Articles & Media

"What you have to do"

Amina Elbendary hears the angels singing
Al-Ahram Weekly Online
November 8-14, 2001
Issue No.559

Where does it come from, this voice? From some place deep down? Or from up, way up above?

Listening to the Palestinian group Sabreen, and their lead singer, the brilliant Kamilya Jubran, at the Cairo Opera House this Sunday came as a revelation. What could you expect? Surely something essentially Arab, this being the Arab Music Festival, and something quintessentially Palestinian, this being a troupe from Jerusalem.

Arab they are, Palestinian they are, certainly. And then they are more.

While their starting point is "Arabic" music, it is just that, a starting point, a place from which to innovate. So they have incorporated different sounds, instruments such as the cello, and sometimes even non-Arab performers. "We try to reach a harmony of sorts between these very different sounds. We try to open up to different musical experiences. So a lot of our music reflects a dialogue between jazz and Arab music. Even the way we approach traditional Arab instruments is different. The way we play the oud, for example, getting new rhythms out of it," Kamilya Jubran explains.

The first song Sabreen performed is from their first album, "Dukhan Al-Barakin" (Smoke of the Volcanoes). "On Man" is a poem by Mahmoud Darwish set to music by Sabreen's founder, composer Said Murad. Released in the early 1980s, the album marked the first and defining period of their work. The lyrics -- in classical Arabic -- are from the canon of Palestinian resistance poetry by Mahmoud Darwish, Samih Al-Qassem and others. Those were times of tremendous upheaval in the Arab world, of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, of the Sabra and Shatila massacres. The reverberations throughout the Arab world are sharply echoed here.

And Kamilya Jubran's voice carries all the conflicting, heart-wrenching emotions that are at the heart of being human, not just being Palestinian. It is a cry for a better life. Her voice is so beautiful it hurts. (In fact in "Drink", written by Samih Al- Qassem, she would sing: "Some songs are cries that aren't a joy to listen to/ If my songs provoke you, be angry.")

Despite the classical content and message, the style -- even since the days of "Dukhan Al- Barakin"-- remains unclassical, avant-garde. That's what they want: modern music that is also Arab, Arab music that is also modern. This was evident in "On Man." The music kept moving; it started out with a nursery rhyme-like melody to it, a swing in the wind, push me higher, higher, higher. And then slowly it moved, drifting to other areas, like a boat testing different waters, moving back towards more familiar, more traditional shores.

"They put chains on his mouth
They tied his hands to the rock of the dead
And said: You are a murderer
They took his food, clothes and banners
And they threw him in the prison cell of the dead
And said: You are a thief
They threw him out of all refuges
They took his young sweetheart
And said: You a refugee
You whose eyes and wrists bleed
The night will not last
The detention room will not last
Or the pain of the chains
Nero died and Rome did not die
With its eyes it fights..."

She is so slight that it is hard to imagine so much beauty could be contained in so petite a frame. With silver-threaded hair cropped boyishly short and clad, very untraditionally for an Arab female singer, in simple black pants and black top, she set about capturing the audience. There was a palpable tension in Sunday's performance, as if she were always on the verge of breaking free from an invisible shell, of just letting go. You could feel it as her body swayed to the music, as her head rolled in constrained half- circle movements, echoes of a Sufi's dhikr .

When I meet her the next day, Kamilya Jubran will tell me she found something a bit cold about the hall. She wasn't quite comfortable, no. But it passed. "You do what you have to do."

Compromises of sorts were made to be able to join in this Festival, this defender and definer of what is classical and what is Arab music. The bow came in the form of two solo performances by Wisam Murad and Kamilya of classical Arabic pieces. But then they've been through that before; having to prove themselves as Arab musicians, especially given their unorthodox style and approach. For the audience it was a surprise bonus.

Following "Dukhan Al-Barakin" the group's albums each came at particular political junctures. The second, "Mawt Al-Nabi" (Death of the Prophet), came immediately before the first Intifada. "There was a feeling that many people were dying, many human experiences were dying. We were in direct confrontation with the occupation and it was a period of internal revolution. This provoked introspection on our part."

And Sabreen turned inside, to local colloquial Palestinian poets like Subhi Zubeidi and Hussein Al- Barghouti. The lyrics deal with everyday affairs, with a lot of irony and sarcasm, a criticism of the spirit of submission that prevailed among some sectors of Palestinian society. Which is when the jazz really started coming through.

In contrast to the first two albums, the third, "Gayy Al-Hamam" (Here Come the Doves) was released in 1994, in the post-Intifada and Oslo peace process spirit. "The doves were coming, and then the doves died. They've shot them," she muses, with a wry sense of irony.

In "Ala Fein" (Where To?), their fourth and latest album, released last year, Sabreen are once more responding to the Palestinian predicament of the day. "We've tried resistance, we've tried confrontation, we've tried Intifada, we've tried peace. What else is left to us? And now where to?"

Now what? is the question. In this album the subjects they've dealt with have broadened, and they seem to be moving out of the sometimes limited Palestinian niche into the wider Arab scene. The album contains lyrics by Egyptian poet Sayed Hegab and Lebanese poet Talal Haydar. But their underlining statement remains the same, explains Jubran: "Just by making music under occupation, you are making politics, even if you don't say that," she reflects. "We still have the same human message, our new songs are variations on the same theme. We are looking for a better life -- just as everyone else. We still haven't lived. We're still looking forward to something else."

"Salli Alli" (Praise Him), the song written by "beloved poet" Sayed Hegab clearly states this universal message. "Praise him whom your heart does love, you'd see your life smiling/ And nurse your heart from what ails it, what played in it, and praise him.../ I wish to sing for my son but the time of my singing still hasn't come.../ The night will fade and praise him.../O such ecstasy, praise him." In Egyptian 'ammiya it has a beat that echoes the pounding heart, and the oud sounded hurt as it touched a raw nerve; one almost expected the hall to let out a collective moan. Instead they clapped -- again and again.

It is very difficult making art, indeed making any living, under occupation. The group have to do everything from A to Z because of the lack of supporting networks and infrastructure. "You have to be very stubborn and to believe in your message, to insist to do something that is practically impossible."

Culture has not always been the first priority of a nation under occupation. With the Palestinian Authority there were attempts towards the building of infrastructure and institutions. Sabreen have built their own recording studio, a much-indeed addition to Jerusalem's Palestinian music scene. And they produce music for films and plays and other artists. But where is this going now? And then there is the security issue.

"We live in chaos now," she says bluntly. "It is just not safe." How can one sing in a concert when one doesn't feel safe enough to stand on stage?

"I feel sad," Kamilya tells me, almost apologetically. When she looks back on 20 years of hard work, work against all odds, she's not sure what will remain. They've produced so little and it is difficult to build on what one has achieved given all the constraints, difficult to build bridges with newer generations. "And one has aged," although looking at her, seeing her childishly skipping about the place, seeing the twinkling naughtiness in her eyes, you wouldn't guess it.

And - despite all the odds - she remains of the "sabreen."