The Iqrit Files by Checkpoint 303
In recent years, musicians of Palestinian origin have brought work based on Palestinian folk and Arabic classical music to Western audiences. Reem Kelani, Rim Banna and The Trio Joubran have toured widely and released increasingly successful albums to international acclaim.
And Palestinian culture — notably the writings of Mahmoud Darwish — have inspired non-Palestinian artists, such as the elegant, sparse album The Astounding Eyes of Rita by Tunisian jazz master Anouar Brahem.
But all of these belong to very “grown-up” genres, appealing to audiences used to classical, jazz and “world” music.
Checkpoint 303’s The Iqrit Files offers something very different. Palestinian songs, poetry, history and landscapes provide the starting point for an album which combines them with the much more youthful sounds of drum and bass, minimal techno and ambient electronic.
Checkpoint 303 is an international musical collective of SCs (“sound catchers” or “sound cutters”) working on a not-for-profit basis to maintain their artistic independence. The group includes artists working inside and outside of Palestine, but centers on Tunisian musical artist and oud player SC MoCha.
In the past artists with Checkpoint 303 have played supporting acts for the British band Massive Attack and have had their work cited in publications as diverse as the UK’s Channel 4 TV and British Airways’ guide to Tunisia.
Speeches and breakbeats
Constructed by SC MoCha, many of the samples interwoven with the breakbeats and riffs of The Iqrit Files might be seen as generically related to the issue of Palestine.
There is Eleanor Roosevelt reading the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; Albert Einstein praising the nonviolent political tactics of Mahatma Gandhi; a taxi driver complaining about conditions in the occupied West Bank and cursing both the Israelis and Mahmoud Abbas; and legendary figures such as Nelson Mandela and Bob Marley voicing messages of freedom.
Other sounds woven into the album are more distinctive, such as those recorded around the depopulated Palestinian village of Iqrit.
Located in the northern Galilee on the border with Lebanon, the Palestinians of Iqrit were expelled by Israeli soldiers in 1948 with a promise that they could return after a few weeks. But they were never allowed back and most of the buildings were demolished in 1951. Only the church and cemetery remain.
The core for this album are recordings of Palestinian folk songs from the Iqrit area, which lament for Iqrit itself. These are sung by Wardeh Sbeit (born in Iqrit) and Jawaher Shofani (from a nearby village) and are accompanied by poems written and performed by Jihad Sbeit.
The three are important figures in the cultural resistance of the Palestinians of the Galilee, preserving and passing on songs and stories to new generations.
Continuity and resistance
The album records not only their works of cultural continuity and resistance, but also the actual acts performed by people from Iqrit in order to maintain a symbolic — and to some extent real — ownership of their village.
Iqritis are still buried in the cemetery there and the album includes recordings of someone sweeping the church floor with a broom. Young people, descendants of those expelled in 1948, have attempted to reclaim the village lands despite being thrown out by Israeli forces. Checkpoint 303’s samples include sound of their generator running and Walaa Sbait, an activist whose family came from Iqrit, freestyling as he walks through the village.
This music can work in different ways.
One could play it in the background, allowing the memories and messages to seep into the subconscious. Most of the tracks are short, evocative soundscapes, with only one topping five minutes in length.
Or, at the opposite end of the spectrum, one could see Checkpoint 303 on tour, with the full-volume experience that entails. Here, some of the chunkier beats would come into their own.
Or one could put up one’s feet for an hour and listen to the album, following its poignant narrative in every detail. The sense of longing and melancholy in Sbeit and Shofani’s songs of loss is powerful, and despite the occasional more robust track, the overall tone of much of the album is fairly meditative.
This last suggestion might be complemented by the lengthy booklet which comes with the album and is available as a PDF with downloaded versions. As well as accounts of the Iqrit recordings and history of the village, it includes images of Iqrit — historic photographs including demonstrations against eviction, to beautiful new portraits of the place, its people and their steadfast resistance.
The Iqrit Files, with its breakbeats and sampling, might be a challenge for more traditional listeners. But it is an original, exciting and moving way to engage with the Palestinian story, its tragedies and its myriad, creative means of resistance.