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.
Rural Songs: Dabke and Qawwali
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.
Songs of Partition
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.
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.
Beginnings of a State
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. Oud player and violinist Simon Shaheen has forged a successful career in America, while singer Reem Kelani has done much to popularize Palestinian traditional music in Britain.