For a performer of such rich and diverse talent-accomplished in composition, song, and numerous instruments-there has often been a sense of Basel Zayed’s music seeking to blend in rather than stand out. For years, his association with the Turab group (meaning “soil”) had allowed him to compose his bewitching melodies in the background while his colleagues took centre stage.
Yet with this release, under his own title, Zayed draws hauntingly personal pictures of his troubled home city. Familiar themes of political oppression, loss and yearning form the backdrop, but the artist keeps his sound fresh by encompassing a range of styles.
Since early childhood Zayed has paid homage to Arabic traditions with the prominent use of oud and bazouq in his music. He has often used the cultural reference points of noted Arab poets such as Mahmoud Darwish. Yet these have never come at the cost of more exotic aspects, and In Jerusalem is no exception, featuring numerous displays of foreign influence. The French-style accordion of “Rah El Fada” delivers the atmosphere of a Parisian bistro, while “Halwa’t” owes a debt to Southeast Asia for its subtle and steady percussion.
At times the sound grows mournful, most strikingly with the troubled strings of “Yalli Hajartu.” But Zayed never allows one mood to linger too long, so the same track recovers its zeal through a sprinkle of magic from the keyboard. Throughout the album, tonal shifts are introduced gracefully and unpredictably to keep the listener involved at all times, leading them through the broad highways and narrow alleys of the artist’s vision.
Musically, there is ample evidence of Zayed’s belief in the importance of this album, but his desire to communicate his impressions of Jerusalem also takes a more physical form. He is an active member of the Faisal Husseini Foundation, which promotes enduring Palestinian identity in the Holy City through community education and other initiatives. Zayed is putting his money where his mouth is by donating sales proceeds to the Foundation’s valuable work.
To Zayed’s numerous admirers, this commitment to community is what distinguishes him from more egocentric performers. Even as his gifts bought him great renown, he still finds the time to share his talent. The students of Bir Zeit University and the First Ramallah Group of Music are among those who have benefitted from his teaching. It is a sign of Zayed’s down-to-earth values that this album was not launched at a glitzy nightclub, but at the Friends School Ramallah.
Few performers have made the balance of high-class entertainment and social responsibilities appear so natural. In Jerusalem represents an opportunity to experience sophisticated musical pleasure while supporting one of Palestine’s most worthwhile and patriotic causes. Either should be reason enough, but the two combined make this album an essential addition to your collection.