We are so excited to be heading to CENTRAL ASIA this month as part of the American Music Abroad program! Over the past few years, we have traveled to 9 countries in South America and Southeast Asia as cultural ambassadors with AMA. This month, we are headed to two more: KAZAKHSTAN and TAJIKISTAN!
We are honored to be representing our country, and grateful for the opportunity to spread our music, message, and mission, to people across the globe.
I’ll be posting my tour blog here at www.tonymemmel.com – Thank you for your continued prayers and support during this exciting season! Asia, here we come!!
PLEASE READ. THIS IS REALLY SPECIAL: On Friday, I had the joy of visiting two schools in the small community of McMinnville, TN. It was a two hour drive from my home to get to the schools, so to support our time and travel for the day, these local small businesses (and an anonymous Barber Shop patron who heard we were coming, believed in the message, but didn’t want credit) supported us dollar-by-dollar, a little at a time.
I’m SO grateful to these generous people, and believe it serves as a reminder that YOU ARE WHAT KEEP OUR MUSIC AND MISSION THRIVING every day. You keep a roof over our heads, food in our stomachs, and we want you to know it’s a joy to live into our lives’ purpose in service to you.
Every Spotify stream, album purchase, t-shirt worn, and donation made keeps us going.
After Gori, our drive continued through mountains and valleys, past forests and streams, as we made our way to the town of Zugdidi in northwest Georgia. At times, we were only a few hundred yards away from the Russian occupation zones.
It was another rainy day. When I woke up, I grabbed some toast, eggs, and good, strong coffee, and sat by a window overlooking the street, botanical garden (which I’m told has a single sequoia tree within its gates), and the prince’s palace (now a museum).
We had a morning radio interview and performance which was really fun. The host was eager to speak with us, and kindly said it was a breath of fresh air to have our energy and music in her studio.
After the interview, Gigi asked if we’d like to tour the prince’s palace museum. We had an hour and it was too rainy to be outside much, so it sounded like a great idea.
We slowly wandered through the palace looking at books, furniture, clothing and paintings. The highlight exhibit was to look upon Napoleon Bonaparte’s death mask. It used to be common to take a mold or impression of a person’s face upon death for posterity. As history enthusiasts it was amazing to be so close to the actual face of Napoleon.
After that we had a meet and greet with youth at the American Corner. When we arrived, the room was packed to capacity, and on easels throughout were impressionistic-style paintings made by a gifted, young adaptive artist with autism named Gigi (yes, we met a second Gigi).
He shared his beautiful, detailed art with us, and then youth folk musicians in traditional clothing played Georgian tunes for us on native instruments. We led a Q&A, and then everyone in the room moved to a venue just a couple of blocks away for an afternoon performance.
The concert was in Zugdidi Youth Palace – a long room with chandeliers and two grand pianos. Festivities started when a teenage girl sang the U.S. National Anthem, and then another sang the Georgian National Anthem. It was a beautiful way to begin.
We played our set next, and by the end of the first few songs, the seats were emptied as kids made their way closer to the stage, and the music hall was now the site of an all-out singalong-dance party… If you’ve been reading this blog daily, you may have noticed a pattern by now… The youth and the audiences in Georgia were so consistently eager, excited, and fun. We had the best time trading off songs with the folk group, and getting everyone involved.
Afterward, a local restaurant owner who’d been at the performance invited us to her shop for coffee and a snack as a thank you for the time with the students and the visit to Zugdidi.
The rain started to clear as we left town and drove south along the green, hilly coast of the Black Sea to our final destination in Georgia: Batumi.
The rain streaked across the backseat car window, as I looked out over rolling green hills, villages, and valleys in the Georgia countryside. We were on our way out of Tbilisi and into the “regions” as our hosts called them (the areas of Georgia beyond Tbilisi).
Remember when I told you that Georgia is a beautiful, fascinating, complex place? Our destination that day, the city of Gori, is one reason that I developed that belief.
As you enter the city, the street swings left past a vast museum dedicated to the story and legacy of a local boy who grew up to do both significant and terrible things. His private, dark green train car looms alone in the yard, and a tiny brick house stands beneath a protective enclosure just feet away: this was the childhood home, personal train car, and museum dedicated to former Soviet leader, Joseph Stalin.
Stalin came to political power in the early 20th century, and later became the leader of the Soviet Union. In World War 2, he consolidated military power, making him one of the most powerful men in the history of the world, and a dictator. He’s also known for brutality, violence, and silencing political opposition.
The odd juxtaposition is that, with the admiration of the accomplishments of the man of Joseph Stalin amongst locals (including the tradition of toasting to him in ceremonial Supra feasts)… all of this is separate from apparent current Russian sympathy.
Gori was a primary target of the 2008 Russian invasion and occupation. It was a battleground, and civilians were attacked and evacuated as the bombs fell. Google “Gori 2008” as an image search, and you’ll get a feel for the terror and destruction that happened there (*discretion advised. This is recent, rough history).
It’s important to know, remember, and respect history. For better, and for worse. A story like Gori’s is interesting to ponder, to say the least.
Taking in all of this military and political history fascinated me, but most of the focus of the day was on music and connecting with local youth in the city. We met with artists with various abilities and had a tour of their pottery workshop. Our concert was really fun, as we belted out singalongs and danced.
Lunch was great, as well. We dined on khinkali, a traditional soup dumpling dish. To eat: Pepper liberally, bite just the corner, slurp the piping-hot, juicy soup out, devour the dough-covered lamb-meat, and repeat.
I’ve thought about Gori a lot since our day there. I’d have loved to learn more, talk with more people, and explore, but we had miles to go to our next tour destination: Zugdidi, which ended up being a tour highlight for me.
Tako and Gigi met us at our hotel to go over our itinerary for the week. Tako, local staff at the U.S. Embassy, has been my primary contact, and organized all of our events and local travel. She knows so much about Georgia, it’s incredible. Gigi is a whip-smart, one-of-a-kind, funny guy with so much heart, who was our interpreter. I liked them both immediately.
We had a very warm reception at our first event: a daytime concert for students at Tbilisi State Medical University. It was apparent that the students appreciated a break from their studies because they were electric! They danced, sang, and waved their phone flashlights in the air. The concert culminated with a huge group dancing with us on stage.
From there, we played at the local Youth Palace (a cultural hangout center for teens and young adults) on the closing night of a film festival. They, too, were so much fun. After our set, they crowded up around us to greet us, and request more songs. “Play Nirvana!” “Do you know any Queen!?” We obliged, and the singalong that ensued will be a great memory.
One thing I love about these tours is the broad spectrum of work we get to do. The next day was equally great, and 180 degrees different from the first.
We started the day with a meeting with local Non-Government-Organization (NGO) leaders, and activists in the disability/different abilities community. Over coffee, I was asked to lead a discussion about the work that they do, the issues that they’re facing, and to share my own experience, life story, and facilitate a Q&A session.
One man said “15 years ago, if you had a different ability, you could get around as long as someone could carry you, and then in many cases, when you were too heavy to carry you entered the bed you’d stay in the rest of your life.”
They’re working on updating infrastructure: ramps on stairs and sidewalks (which are rare, or ineffective), accessible doorways, bathrooms and buildings, and working to overcome discriminatory hiring practices. I was touched when they said my visit was especially meaningful because they also want people to see and meet leaders who are different.
In the afternoon, we played at a neurodevelopment center. The room was packed, standing room only with kids who had various cognitive and emotional differences, and their families. We had no PA system, so we just shouted out our songs, and strummed our guitars hard. We also had help from some less-shy youth who’d crowd around and stomp on Alex’s drum pedal, and pluck our guitar strings.
Georgia has left an impact on me that’ll be hard to relay to you. I haven’t processed it all, myself, but as I traveled, I took detailed notes about what I saw, heard, tasted, smelled, and touched. My notes are extensive… It’s a beautiful, interesting, often-easy-going-sometimes-intense place… I loved it.
Just a one hour flight from Baku, Tbilisi, the capital of the country was our first stop. It was early in the afternoon, and though we were all a little tired from the early trip, there was no way we could arrive in a brand new place and not explore just a little bit, right? … This turned into a 7.5 mile hike around the city.
We were hungry, so after we stopped at an ATM to get some Lari (the Georgian currency) we walked to a nearby restaurant. It was here that my life was forever changed as I was introduced to khachapuri for the first time.
Khachapuri is a hollowed out loaf of fresh bread that is filled with hot, melty cheese, butter, and a runny egg. Yes, this is a real thing. It was one of the least health-conscious, and most delicious things I’ve ever eaten. Seriously so good. At the end of our meal, a complimentary glass of warm, homemade, spiced wine was served as a dessert.
From there, we walked extensively: through the government center, the markets, the old city, and across the river to the Narikala skyway tram (which reminded me of the Wonka-vator from Willy Wonka).
The tram lifts you high above the city, into the hills overlooking the homes and shops, and the top is stunningly picturesque. We just did our best to take it all in.
You learn quickly that Georgians love their country, food, wine, and language (which is unique to Georgia) very much. For example: What would you crave when you’ve just hiked through an ancient fortress and climbed 40 flights of stairs? Water or a bench to catch your breath perhaps? Don’t be silly. How about a long row of merchants selling homemade chacha (a local homebrew) and wine.
In a rare scheduling anomaly, our travel day was back-to-back with our rest day, so we took full advantage of our time, laced up our shoes and went for another walk. Farther this time, and more stairs, across the river and through the pedestrian walking tunnels, up into the hills on the opposite bank of the river where Sameba Cathedral is located. It’s the largest church in Georgia, and was beautiful to behold.
From there, we walked more and stopped at a restaurant with an open-air second floor. We had a street view, a snack, some Georgian wine, reviewed our schedule for the week, and just enjoyed the warm, sunny day. We rested well, and prepared our minds and hearts for our mission ahead.
The simplicity we felt in those first two days (and so many times throughout the week), was fascinatingly juxtaposed with the complexity of the place, the people, the politics, the recent violent history from the 2008 Russian invasion, and the estimated 200,000+ refugees the Russo-Georgian War displaced.
MUST SEE!! We toured the 1800+ year old, 6,000-seat Roman Theatre in Amman, Jordan, and brought some instruments along to play. FUN ENSUED! When we started playing, a group of people in the distance started clapping, and joined us for a singalong!
Here’s our NEW SONG, “Never, Never, Never Gonna Give Up (Anthem)” – thank you for listening, watching, and sharing!
Our final day in Azerbaijan was a day trip to the American Corner in Salyan.
Not far from the Iranian border, Salyan was dry, warm, and the streets were lined with pine trees. Just like in the U.S.; weather, food, culture, and people are unique region-to-region. What’s especially interesting about that is Azerbaijan is about the same square mileage as the state of South Carolina.
We warmed up our voices and instruments, did a sound check, recorded a video of a song that we learned in the Azerbaijani language called “Sene de Qalmaz,” and recorded a video of a newer song I’ve written called “Try to Trade.” (*Take a listen and see the cool library space in this new video):
Before the concert, our group went out for lunch and ate local river fish kebab-style.
When we arrived back at the library, the audience was politely seated at the desks that stretched across the room. I introduced the band and myself and said “even though this is a library, and it’s usually a quiet place, today I wanna hear some hands clappin’, feet stompin’, and voices singin’!”
By the end of the show, it was an all out dance party… We had so much fun. Our new friends were very appreciative and seemed eager to practice English with us.
That night, we went out for one final, large meal with our hosts in Baku. We walked back to the hotel together and said a long goodbye.
As we parted, our friends Fargani and Hickmat said to tell my son Theo that he has two new uncles. It was a really sweet thing to say, and a gesture of friendship that was both heartfelt and endearing.
I’ve heard it said that if you want to get to know what someone’s personality and attitude is really like, travel with him or her. Perhaps that is why tight bonds of friendship form quickly on these tours.
We woke up early the next morning, drove to the airport, and our eyes looked over Baku one final time on this tour before turning their gaze toward Georgia.
Happy Easter! I’m flying in the skies over Georgia, and in a few hours I’ll land in Dubai before making it to Amman, Jordan by nightfall.
At home, my family is gathered around the TV watching “The Ten Commandments.” … if I am unable to be with them today, I’m glad to be traveling to a land of such historical, faith-filled significance: the place where the Jordan River flows, Mt. Nebo (the Mountain where Moses was shown the Holy Land and then passed away.), The Dead Sea, and more.
Also, I found a surprise in my suitcase… somehow, the Easter bunny found me (even in all my travels). He left a card and some Reese’s Peanut Butter eggs (so good) in my suitcase. Thank you, Easter Bunneigh. What an amazing guy!)
From the heavens above Georgia, I wish you a Happy Easter. The tomb is empty. He is Risen! Hallelujah! (John 20: 1-30)
The morning was cool and clear, and our van pulled up to the gate of a campus in a section of Baku we’d not yet seen. We were greeted by a cheerful security guard, and led into a brick building where we were greeted by the head of this facility: The vocational rehabilitation center.
Over tea, she told us about their mission. The center houses and trains teens and young adults with different abilities. They study carpet-making, pottery, music, dance, painting, and more. The hope is that they’ll learn to be expert craftsmen, and be able to make a good, independent living through their art when their time at the center is through.
We toured the campus, met the friendly, smiling artists as they carved and weaved. The rooms smelled of wood and paint, and the quality and detail of the finished pieces was amazing.
One goal she mentioned really resonated with me. She said that the objective is to train the artists so well that people don’t one day purchase their art out of pity, but because the quality is undeniably good. I often say “In my practice, I strive to not be a good guitarist with one hand, but a great guitarist, period.”
After our tour, groups took turns singing songs, playing local drums, and dancing in traditional clothing.
After that, our group went out for lunch and enjoyed some fresh-made lentil soup with lemon, local fish, and jasmine tea.
The afternoon was a performance at the music conservatory in Baku. It was a pleasure to be introduced to the U.S. Ambassador who attended the event, and then we had our concert.
At first I’d wondered if the concert would be a formal event, but the students were eager to sing, shout, and dance with us, and we were joined by two amazing local musicians.
One classical, operatic-style singer who performed a piece called “Sene de Qalmaz” with us, and then a local tar player. Tar is like the guitar, but it is played with four strings and has a different, more eastern sounding tone quality.
He came to the stage and said, could we play “My Baby”? (An original song about my baby boy, Theo, that our band had performed earlier) He said, “if it’d be alright, he’d like to add tar to our sound.” Did he ever!!
After only hearing the song once, he wailed on the instrument, and it added a really fun, new element to our song. The audience went wild hearing the two styles, and the two regions of music blended together in a unique, cross-cultural harmony.