When we arrived at the girls’ school, we unloaded our gear from the van, and then asked to set down our instruments in the courtyard for a moment. We were told that the students had prepared a traditional Saudi Arabian Sword Dance to welcome us for the day. With silver blades shining in the midday sunlight, banging drums, and the biggest smiles you can imagine, the girls danced the steps they’d prepared for us guests. The hospitality and excitement with which we are treated here is unique and special.
After the ceremonial greeting, we were ushered inside the school to have lunch with the U.S. Consul General in Dhahran. She was friendly, a great conversationalist, and I noticed she recalled the students’ names who were present after they’d introduced themselves to her. She paid close attention to the kids, and the kids loved her. Name memory – seemingly so small… yet so rare. It really stood out to me.
After lunch, the students and staff were waiting in the common area for our concert to begin. Girls from elementary age to teens to teachers all packed into the cacophonous common assembly space.
They shared a brief video about the school that documented the girls working with advanced robotics, and learning about the circulatory and nervous systems of the human body – this was a specialized STEM school with high standards, and just an amazingly impressive group of young people to say the least.
After the video, the band took the stage, and I could feel a palpably important moment happening. There was an extraordinary interest and an immediate, electric connection from the room, as I shared about our music, our tour, and especially about my long road as a professional guitar player with adaptive methods. A clear, fresh message overtook me as I looked at the ceiling around the room, decorated in quotes from history’s greatest minds, and looked out at the eager students’ faces.
You see, as a background, it wasn’t long ago that something you probably regard as commonplace where you are – women driving cars – was forbidden in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Now, I’m told it is legal, but still not fully welcome here in areas outside of bigger cities. With this context, I hope you can understand and even feel what it was like to be in that particular room of young women… It was powerful, and you could feel a definite strength.
As we sang our song, “ I Am Never, Never, Never Gonna Give Up,” it was so loud that the band could barely be heard over the students as they shouted along.
We closed with the pop mega-hit, “Roar,” and it somehow raised the volume in the room even louder (see video above). While we were playing, I looked at the band and knew we all felt the same: Something is happening in Saudi Arabia, we had a front row seat this week, and we are beyond grateful to be witnesses and to be some small part of it all.
“You’re gonna hear me rooooar!”
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A new friend told me of his impression of Saudi Arabia: “It’s beguiling.” He said. Beguiling… what a word. It’s been on my mind ever since he said it.
With all of the newsworthy events happening here all the time, in many ways, things are peaceful. The scorching summer heat has broken and given way to temperate days and breezy nights. I’ve not needed more than a t-shirt, and I’ve been comfortable in jeans. Perfect human temperature. People outside. Cafes full. Picnics. Pleasant.
With that in mind, another new friend said, “by all accounts, this region is still one of the more (if not most) tense places to be in the world right now.”
Armed guards, military checkpoints, hummers with gun turrets, missile strikes, armored cars, and even tanks are daily realities for the people here. It’s interesting how quickly familiar it all becomes.
World interest is focused here. Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Israel are all within a couple hours of one another by jet.
American and Russian military aircraft do almost constant flyovers. The roar of the powerful engines is simultaneously exciting, invigorating, and a “whoa!” kind of moment. They rattle the walls, shake the very ground you stand upon, temporarily delay conversation until you can hear again, and they’re as common as the bells of a clock striking on the hour.
Today, I saw a Kentucky Fried Chicken as a backdrop to a convoy of heavy military armory traveling down a main road… a good illustration of this place: Peaceful, and stirring. Strong, and fragile.
One more new friend said, “It’s important to keep perspective. What you know from a nation’s government or from certain sects of people can’t possibly summarize a city, a state, or a nation that is made up of millions of hearts and minds. I hope you’ll be able to help share about the people here, goodness you see, generosity you experience, and friends you make.”
I’m mulling over these quotes and others, and looking forward to sharing something amazing with you soon… Wait until you hear about our day yesterday. Stay tuned.
After writing this, I learned of the recent violence in Florida. I’m aware that this event sheds a spotlight on the relations between our two nations. I plan to continue to share what I see on the ground here. Our band sends our love and support to those hurting from these events.
As we flew in on Sunday, I studied the flight map in wonder as we flew high above ancient cities of the world: Athens, Cairo, Jerusalem and Baghdad, with our course set for Riyadh in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (everyone here refers to SA as “The Kingdom.”).
In the descent of the airplane, passengers are reminded in an overhead message that it is forbidden to bring alcohol or explicit materials into the kingdom. A friendly, firm reminder to all who travel to say, “Welcome, AND/BUT there are certain rules that are to be followed.”
As I exited the airplane, the immediate thing I noticed was the change in fashion: most men wearing thobes (long white robes) with ghutrahs (red and white headwear) – Cleanly pressed, proudly worn. Most women wearing hijabs, niqabs, burkas (but not all women). Many people also wear super-sharp watches, the new bluetooth Apple earbuds, slick sneakers, and designer sunglasses.
The pace of life is really interesting to me. Traffic operates like it does in most big cities I’ve been in, but on foot, people go about leisurely… I’ve seen hardly anyone hurry, I’ve seen no one run (except visitors at the hotel gym) – just a confident, mellow stroll. Always.
Cafes are full of people all day long, and well into the night. People sip coffee, talk with friends (all sit with members of the same gender – unless you’re in a family section of a restaurant which is partitioned from the singles area… though some restaurants are changing), they smoke, vape, and drink tea and coffee. Because it’s so hot during the day, many people make the most of the night. You can get coffee, tea, and good food until well after midnight.
We spent a good amount of time in a place called Oud Square, and had a phenomenal Lebanese meal with a new friend from the embassy: Hummus, veal, lamb, chicken liver, walnut paste, all fresh and deliciously prepared… The food has been exceptionally exceptional.
Serving as a cultural ambassador of the U.S., it’s been my distinct joy and pleasure to get the opportunity to go to oft-untraveled places by folks from America, to learn a little more than what is able to be relayed in two-minute news pieces, and to relay as many interesting details to you as I am able.
Through countless conversations with local teachers, diplomats, musicians, artists, entrepreneurs, and children, I’m learning first hand that this has been a place of some tension, and people share their awareness of some of the scrutiny in the eyes of the world (I’m constantly asked by local folks what my thoughts were about SA before coming here, and what they are now).
I can tell you that people have welcomed me generously (Maybe the most generously I’ve ever experienced. The hospitality is remarkable.). I know I’m in a place and time that is very exciting. Everyone I’ve met is talking about change. Some love it, and can’t wait for more. Some have said, “It feels weird, and it’s hard to keep up.”
As a preview of my next blog, I’ll share one last thing for today: I’ve been told constantly that everything we’re seeing happen here was not happening even three years ago: meetings with artists out in the open, visiting an all girls school for a discussion and concert, public jam sessions where two years ago people would have had their instruments confiscated and likely broken for doing what we’re doing. Not the case this week.
It’s a beautiful land of generous, thoughtful people, vast sandy deserts, the Arabian Gulf and Red Sea, oil, American/Saudi close-knit history, and fighter jets flying overhead constantly as a reminder that there is a lot at stake for this land and people at all times.
I can’t wait to see and share more in the days ahead.
Steady. Ready. Eager.
As the plane turned onto the runway, throttled forward, and sped down the pavement, I found myself as prepared and calm as I’ve ever been. I’m in the middle seat between two strangers, listening to my favorite music playlist, bound for Washington Dulles airport, then Frankfurt Germany, then Riyadh Saudi Arabia by tomorrow morning U.S. time (tomorrow night Saudi time).
Last Thanksgiving, I was in the parking lot at Wal-Mart with Lesleigh and 2-week-old Theo when my phone buzzed in my pocket with a call from the U.S. Department of State. I was told that the U.S. Embassy and consulates in Saudi Arabia would like to invite our band on a cultural diplomacy mission to share our music and story.
The tour was planned for February until the government shutdown happened. We were postponed until summer before finally confirming a tour for December 2019. It’s been a full year of anticipation and planning, and it feels great to be beginning this journey which we’ve prepared for these many months.
Lesleigh and Theo brought me to the airport today. We hugged, prayed, said goodbye, and Theo saw me off in his own way too:
It’s amazing to be present in the noticeable growth we’ve experienced as a family this year.
For my first tour without my family (April), my heart was so full and hopeful that Les and Theo would do alright while I was away – he wasn’t sleeping through the night, he seemed so little, and I had to step up and forward into a year of work away from home, trusting we’d still have the close bond we’d formed though I’d be gone so long.
It’s been a year of practicing gratitude for the purpose and path we’ve been called into, and with that in mind, looking forward into life ahead with trust and eager expectation.
These next 10 days will conclude my final international tour of the year. It’ll be my 17th country visited for the U.S.A. in three years, and my ninth international mission this year. Awesome.
What a way to conclude: Saudi Arabia. We had a good briefing by phone with colleagues in DC and in SA. We are getting a good feel for what to expect, and how to have the best tour possible. Some details are known. Many are not. We’re pushing forward with SO much excitement about the days ahead.
The plane is descending into Dulles. Here we go!! Have a wonderful remainder of your thanksgiving weekend, and travel safely. Thank you for your constant encouragement, support, and love.
I can’t wait to share more with you in the days ahead.
Your friend, Tony Memmel
Silhouette of a Soldier Video Created by: Tracy Roberts
Writers: Tracy Roberts (Lyrics) & Tony Memmel (Music)
Artist: Tony Memmel
Story Behind The Music: Tracy Roberts is a school teacher colleague that I’ve had the joy to work with on multiple successful programs. This summer, she reached out about working together on a different sort of project – a song.
She’d written lyrics about her own military family’s story that she’d worked on for years, and asked if I’d be interested in writing some music for them. Touched by the lyrical content and sincerity, I happily agreed to the project, and this recording is what became of “Silhouette of a Soldier.” This Veteran’s Day we celebrate those who’ve served, and share this song and video about the unique love and bond that exists between soldiers and their families.
**We thank the families who contributed photos to this video.**
© 2019 Tony Memmel (ASCAP) & Tracy Roberts. All rights reserved. Unauthorized duplication is a violation of applicable laws.
Happy 1st birthday to our son, Theo! It’s been an incredible first year with you. Here’s what it looked like…
In the fall of 2009, I packed my 1998 GMC Jimmy to the brim, cleared a nest in the back for a sleeping bag and pillow amongst the PA system, boxes of CD’s, mic stands, and suitcase. I left my apartment in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin to set off for a grand adventure – a 3 week tour of the eastern United States of America. My first ever. My first of many, I hoped.
Before my first show of the tour (at a place called the Barking Spider Tavern) in Cleveland, I remembered thinking, “Wow, I’m playing a concert in Cleveland… This feels kinda big.” On the surface, it may appear to be a modest jump from one midwest city to another, but it meant the world to me at the time… I was taking a step from hoping, studying, and practicing to be a professional musician, into living it. (One clarifier: studying, practicing, and hoping on the next step should never stop. These things just have seasons where focus rests most heavily on one of these disciplines or mindsets).
One of the most frequently asked questions I get is: “If you weren’t doing music, what would you be doing?” That question sometimes stumps me for a second. I think of my love of teaching, sports, food, writing and reading. I know I have a variety of interests, and a little talent for a few things.
A few times in these past 10 years, I’ve wondered if I’d be forced to consider one of them more seriously out of necessity: During car trouble in rural Kansas that disrupted a full week of a tour, landing in the hospital (pneumonia and dehydration), two car accidents (one really big one with a drunk driver that hospitalized Lesleigh in Indiana), low-attended shows after long drives, etc. These life events make you think hard about what you’re doing and why you’re doing it, who you really are, what you’re made of, and what you rely upon. Now, I count it all joy!
What I come back to is this: Foundation. I know that I am designed with a purpose, and that there is older, truer wisdom to rely upon than the fleeting happinesses that come and go from day-to-day, and moment-to-moment… Striving to teach and to shed light in the world is often confronted with darkness; but pressing onward, I aim to live into what my foundation is, and to cherish and protect what true joy is built upon as a daily discipline. This wisdom is what holds me up, propels me, guides me, and sustains me:
2 Corinthians 4: 8 “We are pressed on all sides, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body.”
And just like the old gospel song, I sing with my mind, mouth, and heart: “I’ve got peace like a river, joy like a fountain, and love like an ocean in my soul.”
10 Years down. The beginning of a lifetime of service through music and ministry. Thank you for all of your love and support around the world. I work every day for your joy.