Arrival in Montevideo

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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

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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.

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(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

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

Recife Day 3: A Hospital, a School, and a Shopping Mall

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Tony Memmel signing a student’s guitar

The day started early. After a quick breakfast of tropical, fresh pineapple and papaya, and some of the best coffee I’ve ever had, the band got into the van and we were driven to our morning event; a performance at a local hospital called IMIP.

It was a sunny and humid morning. After navigating the crowded, narrow streets of the city, we pulled up to the hospital. Our performance was scheduled to be in an outdoor courtyard. An hour before the show began, most seats were filled, and because of the heat, I asked a member of our team if I should address the crowd and let them know we wouldn’t be starting for a while. He said, “oh, they know what time the show starts, they’re just very excited to hear and see you.” I have been continually overwhelmed by the eagerness and enthusiasm of the audiences we’ve met here.

After participating in a number of interviews with local journalists, we had the opportunity to meet the United States Consulate General in Recife, Richard Reiter, as well as the president of the hospital. Both were in the front row for the concert.

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Tony Memmel and His Band with the Occupational Therapy Team at IMIP hospital

The concert was special. The patients and staff clapped, danced, and sang along to our songs. At the end of the event, there was a question and answer time, but it turned into a long series of compliments from the crowd. The people said they were filled with such joy to have heard us, and to have met us. It was a powerful, and overwhelming experience. We then did an extended meet-and-greet, signed autographs, took selfies, and talked at length with the occupational therapy team.

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Tony Memmel and His Band with JCPM Students

We could have stayed all day, but the nature of being on tour is that you’re always moving forward. Our second concert was equally special. It was both a dialog and performance with and for JCPM Institute of Social Commitment, which works with young people aged 16-24 to raise youth employment potential, expand general knowledge, encourage reading, and provide behavioral guidance. They were a fantastic group with detailed and heartfelt questions about music, art, and overcoming challenges. It was our second event using headphones for simultaneous translation. I found myself being constantly grateful to the team of interpreters who’ve made these interactions as special as they have been.

After we performed, a number of the students felt inspired to share some of their music with us. They took turns singing popular songs in Portuguese. The purpose of our mission is cultural exchange – Building bridges through music and art. It’s a joy to watch events like these organically unfold. Powerful.

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Tony Memmel and His Band autographed 2016 American Music Abroad Tour shirt
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Tony Memmel and His Band stage at Rio Mar mall

In the evening, we played a concert on a beautiful stage at Rio Mar Mall. It is an enormous and popular hangout; a place the locals are very proud of. The show went well. We were especially glad to see familiar faces from other events we’d done this week, people who wanted to come to see us for a second time. After the show, a number of people came up to take photos with us, and to speak with us in English.

It’s hard to believe tomorrow is our last day in Recife. Our days are moving fast. We have two events tomorrow. I look forward to sharing with you about our concert and conversation about innovative guitar techniques at the Frevo (a local music and dance form) museum.

Recife Day 2: Purpose

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In the United States, at least in circles I communicate with, it is common to talk about purpose. Dreams. Are you living your life to the fullest extent, and working toward the pursuit of happiness? Today, it was clear that we were exactly where we were supposed to be, doing exactly what we feel meant to do.

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Our day of cultural exchange began in an old colonial neighborhood of the state, called Olinda. It was colonized by the Portuguese in 1535, and retains its architecture and infrastructure. We walked through a market on cobble-stone streets, visited a church built in 1614 (Catedral Metropolitana São Salvador do Mundo), and had a panoramic view of Recife from the hillside.

Over lunch, we met with a man named, Bruno – the chairman of the Rotary Youth Exchange, in Recife. His life’s work is to improve the lives of students by exposing them to the world of possibilities that music opens. When he was a student, he said his life was forever changed by a study abroad experience he had in the United States. He attended a school with a strong, competitive marching band program, and he was never the same. We hit it off well.

He connected us to our afternoon event. We presented a concert and had a conversation with the remarkable students at Escola Rotary do Alto do Pascoal, a school with an exceptional music program, in the city. We all wore headsets, so that the band could hear translators describe their questions to us in English, and so that the translators could share our responses, in Portuguese, with them.

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One of the highlights, was when their marching band asked to present some songs to us. They played raucous arrangements of Beyonce’s “Crazy in Love,” and LMFAO’s “Party Rock Anthem.” We jammed with them on the latter. It was a blast.

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When the concert was over, the students mobbed us to talk with us, get photos with us, to get our autographs, and to practice speaking English.

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We were especially honored by an exchange we had with the marching band director. He explained through our translator that he was incredibly moved by our encounter, and felt so affected, that he gave us a gift we had a hard time accepting… a trophy that the band received for their national championship marching band competition… I tried to say it was too much, but he insisted that we had given his students and him even more of a treasure by sharing in our exchange program, today… It’s one of the most generous gifts I’ve ever received.

Miami to Recife

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Our overnight flight out of Miami went well. We departed at 9:45pm, and as the plane climbed over the illuminated city, it was only moments before the bright, beachside metropolis gave way to the long, black Atlantic Ocean.

Lesleigh was giddy to be airborne. She had a huge smile on her face, and just kept shaking her head in both belief, and disbelief saying, “All the work we’ve done is coming together, and we get to be ambassadors for our country. This is our life. Can you believe this is our life? How incredible and humbling.” I was really glad to be there with her and it made me happy to talk with her. I’d been so focused on logistics and planning that I hadn’t stopped to take it in, in a while. It felt good.

We both tried to get some shuteye and slept as well as we could. At sunrise, we were just beginning to fly over South America. Between the clouds, it was dense and green, as far as the eye could see. As we began our decent into Recife, I could see more of the city we’d call home for the next few days. High rise after high rise built up along a long beachfront. Very pretty from the air.

After almost three hours spent in baggage claim and customs, we were met by our two contacts, Stuart and Matt. They were friendly, helpful, and excited to see us.

Stuart drove us through town to our hotel, and helped us get checked in. He gave us a few tips about the area, and is coming to meet us for dinner tonight for a more extensive briefing about the work we’ll be doing here.

When Lesleigh and I checked in, we both fell asleep. I woke up and did some work and then we decided to walk along the beach. We’re staying across the street from the Atlantic Ocean (As I write this, I’m watching a big group of people play a pickup soccer game on the beach). Beautiful sand, and warm, blue water was a welcome way to spend part of our afternoon.

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We stopped at a beachside shop and ordered “Água de côco” (a local treat, where they take a fresh, refrigerated coconut, hack the top off with a machete, stick a straw in, and you drink it ). It was cold, and delicious. I’m definitely going to have to get a few more of those before our time here is through.

As I write this, Ben and our AMA contact, Marc, are airborne. They’re scheduled to arrive later this evening. We’re excited to finally meet up, after days of roundabout travel.

Tomorrow we do our first program; working with local students who are passionate about music. It should be a great way to kick off our work here.

American Music Abroad Tour Day 1… “Leaving Home. Sort of.”

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“A journey of a thousand miles begins with… a delayed flight, then a cancelled flight, a night in Nashville, and then a single step.” Tony Memmel

I applied for the opportunity to represent the United States of America through a cultural exchange program called American Music Abroad, nearly a year and a half ago. After many months of planning, the tour kicked off yesterday.

We were scheduled to fly to Reagan airport in Washington, D.C., but due to weather delays, our plane’s captain was stuck in New York City, and never made it to Nashville.

We stayed at a local hotel, and ended up getting a brand new itinerary for today. I’m saddened that we’ll miss our tour briefing in Washington, D.C., at the State Department, but we are glad our guitarist, Ben (who had a different itinerary), made it to D.C. And met up with our travel team. We will meet them all tonight in Miami, FL, fly through the night and land in Brazil by morning!

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

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