Rebel songs to rap: the history of Palestine’s music

The link between music and resistance in Palestine is a long one. It runs from rebel songs such as “Akka Prison” — recorded before the Nakba, the 1948 ethnic cleansing of Palestine — to modern-day hip-hop.

In the past year or so, the range of academic studies on Palestinian music — its content, meaning, social and political roles — has expanded productively. Three new volumes appeared within a short time, giving academics and other interested readers the chance to access a range of new information and analysis.

The questions that cry out loudest relate to the interaction between politics and art.

Is Palestinian music always political? Can Palestinian music choose not to be political? And how do other people read that?

What is the interplay between Palestinian musicians and their audiences? And what about the impact of “politics” other than that of the Israeli occupation — the historical influence of colonialism, for example, or the current effects of Islamist parties?

This is the broad field in which these three books operate.

The most wide-ranging of these titles is Palestinian Music and Song: Expression and Resistance Since 1900 (Indiana University Press), a collection of essays edited by academics and musicians from Palestine, Europe and the US.

It explores genres ranging from traditional folksongs via protest songs to contemporary hip-hop.

While non-academics (and even, hopefully, some academics) may be horrified to find an opening sentence which includes the words “epistemological,” “ontological” and “human collectivities,” much of the rest of the book is reasonably approachable.

Indeed, despite the unpromising start, the rest of Moslih Kanaaneh’s introduction is a neat and fairly brief account of the relationship between music, colonialism and power in Palestine (and why the Palestinian example is pertinent to much wider debates).

Freedom songs before hip-hop

The chapters are then arranged in three sections: the historical background from early nineteenth century colonialism to the protest songs of the first intifada; the place of music — particularly but not exclusively hip-hop — in contemporary Palestinian identity; and its role in resistance by both the secular movements and Hamas.

Stand-out pieces from this wide selection include Issa Boulos’ fascinating survey of Palestinian “freedom songs” between 1967 and 1987. This is an excellent corrective to the impression — sometimes found in over-excited journalism — that Palestinian political music started with the hip-hop group DAM.

Randa Safieh’s article on the aforementioned hip-hop highlights the ways in which Palestinian youth in different parts of the diaspora have used this musical medium, while Carin Berg and Michael Schulz’s piece on Hamas’ use of music is a useful (if dry) counter to the Western misconception that all Islamist movements forbid music — and an exploration of the way in which Hamas has employed the medium.

One minor complaint: Indiana University Press’ layout department took the somewhat odd decision to allow hyphenation of words in the text of this book, making it horribly distracting to read.

Extending influence

Rachel Beckles Willson’s Orientalism and Musical Mission (Cambridge University Press) is a history of how Western colonial powers and the bearers of colonial ideas have used music to extend their influence into Palestinian society.

For the general reader, this book suffers from the problem of almost all academic titles: the convention of starting with a weighty introduction, dense with theory and methodology. For non-specialists this is often both intimidating and boring; in Beckles Willson’s case, however, a few important points stand out.

One is her careful, sophisticated, but nevertheless uncompromising articulation of the deep-seated difference between accuracy and integrity and the dangerous — but commonplace — insistence on imposing a notion of “balance” on discussions of Palestine.

Second is her rigorous adoption of the model of settler-colonialism to understand the trajectory of Zionism in Palestine — adopted not from an ideological perspective, but from that of the academic historian, looking at trends and events over a long period and seeing the patterns within them.

Thirdly, Beckles Willson’s account of her own research includes anecdotes which many researchers, journalists and documentary-makers on Palestine would do well to learn from.

They reveal a stranger to Middle Eastern social norms finding out that their expectations of how to contact “important people” and elicit meetings and interviews don’t work. They also show — unlike some researchers’ explorations — humility in realizing that we, as academics and journalists, are not somehow blessing the Palestinians with our attentions, but they are doing us a favor when they share with us their time, experiences and knowledge.

This book’s subject matter may not lend itself to the kind of exploitation of human misery excoriated in the perceptive and important article which Moe Ali Nayel has written for The Electronic Intifada about the patronizing attitude that some Western academics display towards Palestinians.

Nevertheless, Beckles Willson’s observations on the ethics of her topic, and the impacts this has on her research, should be required reading for every masters student or “independent documentary maker” planning to “study Palestine.”

The main body of Beckles Willson’s book is in two sections in which, although they remain theoretically complex, anecdote and observation win out to make for a much more accessible read than the introduction.

The first is a historical and textual account of the relationship between the West (including Zionism) and Palestinians through music — the ways in which Western scholars and artists approached Arabic music and Palestinian musicians, the contacts and tensions between them, and the ways that these reflected and incorporated larger power dynamics.

It weaves between European missionaries, British Mandate-era Palestine Radio and the fragile position of Jewish musicians of various Middle Eastern origins to present a fascinating and deeply — if implicitly — political portrait of the role of music in Palestine’s relations with the West.

The second is a more ethnographic study of the place of music in modern Palestine, particularly the occupied West Bank. It ranges from interviews with international volunteer teachers to studies of the different responses of Western musicians to the Palestinian call for an academic and cultural boycott of Israel.

What binds the two sections together is Beckles Willson’s complex, sensitive, but unsentimental and sometimes ruthless examination of the way in which power and colonial attitudes underlie these events and relationships — even those underpinned by the most well-meaning intentions. As such, this is an important book, albeit a challenging one for the non-specialist in Palestinian history, and one which deserves to be read well beyond a “musical history” niche.

A different approach

David McDonald’s My Voice is My Weapon (Duke University Press) takes a different approach to Palestinian music, something more akin to Khaled Furani’s Silencing the Sea (Stanford University Press), an ethnographic exploration of poetry published in 2012.

Like Furani, McDonald weaves together ethnographic observation, interviews, history and textual analysis to build a narrative of how Palestinian artists — for Furani, poets, and for McDonald, musicians — have engaged with processes of identity and nation-building.

In some ways, McDonald’s book is the perfect counterpart to Beckles Willson’s. Both take a sustained view of the topic — from the nineteenth century in the former case, 1917 in the latter — and interweave the history of an art form with that of a people.

Internal story

Where Beckles Willson, though, explores the interplay between colonial and missionary encounters and Palestinian music, McDonald examines the other side of the coin, the more internal story of how Palestinian listeners have heard and responded to music, and the relationship between them and the musicians and singers they hear.

One effect of this is that McDonald’s journey takes him beyond classical music — whether Western or Arabic — and into the popular realm, ranging from 1970s and 80s groups such as ‘Ashiqin and Baladna to contemporary outfits such as DAM. This book’s focus on the Palestinian experience also means that it ranges geographically further, for instance in its study of the suppression — by police violence and imprisonment — of Palestinian musicians in Jordan.

Both are also highly reflective and reflexive writers, deeply aware of the limitations of the Western academic relationship with Palestine, of the danger of thinking that studying Palestine per se constitutes doing something “useful,” and of the justifiable suspicion from Palestinian informants of those who want to ask them countless questions.

Sometimes theory-heavy and academic in tone, nevertheless each of these books has many useful things to say about the place of music in Palestinian life, politics, culture and history. As ever with academic titles, price is an issue, although McDonald’s book and Palestinian Music and Song are both available in paperback.

With articles by both Beckles Willson and McDonald in the Palestinian Music and Song compilation, the obvious course for most readers would be to head straight there. But that would be to lose out on the depth and richness of the other two works, and to appreciate the privileged position of anyone with access to a university or decent public library system.

An earlier version of this article gave an incorrect name for the publisher of Palestinian Music and Song. It has since been corrected.

Sarah Irving is a freelance writer. She worked with the International Solidarity Movement in the occupied West Bank in 2001-02 and with Olive Co-op, promoting fair trade Palestinian products and solidarity visits, in 2004-06. She is the author of a biography of Leila Khaled and of the Bradt Guide to Palestine and co-author, with Sharyn Lock, of Gaza: Beneath the Bombs.