Musicians from the territories are making a big noise – which is all the more remarkable given the obstacles they have overcome to get their work heard, writes William Ralston.

Growing up in East Jerusalem, Bashar Murad turned to music for comfort in a life blighted by fractious political realities and the emotional pressures of being a gay man battling the conservative elements of his society. It also became a way of transcending the borders imposed on his life by the Israeli occupation; a medium to connect with the world outside. He started with covers of western pop before releasing his own songs, some in Arabic and some in English – invariably with catchy hooks, bold, self-produced videos, and satirical lyrics addressing freedom of expression.

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In 2009, Bashar began sharing his music on Facebook and uploading it to YouTube and Soundcloud. Soon after, he added it to Spotify but struggled to find a local audience because the platform was only accessible to Palestinians registered in foreign markets using a virtual private network (VPN). The absence of a Middle Eastern ‘hub’ – one of Spotify’s online spaces highlighting music communities through curated playlists and editorial – also meant that Bashar’s music was not being discovered overseas.

As a westerner, you hear the phrase ‘Arab music’ and you think of something you heard 40 years ago, but that’s not accurate anymore – Larry LeBlanc

Yet a decade on, Murad’s work now has global traction. In April, he performed at Palestine Music Expo (PMX) in Ramallah, in the West Bank, the larger of the two Palestinian territories that includes East Jerusalem. He then flew to Toronto for Canadian Music Week, where he represented the Palestinian territories for the first time in the annual event’s 36-year history, alongside Kallemi, a Swiss-Palestinian all-female hip-hop outfit. More recently, Murad collaborated with Icelandic techno group Hatari, and their video has been viewed over 1 million times online. He’s in talks with several labels about his debut album. 

Murad’s success is part of a much bigger jigsaw. If you look carefully at festival line-ups, label release schedules, and agency rosters, Palestinian artists from various genres are appearing more regularly, which is remarkable given the singular challenges they face.

While Murad, a pop act in the traditional sense, performed in Canada, TootArd, a psych-rock sensation in the Middle East, were preparing to play at Glastonbury. Late last year, Oud masters Le Trio Joubran released their latest album through UK label Cooking Vinyl, and followed it with a performance at The Barbican in London. Sama, the first Palestinian DJ to emerge internationally, recently released a BBC Radio 1 Essential Mix.

I’d always imagined doing the things I am doing now, but I didn’t think it was possible because there were no resources – Bashar Murad

The landscape for Palestinian music, and, indeed, Arabic music as a whole, is richer than it’s ever been. Larry LeBlanc, a leading Canadian music journalist and international consultant to PMX, tells BBC Culture: “As a westerner, you hear [the phrase] ‘Arab music’ and you think of something you heard 40 years ago, but that’s not accurate any more. This is commercial music, and it’s extremely exportable.” This would seem to have been behind Spotify’s decision to become the first major streaming service to launch in the region last year. 

“I’d always imagined doing the things I am doing now, but I didn’t think it was possible because there were no resources,” Murad says. “But I think Palestinian musicians are figuring out how to get our voices out to the international world.”  

The challenge to be heard

There have always been Palestinian musicians, of course, but their extreme circumstances have made it unlikely for their work to be heard. At the heart of the issue is a lack of local infrastructure. The only three music venues in the Palestinian territories are in the West Bank, but their large size makes them unsuitable for emerging pop acts. Because of this, concerts must be held in restaurants or make-shift halls, and it’s not always possible to convert these into a space fit for music. The few companies that rent the required gear out are not affordable for the majority of the Palestinian population. Throwing events comes with risk given the size of the initial financial outlay.

The only other venue that is a key hub for Palestinian musicians is Kabareet in the Israeli city of Haifa, run by locals and Jazar Crew, a Palestinian underground DJ collective. Since its launch four years ago, the spot has become a second home for Palestinians with an Israeli passport or those with documents allowing them to travel through Israel.

Culture is a kind of peaceful resistance, and a way of preserving our cultural identity and heritage – Rania Elias, Director of Yabous Cultural Center

What’s more, any concerts risk being shut down. The Palestinian Authority (PA) is forbidden from conducting any activities in East Jerusalem under the Oslo Accords, and Israel often prohibits cultural or political activities by Palestinian organisations on the grounds that they’re connected to the PA and erode Israeli sovereignty in the city. Earlier this year, Israeli forces were reported to have shut down a Palestinian football tournament, and, in August, they prevented a memorial service for the Palestinian writer Subhi Ghosheh from taking place at the Yabous Cultural Center.

Rania Elias, director of Yabous, tells BBC Culture: “Several times we’ve announced readings, concerts, and exhibitions, and they’ve been stopped by Israeli forces,” she explains. “They come one hour before the event with soldiers and an order saying that, according to the information they have, we are organising an event that is against the security of Israel.” She has then been required to attend an interrogation and shut down the centre temporarily. “Culture is a kind of peaceful resistance, and a way of preserving our cultural identity and heritage,” she explains. “It gives people hope, and so they [the Israeli forces] don’t want these events to happen.” 

BBC Culture contacted Gilad Erdan, Israel’s Minister of Public Security, for comment. His office explained: “Residents of East Jerusalem are free to hold any cultural and sporting event and we welcome the cultural richness of our capital Jerusalem, which is a city of peace and a hub of tourism worldwide. The only limitation in the law on holding cultural events in the city is on events in the organization or sponsored by the Palestinian Authority, which is a hostile political factor for Israel and a terrorist supporter, which works in every way to undermine Israeli sovereignty in our capital.”

Erdan’s office confirmed the closure of the memorial service, but added: “The event presented is just one example of the PA's activity in Jerusalem, which is involved in organising events of this kind, in order to violate Israeli sovereignty and strengthen its status among East Jerusalem residents. This activity is also an intentional breach of the law for the implementation of the Oslo Accords. Minister Erdan prohibits holding such events in accordance to the law, and every order he signs on it is backed by intelligence that proves the PA's involvement and has been examined by a legal adviser.”

Elias insists that the PA had no involvement in the event: We, as Yabous Cultural Center, were approached by the family of the deceased, who set up the memorial and they arranged for the ceremony. The event was organised by the family of the deceased. According to my knowledge, there is no involvement for the PA.” The Burj al-Luqluq Society, which organizes the soccer tournament, also denies any connection to the PA, and insists that it does not receive any funding from it.

Events across the rest of the West Bank, except Area C, which is under Israeli control, are monitored by Palestinian Authorities who require no licence. Permission must, however, be sought from security officials, which is normally granted provided there are no obvious reasons for them to object. In any case, a strictly enforced 2am curfew is enforced.

Recording and releasing music is also challenging. There are studios in Ramallah and East Jerusalem, one of which Murad uses, but recording gear is not affordable for those less fortunate. High import taxes rule out delivery by post, meaning that equipment must be brought in by those who are able to travel abroad, and it can be hard to carry it across international borders.

There is one well known music label, Samer Jaradat Entertainment, in the Palestinian territories, but very few, if any, others that are fully operating, partly because there are so few people trained in copyright law. This requires that artists self-release, uploading onto online platforms such as Spotify, Deezer, YouTube, and Soundcloud themselves in the faint hope that their music will find an audience.  

It’s hard to focus on music because we don’t have the basics to live – MC Gaza, rapper

In cash-stripped Gaza, the smaller Palestinian territory, there are even fewer opportunities. Recording studios are scarce, and any equipment must be sourced from Egypt or Israel at an extraordinary premium. Hamada Nasrallah, vocalist for Sol, a seven-piece folk outfit from Gaza, explains that he had to sell off his possessions just to afford a guitar, only for it to be destroyed in the August 2018 Israeli bomb attacks on the Said al-Mishal Centre.

The electricity shortages and lack of drinking water make it “hard to focus on music” because “we don’t have the basics to live”, MC Gaza, a local rapper, says. Hamas, the Islamist organization that governs the territory, shuts down events because alternative music undermines Muslim traditions. 

 

Exacerbating the problem are the restrictions on movement that Palestinians face, which means that many cannot travel abroad for gigs, or, significantly, meet with industry professionals. Special permits are required to enter Israel, which are rarely granted, especially not quickly. Palestinians have long had no access to airports in the Palestinian territories: those in Jerusalem and Gaza ceased operations around the turn of the millennium, so most Palestinians must travel to Jordan in order to fly anywhere, which costs around US$500 (£400) one-way.

A world with borders

Those in Gaza have great difficulty in travelling at all. There are only two crossings out: Rafah and Erez, controlled by Egyptian and Israeli authorities respectively. Passing through Rafah requires registration on one of two lists, one co-ordinated by the Hamas-affiliated Ministry of Interior, the other by Egyptian authorities. These lists are long, and waiting times are unpredictable because the crossing is not always open; before May 2018, it was open for only a few days a year – although the situation has improved since then. Egyptian officers have also been alleged to accept bribes, ranging from US$2,000 (£1,600) to US$10,000 (£8,000) and paid via Palestinian brokers, to expedite an application. This is unaffordable to the vast majority, and leaves those without money with little hope.

Erez, meanwhile, is also tricky, and, for reasons of security, only Israeli-defined categories of people, mainly those requiring urgent medical attention, are eligible for a permit. Permits are also granted to businessmen, students, and artists, but they are far from guaranteed: PMX has applied on behalf of Sol each year, only to be denied each time. This year, they got lucky, but only for Nasrallah, allowing him to exit Gaza for the first time in 24 years. He was notified by telephone just hours before his performance.

“Palestine is such a small piece of land and there are borders all around you,” local artist Rasha Nahas, a member of Kallemi, tells me. “It’s frustrating because there’s a lot of badass artists, musicians, and thinkers working hard on what they believe in.”

Nahas is privileged in that she was born in Haifa, Israel, and so is permitted to travel outside of the West Bank – but this precludes her from travelling through the Middle East because few countries in the region recognise Israel as a state. She now bases herself in Berlin, where she’s signed with her first management agency, and is pursuing a career as a solo artist. Her first album, an intimate take on rock ‘n’ roll with dirty electric guitar tones and poetic lyricism, will be released next year. 

The position of those born in Jerusalem is uniquely complicated. After occupying and annexing East Jerusalem following the 1967 Six-Day War, Israel offered Palestinian residents Israeli citizenship but many refused, and instead took permanent residency, allowing them to live, work, and receive benefits in Israel. They have what’s called a ‘laissez-passer’, a travel document that allows them to pass through Israel, but they cannot pass into another country without a visa, which is hard to obtain because they don’t have any citizenship.

It’s a business and they cannot make much money from us – Suleiman Harb

Take rock band El Container, for example. All six members grew up in East Jerusalem, and so have permanent residency in Israel, but their official nationality is ‘undefined’, and they have no passport. Suleiman Harb, a band member, explains that to travel they must apply to festivals online in the hope of endorsement for an entry visa, which rarely comes. “If we just do it on our own then it’s likely we won’t get a visa,” Harb says, “but we couldn’t do normal tours anyway because this would require a lot of money and there’s no guarantee of return.”

This also scuppers their chances of releasing their music because labels are reluctant to sign a band unable to tour across the primary Arabic markets, namely Lebanon, Syria, and Dubai. “It’s a business and they cannot make much money from us,” Suliman says. “We have these tough circumstantial issues because of where we live on top of the same problems as any other band.”

Despite these difficulties, the band has performed in Turkey, Italy, Morocco, Jordan, and Egypt. They’ve declined other invitations because they’re sent with the wrong intentions. “They try to connect Israeli and Palestinian bands on the same stage to show that they can exist in the same space, so the music is never the focus,” Harb says.

Musicians in the Golan Heights face similar difficulties for the same reasons: Israel annexed the land, seized from Syria, after the Six-Day War. Although Syrian, the local musicians are considered part of the Palestinian scene because they’re subject to similar restrictions: they are not even allowed to travel to Syria, so they can pass through Israel and the West Bank only. 

All four members of TootArd, whom promoters regularly label as Palestinian, grew up in the village of Majdal Shams in the Golan area, and have permanent residency in Israel, but their official nationality is also ‘undefined’, and they have no passport. Visa issues have forced them to decline offers from Beirut, Dubai, Kuwait, and Algeria, which have particularly strict visa requirements.

Across the Palestinian territories, many artists face similar challenges with gaining a world platform. Some of these – like Murad, TootArd, El Container, and Rasha Nahas – are beginning to develop an international audience, but others are still coming to terms with the boundaries they face. What unites them is an optimism for change.

There is now a diversity to the [Palestinian music] scene, and it’s starting to come out – Mahmood Jrere, DAM

Mahmood Jrere has been monitoring this evolution. Alongside brothers Tamer and Suhel Nafar, Jrere is part of DAM, the Palestinian Territories’ first hip-hop group and one of their most celebrated breakout acts. In 1999, when the band formed, the Palestinian landscape for alternative music was barren except for Sabreen, formed in Jerusalem in the 1980s, in part because musicians had no hope of success. Their music connected with Palestinians because it spoke about reality and violence in contrast to the love and romance of Arabic classical and pop music. “That’s why DAM decided to write hip-hop, and I think we broke out because people felt the same way,” Jrere says.

Taking advantage of the internet, which now allowed artists to distribute their work across borders, they connected with London label RCM – Red Circle Music, who signed them up in 2006. DAM’s success inspired an era of Palestinian hip-hop, but it’s only more recently that the region’s musical tapestry has developed. “Hip-hop broke out, but what’s different now is the other genres,” Jrere explains. “There is now a diversity to the [Palestinian music] scene, and it’s starting to come out.”

A new network

At the centre of this evolution is PMX, a meeting point geared towards providing Palestinian artists with opportunities to showcase their music, learn new skills, and connect with the global music industry. Each year, the organisers invite delegates from around the world to meet local musicians and watch them perform. If the Palestinian territories can’t go to the world, then the world will come to them. Behind the event is Martin Goldschmidt, co-founder of Cooking Vinyl Records, who set it up with Jrere and three other Palestinian musicians and activists, Rami Younis, Abed Daa’dleh, and Abed Hathout, as a means of contributing to Palestinian culture, only to be “blown away” by the depth of musical talent.

“It [PMX] gives artists opportunities,” Jrere says, “and encourages them to take a step forward, to continue perfecting their sound, and to develop their brand.” It also creates a healthy bit of competition, and connects the various musical scenes that for so long had been fragmented. Rasha Nahas adds: “It made Palestinian musicians realise that things are possible. You have a different drive when you know you might play to Sony in half a year’s time.” 

Spotify’s launch in the Middle East is either reflective or anticipatory of a large global interest in Middle Eastern music – and while they declined to speak to BBC Culture for this piece, it’s certain that the service’s territorial expansion in November 2018 was founded on data. The streaming giant’s new presence there is helping Palestinian musicians in two important ways: providing those who live in the Palestinian territories with a platform on which to listen to them; and, through the ‘Arab hub’, presenting them to global audiences by adding their music to playlists, an important means of music discovery.

“Since the launch of Spotify in the Middle East, I have seen an intense rise in the number of new people following my music,” Murad says. “Iceland, Japan, etc: It would have been impossible for me to reach these people otherwise.”

Within three years, everybody is going to be talking about music in the Middle Eastern region, including Palestine – Martin Goldschmidt

It remains to be seen how big Palestinian music can become. Goldschmidt believes this is the start of something bigger. “World music has always been dominated by English-speaking music, but now you’ve seen K-Pop and South American music, and also Indian and Chinese music; within three years, I feel everybody is going to be talking about the Middle Eastern region, including Palestine.”

Hussain Yoosuf, senior vice-president of creative and A&R at Reservoir, an independent music publisher based in New York, believes it’s only a matter of time before we see Palestinian musicians in the global charts. 

“What you find is that repression leads to expression, and markets like Palestine are hotbeds of creative talent because of the political situation they’re in,” he says. He believes it’s now about connecting the “raw talent” with those able to harness it – “then we’ll have a global and not just a Palestinian hit,” he says.

If this is to happen, there’s work to be done. Being able to present their music to industry professionals is a major step, but local infrastructure is needed for Palestinian musicians to flourish. Acknowledging this, the team behind PMX is providing equipment and running workshops in copyright law to facilitate the launch of labels, distributors, and collection societies. There are plans to open a permanent office in Ramallah to connect artists with foreign promoters and assist with travel arrangements. 

But one big obstacle that all Middle-Eastern pop artists still face is the way they tend to be pigeonholed in the West. Rasha Nahas tells BBC Culture that her Arabic heritage sees her categorised as ‘world music’ and booked at special Arabic events, where her work doesn’t really fit. “As a Palestinian artist, you always have people impose on you your genre; people always think we are going to play traditional Palestinian music, but we’re like every other place in the world with lots of artists doing different things.”

LeBlanc, who has attended PMX each year, feels that only those able to sing in English will cross over into the mainstream charts, while others will depend on sales in Arabic-speaking countries. “As soon as they sing in their own language, they’re thrown into the worldbeat category, even though they’re not really worldbeat groups.” 

But, above and beyond commercial success, the hope is that the world will recognise the artistic talent within the Palestinian territories. For so long, the focus has been on conflict at the expense of culture, and only now are we taking a real look inside.

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