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Jerusalem sisters play it ‘slow and quiet’ and straight to the soul

Eden and Shai-li Djamchid pluck the cello, strum the guitar and harmonize to create an entirely new sound

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

Shay-li (left) and Eden Djamchid of Jerusalem's Djamchid Sisters, debuted their first album this month (Courtesy Oz Barak)
Shay-li (left) and Eden Djamchid of Jerusalem's Djamchid Sisters, debuted their first album this month (Courtesy Oz Barak)

When Djamchid (pronounced Jam-shid) Sisters Eden and Shay-li put bow to cello and fingertips to guitar, they forged something entirely new in the indie music realm to which they belong.

It’s music that’s quiet yet strong and seriously soulful, with touches of the classical training that Eden Djamchid had for 12 years, melded with the romantic lyrics Shay-li Djamchid has been writing for the last ten.

They don’t take themselves too seriously, these two sisters who have playing together since their teens, exchanging lyrics and rhythms from their bedrooms across the hall in their family’s Jerusalem home.

They do covers of pop queen Beyoncé, their beloved JT (Justin Timberlake) and indie rock band Arctic Monkeys. But it’s all their own material on their brand-new debut album, “Djamchid Sisters,” released a few weeks ago.

Whether they’re singing Beyonce’s “Best Thing I Never Had,” JT’s “Mirrors” or their own “Jerusalem,” the sound is all theirs, with Shay-li’s deep, pensive vocals matched by Eden’s harmony and the low, deep sound of her cello.

“We’ve always played small and quiet,” said Eden Djamchid, who at 24, is younger by a year than her sister. “And people liked it. We would play and sing and people reacted well, we felt there was a magic to that. We didn’t need to be loud and in your face. When our audience liked it, that gave us courage.”

It’s a process that’s been about a decade in the making. The two sisters, numbers two and three in the lineup of four kids of the Djamchid family, were born to music-loving parents who come from a mix of French, Algerian, Moroccan and Persian heritage.

With a grandfather who played violin and a father who introduced them to every kind of music from a local lending library near the conservatory where Eden practiced cello, they heard it all, with African drums, rock and roll, Brazilian, rhythm and blues, all forming the soundtrack of their childhood.

The sisters discovered their own instruments at different periods of their childhood. Eden was introduced to the cello in kindergarten, when a music teacher decided to test each student to see if they were inclined toward a particular instrument or music altogether.

“We got a letter that I should start playing and my grandfather was very excited,” she said. “It was a starter cello, not much bigger than a violin,” holding her hands up to indicate its small size.

“You’re exaggerating,” said her older sister. “It was a little bigger than that.”

Eden stuck with the cello throughout her childhood, practicing classical works for most of her training. It was only when she entered a specialized high school music track at the Yellow Submarine, a local music club, that she discovered the possibilities of playing pop music on the cello.

“When I figured that out, that was it,” she said. “Classical is nice, but you need to be very driven to succeed in the classical world and very competitive and I’m not that way. I never liked practicing that many hours a day.”

Shay-li came to the guitar by way of the French horn, when a local academy recommended she start playing the brass instrument. When she heard she’d have to visit the dentist and have her mouth and teeth checked in order to play the coiled horn, she refused and chose the guitar instead.

The classic rock taught by Shay-li’s guitar teacher wasn’t exactly to her taste either, and she turned to writing her own songs, drawing concepts from the books she read and the rich imaginary world that occupied her thoughts at the time.

“The texts weren’t good, the tunes weren’t great either,” she said.

Eden shook her head.

“It was a little hippie, right?” said Eden. “She wrote about the soul and about love, but it wasn’t typical 14-year-old writing.”

Sisters.

Early bloomers both, at 15, Shay-li spent about a year playing with a vocalist, with Eden sometimes joining to form a trio, but the singer and Shay-li clashed, like “fire and water,” she said. “We bothered each other.”

It made much more sense, said Shay-li, to work with her sister, writing songs and singing together.

“I sang a lot at the beginning, but then I felt like it was the two of us and slowly Eden began singing and that entered my writing,” she said.

“We tried a lot of things,” said Eden. “We each sang alone, and together, or just the instruments.”

Their music, then, as now, was quiet and calm, perhaps an inversion of what goes on in Israel, said Shay-li, where things are so noisy and overwhelming.

It’s also about the relationship between their instruments, which are more than a little similar, said Eden. There’s always been the quirky improbability of hearing a cello and classical guitar used for the current rhythm and sounds of modern music, but, it worked.

“You don’t have to do a lot to make the cello and guitar sound good together,” said Shay-li. “The cello is said to be very similar to a human voice, and a lot of people say the cello touches them. The guitar is the most basic instrument and that combination creates something different.”

The two women stayed with the instruments they grew up with, said Shay-li.

“A lot of people move on to electric guitar or something else,” she said. “We stayed and found our sweet spot, that place where we sounded right and professional.”

They bring in variations at times. For their recently released album, they added other instruments to broaden the background and played with a nine-piece band for their debut performance at Jerusalem’s Beit Avi Chai. They will do the same in July, when they play in Tel Aviv.

“For a long time it was just us, but the other instruments swelled our sound,” said Eden.

She’s learned, said Shay-li, that there is always room for others onstage.

“An audience can be pulled by one musician and then by another and then by both,” she said. “There’s a lot of room to play and that gives you courage, there’s a place to be yourself.”

For the sisters, this moment of professional realization is a sign that some of the dreams are coming to fruition. It’s taken some time, of course, and there’s still work to be done. Shay-li said her dream has always been to hear their songs on the radio. She hasn’t actually heard her music on Army Radio’s Galgalatz, but friends have and send her their quickly recorded links.

The cover of the Djamchid Sisters' debut album, released this month (Courtesy Oz Barak)
The cover of the Djamchid Sisters’ debut album, released this month (Courtesy Oz Barak)

Playing in Israel, and being part of the homegrown music scene that has developed in Jerusalem feels like an accomplishment for Eden.

“The community of Jerusalem musicians are so good to each other,” she said. “We feel comfortable here, we’re based here and there’s a strong wind from Jerusalem right now. It’s from this city, not just Tel Aviv. It’s kind of a niche here, and it’s fun to be part of that.”

For now, they’re also reveling in the satisfaction of their first album, and what it means to have gotten this far.

“Our father has a great saying,” said Eden. “Our music is for anyone who has a soul. And that’s the reaction we get.”

The Djamchid Sisters’ next performance is Wednesday, July 27, 9:30 p.m., Bascula, 72 HaRakevet, Tel Aviv. Go to the Eventer website for tickets and more information.

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