Israel is defined by the US State Department’s American Music Abroad program as having little or no access to live American musical performances. And with any luck, that misconception should have a long life, as long as it means that multi-talented group like the Americana/folk trio T Sisters are able to spend next week here courtesy of Uncle Sam.
The California-based trio consisting of the Tiejten sisters – Chloe (percussion), Erika (guitar), and Rachel (guitar) – will be traveling the far reaches of the country as emissaries of the AMA program. Since it began in the 1950s with a tour of Africa and Eastern Europe by Louis Armstrong’s tour, AMA has focused on creating person-to-person connections with the host country’s citizens through performances, workshops and collaborations.
Rather than give for-profit concerts, the group will be doing things like conducting musical workshops for a school choir of a religious girls school in Beit Shemesh, be participants in an educational surfing program for at-risk kids from Kfar Kassem and running a women’s empowerment workshop on “Finding Your Own Voice Through Music” for a Jewish-Muslim girls youth parliament in the Tel Aviv area.
“We‘re always trying to think about what we do in a larger context. Yes, we’re in a band and we tour and we love it. But it can become a grind if you don’t think about it as something that has the potential to make a greater impact,” said Chloe Tiejten in a phone call with The Jerusalem Post last week before their arrival in Israel. “This program is a perfect application for that.”
“We applied for the program last year after hearing about it from some friends who had done it – Della Mae, a female bluegrass band – and it seemed like an amazing way to connect with people and musicians across the world,” Tiejten said. “An exciting element is that if you get accepted, you don’t know where you’re going to be sent.”
In addition to Israel, American Music Abroad is taking the T Sisters tour to Morocco and Egypt, where they will perform at a Cairo arts festival focused on women performers and collaborate with an Egyptian singer in the studio and at workshops.
According to Lisa Wishman, the director of the American Center Jerusalem, which is coordinating the visit, interpersonal contact through encounters like this tend to stay with the participants longer than simply attending a concert or a lecture.
“It’s a different way of engagement. The US government is representative of the people and these kind of programs enable us to reach a different audience than we do in the halls of a parliament of a foreign ministry,” said Wishman. “We hosted a concert recently to in memory of [journalist] Daniel Pearl and we did a program on Martin Luther King Jr. for Black History Month. People don’t necessarily want to hear about the US energy policy, but if the subject is civil rights or women’s empowerment, then let’s talk about it.”
Of course, the T Sisters won’t just be talking, they’ll also be showcasing their engaging blend of folk, country and pop, spiced by exquisite three-part harmony. Although there won’t be any performances for the general public, appearances include a show in Beersheba for 600 students and a show for Jewish and Arab music students at the Clore Center for Music and Dance at Kfar Blum.
According to Jackie Stein, the cultural program specialist at the American Center, Jerusalem, the band’s visit is “a cultural exchange.”
“They’re getting to know a different population and they’re getting to meet different communities in Israel,” she said.
All three sisters have been to Israel before on Birthright programs (their mother is Jewish) but Tiejten agrees with Stein that this visit will expose them to another side of the country.
“We had a great time when we were here about 10 years ago, but this is going to be a totally new experience,” she said. “We’re going to have much more connection with the people living in Israel, especially the younger population.”
Back home, the sisters are no strangers to community work. They feel strongly about empowering young girls to develop their own voices through creative expression and have led hundreds of girls in harmony singing workshops. Singing has been a life-long endeavor for the Tiejten sisters.
“We grew up singing together,” Tiejten said. “Our dad is a musician and we would pretty much always be singing around the house. Our dad would take us sometimes to a group of folks that got together for spiritual talks and we would sing for them.
At the end, we’d get a silver dollar from the organizer – our first paid gig at age seven.”
Their close harmonies are the result of the sisters’ natural closeness as well as their particular ranges.
“We tend to jump to our normal stacking of harmonies, with me on top, Rachel on the bottom and Erika somewhere in the middle – in quick folk terms – but we do try to spend time creating more intricate harmonies and counter melodies and try to be creative with the arrangements,” she said.
Recording since 2011 and regularly on the road, the T Sisters see their AMA program opportunity as a way to create a new model of creativity beyond giving concerts.
“Programs like this are a great way to support artists, and doing workshops with youth is a great way to expand our normal gigging lifestyle,” said Tiejten. “Right now, touring is the best way to get our music out there, there’s really any more revenue from music sales, but it could be an issue in the future. We all have partners but no children yet and that could change. We have no idea how it’s going to work. People give up touring because they don’t want to be away from their families. But I feel like we’re committed to facing that challenge and figuring out how to make it work.”
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