Intensive Care Nurse by day, piano-pounding, tambourine shakin’ music-maker by night… This is Lesleigh Memmel! Episode 4 of the Tony Memmel Show is an in-depth interview with this amazing person. If you like the video, please click “SUBSCRIBE” on YouTUBE for the most up-to-date videos we post. Thank you, MemmelNation!
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.
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.
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?
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!
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.
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).
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.