How did Antigone Rising, the rock band that was the first to be signed to Starbucks' Hear Music label back in 2005, go from playing with the Rolling Stones, Aerosmith and Rob Thomas to giving concerts for schoolchildren outside of Tel Aviv?
According to Cathy Henderson, the band's lead guitarist, the answer can be summed up in one word: Facebook.
It turns out that Liz Brooks, the band's tour manager, went to high school with Polina Levy Eskenazi, the cultural program specialist at the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv. As Henderson recounts, Eskenazi "reached out to Liz via Facebook, and the next thing we know, we were on a plane to Tel Aviv."
Henderson and her bandmates — who will be performing locally at the Tin Angel on June 22 — were flown to Israel for a 10-day tour in February as emissaries of the U.S. State Department's Arts Envoy program.
The program is run by the department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. Its aim, according to its mission statement, is to "share the best of the U.S. arts community with the world to foster cross-cultural understanding and collaboration and to demonstrate shared values and aspirations."
The band members saw first-hand what anyone who travels abroad these days knows — one of the United States' most successful exports is anything to do with popular culture: movies, TV shows, theater and, fortunately for them, music.
Once on Israeli soil, Henderson and the other band members — sister Kristen Henderson, bassist; Dena Tauriello, drummer; and Nini Camps, lead vocalist — quickly discovered that being designated Arts Envoys was no mere ceremonial title. During their 10 days, they performed 20 concerts, and also did outreach programs in schools and different communities.
As Susan Pittman, the State Department spokeswoman for the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, explains, this twin focus on entertainment and engagement is deliberate.
"In selecting envoys, we seek to identify individuals and ensembles that represent the best of the U.S. arts community and who, in addition to demonstrating artistic excellence in their field, are also interested in and experienced in conducting educational outreach programs, such as workshops with young people in the country they are visiting."
Although the Arts Envoy program only began last year, Pittman said this is not the State Department's first attempt of its kind. "The U.S. government has been conducting arts-based cultural exchange programs for more than 50 years," she said, noting this program is an outgrowth of three previous efforts.
The particular artists are selected by each U.S. Embassy, and with the connection between the diplomat stationed in Israel and Antigone Rising, the group seemed like a perfect choice for the program.
Henderson explained that the band members have all been involved in arts education outreach, which helped them make the encounters especially effective.
"We would do a small concert and then talk to the students about the type of music we were playing, the instrumentation, how you write a song — a lot of different subjects," she recalled. "There were a couple of occasions where the kids in a school learned our songs and got up and performed with us. It was very interactive."
Henderson said that drummer Tauriello, who has been involved for some time with Drums and Disabilities, a nonprofit organization that pioneered the use of drum therapy for autistic children, "also did a drumming workshop with autistic children. It was really quite wonderful to see how music reached disabled children and how it helps as a form of communication."
And then there were the concerts. What was it like for an American band used to extensive fan support at live shows to play in a foreign country in front of people who had, for the most part, never heard their music before?
"It was phenomenal," Henderson enthuses. "We weren't quite sure how we would be received — we're not ingrained in that culture, and it's so far removed from what we're used to. But the audience response was overwhelmingly positive. People were on their feet, they were clapping, and via social media, we were gaining so many more hits and friends on all our social media platforms!"
Henderson is aware that she comes off sounding like a paid endorsement for the Arts Envoy program, but she doesn't care. For her and her bandmates, the only regret is that they didn't have more time to travel in Israel — to sightsee, explore the culture, interact with Israeli musicians and even to do more concerts. "We would love to do this again and again. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience."