Que Viva Panamá

Lesleigh and Tony Memmel during a visit to Casa Ronald McDonald in Panama City, Panama.
Lesleigh and Tony Memmel during a visit to Casa Ronald McDonald in Panama City, Panama.

As a part of our exchange, we are sharing music and culture from the United States with the countries we are visiting. Our setlist includes original songs I’ve written, and covers by influences like Johnny Cash, Tom Petty, Paul Simon, and Weezer.

We’ve also prepared songs that are important local favorites to the countries we are touring. The song we learned for Panamá is called “Que Viva Panamá” (Roughly translated: Live Panamá), and that is what this week has been all about… Living Panamanian life to the absolute fullest.

Our time here has been rigorous, and incredible. We’ve seen so much, and met so many people in just a few days, it’s hard to believe our time is already coming to a close.

Panama City, Panama
Panama City, Panama

We’ve held concerts and conversations at universities, visited the Panamá Canal, performed as part of a bill with local street performers and buskers, eaten beautiful fresh seafood (including ceviche – a cold seafood based soup that is said to be the best in the world), attended the local Argentinian embassy’s Independence Day celebration, visited a children’s hospital, and also a Ronald McDonald house.

Group photo with our new friends from the Special Olympics at Balboa Academy, in Panama City.
Group photo with our new friends from the Special Olympics at Balboa Academy, in Panama City.

As we start to think about returning home to the states, I have been contemplating how I’m going to explain our time here to family and friends. Anyone who has traveled knows that what you are able to relay to those at home is a fraction of what you’ve felt and experienced. You paraphrase and simplify, but there’s always something left unsaid. Something felt, but unexplainable in way.

I’ve seen people moved to tears at our interactions, and I’ve been moved to tears at times. There have been periods of elevation and exhaustion, and we’ve always felt eager for the next event. I’ve been so blessed to travel with my beautiful wife, and my wonderful friend, and I will treasure our time together always.

Pictured: Lesleigh Memmel, Tony Memmel, and Ben Picker at the University in Colón, Panama.
Pictured: Lesleigh Memmel, Tony Memmel, and Ben Picker at the University in Colón, Panama.

We have one more day of programming… In the morning we’ll be working with a group of almost 300 youth with varying backgrounds: hearing and visual impairment, Asperger’s, and other physical and cognitive differences; in the afternoon, we’ll visit an orphanage, and in the evening we’ll have a conversation with a youth group at a church. We are eager for what tomorrow holds.


Paraguay Continued

The band pictured in front of a hand-woven United States flag made by a local Paraguayan craftsperson.

It was after 1am when our plane took off out of Asuncion. We had a red eye flight to Panama City, Panama through the night and arrived after 6am, today.

We were sad to leave Paraguay. In the scope of the full tour, Panama is our final country, so even though we have a huge week of programming planned, there is a sense that the tour is wrapping up, and a desire to savor every moment, and value every encounter.

Our American Music Abroad partner, Marc, is flying back to the States today, which was a sad goodbye for the band… He’s been a great teammate and advocate for the well-being of the group, and an eager travel companion; always excited to sample local cuisine and see the cities. A kindred spirit. He’ll be missed in Panama, and we look forward to our paths crossing again in the future.

As a farewell get-together dinner in Asuncion, we went to a local steak place by our hotel. The entire table shared a funny, fateful moment when our sizzling beef arrived, and the “Ode to Joy” theme from Beethoven’s 9th Symphony started playing on the radio. It made the first bites especially enjoyable.

Over the last two days we’ve had incredible opportunities to connect with people in Paraguay. We performed a concert at the Theater of the Americas in Asuncion, where we met the United States Ambassador to Paraguay, Ms. Leslie Bassett.

After our performance, a troupe that performs traditional Paraguayan songs and dances put on a show for us. The girls wore colorful dresses, and the boys wore hand-woven belts and hats, and they were accompanied by a brass band that blasted festive songs in the local polka style. It was beautiful, and especially moving because many of the performers in the group had various physical and cognitive differences. The show was a great deal of fun.

The next morning we visited a group called Denide (from their website: “a non-profit organization that defends the rights of people with intellectual disabilities through educational and community programs.”).

It was one of the best concerts of the tour. They started by performing a dance routine to “Accidentally in Love” by Counting Crows. Those who know us well, know that that is one of our all-time favorite bands… That element, the lyrics of the song, and the genuine joy they shared really moved us.

Dance party during our concert at Denide!
Dance party during our concert at Denide!

We were glad that when our turn to play began that the dance party continued. From the moment we started playing our first song, a number of them ran up on stage and danced alongside us. It was a blast. A little chaotic, raucous, and so fun. It was one of the best concerts of our lives.

Teletón Rehabilitacion Infantil

Tony Memmel Trio with the patients, families, and staff at Teletón
Tony Memmel Trio with the patients, families, and staff at Teletón

**This post is about events that occurred last Friday (May 13, 2016). Thanks for reading this flashback post.**

We had one of the most meaningful programs of our tour, on Friday. We played a concert and led a discussion at a physical rehabilitation center for children, called Teletón. The children and the staff told us that they loved the music, and that seeing me play guitar was a big inspiration for them.

One boy commented that seeing us together as a band, and the husband-wife relationship that Lesleigh and I have, was very moving to him. He said in his country it isn’t common to see someone with a physical difference in a relationship with someone without one.

It was a moving, heartfelt moment. I paused to think about his statement, and about how I could respond…

I told him that in my experience, I hope and think of most people on some level that attraction to someone else and the friendships we have, are more linked to the character of a person, than to the look of a person. Be a good friend to others, and be confident in who you are and the way you were made, and the rest falls into place.

A photo with the artist!

After the concert and discussion, we had a meet-and-greet with the children and staff. One generous attendee was being discharged that day; before she left, she gave us a beautiful piece of artwork that she’d made. We’re looking forward to displaying the art piece when we get home, and will think of the wonderful Teletón community every time we look at it.

A Warm Welcome In Paraguay



    Post-concert photo with the wonderful people in Villarica, Paraguay

We arrived in Asuncion, Paraguay on a humid, rainy Sunday afternoon. As we walked down the jetway, we were met by our new team, Mabel and Jazmin from the local U.S. Embassy.

Mabel was holding a sign with an American flag and my name on it, and she navigated the airport with speed like I’ve never seen before. She knew all the staff at the airport, and led us directly to the window where we acquired our Paraguayan visas. We breezed through customs, all the airport staff said “¡Hola Mabel!” as we went by, and we were met by a Suburban to take us to the hotel. It was really something.

When we checked into our hotel, there was a small lizard in our room. The front desk staff came to take a look and said he was harmless. Lesleigh and I stood on the bed with a garbage can and the local info binder from our room, and ushered the lizard into the bin. Ben got some footage of Lesleigh and me corralling the reptile. It’s nice to be working as a team on and off the stage.

Post-lizard capturing adventure, our attention turned to a less-exciting necessity of lengthy travel… We were in dire need of laundry facilities (which we’ve been seeking since Belém, but we haven’t had a day off since we started the tour). We prepared our two weeks of dirty clothes and walked through the streets to a local laundromat service.

Ben Picker and bag of laundry, getting ready for our trip to the laundromat

It’s not self-serve or coin operated, it’s a service here, so we were apologetic to the friendly, forgiving owner of the shop as she counted our socks and underwear with us. We are adjusting to the extreme exchange rate (approx 5,600 Paraguayan guarini to $1 U.S. Dollar), so our 27,000 guarini laundry order cost us $4.82. We are very grateful to the kind-hearted woman for her much-needed service.

I’m writing today on a van ride in the Paraguayan countryside. Our evening event last night was a four hour drive from Asuncion to Villarica. The city was celebrating its 446th anniversary, and our live concert in the Plaza de Los Héroes was part of the festivities.

There were colorful lights and banners of red, white, and blue (the colors of the Paraguayan flag) throughout the park and city. We spoke with people before the show, who spoke only Spanish, and Lesleigh and I felt proud to be able to communicate with them. Our time spent on long car rides drilling Spanish verbs on the Duolingo iPhone app while on tour in the States this spring, is paying off.

Plaza De Lose Héroes - Villarica, Paraguay
Plaza De Lose Héroes – Villarica, Paraguay

We were warmly received in Villarica, and after the concert we were invited to a reception at a local art gallery. Our hosts gave us three beautiful, handcrafted wallets that are made of leather and the local woven threads.

Reception at a local art gallery in Villarica, Paraguay
Reception at a local art gallery in Villarica, Paraguay
Hand-made goods from Paraguay
Hand-made goods from Paraguay

On our way to our concert at a local school today in Coronel Oviedo, we just stopped in a local craftsman community. We were told that under a former dictatorship, people who performed certain jobs or services were made to live in communities together. The community of Yataity makes one-of-a kind clothing. It was an amazing stop. Thank you for reading! More soon.


A Day in Montevideo

Tony Memmel, Ben Picker, and Lesleigh Memmel in Montevideo

Before we began our programming in Uruguay this week, we had a morning briefing at the U.S. Embassy, in Montevideo. A driver picked us up at our hotel and drove us on the main drag that runs along the waterfront called the Rambla. Smart cars and vans zoom in and out of the lines, and motorcycles do a speedy, elegant weave in and out of traffic.

We pulled up to the large, grey building, went through security, and were met by the local embassy staff to learn more about the city, the people, and what to expect from our scheduled programs.

The Montevideo Binational Center Access Micro Scholarship Students

Our first program was at the Binational Center with Access Micro Scholarship students. This two-year English-language learning program is offered to local teenagers in low-income communities. We played some music and had a great discussion about our two cultures. Through music, we shared about goal-setting, hard-work, and about the students’ lives and hopes.

Our second visit was at a special place called Providencia. It was created as an after-school program in 1994, and it has grown so much that they started a high school that serves the community.

Post-concert group photo with the Providencia High School students.

We were told that statistically, what we know as the middle school and early high school years in the U.S. are especially crucial years for many children in this country. There is a high dropout rate in some communities. Providencia is thriving and helps serve this population of youth.

As we took the tour around the school, I could feel a special level of care from the teachers. They had a noticeably high level of pride in the school and in the successes of their students.

The students were excited for our visit, and we were all moved by their gratitude and enthusiasm. We were met with welcome signs, prepared questions that they had for the band, and a performance by some music students who play a local style of music called candombe (which, of course, was followed-up by a jam session between our two groups).

After the concert, we were mobbed by students wanting autographs. It felt like Beatlemania (Memmelmania?) had arrived at Providencia. They were all very sweet and kind;  we were grateful for the love they showed us, and for the opportunity to be a part of their community for the week.


Carne de Uruguay

Montevideo and the waterfront

You can learn a lot about people and places through food. What ingredients are available, what materials are needed to prepare them, what the climate is like, etc. It’s an art and a way of life.

Uruguay is a carnivore and beef-appreciating omnivore’s delight. The local people take great pride in raising world-class cows and cooking world-class beef. It is plentiful and it is extraordinary.

I’ve been told on more than one occasion that there are more cows than people in Uruguay. Whether it’s true or an exaggeration, I don’t know, but there are fewer than 3.4 million people in the entire country, and outside of the major cities, I’m told the Uruguayan countryside is populated almost exclusively by the bovine ilk. I hope they don’t sTAKE over… Forgive me for that awful pun, and please continue reading…

Our first night in the city, we visited a local restaurant that was recommended to us by the embassy staff. Just a few blocks from our hotel, La Pulpería was the perfect way to spend the evening, and was one of the best meals I’ve ever had.

It was a tiny place, which sat maybe 20 people around a bar on stools. Instead of a bartender and a tap selection, you sit in front of the large open wood-fire grill which faces the restaurant, and watch the grill-masters at work.

They cook with wood here, not charcoal. The pit had a specially designed fireplace that allowed the glowing embers from the logs to drop below the meat, and then the grill tenders would rake the coals around to their liking, and for the perfect seer on the meat.

The grill-master and grill
Carne de Uruguay

Uruguayans also take great pride in their world-class wines. Though their neighbors in Chile and Argentina are more recognized in the U.S. because of the amount that is imported there, Uruguayan wines are also known regionally for being exceptional.

I think I’ve had more steak in the last three days than I have in the last three years. It is fun to be traveling with a group of people that is eager to sample the local recommendations, and the foods and beverages that people pride themselves on in the places we go. We’ve had wonderful encounters and made new friends in the restaurants here, and hope to come back soon.

One interesting adjustment we’ve had to make is to the Uruguayan schedule. Our days have been long, begin in the mornings with our programming, and end in the evenings. By 7pm we are all hungry. If you show up at a restaurant at 7pm, you are likely to be the only people there. Most people begin to eat dinner between 8:30-11:30pm here.

We had a late event night last night and decided to go out for a snack afterwards, and could barely get a table at 1am, but that’s ok… We’re on Uruguay-time now.

Arrival in Montevideo

Palm trees in Montevideo

I’m drafting a large blog entry about our last few days in Brazil. There has just been too much to document it all rapidly. To breeze over it with a quick post wouldn’t do the days or the people justice. Though the chronology of the journal will be somewhat skewed, I’ll post it soon.

We arrived safely in Montevideo, Uruguay shortly after midnight, last night. We were all tired from a full travel day, but relieved that all of our luggage arrived, and that we had a safe journey.

Our driver met us at the airport, and as we waited for him to bring the car around to the baggage claim area, the automatic entrance doors would open and close, and we could feel the cool, autumn air. We started the day in a humid tropical rainforest and now we are in the south of South America.

Our hotel has a beautiful view of the Rio de la Plata which is an estuary that connects to the Atlantic (not far from here). We are in an interesting, exciting part of town that I’m anxious to explore. Restaurants, and shops, and soccer fields along the water. Our time in Uruguay is brief (It’s our shortest tour stop, as we leave on Sunday), so we’ll have to hit the ground running and make the absolute most of it.

We’re meeting with the U.S. Embassy staff in an hour and are looking forward to our briefing at the Embassy itself. I’ll write more soon. Thanks for reading!

Getting To Know Belém

Flying over the Amazon region for the first time.

I’ve never been anywhere like this before. When I was in 7th grade, my class went on a field trip to the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee where we watched a live satellite feed of a team of American scientists exploring in the Amazon. I remember thinking about how far away it all seemed. The Amazon was this whole other place that I read about in books and took special field trips to learn about, and now we’re here. We’re in it.

Brazil is comparable to the U.S. in terms of the country’s square mileage, and just like the U.S., Brazil has a variety of different climates all within one country. From the sandy coastal beaches, to the deserts in the south, to the rainforests in the north, the regions are known for distinct people, foods, and customs.

The city we’re working in this week is called Belém (The people here pronounce it “Beh-LANE”), and it’s in the far north of the country, nestled along the rainforest. It’s very hot and humid, and though we’re in a big urban area, the trees in the city are large and jungle-like, and it rains everyday.

On more than one occasion I’ve heard people here say that the north and the south in Brazil are much like the north and south in the U.S., only reversed. There are different accents, different weather systems, different histories, and attitudes, all existing within one nation.

On Saturday, I took about 100 photos and videos as we flew in over the region. You could see rainstorms all around, surrounded by areas of sunlight. All along the ground was green, with the vast, mud-colored river system slicing through the countryside.

When we landed, the airport looked like something from a movie. Many of the buildings and retired planes next to hangars along the runway were old and damp, with vegetation growing on them.

If not for the difference in language, the availability of coconut water (the kind you drink straight out of the coconut) from street vendors, and the rainforest, I’d say Belém is much like some American cities I’ve visited. It reminds me of a hybrid between Savannah, GA (for the humidity, and its old charm and age), parts of Los Angeles, CA (for its large urban areas and the look of the shops and sidewalks), and New Orleans, LA (for its vast open-air markets, reliance on the river for life, work, and economy, and its uniqueness among all other American cities).

Belém is celebrating its 400 year anniversary this year, and there is still some architecture from that era, alongside modern high rises, and cellphone and clothing retailers.

We were met by our new team of Embassy staff who all had to fly in to meet us from Brasilia. Karla, Conrado, Adelle, Antônio, and Julio are a wonderful team, and a great deal of fun to work with.

(From left: Lesleigh, Karla, Ben, Tony, Conrado)

Yesterday, we engaged in a cultural exchange where we talked about music with local music students, dancers, and artists. We were given a demonstration of the local dance and music form of carimbo and played a concert in the evening that went very well.

I’ve said it before, but people have been appreciative in a big way for the programming we’ve participated in thus far, during our American Music Abroad tour. We are learning more every day, and making friends along the way. I love my job.

It’s a Wrap in Recife

Old Town Recife

I paused and looked out the hotel window this morning, as I ate my breakfast… It is hard to believe we’re leaving Recife tomorrow… The beach, the sun, the palm trees, the old city, and the high rises. It feels like we just arrived. I’m excited for our next stop, Belém, Brazil, and we’re eager for the collaborations we have lined up there, but we will certainly miss Recife.

Our U.S. Consulate team, and the Band (from left): Matt, Lesleigh, Tony, Ben, & Stuart
(From Left): Tony, Rita, Lesleigh, & Ben

It was the perfect way to begin our tour. We were met by a thoughtful and attentive U.S. Consulate team. Our new colleagues and friends Matt, Stuart, Rita (our translator who became teary-eyed, today, when we parted ways. She told us that programs like ours are why she became a translator. It was a really meaningful, and genuine compliment. We were all touched.), and Joanna were wonderful hosts, and we will carry memories of our time together with us, always.

Our final day of programming took us to the old town neighborhood of the city. Brightly colored old buildings and cobblestone streets and sidewalks, food carts, stray dogs, the ocean, graffiti, teams setting up for a street festival, and old jungle-like trees supported by metal rods all tell of the neighborhood’s age and unique, urban charm.

Tony and Maestro Nenéu

We attended a symphonic wind band rehearsal conducted by Maestro Nenéu, a fellow adaptive musician, at the Teatro Santa Isabel. The 166 year old theater was an inspiring place to listen and take in the music. The Maestro was kind to introduce me to the band and to share about my adaptive guitar method.

After rehearsal, we met him for lunch and had a conversation about music education, and the importance of hard work. He was told as a child that he would probably only be able to play the piccolo because of his physical differences. He admitted he didn’t even know what a piccolo was at the time, and that he truly wanted to play the guitar. He taught himself to play by lying the guitar horizontally in front of himself. Now, he teaches at a local university and he had a lot of great insight about teaching philosophy. I enjoyed our talk and was glad to meet him.

Tony Memmel & His Band at the Frevo Museum, in Recife

We then went to our show at the local Frevo museum (Frevo is a form of music and dance often compared to New Orleans street Jazz, though the two music styles evolved on separate continents, completely independent of one another). All along, I’d been told how neat the museum was, and that it was going to be a special day… It really was.

The museum is state of the art, colorful, and hundreds of photos of people dancing with the characteristic clothing and bright umbrellas line the walls. We belted out our songs, and shared in a great discussion with those in attendance. The questions from the audience were thought-provoking and heartfelt. We were once again reminded of how grateful we are to be here, and to be engaging in this diplomatic, musical mission.

Until next time, Recife. Thanks for everything.

Official website for award-winning Singer-Songwriter, Speaker, and Composer, Tony Memmel.

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