A Christmas Star

Christmas Star

I don’t know if you celebrate Christmas, but I want to share a true story that I experienced last night that gave me an extra spirit of hope as I reflect on this season.

On December 6th, after we arrived home from our incredible Southeast Asia tour, I immediately came down with pneumonia. I had a brief stay in the hospital, and it took me two weeks to feel like myself again.

In this way, this season has been different than usual for us. I haven’t decorated, haven’t been able to go to church, and frankly haven’t done a whole lot to prepare my heart for Christmas.

This Christmas our family is having a homecoming in Waukesha at my parents’ house. My sister’s family traveled in from Oklahoma, and we made the drive from Tennessee.

Lesleigh’s family, who also lives in Waukesha, invited us to a special event at their church last night. We were eager to attend and to do something out of the house. They know I enjoy Celtic music, and the evening was an Irish Christmas music service and concert.

It was a beautiful night of music. Acoustic guitar, tin whistles, fiddles, piano, voices, and bagpipes created beautiful, soaring melodies and tight harmonies that filled the vaulted wooden church-space. The lights were dimmed and candles lit… it really felt like I could finally breathe (literally and figuratively) and take it all in.

The last song of the night was a quiet version of two seasonal favorite tunes. As the melody moved from the first part of the song “Silent Night, Holy Night” into “Auld Lang Syne” (the Scottish poem about transitioning with hope into the new year); I looked up at the giant cross in the front of the church.

The design of the building has the cross built right into the eastern wall. The beams that make the shape of the cross are outlined and defined by large windows.

Christ Lutheran Church, Pewaukee, WI

As the melody began, a bright, shooting star darted across the nighttime, winter sky that flew at incredible speed right over the cross and into the east.

In the first Christmas story, the wisemen saw a special star, too, that prepared their hearts for the greatest gift the world has ever known. The birth of Jesus.

I don’t know what the shooting star meant last night, but I saw it. It was real. Lesleigh and her mom saw it, too.

My hope is that as a year of divide, hard news, and unrest comes to a close, that we also focus our hearts on the good things, and on the amazing gift that we are about to receive. He is the only true source of joy and hope in the holiday season, and in every other season of life.

That music and that star remind me to do this, and I hope you will too. Let’s look for the good, look forward to a new year, and live each day like it is our last, and rest our hopes on that Christmas story which is so much bigger and greater than we can even comprehend.

Angkor Wat, Taipei, Birthday, Kaohsiung

Exploring the temples at Angkor Wat

Today is my 32nd birthday. Our final concert of our tour was this afternoon. I’m on the high speed rail train from Kaohsiung to Taipei, Taiwan thinking about the day, and my heart is full.

We just wrapped up three concerts in three cities in three days. We arrived in Taiwan around 11pm on Thursday. Before we left Cambodia that morning, we had the incredible opportunity to tour the temples at Angkor Wat that date back to the 12th century. Our new friend, John (director of American Voices – the team that manages AMA tours), flew in from Thailand to meet up with us, and rearranged our travel arrangements so we could have time to see the temples with him. We started our tour at 6:30am with a private tour guide named Rom (pronounced Rome).

My favorite temple in the massive complex was one that was featured in the film “Tomb Raider.” Unlike the main temple at Angkor Wat, which has been cleaned up and restored, the temple from the film has been consumed by the jungle. There are vines wrapped around the stairs and doorways, monkeys run free around the complex, and 200 year-old trees grow right out of the stone. I felt like Indiana Jones as I explored the eerie ruins. Indiana Memmel?

Taipei 101

Our first full day in Taiwan was really special. I looked out my window in the morning and noticed that the neighboring building to our hotel was Taipei 101. Formerly the tallest building in the world, it towers into the clouds and its distinct look, like stacked blocks, really intrigued me. I took about a zillion photos.

Our first event was at National Taiwan University Hospital in Taipei. The staff told us that they have concerts there because they believe music is so important in the healing process, AND for the well-being of the caregivers. They also told us the crowd was the biggest they’d ever had at an event. Over and over, we have been so touched by the response and receptiveness of the people in Asia towards our band.

That night we played at Da’an Forest Park. Described to me as “the Central Park of Taipei.” The weather was challenging for an outdoor concert, and the organizers apologized over and over (not that it was at all their fault). It was cool and raining cats and dogs, but once again, the audience arrived far in advance, and stayed through the ENTIRE concert. Looking out at the crowd of people holding umbrellas and wearing ponchos, I sang as hard as I could for them.

The final performance of the tour was to a packed, super-enthusiastic house at the Fine Arts Museum in Kaohsiung. After my voice rang out the last song, and the final note of the tour, our awesome friend/interpreter/Taiwan-tour-manager/and travel buddy, Wanda, spoke to the crowd and told them that it was my birthday. She arranged in advance for the saxophonist, Sam Tzu, whom we’d shared the stage with, to play “Happy Birthday” and lead the audience in song. The entire crowd sang to me in the Taiwanese dialect of mandarin… I was so touched. The best birthday gift I’ve ever received. Thank you, Wanda!

English Students and Acrobats

It was such a please to meet these English access students in Cambodia!

It’s a six hour drive to Battambang from Phnom Penh, and we had two events scheduled that day, so we woke up early, checked out of the Teahouse Hotel, chugged some coffee, met our friends from the embassy and all piled into a van together.

Outside the city, small homes on stilts line the roadways and farmlands. The houses are stilted for two reasons… 1) in the rainy season, the land is prone to floods, 2) to avoid snakes and other wild animals that are native to the country.

Our first stop was at a rural English language school. Everyone there was taking English classes on their own time. The students were so sweet. When we pulled onto the red-dirt grounds of the small, barn-like school area, the students were already waiting for us under a tarp that provided shade from the hot sun. They welcomed us with applause as we climbed out of the van, and though they were a little shy to use their language skills at first, by the time the event was over, we were having great, full conversations.

Group singalong in Cambodia! Photo courtesy of U.S. Embassy Phnom Penh

In Battambang that night, we had a concert at a unique school especially for street kids (If you’re reading this in the U.S. and find the term “street kids” abrasive/non-PC, this is the language that is widely used here, and it will help to convey the rest of the story more clearly).

Live from Battambang, Cambodia! Photo courtesy of U.S. Embassy Phnom Penh

The head of the school gave us a tour around the complex. They bring in young, street kids from the community, and train them in music, art, and as acrobats. If you’ve ever seen a Cirque Du Soleil show, it is likely there were Cambodian acrobats in the company.

The head of the school told me something about this statistical phenomenon that really stuck with me. He said, “Before the students come to our school and they’re spending their days and nights in the streets, the world is the kids’ playground. They don’t really have people watching them, telling them not to climb things, jump on things, and swing from things. Consequently, they get quite comfortable with heights and the stunts we teach before they are even students here.”

This school trains performers for one of the most popular shows in Siem Riep, the Phare Circus. The relationship between the school and the circus is symbiotic: The school trains acrobats, musicians, and artists for these productions, the performers earn living wages for themselves and their families, and further proceeds go back to the school. It sells out every day, and in advance, so we were very grateful to our embassy friends who helped us reserve great seats to the unforgettable show.

I told you in a previous blog that I was eager to share one way that it seemed the young people were continuing to press forward after the hardships of the brutality of the Khmer Rouge days in recent history (read here, if you missed that blog or want to reference back).

As a child, the founder of the circus lived in Thailand in a refugee camp made up of people fleeing the horror occurring in Cambodia. Though many different stories have been created, the night we were there was the original show. It was about a girl who’d seen her family killed by the Khmer Rouge, struggled to survive, and then had to work to restore her hope in humanity and the future. As she goes through her journey, the performance ranged from tragic, to scary, to funny, to fun. We all thought it was spectacular, and we’re so grateful that we got to experience this performance.

The incredible performers at the Phare Circus in Siem Riep, Cambodia

Where words fail, music speaks

A group of visually impaired students talking to Tony about how he plays the guitar


Guest post by Lesleigh Memmel

“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.

We had to get a selfie with these wonderful students!

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.

Phnom Penh = Phnom-enal

Our enormous Cambodia tour banner! Original photo by Alison Weakley

If you made it past the horrible, punny title, thank you for your patience because I’m eager to tell you about Cambodia.

From the moment we stepped foot off the airplane and onto Cambodian soil, we could feel an energy. There’s a liveliness and an excitement here that’s hard to describe, but can easily be felt. Teenagers and twenty-somethings cut in and out of traffic on motorbikes, tuk tuks (motorcycles with carriages attached that were loads of fun and the best way to experience the city) cart passengers to the restaurants and markets, and even though everyone seems to run red lights and cut each other off, there are no middle finger gestures to be seen.

Part of the energy in the city has to be that it’s youthful. I’ve heard several statistics, but I’m told somewhere between 70-75% of the country is under the age of 35. The parks are full of kids playing pickup soccer-like games and keep-away with makeshift balls, restaurants are buzzing, backpackers and ex-pats smoke clove cigarettes in bars where beer is cheap and food is hot and tasty. I imagine Phnom Penh to be a bit like Hemingway and Fitzgerald’s Paris in the 1920’s.

The country has not been without its challenges. In the late 1970’s, Cambodia went through a terrible period under the Khmer Rouge regime. Millions were killed, and the country was war torn for many years. Tours and school groups can be seen walking through the halls at S. 21, a high-school-turned-prison where an estimated 20,000 people were tortured and held before being shipped to the killing fields outside the city. It was one of many prisons of this kind throughout the country. The people seem to have a spirit that says “we remember, we won’t forget, but we have to keep moving forward.” (I’m eager to tell you one way I experienced this in a future blog).

We were looking out at a sea of cell phone flashlights during our concert in Phnom Penh! (Photo by: @somethingbyevan)

Our first concert was at an outdoor amphitheater space at a university; it was standing room only, and the theater was already mostly full before we even finished our sound check two hours before the show. We could hear the screams and singing of the audience while we were waiting backstage, and knew it was going to be a special night.

Current tour record for “most people in a selfie”: over 600 people! (Photo by: @somethingbyevan)

When I was a student, I booked entertainment on my college campus. While we certainly had wonderful concerts, it’d be rare to get a packed house at an amphitheater space for a new, relatively unknown, traveling-from-out-of-the-country artist. The people seemed so hungry for experiences and for music… it was frankly amazing.

Crickets, anyone…?

At night, we found ourselves exploring the city with our new friends Kai and Sal. We tried foods like cow tongue, crickets, (both were better than they might sound) and a few local beers and cocktails. As we rode in tuk tuks to local, late night markets and bars with the city whizzing by, the warm breeze blowing my hair back, hearing my friends laugh and talk around me, and thinking about the amazing work we’ve had the opportunity to be doing, I felt overjoyed. What an amazing gift life is. Live it.

Taking in the sights in the back of a tuk tuk 🙂

Notes from Indonesia: Part 2

Guest post by Lesleigh Memmel

Love this Indonesia Tour banner! Photo by Alison Weakley Photography

To say that Indonesia was a whirlwind would be an understatement! We had 2-3 events per day in 6 cities over the course of 12 days, with one rest day! Our days were full, and we changed our “home base” every few days, but we dove right in from day one and had an incredible tour through Indonesia.

The local people have been so curious about our experiences in Indonesia:

Have you tried the food? Yes. All the food. So good!

Do you speak Indonesian/Javanese? We loved picking up the language in our 12 Days here. “Terima kasih” (thank you) was used too many times to count. “Matar Nuwun” (“thank you” in dialect specific to the region of Java) was a phrase that often got a big smile and a laugh when we used it in conversation, as they were surprised that we knew such a specific and local way to express our gratitude. One of our favorite words was “mimpi,” which means “dream.” Tony would talk about how long it took him to learn how to play the guitar… he’d say, “I am so glad that I didn’t give up on the hard days… because if I had, I wouldn’t be here today in Indonesia, making music with my wife and my friend. Being here is my dream come true… my mimpi.”

Speaking of mimpis (actually it’s “mimpi mimpi” for the plural form!)…

People have also asked what our most memorable moment has been in Indonesia. We all agreed that it was day two in Medan. We performed a concert at a Children’s Hospital – specifically for kids with cancer. There was a stillness in the air as patients and their families filled the room, and sat quietly and patiently waiting for our concert to start. When we started playing “Can’t Stop the Feeling” by Justin Timberlake, the patients, parents, and nurses rushed the stage to join us for a dance party. A nurse monitored an IV infusion while smiling and playing my tambourine. Kids danced and sang behind their face masks. For that few minutes, it seemed like all of the worry and pain left the room, and we were all just singing and dancing. That is the awesome power of music.

Dance party with the patients and staff at a local children’s hospital

Our next several days were filled with too many moments like these to count… we will blog more about Indonesia soon. Right now, we are enjoying a long-awaited day off in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. So much to share with you (soon!). Thank you for reading and sharing. Sending love from Cambodia!

Cheers from Cambodia! – enjoying a fresh coconut in Phnom Penh

Notes From Indonesia: Part 1

We made it to Indonesia!

I’m on a tour bus headed out of Solo, Indonesia to our concert and destination tonight in Salatiga, Indonesia. As I’m writing, we’re cruising along curvy roads in a mix of densely, lush palm forests, city-settlements, and farm fields and paddies where rice farmers wearing conical hats are casting seed by hand, and tending to their crops in shin-deep water.

Indonesia has been the most different place from the U.S. that I’ve ever traveled. Our schedule here has been frequently adjusted and exceptionally full, so I’ve not had many opportunities to blog, but our three hour drive today is a welcome opportunity to put in my earbuds, listen to some good tunes, and write to you.

Medan, Indonesia: Our first event was at a local school. We performed a concert for an auditorium full of energetic students, and then collaborated on one song with the school’s orchestra.

That same day we were scheduled to teach a workshop to visually impaired musicians. We had spent some time brainstorming what we should focus on for our teaching that day, but when we showed up and the band played the first few bars of their first song for us, it was clear they were already very accomplished. It turned into a discussion and a jam. I asked questions about how they’d taught themselves to play the sax, drums, and keyboard, and I explained my duct tape cast, which they all asked to feel, so that they could comprehend my description more completely.

Sharing my adaptive guitar cast with a group of visually impaired musicians

I asked one particularly accomplished player “why did you decide to play the saxophone?” He said, “ I’ve only been playing for a short time, but this is the intstrument that I feel I can most bring honor and glory to God with.” This turned out to be a common thread amongst the band members… music for a higher purpose.

When we asked what songs they knew, so we could find one we were all familiar with and jam together, they suggested “You Raise Me Up,” “Amazing Grace,” “Lean On Me,” and “It Is Well.” Classic hymns and standards that I was not expecting to play on this tour, but was glad to sing and play my guitar on.

People were singing, a few tears of joy were flowing, and cameras on smart phones were rolling to capture the powerful moment. That’s church.

Medan musicians singing and playing their hearts out

The Food!

Guest post by Lesleigh Memmel 

Indonesian lunch: you pick what dishes you like and usually pay per piece. Disclaimer: we did not sample every dish in this photo! 🙂

“I’m extremely jealous of the good food you’ll be eating!” – actual quote from our pre-tour briefing

When we found out that we’d been selected to travel to Southeast Asia for our American Music Abroad tour, we were thrilled. Mostly because we had never been to the region… But I have to admit that I was more than a little excited about the food!

Tony and I love to travel, and one of the best parts about exploring a new place is having the opportunity to sample the local cuisine. Luckily for us, we have been hosted by some incredible people at the local embassies and consulates, who have been recommending their favorite local dishes and the best places to find them.

Here is just a sample of the food that we’ve been so blessed to have the chance to try!

Chili crab and stingray: when we got to Singapore, we were told by multiple people that we had to try these two dishes. We hopped in a taxi and headed to a local hawker stand (an open-air food court with dozens of food stands offering delicious regional dishes). The woman at the restaurant that we chose brought out a live crab (!!!) to show us what we were getting into. They also served barbecue stingray which was phenomenal. Delicious and messy. What I would call good “first date food”… haha. After expertly and not-so-daintily dismantling my chili crab, I polished it off (and only had to use about 27 napkins). 😉

Lesleigh and Tony try Chili Crab and Stingray in Singapore!

Curry laksa: my favorite of the trip (so far!). A delicious savory coconut broth soup that definitely packs some heat. Garnished with green onions, green beans, and your choice of prawns, chicken, fish… yes, please!

Curry Laksa

Roti canai: perhaps Tony’s favorite new food. It’s essentially a savory Indian pancake – picture a flaky croissant crossed with naan bread. Mmm…

Roti Canai

Durian fruit: a local legend of sorts. Hard to describe… a combination of a heavy, spiky/sharp pineapple on the outside that, once hacked open with extreme force, smells a bit like garbage BUT tastes like banana custard! A truly unique fruit and an experience we’ll definitely take with us!

Mandatory Durian Selfie!

Noodles!! Everywhere you go, each place showcases their signature noodle dish. Wet noodle, dry noodle, ramen noodle, glass noodle… We have not eaten a bad noodle dish at all in Southeast Asia, that is for sure!

Noodles for breakfast 🙂

Fruit juice: we have been so fortunate to have vast array of fresh fruit juices readily available. Papaya, dragon fruit, pineapple, mango, green guava… The list goes on, and each fruit and fruit juice has been a magical way to start each day.

Fresh mango juice + fruit + cappuccino = happy camper!

Coffee: The coffee here has been robust and delicious, and we are just getting started! For coffee drinkers and coffee lovers, you’ll appreciate this: we are currently staying in Sumatra, Indonesia (Sumatra is a type of coffee bean). We may need a bigger suitcase to bring some of this back home with us!

Coffee in Sumatra, Indonesia!

We’re trying as many new things here as possible, and we’re looking forward to bringing some of these foods, recipes, and experiences home with us to the states. But for now, I could go for some more curry laksa (not really kidding!).

More to come from Southeast Asia. Thank you so much for following along on our adventure!

Kuala Lumpur to Johor Bahru, Malaysia

The band on LIVE TV in Malaysia!

Our last day in Kuala Lumpur (KL) was very full. We had a 6:30AM call time so that we could be on a morning news and talk program that airs on the largest TV station in KL. We followed that with a great radio interview (which I will post when it’s shared with me. The questions were super in-depth, and on a range of subjects I’m rarely asked about). There’s been a lot going on in the news here. The main story is that there has been some terrible flooding in parts of Malaysia. Please keep the people here in your thoughts and prayers.

In between events, our new fr
iend Hisham (our public relations aficionado from the U.S. Embassy) took us out for breakfast. I’d yet to try a local, specialty beverage that I’d been researching called Teh Tarik, or “pull tea”- a hot tea drink that is prepared by pouring the tea back and forth from a large distance to cool it to the perfect temperature before pouring it over sweet, condensed milk. It was phenomenal! To give you an idea of the timeframe here… I had this first teh tarik drink before noon on Wednesday, and had another two teh tarik beverages before we left for Johor Bahru (JB) at 8:55 the next morning.

Teh Tarik being prepared

We didn’t have a free day to explore in KL, BUT we were able to make a brief stop at the base of the world-famous Petronas Towers. We were all in awe of the enormous structures, and snapped a quick photo.

Petronas Towers

On Thursday, we flew out of KL early in the morning. The call time was 6:00AM in the hotel lobby, where we met a van that took us to Sultan Abdul Aziz Shah airport, we flew to JB, met our van (and our driver/local expert, Jai), and went to our first gig. Between the early start, hunger, travel fatigue, and a bit of a bumpy car ride, I was not feeling 100% at the start of our first performance of the day at the Malaysian Arts School of Johor… But the students were SO excited. They really gave me a second wind. As we arrived they were waving at me and calling my name from different spots in the distance around the school campus. At the concert, they were electric! Truly. I’ve never seen anything quite like the appreciation they had… and maybe few bands have since the Beatles circa 1964.

The band with the INCREDIBLE students at Malaysian Arts School of Johor

We stayed, signed autographs, made some new friends, and then had a lunch break. Jai took us to a local Indian restaurant. I ordered briyani rice with curry beef and mutton, AND my first soda abroad, a crisp, cool 7UP. It was an open-air place with ceiling fans on full blast, and I devoured my food, and felt much better. I guess it’s true what they say: “Spicy, curry mutton really does cure an ailing stomach.”

Lesleigh signing autographs and taking photos with the students
We loved meeting this group of students!

In the afternoon, we visited the Spastic Children’s Association of Johor. There was a group of about 30 people who were at our concert waiting for us in the front of the gymnasium-sized space. They had a range of differences and abilities and were so sweet. I went to them before the concert and introduced myself to everyone who’d been waiting.

We were asked to delay the start time because the rain gets so intense here that traffic gets significantly delayed. This meant that when we started the concert, one staggered bus load of students after another continued to filter in until the gymnasium was full, and SO noise-filled during singalongs that the band had a hard time hearing ourselves to keep tempo and pitch. A difficult, yet welcome problem to have as a touring musician, if you ask me.

**It’s important to mention that the U.S. embassy staff in the places we are visiting is so much of what has made this trip great. Thank you especially to Shanon, Allyson, and Hisham for all of your dedication, care, and friendship.**

The full team! (Left to right: Shanon, Joey, Jai, Tony, Lesleigh, and Spencer)