Sounds of Palestine

Music often says a lot about the culture of a place. If the bits of the local Palestinian scene I’ve picked up on are anything to go by, Palestinian musicians are really leading the way and helping test the boundaries and cultural norms of Palestinian society. And just like everyone else, everything they do is affected by the unique circumstances Palestinians find themselves in.

Bashar Murad is a Palestinian from East Jerusalem, who we first saw playing the rooftop of the Al Ma’mal foundation in the Christian quarter of the Old City last year. He came on stage wearing a full wedding dress and head-covering veil, flowers in hand, and gave fantastic theatrical pop performances with a beautiful voice. The crowd, a mixed group of young Jerusalem Palestinians and internationals sat cross-legged on the floor, lapping it all up.

His new song called Maskhara is a clear statement on the oppression that young Palestinians feel living under occupation. In a conservative society like this, Bashar is pushing the limits of what he can say, what he can wear and how he can express himself. It is mould-breaking, inspiring stuff.

Outfits like hiphop group DAM and 47 Soul are ground-breaking in other ways. 47 Soul brilliantly blends electronic and hip hop with Palestinian traditional dabke music that accompanies folk dances – check out Intro to Shamstep. For a sweeter sound try Noel Kharman, a young Palestinian singer who often blends Arabic and western songs: her mashup of Fairouz and Adele’s is lovely.

Most members of the band Apo and Apostles are from Bethlehem. They don’t make much noise about politics in their music, but love to show-case scenic spots in and around their home-town and nearby villages. They describe their style as being alternative folk rock and their songs are uplifting and catchy, sung in both English and Arabic.

In a break between lockdowns, it was a highlight of last year for us to be at the filming of their most recent single Ansaki. The band excel at playing live and always create a fun and boisterous atmosphere like the best family wedding. Innocuous back home, I sense many Palestinians would be wary of joining in with a video where alcohol features. The band also managed to perform last year at a drive-in festival at an equestrian centre in Jericho where we stood on top of our car to watch the performances, but the crowd jumped off their car roofs for one band’s song and the police broke it up. The horses were probably relieved.

It’s also worth looking up the techno music of Sama Abdulhadi, a Palestinian DJ who featured in the Boiler Room Palestine documentary, which highlighted the challenges of the occupation that musicians were overcoming.  Only last week Sama’ faced a very different challenge: she was arrested and detained by the Palestinian Authority police on boxing day for filming a music video at Nabi Musa, a spectacular site near Jericho where Moses is allegedly buried.

Her detention has been extended by 15 days despite clearly having been given approval to be there by the same Palestinian Authority, who it seems didn’t think about the sensitivity of a place that is a holy site for some. I hope she will be released soon.

I get the impression there is also a growing appetite to preserve and celebrate more traditional forms of Palestinian music and dabke folk dance, which we’ve seen performed by young boys and girls at football competitions in the Old City and at beer festivals in Taybeh. Certainly when we dropped in to visit an oud maker in Bethlehem recently, he had more orders for this traditional Middle Eastern string instrument (like a lute) and the Qanoon (like a horizontal harp) than he could manage!

Despite the exceptional challenges here, music is alive and well. When we get past the worst of COVID it will be fantastic to see music back where it should be – live for all to hear.

Do get in touch and let me know who your favourite Palestinian musicians are…  

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