ONE Magazine

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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

Rock and Roll in Bethlehem

Al-Baraem, a Palestinian musical group, aims to spread its fresh sound throughout the Middle East.

Because of its recent, troubled history, Palestine is not perhaps where you would expect to find music flourishing. With little to celebrate, little leisure in which to create and little money with which to buy the necessary equipment, Palestinian musicians do not have an easy life. But you only have to meet the enthusiastic and articulate young men and women who form the musical group Al-Baraem to see that out of such an unpromising setting a new music has been born.

Al-Baraem, in Arabic, means “the opening of a new flower.” As the band explains, however, the image also conjures up the continuing process of the birth of new life, whether of a flower, a child, a season or a new outlook on life. As Palestinians seek statehood amid all the uncertainties, the band hopes this image is appropriate:

“This name was chosen because we feel it describes a newness and freshness we try to convey through our music,” the musicians say.

Most of the group had been in bands for many years, playing at festivals, weddings and parties, when, seeking something more out of their music, they came together to form a new group in 1985.

Al-Baraem’s goal was ambitious: to develop musical activities in the direction of establishing an independent Palestinian culture. All were committed to the highest standards in words and music, producing original material that would draw on the best of native Palestinian Musical and literary traditions.

By 1987 they had gained a name throughout the Occupied Territories but, during the intifada, public celebrations like concerts came to an end. Al-Baraem used this time of enforced silence well: they prepared and recorded their first album, “Fulfillment of the Promise,” which was released in 1991.

Although the group’s songs are not specifically religious, the members take pride in their Christian faith.

As Rana Soudah, one of the singers, recounts proudly, “The group is ecumenical, with members of the Armenian, Coptic, Greek Orthodox, Latin, Protestant and Syrian Churches. We work well together, and are an example for all Christianity.”

“Our work is not directly religious, but anything that serves humanity is religious,” says Bashir Akkawi, the drummer and prime mover behind the band.

Maher Turjman, who composes, sings and plays a traditional instrument, the oud, agrees. “It is important that there is a Christian contribution to Palestinian culture. We are always part of the Palestinian community – as Christians. We have no fear, however, about showing our Christian identity.”

But Al-Baraem does not direct its music to an exclusively Christian audience.

Bashir explains: “Our music is not just for Palestinian Christians. The songs of life under occupation are not just about Christians, but about Palestinians, both Christian and Muslim.”

Maher adds: “The group will always be open to non-Christian members.”

The current musical tastes of young Palestinians include not only contemporary Western music but also Arabic pop music from neighboring states, especially Egypt.

“There is only one theme to this music,” Bashir emphasizes, “and that’s love.”

Al-Baraem has been trying to raise the level of public awareness with songs that are more challenging and original – and more relevant.

“We try to create music that is close to the pulse of our life,” Bashir continued.

The group provides an authentic blend of traditional Palestinian sounds with more modem instruments and rhythms.

The creative process is long. The group takes work by leading Palestinian poets and, after a process of assimilation, adds the music.

“Each person takes the lyrics and starts to live them,” explains Bashir. They also look for songwriters for new lyrics.

“We talk to writers who put together the lyrics. We have to think [about] what we want to sing.”

Just recently, several members of the group have begun to write their own lyrics. Maher, for example, has written a song about his home city of Jerusalem.

“It should be a city of peace, open to all,” he says.

“The main goal for us Palestinians is Jerusalem,” explains Bashir. “It is very important for Christians, Muslims and Jews.”

Al-Baraem has played for all kinds of audiences, Palestinian, Israeli and foreign. The group maintains contact with non-Palestinian groups in Israel that support peace. Al-Baraem has taken part in music festivals in Gaffe with bands from Israel and Egypt.

Music and culture, they firmly believe, can build “bridges of understanding” between people of different countries.

“If we don’t know each other well, how can we understand each other?” asks Rana.

The high point for Al-Baraem came when they were invited play at the Oslo Peace Concert, held in 1994 to mark the first anniversary of the Oslo Accord between Israel and the PLO.

Bashir admits that the financial side of the band is “very complicated” One problem is that while they would like to sell their cassettes for 10 shekels (about three dollars) the average price of a music cassette in the market is five shekels; they must follow suit.

“People are used to getting cheap cassettes,” says Bashir.

Also, pirated tapes are common. Thus, sales revenue is not sufficient to accrue money to invest in equipment. All the members of the band support themselves by full-time jobs. Bashir has a bakery, while Rana works in a Jerusalem travel agency.

Studio time is very expensive and so far the mixing has had to be done by Israeli firms in Tel Aviv. But the group has been able to build its own eight-track recording studio in a rented apartment on the edge of Bethlehem, helped by a grant from CNEWA-PMP. Here they can rehearse and record their songs undisturbed, without the cost clocking up for every hour they spend. It is here that their second album of songs, “The Bride of the Waves,” was recorded.

Maher sees the agency’s support as a vital link and inspiration for Al-Baraem:

“They encourage us to compose and to be creative.”

The group has plans to expand their work; they even have a three-year development plan. To promote their songs they would like to record videos that, unlike pop videos for other local bands, would add something to the music. They would also like to create their own website on the Internet.

But, despite these grand plans, they are realistic. Their focus at the moment is on bringing out their next album which, for the first time, will be available on compact disk.

Felix Corley is a London-based journalist.

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