Whenever I turn on the TV or log into any of my social media outlets and see status updates regarding the conflict in various regions in the Middle East, I always feel as though the arguments between pundits, politicians and the public, especially in the comments sections online, are always relatively the same—extreme and polarized. The back-and-forth from behind people’s keyboards constantly gave me the feeling that in order for me to truly attempt to grasp the concept of what is happening in the area, as complicated as it is, I had to see it with my own eyes and ears. Well, with very timely planning, I got the opportunity to visit (and perform in) one of the most discussed and debated areas in that region–Palestine.

Growing up in Detroit, I lived next door to Dearborn, a city of just under 100,000 and considered home to the largest population of Middle Eastern diaspora living in the United States, and second in the world just behind Paris. Its proximity to Detroit allowed me frequent visits to Dearborn to see friends and enjoy the food and music—it was the closest I could get to what I considered true Middle Eastern culture without leaving my backyard; but still, I felt I had much to learn about the region itself, outside of the diasporic American context.

A friend of mine called me during the first quarter of my recent trip to Europe and asked me to come and visit Jordan, and that he had two gigs for me—one in Ramallah and one in Haifa. These cities are separated by a 400-mile (643km) wall surrounding the West Bank, so in playing these shows I would be able to see both sides of the disputed territory. There was absolutely no way I could have said no to that, so I adjusted my schedule and flew to Amman. A few days later and after dealing with many checkpoints and interrogations, we proceeded into Ramallah.

I instantly noticed a very cosmopolitan area—cafes, boutiques and clothing stores were open and bustling. Children were playing in the street, and traffic was packed but steady—all reassuring signs that made me realize that the political and military context wasn’t stopping anyone in the area from living their day-to-day lives.

When I visit a new city, I like to ask the locals about its cultural scene—what reigns supreme? Art? Music? Or both?

Detroit’s well-publicized economic downturn led to music becoming king, especially with the creation of techno. So what drives Palestine to become a source of creation and expression in art and music? I talked with three people from the region about their work in the West Bank and what moves them to create.


 

Shams Asma

Shams Asma, meaning “Highest Sun” and “Asma’s Sun” in Arabic, is the name of Asma Ghanem’s captivating and immersive audiovisual project, which she has helmed for over six years. Born in Damascus, Syria in 1991, Asma moved between there and Ramallah with her family during negotiations involving the Oslo Agreement, a treaty negotiation between the Palestinian Liberation Organization and the Israeli government over the occupied territory.

Years later, she got into music production and eventually sound design. Asma describes her music as “experimental music and sound art that is based on thinking about music as well as our sonic experience,” a testament to the environment in which she lives and creates.

“Experimental music reminds me a lot of Palestine or the problematic [way] of describing it. It’s very complex and simple at the same time, and this is what’s fascinating about both. Sounds and music were very visual for me and what was interesting for me is that it gives you that free space to structure it the way you imagine it, even if it’s not as musical as people are used to—I was experimenting with the way we could think and see sounds…that led me to create my own rotational scores over the years which includes colors, lines, words [and] geometric shapes.”

Asma’s live performance is usually equipped with visual aides to help the audience navigate through each track. She recalls a performance that was considered her most intense: “the performance was about Palestinian prisoners under 18 years old—children. There was a recording of an investigation session with one of the kids who was 13 years old… and [the] Israelis decided that he will stay in jail for 12 years. In this case, all I thought of was darkness, fear, silence… The show was in total darkness. Once the show started, I locked the doors and no one could get out of the show until the end.”

Her reasoning behind this austere project is a powerful statement to the everyday life of Palestinians throughout the Levant. “There was nothing [more] difficult about living in a conflict place than [having] a hard childhood. That’s why I stand for children in such hard situations—because art and music was a therapy for me when I was a refugee child, trying to understand what is going on around me. For some people art is not for entertainment; it could be the only way to survive and escape from our crucial reality into imagination and creativity.”

Muqata’a

If you ask about hip-hop in Ramallah most people can point to Muqata’a for putting Ramallah on the map. He describes his unique sound as “dirty, raw, glitchy, sample-based beats with synths and aggressive bass lines” and his live show is comprised of an array of samplers, synths and rap verses.

Muqata’a learned piano at age seven and got into digital music production at twelve, his curiosity sparked by his parents’ extensive music collection. “Both my parents are really into different types of music and have a nice collection of tapes which I have recently started sampling from,” he says. Alongside making his brand of forward-sounding beats for other artists in the area and scoring for local and international theatre, dance and film, he is cofounder of the group Tashweesh, a project that one of the members calls “a collision between sound and video.” On a global scale, his music has been well received, most notably by producer Jon Kennedy who has been recently releasing his works on the Jon Kennedy Federation imprint. Muqata’a attributes being able to tell his story with one tool—the internet. “It helps me reach listeners outside of Ramallah and Palestine but also really helps locally,” he says. ”The more releases and live performances I do in Ramallah and abroad, the more people hear about my music and start following my work.”

Abdallah

Originally from Amman, Jordan, Abdallah spent time in Vancouver, where he got involved in the scene there as a DJ and producer. Since returning to Jordan, he has been the go-to promoter for Western artists who want to perform in the West Bank via Amman, and has hosted a handful of artists like Sam Binga, El-B, and (full disclosure) myself. Leaving Amman and heading to the area seems easy, but it is far from that, as Abdallah explains. “Crossing from Jordan to Palestine can be tricky. Israeli border police often question internationals crossing into the West Bank. They’re curious as to why some artists would go perform in the West Bank and are usually surprised to hear that Ramallah has any kind of nightlife.”

Aside from showing his guests the local food and drink, Abdallah strives to make sure visitors have a clear takeaway on what is happening in the region. “The separation wall is eight to eleven meters tall. Your mind cannot ignore what the eyes see.”

Seeing both sides of the wall in the West Bank will still be considered the most eye-opening experience for me to this day, not only because I saw the everyday lives and worlds of two states, but that I was able to gain a better understanding of how creating art in times of adversity relates to the musical environment in which I was raised in my native Detroit. It has shown time and time again that in the face of conflict and economic downfall comes artistry.

By Jeremy “Sinistarr” Howard

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