With the announcement earlier this month that the British group Massive Attack was holding a series of concerts in London to support Palestinian refugee communities was another piece of good news: that Checkpoint 303 was going to be performing a DJ set to open the three benefit shows.
The international group of DJs or SCs (“Sound Catchers” and “Sound Cutters”) and musicians that make up Checkpoint 303 has quietly been bringing the noise on the internet by unleashing wickedly original sound tapestries and instrumentals (free of charge) on their website, www.checkpoint303.com for over two years now.
And despite their previous near-anonymity they have officially hit the scene running as a part of successful, sold out, three-concert run in London to raise money for The Hoping Foundation (which helped to organize the event) that support Palestinian refugee youth throughout the MiddleEast.
For those of us who have been following the growth of Checkpoint 303’s sound on the web, it is clear that last week’s concerts were more than just another gig (they also played the week before in Paris), but rather, marked the major-performance debut of a refreshingly intelligent and sophisticated sound in the electronic music scene. And it is sound to be reckoned with judging from their sudden leap onto the international stage — a leap which, like the success of recent Palestinian films such as Paradise Now, bodes well for those artists worldwide who wish to create work around the issue of Palestine and do so while also enjoying a wide audience for that work.
In other words, Checkpoint 303’s mounting exposure is a testament not only to the reach of the internet, but also the stubborn potency and much needed voice of the underground (musical, artistic, political and so forth) as well as the persistence and urgency of the question of Palestine, not to mention the international support that the cause garners.
Perhaps this explains why Massive Attack called up SC MoCha and SC Yosh (Checkpoint’s founding members) and invited them to play three consecutive hour-long sets to open for the successful and fiercely anti-war group — all before ever having seen them perform live. The fact is that Checkpoint 303 has a sound that can’t be ignored, and this makes their message about justice in Palestine and the Middle East all the more powerful (an example that many more of us, artists and non-artists alike, should follow).
Composed using personal recordings of the background noises of occupation and conflict (e.g. gunshots, radio snippets, questioning by occupation forces) as well as the melancholy riffs of the ‘oud, Checkpoint 303’s sound seems to be as much about process as product, as it cuts, fragments and reconstructs the audio soundscape of daily lives in the Middle East. At its core it melds together into an electronic yet eerily human mosaic of sound and music, kind of like the common person’s soundtrack to witnessing the disintegration of sanity and justice in the Middle East, both from within the belly of the occupation(s) as well as from the outside, amidst the vast and maddening expanses of the Diaspora.
And the makeup of the group itself in many ways illustrates this dichotomy. Checkpoint 303’s members are themselves spread around in different countries, including occupied Palestine. SC Yosh, for example, runs around Ramallah, Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and Gaza, with a microphone basically recording all he can from the most mundane to the more explosive of situations — from people talking or gathering on the streets, to demos, traffic jams, shots fired, jeeps roaring, radios blaring and so on. In other words, just a slice of the sounds that makes up daily life under occupation. SC MoCha cuts and reworks the field recordings into loops and abstract beats adding effects and then adding layers of his own Oud and guitar playing.
Other members of the collective include Cheikh Julio (field recordings and visuals), Ms K SuShi (Keyboards), and VL Monalisa (Vocal). Additionally, continual collaborations are part of Checkpoint 303’s international and genre-jumping fluidity. Some upcoming tracks are to include collaborations with artists such as Splinters of Madness, Melski and Damski and the recent CP 303 live shows in Paris also featured guitarist M. Douss.
But www.checpoint303.com is the where it all comes together. The website features eight downloadable MP3s, some of which will become part of the album due out this summer. Of these songs, two stand out: “Needle stuck on Lebanon” and “Teoda (Control)”. The former opens with a haunting clip of Italian then British reportage of the recent Israeli onslaught on Lebanon mixed with the hum of mournful singing in the background. Then the beat hits — a kind of bone-cracking, bullwhip entrance into the song in the form of rhythmically arranged gunshots which turn into snare then tabla beats. Over this rhythm the ‘oud comes in. The song progresses in and out of the nightmare of Lebanon’s latest war, interwoven with additional news clips that almost subliminally form a kind of twisted narrative of Lebanon’s plight, the broken record of history repeating itself, at least as reported by international media and as heard by those of us on the outside listening in. But the media snippets are in turn constantly interrupted by the ‘oud’s story and vice versa. It is almost as if the song is an MC-battle of sorts between the voice of the news media on the one hand and the ‘oud on the other — all of it over the backdrop of the booms and pops of war’s deadly rhythms. Like many of Checkpoint’s pieces, we enter into a soundscape that is both journalistic and surreal in its rawness; a soundscape that is at once a commentary on the robotic machinery of political violence and the very human voice of tolerance and peace.
The second of these two songs, “Teoda”, is equally haunting, and also features SC MoCha’s outstanding ‘oud riffs mixed electronically over the daily sounds of Palestinian life — men talking, or being questioned by Israelis on a bus or at a checkpoint for example. Yet the piece is fast-paced and rolls onwards, an ode of sorts to the nervous yet determined heartbeat of the Palestinian traveler crossing the many obstacles to any destination. In fact the song gives one the feeling of riding a constantly moving interrogation — a checkpoint on wheels — past the interrupted geographies and the many truths (and lies) of both Palestinian and Israeli realties. A bus that in the end is seemingly headed nowhere.
And yet all of these songs, despite their sadness and their anger, somehow manage not only to stay remarkably composed (both musically and emotionally) but also resonate with an intense optimism, a kind of fighting hope which in its essence is a call for peace. Anyone trying to pin the propaganda label on this music is either not listening closely enough or is listening so closely as to not hear what it is all about.
As SC MoCha explained, speaking from London over the weekend: “[Our music] tries to spread a message of justice and peace for the Palestinian people and broadly speaking, against all forms of occupation and oppression … Our message is deeply humanist and independent and while we consider it a form of musical activism, we actually do all we can to avoid falling into the trap of propaganda. We believe that would be wrong and counter-productive.”
So while Checkpoint 303 in many ways carries on in the tradition of Marcel Khalife, Cheikh Imam and others, they do so in the much more globally understood language of electronic music, and with the help of the Internet and mp3s, allowing them to bring their musical interpretation of the truth — disturbingly depressing, inspiring and beautiful as it is — directly to people’s computers worldwide, and finally, to a venue near you. Look out and spread the word.
Ismail Khalidi is a playwright, poet and performer. Author (and performer) of the one-person show entitled Truth Serum Blues, and an ensemble member at Pangea World Theater in Minneapolis, Khalidi has also published his work in Mizna and recently contributed his work to Nation Books’ Letters from Young Activists: Today’s Rebels Speak Out. Khalidi has been a contributor to El’s Arts, Music and Culture section since 2004. He is currently based between Santiago de Chile and the U.S. and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org