We’ll Be on the Radio, and TV, and Live in Concert!

Backstage fun at the TV station!

Up-and-at-em! The sun was shining and the early morning air was still and warm as we climbed in the van to make our way to the local TV station for a morning show interview. The local Aktobe network hosts were gracious and sweet, and we performed a song on the air, which is always fun. 

In the interview, they asked us to share a couple of things that we’ve learned about Kazakhstan during our time here, and I thought you might find this interesting, too: 

-By area, Kazakhstan is the 9th largest country in the world. 

-During the Space Race era, cosmonauts took off and landed in Kazakhstan, and I’m told it’s still a significant hub for the current program. The design and engineering is ALSO unique to the U.S. space program because the U.S. design used an ocean splashdown and recovery method, and the former Soviet Union had an on-land retrieval system. I just learned a few basics, but my curiosity is PEAKED I’ll definitely be researching more on this. 

When we arrived for our concert, we knew we were in the right place because there was an enormous banner (35 feet tall) with our photos on it to promote the event. Of course, we had to get a picture in front of the huge picture. 

A picture in front of a picture! (Poster photos by Alison Weakley)

The concert itself was a great culmination of our time in Aktobe. The beautiful theater was packed with people: students from the music school, friends from the American Corner, and people with MANY different abilities all came to sing AND dance with us.

 

Meet and greet!

As a perfect backdrop, the symbol of friendship between our two nations was lit up behind us on stage on a bright LED screen. 

Local musicians we met in Aktobe

I told the audience, “Our time in Aktobe will be two days we will always remember.”

After the concert we took photos with what seemed like the entire audience, signed autographs, and just had a lot of fun. 

Selfie with a new Lucky Fin friend!

When we finally exited the theater, we heard people candidly singing songs we’d played  amidst their small groups of friends. One that especially touched me was a group of youth singing part of a song I recently wrote about baby Theo. We heard them clapping and singing, “My Baby, My Baby, My Baby!”

As gifts to a few special friends who joined us to jam on stage, I gave my CD with a special message written to each person. As we loaded our van, the sax and piano player pulled up next to our car, windows down, and our song “We’ll Be On The Radio” bumping from their car stereo. For a songwriter, are there any greater candid moments possible?

Aktobe… What a Day

“Welcome to Aktobe, Tony Memmel and Band!”

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.

The welcome wagon! Such a great, kind, excited group. Notice the t-shirts (US/Kazakhstan friendship logo).

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.” 

Giant selfie at the music school

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. 

American Corner selfie time!

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.  

Khachapuri – yay!

Aktobe… what a day.

Horse Sense and Olympic Torches

Boarding our flight to Kazakhstan!

The stars were brilliant on our overnight flight from Frankfurt to Nursultan, Kazakhstan. I was lucky to have a window seat as my sleeping schedule was on reverse-mode, so I just enjoyed looking out into the starry darkness and thinking about the tour ahead. 

The hazy morning light broke early over the eastern horizon, and revealed the green and brown steppe landscape that stretched as far as the eye could see. Almost no dwellings, few farms, few people, just a wide, flat, vast expanse of land. 

We checked into our hotel at 6:50am, and were informed that breakfast started in 10 minutes. We all enjoyed a great meal together: omelettes, coffee, fresh-squeezed juice, and “Kazakh Delicacies” (aka homemade horse-sausage). 

“Kazakh Delicacies” – aka horse sausage!

You heard me right. More than any other meat, horse is widely available, and something people are very proud of. In fact, EVERYONE that I ask talks about horse. My favorite meal was a horse-and-pasta dish (“bolog-neighs?”) that was spectacular. 

At first, it is a little strange to get around the idea of eating it, but you have to remember that where you are in the world really can dictate what food is not only appreciated, but available. The only sea nearby is a great grass sea (G.O.T. reference for ya). So you could look at it like seafood… It actually reminded me of pastrami. 

We all took naps, and met up to walk around Nursultan (formerly named Astana). It’s unseasonably warm here. We’re at the bottom of Siberia, and the winters are long and harshly cold, but we brought the heat! It’s been in the 80’s, and will hit the 90’s this week. 

Our first program was the next day at the modern, beautiful Paralympic training facility. After touring the dojo, volleyball courts, and weight room we held a concert and discussion in the main lobby. 

Touring the Paralympic Center

We had been told a few times that people can be shy, so if they’re quiet at the concert, don’t be alarmed, and be assured they are enjoying it… This did not end up being the case, this time. The crowd clapped, cheered, and sang along to every song! We then had an extended meet-and-greet, and many selfies were taken. 

Selfie at the Paralympic Center
Olympic Torches!

I’m now on the plane to Aktobe, where we’ll have two events when we land today. To give you an idea of the landscape, roads, and infrastructure, it’s a two hour trip by plane, but we’re told would take twenty-three hours by car.

It’s also Joey’s birthday!! So, of course, we will be celebrating that all day (We love you, Uncle Joey (Lawrence)!)

Happy birthday, Joey! (Photo by Alison Weakley)

Up To Speed

A cozy airport hotel room called “my cloud.”

I’m in a tiny hotel room in Frankfurt, Germany, at the airport. The perfect size to get a nap and a shower in before running to your next gate, your next airplane, and your next airport.

I have so many notes and blogs in the works from our tours to Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Jordan, and I’ll continue to post those in the days and weeks ahead. Today, I need to bring you up to speed. The band and I are back out on tour! This time we’re deeper into Central Asia. Two-and-a-half weeks. Two countries: Kazakhstan and Tajikistan.

Our travel day started yesterday at 3:45am. I showered and drove to the Nashville airport in the pitch-black dark morning… Hardly any cars on the road. Lesleigh and Theo joined me to see me off, and on our way we talked about the trip, how they’ll be spending their time these next couple of weeks, and encouraged each other about our paths ahead this month…

Lesleigh and baby Theo! 🙂

When we pulled into the drop-off lane, we hugged and kissed goodbye for a long while. Theo was awake, too, so I talked to him, and held his hand for a bit before it was time to grab my guitar and bags and walk through the sliding glass terminal door, waving through the window as they drove away from the curb.

Our first stop was Washington, D.C. We spent the day receiving a briefing at the U.S. Department of State. This is my third AMA tour, and so it was fun to see some familiar faces and to meet some new friends who had insight, information, and encouragement for us before we begin our mission.

We’re at the White House!

There’s a familiarity and a strengthening foundation of experience that each country visited, each hand shaken, and each note belted-out helps to establish… at the same time, there’s nothing routine about it. There will be new highs, new lows, new joys, new challenges, and each one will shape us as it’s meant to.

Preparing for our Department of State briefing

This tour will mark my thirteenth and fourteenth countries toured on behalf of my country. What a blessing and a joy to serve in this capacity.

It’s a time of preparation… As I soon board my flight to Kazakhstan, my mind is focused, my eyes and ears are open, and my heart is full. I move ahead eager to do the work I’ve been called into, and that I’ve prepared my whole life to do.

Here we go!

Ready to fly!

The world tour continues!

Photo by Alison Weakley / Poster by Lesleigh Memmel

The world tour continues!…

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!!

Ministry

These local businesses and community members generously sponsored our school visits in McMinnville, TN this week

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. 

Thank you, thank you, THANK YOU! 

Love, 

Tony, Lesleigh, and Baby Theo 

A Prince’s Palace and a Youth Palace

Elarji = Cheeeese … we had this for lunch. A cornmeal and cheese dish (similar to polenta), but so much cheesier, and therefore, so, so delicious.

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. 

We’re on the radio!

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). 

Hanging with the Zugdidi Youth (Gigi the artist is in the front right of the photo)

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. 

Getting coffee and a snack with friends after the show

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.

“Here’s a toast to… wait… who?”

Selfie time! A great concert with local Gori youth

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. 

The tiny house (not the outer enclosure – look beneath)


The private train car and museum

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. 

The clay workshop

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. 

Khinkali

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, and Two Different Days

Post-show selfie at Tbilisi State Medical University

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. 

New friends at the Youth Palace/American Corner!

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.

This little girl had so much fun! She danced and sang for the entire concert!

Georgia (the country) On My Mind

Hello, Georgia!

This is going to be tough… 

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. 

Is this real life? – Khachapuri

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 (aka “Wonka-vator”)

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. 

Sameba Cathdral


Tony, Alex, Joey, and Tbilisi

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.