Issue No.
176, December 2012 Latest update 9 2014f August 2014, at 4.39 am
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Akram Abdel Fattah
Ivan Azazian
Nai Barghouti
Donia Jarrar
Bashar Murad
Amir Persekian

Young Palestinian Composers
By Amal Nazek
Six Palestinian youth, with the audacity to defy expectations, dare to pursue music in a society that largely believes that music is just a hobby and never a career. They have come forward with their talents and vision to perform in front of often-hesitant audiences. They have excelled in their musical instruments and have composed songs and music of their own, based on their unique visions, describing their own intimate feelings and what Palestinians experience.

Akram Abdel Fattah
Akram Abdel Fattah, a violinist, composes music that can be best described as storytelling: taking listeners on a journey filled with various beautiful moments from start to finish. Surrounded by a family who loves music, he started to learn rhythms at age seven. Soon after, he started to learn how to play the oud and the violin. He says he inherited the ability to play the oud from his father and uncles who love the instrument. “The oud is as popular as coffee in our family,” he says.

Though he once wanted to become a doctor, he says now that the violin is his true passion. He has mastered both Eastern and Western tunes and describes the violin as an “international, versatile, and very expressive instrument.”

Currently studying music at the Jerusalem Academy of Music, Akram is always busy preparing and taking part in shows. He is most proud of his work in a quartet called Awan, whose eight-song CD is due to come out early in 2013. Akram himself composed five of the songs.

Akram composed his first piece at age 15. Musical sentences just seem to come to him while at home or driving, and he records them on his phone. “My phone is full of voice recordings,” he chuckles.

But a difficult road lies ahead.
Living in Lower Galilee, Akram has extreme difficulties in connecting with other musicians in the Arab world, and even those in Jerusalem and the West Bank. And there are limited places and possibilities for performance in such a small country with a complicated political reality. He believes that contact and sharing of music and ideas are essential for the development and growth of any musician or group.

Akram laments the fact that there is also a lot of suffering inherent in choosing music as a profession. “It’s a big sacrifice, socially, with lots of pressure - people just don’t understand you,” he says.
But despite the difficulties, which he fully recognises and is willing to confront, Akram cannot imagine doing anything else in life. In the future, he would like to study music, probably abroad. He believes his long-term mission is to develop the Palestinian people’s sense of music since it is a fundamental aspect of culture.

“Music is divine,” notes Akram, “and its unique effect on the spirit will always remain a mystery.”

Ivan Azazian
It took Ivan Azazian two weeks to learn the guitar. It’s most likely in his genes. A third-generation musician, the 20-year-old cannot fathom his life without music.

He loves classic rock and other music made popular decades before he was even born. As the lead singer of the local rap-rock band Culturshoc, a six-member group that is popular among young Palestinians, Ivan says: “My dream is to be living in the 70s and 80s. They weren’t obsessed with perfect sounds back then.”

Ivan loves to improvise and break free from the rules. Who doesn’t? But Ivan has the courage to think it and do it. He has composed many songs so far, some in the quiet of his spotless, spacious room decked with pictures of Mozart and Pink Floyd.

“When I’m going through a difficult day, the notes just come out … the day composes the music,” he says. Other songs are composed during practices, though the interaction that takes place among band members makes it difficult to determine who composed them.

Ivan believes that composing has everything to do with feelings, and it is made more beautiful by breaking patterns. His feeling recently, however, has been anger.

“I am an angry guy trying to make music and putting his rage into his music,” he admits. Ivan is angry at the limited opportunities to study and perform music here in Palestine. But his anger is the very thing that fuels his music. “The anger makes my music stronger and gives me the courage to say things straight up,” he notes.

Although he sometimes writes Arabic lyrics, writing in English makes it easier for him to create “subtexts.” He has been experimenting with topics such as hope and breaking free.

Ivan believes it’s important to be classically trained at first. He took three years of solfege and four years of opera at the ESNCM.

With a deep, soothing voice, he sings:
“An empty street I pass with an empty heart and everything is dark and cold, the light is clear, it all appears to me… I had to breathe but the air I’m breathing wasn’t really mine, I’ll succeed with my need, I won’t give it up at all.”

Ivan says he tries to avoid writing directly about the politics of everyday life, preferring instead to talk about its effects on him.

Nai Barghouti
Sixteen-year-old Nai Barghouti started to play the Western concert flute at age six, composing music and singing shortly after. Nai’s name is Arabic for flute. It could be chance or destiny, but Nai firmly believes that she is destined to play the flute in a unique way and to sing songs with her captivating voice.

A year ago, she performed in her own show in Ramallah, Cairo, Haifa, Nazareth, and even Beirut. With only 6 months to prepare, a 14-year-old Nai brought back to life the words of Egyptian icons Umm Kulthum, Riyad al Sunbati, and Fairuz in a show titled Muniyati: My Wish.

“My musical wish,” she says “is that this generation go back to listening to old music … because the artists inserted their spirit into their songs.”

So-called modern music leaves her largely unimpressed.

“A long time ago, lyrics were meaningful. I can’t think of even one song nowadays that has meaningful words or a tune.”

The flute, she explains, is primarily a Western instrument. But devoted to Arabic music as she is, she has found a way of playing Arabic music using quarter tones that are essential in Arabic music, and unfamiliar in Western music.
At age seven, Nai began to compose. She composed three sad songs named after massacres in Palestine, Iraq, and Lebanon: Jenin, Fallujah, and Qana. Tunes “just popped into my head,” she says.

“I didn’t know what death, war, or massacres meant, but I had a sense that people were suffering. I didn’t know why. But I saw how my parents were affected. I felt that there were people my age who were living lives that were more difficult than mine,” she says.

A few years later, Nai started to take interest in jazz and composed a piece called “Mazumata.” “I don’t know what that means,” she says, giggling.

She would later compose “Zigzag Jazz,” music for the flute, piano, and double bass. Her sixth piece is in the making and includes a combination of everything she has learnt so far: Arabic beats, jazz, and classic music, and it includes lyrics and more musical instruments.

Nai’s dream is to study music and jazz flute abroad, most likely the United States, since Palestinian universities do not offer it. Afterwards she plans to return to Palestine to embark on a singing career.

“Singing moves me,” she says. “Whenever I’m singing on stage, I forget everything, and there is just that one moment.”

Donia Jarrar
It all started when she was four. It’s Donia Jarrar’s first memory: The Gulf War had just erupted and Donia’s family are in an Astrovan, fleeing Kuwait and going towards Jordan. Several years later, Donia is living in Jenin, her father’s hometown.

Last year, as part of her master’s degree in music composition at the University of Michigan, Donia composed an entire orchestra piece retelling, in music, her life story. Incorporating poetry into her composition, Donia opened the piece by singing an Arabic poem that she had written. The orchestra, composed of 100 musicians, accompanied her as it held one note in an Arabic-influenced style.

The six-section orchestra piece is deeply personal. It starts out with her early memories, then goes into a family feud, and then on to an “explosion.” “It’s a sound representation of my family fleeing and finding freedom,” she says.

Donia started to take piano lessons at age four and started to compose short melodies for her parents at age six.

She has always loved to improvise. And much of her work involves sitting at the piano and just playing. But composing is hard work that involves not only talent but also knowledge of the deeply intricate system of music theory. “But that’s what makes it good,” she says. “The moment you hear the orchestra playing, you realise that all the hard work was worth it.”
Last year, Donia decided to return to Palestine. She teaches piano and music theory to Palestinian children at Al-Kamanjati and the Edward Said National Conservatory of Music (ESNCM) in Ramallah. She also teaches music for elementary school children in the Qalandia and Jalazon refugee camps.

Working six days a week, she still finds time to compose.

“My work is minimalist and romantic, largely influenced by twentieth-century composers,” she says.

She rec    ently won the Marcel Khalife prize for a piece entitled “Border Crossings” and is working on several exciting projects such as composing a soundtrack for a Kuwaiti movie and publishing her piece “Batn el Hawa,” for a compilation album entitled Project Naqsh, released in November.

She is full of ideas and plans, among them is to do her doctorate in music composition in the near future, which she says would be extremely challenging. She has dreams too.

“My biggest dream is to write a symphony about Palestine,” she says.

Bashar Murad
Bashar Murad loves pop music but incorporates a uniquely Palestinian touch of music and words to the songs he writes. Currently studying in the United States, he was inspired to love and pursue music by his parents.

“Whenever I was feeling sad, angry, happy, or disappointed, music was the first thing I would turn to,” he says. “All my songs portray how I was feeling on a specific day, and I try to be very honest in my music about my identity.”

Bashar started to compose when he was 13, but wrote the first song he was proud of - “Freeze” - at age 15, a song that is on his album, Won’t Be Silent.

Also at age 15, he started to study piano, which helped him learn the basics of music, composition, and singing. Another song he is particularly proud of - “Olive Tree - White Dove” - incorporates the sound of the oud, which “gives the song a whole new feeling,” he says.

“I’m an olive tree, sixty-three years old. Born in war, but always had some hope. Terrified, trying to fix the scars. It’s only me, the guns, the wounds, the stars.”

“I am really interested in pushing boundaries,” he says, “especially in the music in Palestine.”

The busy university student composes and sings in English, but the only time he has to work on his music is during his summer and winter vacations.
For the past year and half he has been working on his first music album, Won’t Be Silent, an impressive work of art. “This album is very important to me because I think it’s very defining of who I am as an artist,” he says. The album is a very personal work that ranges from “silly love songs to songs about Palestine.” Bashar credits his father as being the most supportive person in making the album a reality.

Bashar’s inspiration for composition comes in a variety of forms.

“Usually, a song comes to me as one line that gets stuck in my head,” he says. Once the idea is there, it takes him no more than two sittings to finish a work.

Bashar knows exactly what he wants to do in life: more and more of what he is doing now.

“I dream of writing, performing, and singing for the rest of my life. There is nothing else I want to do.”

Amir Persekian
Amir Persekian never liked “playing by the book,” so after learning the piano as a child, he took up Jazz, which he says gave him the freedom to improvise, as jazz is much more “free and fun to play.”

Hailing from a family of musicians, Amir notes that there was always lots of music around and competition in the air. He cites his father, Jack Persekian, as his biggest supporter and source of inspiration.

Amir also plays the guitar and drums, which have expanded his knowledge of music and allowed him to discover different styles and rhythms that would not work very well on the piano.

He used to play and perform mostly solo until 2010 when he started collaborating with Bashar Murad performing two original songs and two covers in Bethlehem. He would later move on to experiment with incorporating rap music and lyrics into jazz beats on the piano. According to Amir, “both genres give the space for free-styling.” His latest and biggest performance was in Jerusalem in a trio with a drums and harmonica player and Maya Khaldi, a Palestinian singer. They played bossa nova style as well as lounge and cool. “This project was the most demanding one of all,” claims Amir, “but it was also my favourite.”

An improviser in every sense, Amir does not even own a notebook. “I keep all the music in my head,” he admits, as composing comes naturally to him. He improvises and experiments on the piano until he ends up with a set of chords that he likes, a basic melody that is attractive, and a rhythm. But everything depends on his mood, and he can never play a song the exact same way twice.

Amir is currently in the United States studying electrical engineering and specialising in electronics. His dream is to travel around the world and work on tours and festivals, and hopefully bring music festivals and big concerts to Palestine. Unsure if he will take up music as a career, he says: “I will always play piano and keep my passion alive.”

Amal Nazek is a journalist from Jerusalem.

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