You are purposefully and wonderfully made. When I have the opportunity to speak in schools, churches, and communities across the globe, this is the message that I bring. Our “MemmelNation Declaration” encompasses these truths and words of encouragement.
The MemmelNation Declaration:
You are purposefully and wonderfully made.
ALWAYS be the BEST that you can be.
Look up, and reach for the stars.
Let your light shine.
If you ever feel small, remember: tall trees start as seeds.
Be bold, brave, confident, and kind, faithful, forgiving, and wise.
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.
“Where words fail, music speaks.” This quote has come to mind so many times on this tour…
In a previous post, Tony described our visit to S. 21 – a former school that the Khmer Rouge turned into a prison. During our visit, we walked through the empty rooms and halls in silence, and tried to comprehend what had happened there, barely 40 years earlier…
That next morning, we traveled to the Secondary School of Fine Arts. The oschoolyard was filled with students bustling around the campus, laughing, smiling, playing with friends, and waving at us as a warm welcome into their community. The buildings were bright and colorful, and you could feel the energy and love in the air. I describe this scene, because the campus layout was similar to the layout of S. 21, but was a sharp contrast to what we’d witnessed the day before. We were grateful to be filling the rooms and hallways with music, smiles, and conversation.
The students started the morning workshop by performing traditional Cambodian folks songs – they sang and danced, and acted out a dramatic play. They were incredible! We played a few of our songs, and then performed a song together. In preparation for our tour, we learned a really fun and catchy Cambodian song, “Arabpiya.” Everywhere we went, everyone knew this song. The students sang and danced around us and accompanied us on their local instruments. So much fun!
Later that day, we visited Krousar Thmei – a school that specializes in education for students who are visually and hearing impaired. After several years of instruction (between 3rd and 5th grade), the students are “mainstreamed” into the public school system. Krousar Thmei translates to “new family.” It definitely felt like a big family there.
We were greeted at the school by the U.S. Ambassador to Cambodia, and his wife. We toured the school and visited a few classrooms, and were able to introduce ourselves by spelling our names in sign language.
From there, we made our way to the big hall on campus. This is where the words started to fail me (in the best way!). A group of visually impaired musicians played their instruments while hearing impaired dancers twirled around the room. Both groups followed each others’ cues and created something truly beautiful. How do you follow that?!
We played a few of our songs, and then the whole room erupted into a dance party/conga line as we played “Arabpiya” with the students. They danced circles around us (literally).
“Music is the universal language of mankind,” is a quote that’s also come to mind almost every day of this tour… We’ve experienced this firsthand and witnessed it transcend language, ability, physical/cognitive differences, perceived limitations… halfway around the world, we were welcomed into this “new family,” and were each able to bring something unique to make something special together. That’s the incredible power of music.
Friday morning, we were up before the sun, and on our way to Channel News Asia for a TV interview and performance on “First Look Asia,” a morning news program that airs in 25+ regions across the globe. Tony had the chance to speak about our American Music Abroad Tour in Southeast Asia, and our work with the Lucky Fin Project.
We had the pleasure of spending our afternoon with the kids at Cerebral Palsy Alliance Singapore (CPAS). Cerebral Palsy is a movement disorder that affects people in different ways, but typically, it affects muscle control/coordination, posture, and balance. With these things in mind, the amazing thing about music is that it can and should be played and enjoyed by people of all abilities. This truth was brought to life before our very eyes at CPAS…
We played some singalongs and shared stories with the children, but the most meaningful concert of the day was after our set. Several groups of students serenaded us with a concert, featuring everything from animal puppets and movement/music pieces, to a handbell choir playing “I Love You (the Barney Theme Song),” to a beautiful version of “Stand By Me.” I had tears in my eyes as these young musicians sang their hearts out for us and for their peers.
After a beautiful concert, we got to work with the students and “Engineering Good,” a non-profit organization that works to empower people through sustainable engineering solutions: in this case, music!
The engineers had stations set up where students (and Tony Memmel & his band!) could try out some of their adaptive music projects. Electrodes and fresh produce (yes, fruit & veggies!) were connected to computers that assigned music notes to each piece of fruit/vegetable. In technical terms, I was able to play “Oh, When The Saints Go Marching In” on bananas! It’s so exciting to see people like Engineering Good doing amazing things with technology to make music accessible to everyone.
After our banana/apple/potato jam session, we held a few guitar and ukulele workshops with the students – some could walk, some were chair users, and their abilities and ages had a wide range. I’m thrilled to say that by the end of each workshop, we had a room full of musicians playing “Stand By Me.”
I played the whole song with a boy named Elijah, a chair user, who was so excited to know our names, the instruments that we play, and that there are 50 STARS on the United States flag! That’s the first time that either Elijah or I had played a full song on a ukulele, and we closed out the song together with a celebratory high five and a huge smile.
2:00PM – time for tea in Singapore. I’m sitting in our hotel cafe, fighting a little jet lag and doing my best to stay awake until a respectable, grown-up bedtime, after three big travel days that took us an estimated 11, 500 miles around the globe. We flew from Nashville, TN, to Washington D.C., to Baltimore, MD, to San Francisco, CA, to Singapore. The last two flights spanning about 21 hours of air travel. Why all this jet-setting?
To start from the beginning; last year, Lesleigh and I participated in a program called American Music Abroad – a cultural diplomacy initiative where musicians apply to work in cooperation with the U.S. State Department and its posts overseas to build bridges through music and educational programs all over the world.
We traveled to South America for four weeks visiting schools, hospitals, an orphanage, concert halls, and other various community gathering places. We learned so much, and had many opportunities to share from our own background and experience.
A few days into our tour, Lesleigh and I were walking down a street together in Recife, Brazil, and as we were talking, we both said “ We really have to try to do this again.” So we did…
We went through the application and audition process and were honored to be selected once again to represent the United States overseas on this music mission. This time, our mission is in Southeast Asia. We’ll be visiting five primary places in the region spanning from Singapore to Malaysia, to Indonesia, to Cambodia, to Taiwan.
In preparation for the tour, several posts sent us local folk and pop songs to learn that are important to the people, and we had conference calls with each post that detailed the programs we’ll be doing, outlined the specifics of the day-to-day activities of our group, and gave us some background on the places we’ll be visiting.
Each tour also starts with a briefing in Washington D.C. We gathered around a conference table with a group of exceptional women and men who’d all served in the region, and who had incredible insights about the places we’ll be going. It’s inspiring to be able to gain from the wisdom of so many lives spent in service. I wanted to soak in every word.
After our meeting, we departed for Baltimore in a large Uber with a friendly driver named Anthony who had a gift for storytelling and had us laughing and talking all the way to the airport.
On the flights, I watched a few movies, tried my best to rest, and thought a lot about things like this: Isn’t it remarkable to be able to travel 10,000 miles at 40,000 feet in the air, at 600 miles per hour on one tank of gas? It’s a powerful, strange feeling to be so far out over the Pacific with no land for thousands of miles in any direction. There’s a screen in the seat in front of you, and if you select “map” from the menu, you can watch the route of the jet as it cruises over the map, creeping slowly, but surely inch by inch, mile by mile across the world.
My first impressions of Singapore are these: the sun came up just as we descended into the city. There were dozens of freighter ships dotting the harbor, and showing how important it is to global trade. It’s sunny, warm, and humid which felt really good after 21 hours of dry, plane air. It’s an enormous, sprawling city, with lush green trees, and colorful flowers. I can’t wait to explore more.
After all of this preparation, all of this travel, all of this rehearsal, I am really ready to get out into the community, and to do what we are here to do. We begin tomorrow with two school visits. I can’t wait to meet the students and see, do, and learn all I can in this beautiful place.