Despite the precariousness of the peace that exists in the region, the last fifteen years have seen music in Palestine rise from being the sound of struggle to a celebration of emerging statehood. And, as Palestinian music reaches a wider audience internationally, it is still as much a statement of national identity as ever.
Although the great city ports of Jaffa and Haifa were already sizeable commercial centres in the first half of the twentieth century, most Palestinians were rural people who had either settled to becomefelahin(farmers), or who still pursued a nomadic, Bedouin lifestyle. Besides the functional songs of the felahin, there were also epic songs about old heroes and legends sung by itinerant storytellers or improvisers – zajaleen. The most important occasions for music and merrymaking were weddings and their associated feasts. The dances were collectively known as dabke, which literally means “foot-tapping”.
The singers who practise the art of the qawwali or zajal engage in a kind of musical debate, each participant often representing one of the families at a wedding. These punning, rapping, word-tussling sessions were always sung rather than merely recited.
The tumultuous events of the late 1940s which led to the partition of Palestine and the creation of Israel in 1948 did not destroy the culture of the felahin. Both the many thousands of Palestinians who fled to the refugee camps, and the Arabs who stayed behind and continued to live in the new state of Israel, clung tenaciously to their heritage. In the new climate of fear, anger and alienation, the gist of the improvised lyrics began to reveal a harder edge: the newly dispossessed sang about the power of the gun and the dream of nationhood, heroes and martyrs of the struggle were lauded in popular song.
The first singer to score a hit with a collection of essentially Palestinian songs was Mustafa al-Kurd in the early 1970s. Among the most renowned pop acts of the 1980s was Al-Ashiqeen, and later Sabreen became the most internationally successful Palestinian group.
Now Ramzi is an accomplished musician and has released his debut album, Reflections Of Palestine (2012) on Riverboat Records. On the album he plays the bouzouk, a long-necked lute related to the Greek bouzoukiand Turkish saz.
As an adult Ramzi promotes peace and understanding through music, but as a boy he was famously photographed hurling stones at Israeli tanks. An image taken in 1987 shows an 8-year-old Ramziclad in a ruby-red coat and scuffed blue jeans. His small body is arched backwards and in his hand he clasps a large stone, which he is poised to lob with force. The powerful shot circulated rapidly and became an icon of the First Intifada, the Palestinian uprising of 1987–1993. A few years after the picture was taken, Ramzi attended his first music lesson, and his whole world flipped sideways. Loaded with his incredible talent and an aboudning passion for excellence, music rapidly became Ramzi's profession, his life and, most significantly, his weapon.
For more on Ramzi's story, check out:
Ramzi’s Story: Laying Down Stones, Picking Up Instruments NPR (2010)
Amid West Bank’s Turmoil, the Pull of Strings' New York Times (2009)
The energy devoted to music-making intensified in the mid-1980s, especially among the youth of the occupied territories. The intifada uprising fuelled the desire to express political woes in song, and groups like El-Funoun and Sabreen carried the hard-edged sentiments of revolt to a receptive audience.
Most of the intifada music was unsophisticated – usually based on well-known folksongs – but it carried great power in spreading the feeling of opposition. One of the most important tapes was Doleh (Statehood), produced in 1988 during the first year of the intifada. The key figure behind it was Thaer Barghouti, and it was a collection of songs by various singers recounting deeds of the Israeli soldiers and everyday events of the rebellion.
In 1993, a Declaration of Principles was signed by Israel and the PLO, and in May 1994 the Palestinian National Authority was set up in the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank with the late Yasser Arafat as its president. As the turmoil of the intifada subsided and the situation stabilized, it became easier for musicians to work.
The post-intifada music scene expressed the optimism felt by many Palestinians at the time. Continuing the political theatre tradition that grew up during the intifada, El-Funoun Palestinian Popular Dance Troupe synthesizes traditional music and dance with more contemporary ideas. The former lead singer of Sabreen, Kamilya Jubran has been based in Paris since 2002 and, although the music she now performs is very much more experimental, she continues to push Arab song into new areas.
The son of one of the finest oud makers in the Levant, Samir Joubran has now been joined by his two younger brothers, Wissam and Adnan in Trio Joubran. Although ouds are rarely heard playing together, the trio have pioneered their own sound that shows off the instruments’ richness and colour to great effect.
The ongoing difficulties of daily life for Palestinians have, inevitably, caused some musicians to leave and seek their fortunes abroad such as oud player and violinist Simon Shaheen who has forged a successful career in America. Others have been born in the Palestinian diaspora, such as singer Reem Kelani in Britain. She has done much to popularize Palestinian traditional music in the UK, the US and China. A recommendation of her work is the album Sprinting Gazelle - Palestinian songs from the Motherland and the Diaspora.