Still singing after 50 years
The Jerusalem Chorus
By Adah Kay
On May 18th and 19th, the Jerusalem Chorus celebrates its 50th anniversary with two concerts, at St George’s Cathedral in Jerusalem where it first performed in 1956 and in Ramallah, now its base, at the Ramallah Cultural Palace. The choir will be joined by some members of the Choir of London and musicians from the Edward Said National Conservatory of Music. These locations and the participating performers say much about the ethos and history of this unique Palestinian institution. In autumn 2002 I attended my first choir rehearsal. At one end of a school hall a group of Palestinians and internationals of all ages sat facing their conductor, a tiny sparkling woman with a zimmer frame next to her. After warm ‘ahlan wa sahlan’ and enquiries about what ‘voice’ I sang, the pianist Nadia Aboushi clapped her hands and we launched into ‘la, la, la’ up the scales. Scores of Mozart’s Coronation Mass were handed round and Salwa Tabri, the conductor coaxed us through it. When the sopranos faltered she chided, “You sound like strangled chickens" to peals of laughter. The sometimes unruly affair conducted in Arabic and English was punctuated by jokes. The choir now rehearses in the new concert hall of the Edward Said National Conservatory of Music. We miss Salwa who because of ill health stays temporarily in a nursing home in a village outside Ramallah. But we have formed a committee to organise the two concerts and Nadia is our substitute conductor. Resourcefulness, flexibility, a shoe string budget and persistence characterise the choir’s chequered life, which is inextricably bound up with the changing political context. For its Palestinian members, the choir is an expression of ‘Sumoud,’ staying here and carrying on in abnormal circumstances. Its 50-year-survival is a remarkable achievement.
The choir was originally founded in 1955 to widen appreciation and performance of classical music in Palestine and until 1967 members could travel easily between Ramallah, Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Hebron. By the early 1960s, it was rehearsing and performing a range of liturgical and secular classical music at Easter and Christmas in St George’s Cathedral in Jerusalem - hence its name. For some years it also performed at Easter in Amman, Jordan. The last of these concerts was in May 1976. One of the choir’s founders and still a leading member, Gabi Baramki, recalls, “We sang for a community that had never experienced such performances. We had our own following, including many from foreign consulates." Following the 1967 Israeli occupation which rocked Palestinian society at all levels, rehearsals stopped for one year but soon after the choir regrouped with support from the Jerusalem YMCA. In 1972 Salwa joined as conductor and Nadia as pianist. Both later helped establish the National Conservatory of Music in Ramallah in 1993, now named after Edward Said. The choir stopped again for five years, from 1987-92 during the 1st Intifada whose first year saw schools closed for six months, Israeli soldiers on the streets and constant curfews. From 1991 mobility restrictions started as Israel began introducing a policy of ‘closure,’ with a ‘pass’ system of permits to control Palestinian movement in and out of Israel and within the occupied Palestinian territories. Undaunted, the choir started rehearsing again in 1992, first in Ramallah and then after the first Oslo Accords were signed in 1993, in Jerusalem. These were the years of so-called ‘peace’ and ‘benign’ occupation. Each week the choir travelled by hired van to Jerusalem, members from Hebron and Bethlehem returned and more internationals joined. But precisely during this period closure policies intensified and Palestinian population centres were increasingly separated by more army checkpoints, illegal Israeli settlements and a vast network of Israeli highways. The choir wanted to break this isolation through its performances. Frustrations with the Oslo process, deteriorating economic conditions and the harshening control of the occupation led to the 2nd Intifada in September 2000 and again the shrunken choir retreated to Ramallah. Until 2004 it only performed once outside Ramallah in December 2001, in a church in Beit Jala that had been shelled. Members recall the risky journey with internationals packing the front of the bus. Everyone erupted into Handel’s Hallelujah as they passed the checkpoint. When the Israelis prevented the choir from performing in Bethlehem in December 2002, we sang secular songs of protest in the teeming rain and mud at the Qalandia checkpoint. Commitment to the choir remains high. However busy, members attend rehearsals even under curfew and during violent incursions. The choir is an active, open social network with members ranging in age from their 20s to their 70s. This mix is reflected in its audience. Internationals have always played an important role as many have a background in classical music. In December 2004, 25 members of the Choir of London and 15 of its orchestra sang with us to a packed audience at the Ramallah Cultural Palace. The biannual concerts always include one or two national songs in Arabic, as well instrumental pieces of a high quality. The music often has a particular resonance. Salwa remembers, “We sang Haydn’s ‘In Time of War’ at my first concert during the October 1973 Israeli-Egyptian war - so appropriate." In May, we sing this and many other pieces we have sung over the past 50 years. Come and hear for yourselves.
Adah Kay, an Englishwoman living in Ramallah, has been singing with the Jerusalem Chorus since 2002.