A West Bank Music Education (2004)

A West Bank Music Education (2004)

[The following is a condensed and edited version of my 2002 trip to Palestine journal entries, published in the March 2004 issue of Musicworks Magazine. – JKF]

In November 2002, I visited East Jerusalem, Ramallah and Bethlehem to perform concerts and hold workshops with young music students, in conjunction with the National Conservatory of Palestine and the Yabous Concert Series (“Yabous” is Arabic for “Jebusite”, the Canaanite founders of Jerusalem). It was a great opportunity for me to make a small contribution to the arts scene in the country of my parents’ origin.

Since its founding in 1993, the National Conservatory has been trying to continue to foster the artistic life in the West Bank through lessons, workshops and concerts of resident and guest artists. Tuition fees are about $600 USD per academic year, but for those who cannot afford to pay there are scholarships available, made possible by donations from local and international organisations. Though classes are often cancelled due to army incursions and suffocating curfews, with true mettle the teachers and performers often break curfew at high personal risk to give the children a desperately needed education. One example occurred during a concert in Ramallah in October 2003, when musicians visiting from Germany continued playing despite the bombing and shelling of an incursion outside.

It was my second time performing in the West Bank, the first being in 1999, before the Second Intifada, when Ramallah was starting to blossom its creative potential with artists of all sorts from the Palestinian diaspora returning from abroad to build a rich and kaleidoscopic arts scene. Cafes and restaurants were popping up everywhere, and seemed to me just an inkling of what could be possible if the Occupation ended completely and finally. New Conservatory branches had been planned in Gaza and Nablus but the deeper entrenchment of the occupation since the second Intifada has made such plans impossible. Their curriculum and concerts place an equal emphasis on both Western and Arabic classical music, with local as well as international instructors who donate at least a year of their time to provide some hope to children living in dangerous and impoverished conditions. One success story is that of Ramzi Hussein, who in 1987 at eight years of age was throwing stones at Israeli soldiers outside his home in the el-Amari refugee camp. Thanks to scholarship donations he was able to enrol at the conservatory for 4 years, and is now continuing his viola studies at a regional conservatory in France.

My 1999 recital in Ramallah had been an assortment of works by Bach, Messiaen, Andriessen, Charles Kœchlin, Shostakovich, and a composition of my own entitled “Soul Departing Body”. Since then, however, my live performances had changed to a hybrid of contemporary art music, free improvisation, minimalism and electronica/drum’n’bass. It was a bit of a risk for the artistic director, Suhail Khoury, to take, as the audiences I would be performing for would be quite unused to the agressively beat-heavy element of so-called “Intelligent Dance Music”. After some discussion I convinced him that it would be more of a sincere and unique contribution to showcase the sort of things I am currently working on, and may stimulate some new curiosities and interests in the students.

All aspects of Palestinian society have been devastated by the 36-year Israeli occupation, and the Conservatory is not an exception. Oriental Music Department head and oud instructor Ahmad Khatib was arrested on April 8, 2002 and released the next day. Hand-cuffed and blind-folded, during this time he was used as a human shield by the Israeli Defense Force (IDF). It should be mentioned that Khatib’s residential neighborhood had gone without water or electricity for a whole week. Senior staff member Muhammad Yacoub was rounded up with others from his neighborhood and arrested (without explanation or charge) in Al-Bireh on April 29, 2002 and transported in buses to an unknown place. He and the other prisoners were placed in a dried-up septic tank and left there for 24 hours. They were later put in damp tents for another 4 days, sleeping on damp mattresses placed directly on the muddy ground.

My first concert was at the YWCA in east Jerusalem, the same building in which the Conservatory’s main offices are located. My set up consisted of my laptop G4, a Mackie 1202 mixer, an Emagic 6-output soundcard, a Korg Kaos Pad (a touch-sensitive effects unit) and a miked grand piano. On the computer I would run sequences pre-composed in Logic Audio, using software samplers and synthesizers such as Reaktor and the EXS24, and each sound was routed to one of 6 outputs, which could be selectively affected through delays and reverbs on the Kaos Pad.

My compositions sometime are inspired by an interest in Canaanite, Philistine and Phoenician mythology. I started with an ambient piece called ‘The Fountain of Astarte’ in which I improvised over synth drones, followed by ‘Flame of Canaan’, which was a drum’n’bass sequence using looped fragments of Melkite (Arabic/Syriac Greek-Catholic) and Maronite chants, ‘Ud and dumbek samples layered onto high-tempo breakbeats. In a composition called ‘Bas-Relief’ I used samples from Messiaen’s ‘Illuminations of the Beyond’ and Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes, also fused with intricate drum programming.

In the next two days I held workshops for the piano students of the Jerusalem and Ramallah branches. After hearing and critiquing some pieces, I bought out my laptop and showed a few examples of the software synthesizer sequences and samples I had used. I spoke about Minimalist and Ambient music, and explained the basic principles of Atonal and Twelve-tone music, performing examples at the piano which yielded reactions from fascination to aversion. I gave a few students an improvisation exercise to try in front of the class, and after their initial trepidation they became engaged with it. At the end we made a map of a musical form which had several contrasting sections and characteristics (tempo, range, harmonies, dynamics, etc.) which I then improvised for them. Many of them are already familiar with Taqasim, or Arabic style improvisations, using the different modes or Maqâmât, so they were interested to hear something improvised in a completely different style.

Bethlehem was quite a different experience. The drive from E. Jerusalem to Bethlehem, without checkpoints, would as short as 10 minutes if travel was unrestricted. Add checkpoints and detours and you have a harrowing two-hour experience. I was exasperated when finally arriving, but the students weren’t; disruption of their lives is a regular occurence, as towns are often sealed off, undergoing an army incursion, or under curfew, and classes are constantly being cancelled.

The Bethlehem branch is in a converted church, and some of the rehearsal spaces are in cavernous rooms underground. My workshop there followed the same format, with one student performing Chopin’s A-flat major Polonaise. They also took willingly to the improvisation excerises, one of which was to slowly explore the different permutations and voicings of a 5-note chord of their choosing, sustain pedal depressed, over a five minute period. I wished I could teach more classes there, as they would learn so quickly and I’m sure that not after long they would be surprising me with their improvisational ideas.

My concert was to be held at the Bethlehem Peace Centre, a beautiful and spacious building located in Manger Square, funded by a donation from the Swedish government. In the afternoon I had a meeting with one of the directors, curious to know first hand what transpired in this particular building during the April 2002 Israeli invasion. I think it is important to note the details of what happened here, because if one takes the story of the Peace Centre and applies it to a broader context, it will provide an inkling of what has happened in practically every other building and home in Palestine.

The Centre was invaded 3 times since the outbreak of the 2nd Intifada in 2000. The final, full-scale invasion in April 2002 lasted an astounding 38 days, during which also all of Manger Square and it’s adjacent neighbourhood were under complete, 24 hour curfew. The Israeli Defence Force (IDF) inflicted $200,000 USD of vandalism and theft: the back door was dynamited, 138 doors were destroyed, all toilets broken, all chairs slashed open, all computers, printers, video projectors, telephones and intercoms were looted. The soldiers urinated, vomited and defecated on the walls and floors. Just in case the beautiful Bösendorfer that I was to play was up to no good, it was also vandalised for good measure. Left behind as a gift to the Centre by the Vienna Boys Choir after performance at the Bethlehem 2000 celebrations, even the screws were stolen from the lid and strings snapped as a final act of spite.
The schoolmaster of the Bethlehem branch took me around town, showed me Gilo, the ever-expanding Israeli settlement across the valley, and Dheisheh refugee camp, a makeshift shadow-ghetto grafted onto Bethlehem.

It is worth noting that residents of subsidised and fortified Gilo (at least 10,000 people), pay about 1/2 a Shekel for every cubic meter of water consumed, while Palestinians living in Bethlehem and surrounding areas (about 60,000 people), pay roughly 4 Shekels per cubic meter. Hence Gilo enjoys lush lawns and swimming pools while Palestinian hospitals sometimes have trouble affording enough water to wash their linen (for details on topics such as water, environment, refugees, living conditions, etc., visit www.passia.org).

The concert that night was well attended, with about 250 people in the Peace Centre’s spacious hall, but my performance didn’t unfold as I intended; after my computer screen froze I paniced internally, trying to keep my focus with solo piano improvisations. I managed to get into a somewhat more creative space after the intermission, but after the concert the audience reaction was appreciative but slightly subdued. Even though the overall preferences of the Bethlehem crowd may have been a touch conservative compared to Jerusalem or Ramallah, they had listened intently, so it was all the more unfortunate that I didn’t make the strongest case for not only my music but for the selection of disparate elements I was proposing to mix.

The next day I was off to Ramallah, passing through the permanantly congested Kalandia checkpoint. Here, like so many other checkpoints in the Occupied Territories, Palestinians line up in droves, hoping to avoid harrasment and humiliation by IDF soldiers and be allowed to pass through, sometimes after waiting weeks for a permit, just to visit a relative in an adjacent town.
The last concert was held in the Sakakini Cultural Centre, a three-story building that serves as an art gallery as well as a small scale concert venue seating no more than one hundred people. Incedentally, this building had also been vandalised and looted by the IDF in April 2002 (also, the Friends’ Girls School, where I had given my 1999 concert, had been partially destroyed by tank shells).
I think it is essential to ask why such insitutions as the Peace Centre and the Sakakini are targeted by the IDF. The answerdoes not lie in the convenient excuse of rooting out the so called “Terrorist Infrastructure”, but rather in the intention to destroy the people’s will and hinder the development of Palestinian cultural institutions, disrupting aspirations in art, music, dance, sculpture and thus further fragmenting national consciousness. Art gives people something to live for, as well as a vehicle to emote their frustrations and hopes. Artists and artistic communites contribute to creating a healthy, robust and forward-looking society, stimulating minds, creating new ideas, sparking new approaches to life, survival, liberation; this itself is a profound and fundamental threat that the IDF must quell.

The concert fortunately went very well, the top floor of the Sakakini was filled with people eager to be fed unfamiliar sounds and experiences, creating an extraordinarily vibrant and encouraging atmosphere for me to improvise in. To add to the ambience, the ceiling and walls had been covered with fabrics and adorned with lanterns to re-create the interior of a bedouin’s tent.
After the concert students and adults were buzzing with questions about where the sounds came from and how they were created. I wasn’t sure how the audiences would take to the strong presence of beats and drum sequences in so many of the tracks, but these were greeted with enthusiastic comments about the variety and complexity of rhythms and sonorities.
My euphoria came to an abrupt end a few hours later with the sudden shock of a nearby explosion. It may have been from a tank or helicopter gunship, but sometimes the IDF induces panic and nervousness on a towns’ population by detonating “Sound” and/or “Light” bombs. Rather than explode, these stun with sound, or create relentless and blinding illuminations in the middle of the night. It was a sobering event to end my trip.

Apart from the joy of performing my music, having fun with the students and visiting relatives, this experience also allowed me to partake in a kind of musical political activism in a much more direct way than I could from my home in Toronto. I also kept an online journal so as to communicate with others what I was observing first-hand, injustices of which I had only read about from Canada. As to whether the conservatory students and audiences benefitted from my concerts, I can only be hopeful that it offered, at the least, a momentary opening for some people to escape their chronic scenery. My intention was to generate an appetite for different forms of electronic music, contemporary art music and free improvisation amongst the students and music community.

Upon returning to Canada I started a small-scale music book drive for the Conservatory, and many friends and colleagues have generously mailed dozens of used scores, composer biographies and theory books to their small but budding music library. If you have any music literature or scores that you think would be of educational value and would like to donate, please feel free to mail them to: The National Conservatory of Music, Attn: Suhail Khoury, P.O. Box 66676, E. Jerusalem, Palestine (via Israel). More information is available though their website at www.birzeit.edu/music (Flash plug-in needed).