Articles & Media

"Finishing a musical odyssey alone"

by Olivia Snaije
The Daily Star regional Arts & Culture
June 23, 2004

After 20 years with the Palestinian group Sabreen, Kamiliya Jubran goes solo

PARIS: Big cities absorb people and afford them anonymity. As a temporary resident of the hilly Belleville neighborhood in Paris, Kamilya Jubran, one of the most lyrical voices in Middle Eastern music, lives in self-imposed exile.

The Palestinian musician and singer, born in Acre in 1963 and raised in upper Galilee, Israel, says she needed distance in order to "think, to go deeper, to ask myself questions."

For 20 years Kamilya Jubran was lead singer with the innovative Palestinian group Sabreen, based in occupied East Jerusalem. When she was offered an artist's residence in Berne, Switzerland, she took the plunge and moved to Europe. Jubran has managed to extend a two month stay into two years shuttling between Berne and Paris. One senses that coupled with loneliness, there is much productive activity going on.

She grew up in a musical family, singing a classical Arabic repertory and playing the oud and qanoon. Her father is one of the most skilled oud makers in the region and entirely self-taught. Her brother, Khaled, is one of Palestine's best known oud and buzuk players currently in Palestine. In high school Jubran began listening to the newly emerging politicized songs by Marcel Khalife, Ahmed Qaaboor and Al-Sheikh Iman. These became catalysts for years of reflection and introspection. She began to dissect the reality of being an Arab-Israeli - Palestinians caught between post-1948 Israeli sovereignty and the threat of losing their identity.

"Living in a Palestinian village in Israel, segregated yet part of the system, you're not growing up in a Palestinian context. My parents' generation was still under the shock of the new situation they were living in but they didn't have the words to tell us about what happened. We just knew they were unhappy and angry," Jubran says in an interview in Paris.

When Jubran moved to Jerusalem in 1981 to study social work at the Hebrew University she encountered "my heritage, my history and my own identity," which had been absent in her village.

Her musical creativity and her constant questioning were a search "for what is real, truthful and related to my present life ... I wanted a 'resistance' song coming out of me."

Through her brother Khaled, Jubran met Said Murad who founded Sabreen (The Patient Ones). She joined the group in 1982, the only Palestinian member born in Israel, and Sabreen worked toward finding a balance between their political engagement and a new form of music.

"We were very conscious of our words but music always played a role as important as our identity. We tried to combine the two, presenting a modern identity and culture with a new musical point of view," she says.

Sabreen's music blends traditional instruments like the kawal, oud, qanoon, buzuq and hand drums with modern classical instruments; the contrabass, cello and violin. Together with carefully chosen lyrics, the result is rich, experimental music.

Through word of mouth and limited professional contacts the group became immensely popular and managed regularly to tour the United States, Europe and North Africa, a tremendous feat given their situation. Notwithstanding the overwhelming amount of red tape Sabreen had to go through to get permission to leave Israel, Jubran has had to deal with a personal sense of distress and loss caused by the travel restrictions her Israeli passport imposes on her. (The only Arab countries in the region that have signed a peace agreement with Israel are Jordan and Egypt).

"I can't perform in any other Arab country in the area and this is of course my direct public," she says. "Sabreen has performed more in Europe and other countries. Of course this is important but we try to share our experience with people in the Arab world, connected to our culture. It's very difficult to keep this exchange open without direct contact."

Jubran made four CDs with Sabreen, each produced at specific political junctures. Their first album, "Dukhan al-Barakin" (Smoke of Volcanoes) was released in the early 1980s, coinciding with the Israeli invasion of Lebanon and the Sabra and Shatila massacres. The group set to music poems written by Palestinian poets including Mahmoud Darwish and Samih al-Qassem.

"Mawt al-Nabi" (Death of the Prophet) was made during a particularly introspective period before the first Intifada, focusing on everyday life under Israeli occupation.

"Jayy al-Hamam" (Here Come the Doves), released in 1994, was upbeat, in keeping with the hope fostered by the now defunct Oslo peace process.

The fourth CD, "Ala Fein" (Where to?) released in 2000, uses poems by Talal Haidar (Lebanon), Sayyed Hegab (Egypt) and the late Fadwa Tuqan (Palestine). They convey a sense of deep nostalgia.

"Throughout the four albums you can see a shift happening. Our research on music became deeper, the words more transparent and symbolic. We avoided slogans and chose words that had real content, talking about the different emotions human beings can have in these situations," Jubran says.

Finding creative energy in an impossible context and converting it into something concrete is a daily inner battle which Sabreen and now Jubran in Paris have had to confront.

"Politics have always been a part of my life. ... I was born in this context and can't get away from it. Sometimes we're fed up because we are seen only as objects living in a certain situation but these objects are people too. And then sometimes the situation is so full of human engagement that there is a positive side to it as well."

Jubran is currently involved in researching texts and poems (by Lebanese Paul Shaoul, Jordanian Sawsan Darwaza and Greek Dimitri Analis among others) which describe how "absolute yet paradoxical our lives are today. Where are we going and what is happening to humanity?"

She has used these texts in a body of work developed with Werner Hasler, a Swiss musician who composes electronic music. Jubran describes "Wameedd" (Sparkle), soon to be released in Paris, as a relationship between poetry and music but also an interplay between European electronic music and a more classical Arabic sound.

"Electronic music gives me a freedom of expression I haven't always found in acoustic instruments. I'm not saying electronic music is my destiny, but it's an experiment."

Jubran's relentless musical research was represented in "Mahattaat," (Phases) developed just before "Wameedd," for a festival in Berne on modern Arab culture. "Mahattaat" was a visual/musical performance in which Jubran presented the three major musical phases of her life. The first, her childhood and the classical Arabic stage, the second, her work with Sabreen, which she calls the questioning period of her life, and the third, her current period of experimentation, still questioning, but this time alone.

Besides performing "Wameedd," Jubran will be going solo in a series of concerts in which she plays the oud and sings her own compositions.

"It's a big change going from playing with a group to being alone. I'm heading toward minimalism. I don't need a lot of notes anymore; there are different ways to put them together. I don't like a lot of noise."