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The Sound of Palestine

The music of the Palestinian residents of Jerusalem has always been a source of joy and pride. As Israeli state repression continues, it's also become a way to make the community's voice heard.

Palestinians protest the Sheikh Jarrah evictions at Damascus Gate on 10 May 2021. Credit: Amir Levy / Getty Images

From sounds of violence to sounds of joy, from Palestinian pop to experimental work, Jerusalem’s musical horizon embraces sounds from all corners and sources. Yet we rarely hear the voices, works, and performance venues that Palestinian citizens of Jerusalem produce and enjoy.

Jerusalem is the centre of many worlds, a site of profound religious, orientalist, and historic importance. It is also the indigenous home to many Palestinian families who have lived in the city for centuries (and in some cases, millennia). From a population of 73 percent in 1873, the number of Palestinians in Jerusalem dwindled to 27 percent in 1987 and is currently estimated at roughly 41 percent. This number is again on the decline, due to the consistent policies of the Israeli state aiming to cleanse Jerusalem of Palestinians.

Through the ‘unity uprising‘ events of May 2021, sparked by Israeli authorities confiscating the houses of eight Palestinian families in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood, the testimonies of the El-Kurd twins—Mohammed and Muna—spread throughout the world to give a voice to the daily struggles Palestinian families have been facing.

The confiscation, detentions, interrogation, shooting, and pepper-spraying were accompanied by an array of voices and sounds, not only narrating the struggle, but also putting it into rhythm. Hand clapping, communal singing, and call-and-response chants flooded the digital sphere. Fireworks were used by Palestinians as a sound and visual tactic to counter violent Israeli attacks. Daboor and Shabjdeed’s omnipresent track ‘Inn Ann‘ became a soundtrack to the violence seen across the world.

Romantic, orientalist, descriptions of Jerusalem—with its ancient walls, smells of za’tar and jasmine accompanied by the sounds of the Athan (call to prayer)—were replaced by sounds of tear-gas, stun grenades, rubber-coated bullets and the foul stench of skunk water sprayed at Palestinians by the Israeli occupation forces. Loud techno music blurted from decoratively lit Sheikh Jarrah houses, now occupied by Israeli settlers, as if to mark the arrival of a foreign, intrusive new reality.

And through these sounds, the unseen soundwaves that mark the space influence the daily lives of people in a form of struggle where volume and silence, auditory practices and the ability to be heard give rise to sonic resistance in Jerusalem’s cultural and music spaces. While Jerusalem has many Israeli music venues catering for tourists, Palestinian venues provide a platform for music produced by the indigenous population. The music offered by Jerusalem Palestinians varies from that rooted in local folk traditions to more diverse music linking Palestinian musicians with the rest of the world.

Just like the rest of Palestinian society, Jerusalem’s Palestinian venues have experienced dramatic historic uprooting. The modern history of venues and public musical performances can be traced to the 1970s and 1980s: in a conversation with Said Murad, the founder of Jerusalem’s Sabreen Association for Artistic Development, the established composer highlighted the role of Jerusalem’s YMCA and the Hakawati Theatre in providing spaces for both musical and theatrical performances.

It wasn’t until the 1990s, after the Oslo Accords, that the outpouring of foreign funding brought about the establishment of organisations like Yabous Cultural Centre, the Edward Said National Conservatoire of Music (ESNCM), and Sabreen Association for Artistic Development. Jerusalem’s Al-Kamandjati was later established in 2002, and each of these organisations played a pivotal role in advancing Palestinian cultural and musical production. The current pandemic will have a long-lasting impact on the production and presentation of music in Jerusalem, as most cultural venues had to be closed or adhere to social distancing rules. They do not fall under the direct remit of the Palestinian Authority, which has made funding a huge challenge.

While Yabous, ESNCM, and Al-Kamandjati present music rooted within the modal musical system and the folklore repertoires of the region, Sabreen Association for Artistic Development brought from the start a different and new sound. Initially founded as a band in 1980 by Murad, it included esteemed buzuq player and educator Odeh Turjman, ESNCM director Suheil Khoury, Sami Abu Joma’a and Samira Abu Joma’a, and went to forge the ‘new Palestinian sound’.

Around 1982, the band brought on board the enchanting voice of now-world renowned Palestinian musician and composer Kamilya Jubran, with whom they released ‘Dukhan al-Barakin‘ (‘Smoke Of The Volcanoes’), their seminal second record. Murad’s compositions skilfully incorporated what David McDonald calls ‘cosmopolitan’ musical influences with Arab modal forms and the powerful poetry of famous poets such as Mahmoud Darwish, Samih al-Qassim, and Hussein Barghouti, in addition of Abd al-Latif ‘Aql, Samih Al-Qasim, and others.

The successful forging of Western harmonies, jazz, and blues influences with instruments like the buzuq and oud appealed to an intimate group of urban middle- and upper-middle-class dwellers who enthusiastically welcomed the new sound at the start of the first Palestinian Intifada in 1987. This hybridity within Sabreen’s musical works translated into the creation of Sabreen Association in 1987, which aimed to support local musicians through workshops, training, and recording.

In Arabic, Sabreen means ‘the patient ones’ or ‘those waiting’, demonstrating the constant state of flux within the calendars and clocks of Jerusalem’s Palestinian inhabitants and Palestine. The Association is situated on the borderline of Sheikh Jarrah, just opposite Shepherds Hotel. Throughout its history, the Association has welcomed innovative and hybrid new sounds, and has also been a main creative space for a wide array of musicians, including a studio which has seen artists from Coldplay to local Palestinian singer Reem Talhami, who recorded her album ‘Yihmilni Elleil’ here in 2013.

Another pivotal moment within Sabreen’s history has been the 2009 novel project HipHopKom (‘Your Hip-Hop’) which aimed to unite Palestinian hip-hop artists from besieged Gaza and the occupied West Bank to Jerusalem. Through digital technologies and internet connectivity and under the slogan ‘Break The Barriers With Your Words’, the project hosted rap and hip-hop pioneers like Tamer Nafar, Suheil Nafar, Shadia Mansour, and others.

A year earlier, the music for the 2008 award-winning documentary film Slingshot Hip Hop (directed by the American-born Jackie Reem Salloum) was recorded at Sabreen. Those bonds have lasted to this day, as the founding member of Palestine’s pioneering hip-hop band DAM, Tamer Nafar, often frequents the studio. The video for their viral song ‘Emta Njawzak Yamma‘ was partly recorded at Sabreen and directed by Said Murad’s son, Bashar Murad.

Following the groundbreaking and open sounds of his father, Bashar Murad has brought a new pop aesthetic into the city, and to Palestine in general. While Arab pop has been prevalent all over media channels since the ’80s, Bashar’s sound is like that of Sabreen, different and with a message. In a city where culture and identity are an essential part of existence, music provides the daily rhythms structuring the joys and sorrows of Palestinians.

Bashar’s music has come to embrace those local experiences. But unlike Sabreen, Bashar Murad’s lyrics are written by him and steeped in the daily reality of the Palestinian urban middle-class youth. From tackling patriarchal traits within society to his most recent EP Maskhara, which he brings politics onto the dancefloor, his music echoes tensions, restrictions, and oppression, reverberating with an electronic-pop sound while seamlessly incorporating instruments like the buzuq and oud (played by none other than Said Murad) within the compositions.

In summer 2019, Sabreen welcomed the long-established London-based DJ collective and psychedelic freeform dance party Beauty & The Beat. Mazen Zoabi, one of the collective’s longstanding members, brought onboard London-based Arabic music promoters MARSM, this article’s author, and Jerusalem-based artist Ahed Izhiman to organise an unprecedented full-on dance party hosted by Sabreen, opening the space to crowds of party-hungry Jerusalemites – despite the strict sound restrictions imposed in the city.

The music of Jerusalem is as diverse as its Palestinian inhabitants. Rock band El-Container, led by vocalist Suleiman Harb and former composer and vocalist Ivan Azazian, represent Jerusalem’s indigenous voices with heavy chords and striking lyrics. The Jerusalem-born Norah Shaqur made it onto Coldplay’s eighth studio album in the single ‘Church’, while the unforgettable modern sound of Jerusalem is captured by Banat al-Quds (Daughters of Jerusalem) – a 27-strong female choir coached by ESNCM General Director Suhail Khoury and oud teacher Louiy Abbasi.

Through this wide array of voices, one can hear a city yearning for freedom and independence. Whether through chanting political slogans on the streets of Sheikh Jarrah, banging empty oil tanks on the streets, or drumming on percussions and strumming ouds, Jerusalem’s Palestinian sounds are calling to be heard.

Explore a selection of work from Palestinian musicians in Jerusalem in this playlist.

About the Author

Christina Hazboun is a Palestinian sonic agent, exploring music in space, time and society through promotion, PR, research, radio shows and podcasting. Her main sphere of activity focuses on increasing the appearance and audibility of sounds and music from West Asia, North Africa and the Global South.