously.
The descent to Chicago is beginning now. Time to put my tray table up, and my seat back in its upright and locked position.
This first flight was delayed 40 minutes which means a tighter connection for Tokyo, so I’m going to get packed up, say a prayer, settle into my seat, look out the window and prepare for the days ahead.