A Q&A with Louis Berhony, author of "Palestinian Music in Exile"

“Palestine—a developing pole of regional musicianship”: A Q&A with author, Louis Brehony

In this Q&A Louis Brehony talks to us about how his study of Palestinian music fused his interest in music with his growing political awareness and granted him access to the vibrant world of Arab music. He describes the remarkable individuals he met during the course of his largely unfunded research, the interplay between their musical output and state of exile, and the spirit of resilience that drives their work.

Can you tell us about the inspiration behind writing Palestinian Music in Exile?

Palestinian Music in Exile

In retrospect, it feels difficult to describe whether the initial inspiration was musical or political. As a college student in the early 2000s, I had gotten into what is termed “world music,” and was particularly interested in the music of the Arab world. I got hold of CDs by Egyptian artists Umm Kulthum and Muhammad Abdel Wahab, and a few, more recent, Palestinian artists. The attraction was, in part, academic—I was a bit of a music theory geek and remember wanting to understand the “quartertones” and maqamat of traditional Arab music. But the critical juncture for me was really the invasion of Iraq in 2003, in which British imperialism played an inglorious role.

It was through getting involved in campaigning against the war that I got to learn about the Palestinian struggle and the al-Aqsa Intifada, then in full rebellion. Seeing the vibrancy and tenacity of Palestinian musicians and singers exiled from their homelands and living in Europe, my interests came full circle.

I wanted, as a musician and activist, to understand Palestinian artistic contributions to past and present uprisings.

Al Aqsa Mosque at the Temple Mount, Jerusalem

How did you conduct research for your book?

I would set this question within the context of continuing academic and institutional bias against Palestinian narratives, particularly those emphasizing resistance and revolutionary political forms. After visiting Palestine in 2013 to interview musicians and meet contacts, I had the naive concept of my doctoral thesis becoming a total history of Palestinian music; I underestimated the subject and its depth!

The catalyst for realizing the importance of music-making among those exiled from Palestine was provided by the brick wall of being refused funding in Britain. My four years of full-time doctoral research were entirely unfunded, and, unlike my peers, I worked full-time at the same time. This situation turned out to be a blessing in disguise as I began to understand a phrase used by some activists, that “Palestine lives in us.”

Through looking locally, for example, I met singer and activist Umm Ali (who appears in Chapter 3 of the book). She had grown up in Gaza, in a family expelled from al-Qubeiba village in 1948, and was in Britain as a double-refugee—she had also been imprisoned by the virtual apartheid regime through which Britain “welcomes” asylum seekers. “Fieldwork” with Umm Ali was typical of one strand of my research: visits to her family home, huge tables of delicious Palestinian cooking, and after-dinner jalsat, or singing sessions, with everyone joining in.

Over the years, there have been contrasting waves of research with differing methods, from attending concerts to virtual discussions and music sharings. For example, I was recently in southern Lebanon, where the bagpiping refugee shabab of Chapter 2 are based. My research with them, however, was done almost entirely at a distance.

This was initially the case with Reem Anbar, who was my oud teacher during 2013–2014.

She moved to Britain in 2017 and took part in a series of interviews, alongside developing her performance practice in a new context. I met Sol Band members featuring in the book during their period in Istanbul, where they shared music and stories of their lives in music; they have since returned to Gaza and, at the time of writing, are suffering under the Zionist bombings, moving from house to house for safety.

Were there any specific stories or experiences shared by musicians that had a profound impact on you during your research?

One could not fail to be inspired or awe-struck by listening to Palestinians who lived (or still live) in Gaza. Recognizing its position as a place of exile, a frontline of anticolonial confrontation, and a sha’bi cultural center, Gaza features prominently in the book. Listening to the stories of two generations of musicians opened a window to earlier experiences. Among many examples are the recollections of Rawan Okasha, daughter of oud player and educator Atef Okasha (Abu Rami), and one of a large sibling group of musicians. Rawan’s memories of learning to sing in collective, communal gatherings find similarities to others in Gaza, showing a connection to the tarab-linked practices of oral transmission, an important but threatened component of Arab regional civilization. Said Srour had similar memories of his father Salam, still a respected “old school” musician at the grassroots level. In different ways, all of the Gaza musicians and vocalists in the text stand outside of trends seeking to depoliticize Palestinian music. Rawan, Said, and the Anbar siblings publicly performed political, turathi, and revolutionary songs alongside materials from the tarab tradition while the al-Aqsa intifada raged.

Poet Mahmoud Darwish
Poet Mahmoud Darwish

I relate this atmosphere to the “different” qualities found in Gaza by poet Mahmoud Darwish and novelist Ghassan Kanafani. Gaza has attracted and inspired other Palestinian musicians too: Shafiq Kabha visited Gaza annually, and Sabreen founder Said Murad described the concert atmosphere in Gaza as “like fire.”

There are still many more musicians who were involved in the research but whose names do not appear in the chapter titles.

Their contributions proved as invaluable as the featured musicians and really helped to shape the direction of the text.

How has the Palestinian music in exile evolved over the years, and what are some of the recent developments you have observed?

It would be accurate to say that, decades before the Nakba, many non-Palestinian musicians came to cities like al-Quds/Jerusalem, Yafa/Jaffa, and Haifa to perform: Palestine was not always a place whose inhabitants were forced to leave but was rather a developing pole of regional musicianship. So Umm Kulthum, Abdel Wahhab, Asmahan, Muhammad Abdel Karim, and other regional greats came to Palestine to sing, play, and record.

With the onset of Zionist colonialism, however, aided and abetted by a violent British occupation from 1917 to 1948, many of the Palestinian contributors to developing urban music scenes would find their lives governed by the kinds of repressive, paramilitary machineries inflicted upon the Palestinian people as a whole. In varying circumstances, many musicians, including Rawhi al-Khammash, Salvador Arnita, and Thurayya Qaddura, would end up spending the rest of their lives outside of their homeland. As others have observed, the Nakba crushed a burgeoning Palestinian music field, while many carriers of the great rural traditions of fellahin Palestine suffered greatly, joining their compatriots in squalid camps in the near ghurba (place of exile). Music had been everywhere in historic Palestine, and those forced to flee took it with them.

If we fast forward to the years after the defeat of June 1967 (or Naksa), to years when the Palestinian revolution had reemerged as an armed liberation struggle, exile musicians played a significant role. Recording in Syria, the al-Ashiqeen group were a sensation, with cassette tape albums distributed rapidly, while Abu Arab gained renown as the poet-singer of the revolution. Outside of the region, we could mention the Sweden-based Kofia (Kuffieh) band, which wrote bilingual resistance songs, or Mustafa al-Kurd, whose constant imprisonment by the Zionist state led him to record in Europe. In the book, I look at the musical responses of Palestinian youth during this period in light of Ghassan Kanafani’s 1968 comments on the need for “new blood” and “an alternative form” to reject defeatism and paralysis.

The Sweden-based Kofia (Kuffieh) band

Of course, the musicianship of these figures was largely indirect in its “response” to Ghassan, but there was so much variety and vivacity – almost entirely connected to ideas of resistance and iltizam (‘commitment’) – that his words seem almost prophetic when we examine the cultural materials produced by Palestinian exiles in these years. They included the reinvigoration of rurally inspired folk and wedding song, jazz and Western pop influences, novel approaches to traditional instruments like the oud, the development of electronic elements, and the wielding of seemingly unexpected instruments like the Scottish bagpipe or the classical guitar.

One could argue that, to this day, the suffering of the Palestinian people has continued to produce “new blood” in a cultural sense. And of course this is connected to the political fight too. The preface to Palestinian Music in Exile details some of the musical voicings of the May 2021 Unity Intifada, when all of historic Palestine was aflame with anger and the Gaza-based armed resistance inflicted a setback upon the occupation. With music an intrinsic part of many street mobilizations on the ground, young Palestinians also dedicated songs and musical pieces to the uprising from outside of Palestine: Rola Azar, Reem Anbar, Rami Okasha, Nai Bargouthi; others simply sang on protests or led chants. Like the Palestinian musicians organizing music and dance troupes in camps like Burj l-Shemali in South Lebanon, these young singers offered new blood to the cause, while restating the historic centrality of the displaced.

Why aren’t there many Palestinian singers with record deals and why are they not offered different platforms for their music?

We might start with a basic fact, and a key assertion of this book: that significant numbers of Palestinian musicians perform at a distance from their homeland. What this means in practice is governed by what Marx termed the “ruling ideology,” or the standpoint of the ruling class. In Britain, for instance, we are talking about a state that—regardless of which party is in office—has spent over a century furthering the claims of Zionism to colonize Palestine. At present, the silencing of Palestinian voices is intensifying, alongside British backing for a genocidal war on Gaza. This affects culture in profound ways. Reem Kelani has been the most active of Palestinian musician in Britain over the past three decades and told me early on of her struggles to be heard. Her albums are entirely funded by her fanbase, while platforms afforded to non-Palestinian musicians—including Israelis—are out of reach for her. This is the story of Palestinian musicians all over the world, and especially those who speak openly about their cause. One instrumentalist told me recently that they were booked for a festival because the organizers thought they were Syrian. The promoters did not book them again. They run a mile from what Kelani calls “The P Word.” Again, the fight to be heard is a political one.

There have been attempts among Ramallah-based NGOs to organize and argue for “development” along the lines of music industries in the West. Basel Zayed made the point to me that there are over fifteen music festivals in the occupied West Bank annually and asked the question, “What for?” when huge numbers of Palestinians in the same areas are living in poverty. There are forces at play to deemphasize openly political expressions of Palestinian identity in order to get European funding. The latter comes from organizations like the French Development Agency (AFD), which is inextricably linked to the French state and neoliberal exploitation, and involves multinationals like PWC. The projects I’m talking about are, by design, exclusive of Palestinian musicians residing in the camps of Gaza, historic Palestine, Bilad al-Sham, or living in impoverished conditions further afield, while a small number benefit financially and get (limited) international media coverage.

Historic experience, however, shows us that Palestinian musicians tend to carve out their own spaces and platforms, in the face of official attempts to silence their narratives. Spotify, YouTube, Anghami, and other platforms may be effective for those who hold the reins of international capital, but their silencing of resistance narratives in times of confrontation should be enough for us to conclude that the system is broken. Even signed artists like Mohammad Assaf have come up against this machinery. By contrast, allying music to social movements has long been the cultural mainstay of grassroots Palestinian musicianship.

With everything going on now in Palestine and globally, with increasing condemnation of Palestinian supporters and even the use of pro-Palestinian chants and songs, what message do you hope this book would convey?

In the book introduction, I emphasize the fact that musicians are embedded members of Palestinian populations and have suffered and resisted in the same ways. The horrific scenes brought to Gaza in October 2023 show the painful reality of this truth. Musicians Omar Abu Shawaish and Mahmoud al-Jubairy were among the first three thousand killed during the Zionist onslaught on Gaza.

Palestinian Band “Sol”

Sol Band and many others took cover from the bombings and faced the starvation and thirst inflicted upon the populace of the already displaced. Theaters, schools, and cultural centers joined the hospitals, homes, and other buildings reduced to rubble. In historic Palestine, Dalal Abu Amneh was arrested by the Zionist state on 17 October, apparently for her solidarity postings on social media, then subjected to house arrest; there are currently 5,200 Palestinian political prisoners, with artists, musicians, and writers among them. The war on Palestine is also a war on its cultural civilization.

What I describe here is the frontline of the confrontation but we see its global effects as ruling classes implement their positions domestically. The list of flashpoints is innumerable, but we could mention the Swedish government attack on the Kofia song “Leve Palestina” (Long Live Palestine) in May 2019; the October 2023 German state banning of the Samidoun campaign, which has organized many cultural events alongside its protest actions; or the ongoing attacks on Rabab Abdulhadi and other committed academics in the US. In these examples and others, we see a refusal to be silenced, and a demand for the right to sing, speak, or teach about the Palestinian case. Many of the musicians I interviewed for the book have come up against comparable issues. But their resilience, hope, and sumud (steadfastness) shine through.

In your opinion, what can the global community do to support and promote Palestinian musicians in exile?

This is a tough question, since the idea of a “global community” is identified in the mainstream with the dominant imperialist powers whose interests run counter to the Palestinian national liberation movement. The very idea of promoting Palestinian musicians “in exile” is also problematic: there is a consensus among many of the musicians—and among Palestinians more broadly—that the problem of exile itself will only be solved through realizing the right of return for all Palestinian refugees. Actually, this principle runs in an almost unbroken thread throughout the post-1948 history of the Palestinian people: after hearing Fairuz sing “Raji’un” (We Are Returning) in 1957, Ghassan Kanafani quickly sloganized its chorus in his painting al-‘Awda (The Return). Over half a century later, in May 2021, Nai Bargouthi sang “Raj’in” (We Are Returning), and, after the al-Aqsa Floods operation in October 2021, Rola Azar released “Ajras al-‘Awda” (The Bells of Return). After performing in the rubble of the Said al-Mashal theater, bombed by Zionist warplanes in August 2018, Mohammed Okasha told me: “There is hope inside us. We’ll return to our villages one day.”

There are demands here, if we listen closely enough. And the real global community – the oppressed, exploited, downtrodden, and all who stand on their side – must find a way of giving voice to these sentiments.

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