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The Media Line: American Gospel Singers Provide Soaring, Spiritual Experience for Israeli Music-lovers of All Ages (VIDEO)

American Gospel Singers Provide Soaring, Spiritual Experience for Israeli Music-lovers of All Ages

It may have been a winter’s day in central Israel, but the air inside the conservatory in the city of Rosh Haayin was warmed by the sweet, soulful strains of gospel music.

The all-encompassing message of the day? Love and music can bring us together, and we have more that unites us than ever divides us.

Students from three high schools across the region were attending workshops led by the Texas-based gospel troupe Oscar Williams & the Band of Life. The five-person group, comprising Williams and singers Alicia Peters-Jordan, Niya Cotton, Darian Elliott, and Tracy Smith, were in Israel to teach – and to learn something for themselves too.

Oscar Williams & the Band of Life perform at Rosh Haayin Cultural Center, Jan. 31, 2023. (The Media Line)

The band split the students into three groups, according to vocal range, dispatching the bass and tenors to work with Williams; the sopranos to train with Cotton and Smith; and the altos to sing with Peters-Jordan and Elliott. There they learned three simple gospel songs, which, when the groups were later reunited, were performed with great gusto, gorgeous harmonizing, and some very energetic dance moves.

For adults and children alike, it was a chance to share a passion for music and learn about each other’s lives, ancestries, and cultures. And for the students to show the grownups in the room exactly what they could do.

“It doesn’t matter whether you’re in Thailand, whether you’re in Israel, whether you’re in America, wherever you are, the one thing that connects all of us is love,” Peters-Jordan told The Media Line about the band’s work across multiple continents.

Israel, she said, was a novel and eye-opening experience. It was the first visit to the country for all five of the band members.

“Now we’re being exposed to something new that’s beautiful, and learning, ‘wait a minute, we actually are more connected than we knew’ and that’s what’s blowing our minds – that we actually are connected to our Jewish brothers and sisters.”

The band also collaborated with Israeli musicians, professional and amateur, upcoming and experienced, for a thrilling concert at the close-by Rosh Haayin Cultural Center, with local residents – and of course the students – making up the audience. There, the band performed alongside Rosh Haayin Youth Gospel choir, Israeli singer Amir Dadon, Avner Kenner and Pure In-Tensions acapella choir, and Iris and Ofer Portugaly and their Gospel Choir.

Members of the Pure In-Tensions acapella choir perform at Rosh Haayin Cultural Center, Jan. 31, 2023. (The Media Line)

The performances – a fusion of Israeli pop, American gospel, and something in between – were all so polished, it was hard to tell the pros from the non-pros and each shone as bright as the spotlights illuminating the stage. All the performers came together onstage for the finale, performing a joyous rendition of a song called “Heal our Land,” which was penned by Williams himself.

“I truly believe music is a balm, I truly believe that music is a salve, I believe that music has the ability to break down people’s defenses because we all like good music,” Williams told The Media Line. “And it’s one of the very few things that calls all of us to come to the table together and to find something that we can share.”

If the response of the students is any measure, with their dash to the front of the stage to sing and dance alongside the band and their enthusiastic embrace of Williams, the day achieved all of its goals – and more.

The tour was the initiative of the US Embassy in Jerusalem, led by American diplomat Kim Natoli. It is part of the State Department’s American Music Abroad program and coincides with Black History Month in the United States.

“We try and showcase particularly American styles of music, to introduce other cultures and other countries to American music,” she told The Media Line.

“February in the United States is Black History Month and so for the month of February every year, we celebrate the achievements of the African American community and their contributions to science and sports, business and politics, and of course my favorite part, culture. And so during Black History Month we try and highlight some particularly African American art form and gospel is such a joyous and uplifting musical tradition that we figured – Israel? Makes sense!”

Oscar Williams & the Band of Life work with Israeli students at Rosh Haayin Conservatory, Jan. 31, 2023. (The Media Line)

For Natoli, a veteran diplomat who has also served in Iraq and Afghanistan, this kind of intimate encounter is the greatest way to build bridges between very different groups of people.

“That’s what I really think is the most important diplomacy nowadays, those people-to-people connections, and the best way to do that is through arts and culture because they are less political,” she said.

And after that roof-raising, heart-warming, soul-stirring concert, the American visitors then went to Haifa the very next day to do the whole thing again with another set of eager young songstrels.

For if Shakespeare was right and music is indeed the food of love, we should definitely play on!


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