By Louis Brehony
The speakers rumble with the sound of a synthesized air raid siren and a crowd ducks down for cover, a look of dramatic trepidation on the faces of the audience. The atmosphere is electric. Nobody predicted this. This isn’t a village near the Gaza border, waiting anxiously for the next Israeli attack. This is Manchester, England, and 47Soul are mid-way through their debut performance in the city. Adjusting his glasses, vocalist Walaa Sbeit stares intently into the distance. The associations are clear. But what follows is a raucous, defiant subversion of the harsh reality faced in occupied Palestine. The band erupts into a song that sounds like Kingston dancehall resurrected at Jerusalem wedding. The lyrics appeal to a different kind of international community: “I don’t care where you’re from!” To the sounds of defiant celebration, the crowd jumps to its feet. Five days later on 17 June these scenes are repeated on a grander scale at the band’s ‘Shamstep’ EP launch at London’s Jazz Cafe.
Rewind just a few years and the multi-talented musicians that came to form 47Soul are geographically scattered in ways that define Palestinian existence in its not-yet-post-colonial phase. Almost exactly one year ago on 10 June 2014, Walaa was one of several activists arrested by the Israeli Lands Administration during direct action to reclaim his family’s historical Palestinian village of Iqrit, near to the Lebanon border. Walaa’s musical and cultural existence was no mere coincidence to his designation as an ‘Arab Israeli’, or as he maintains, an ‘internal refugee.’ Like many Palestinian youths he learned folkloric songs and developed his skills at debke dancing, but later took a less conventional route, spending four years studying in the US, meanwhile forging a connection with Afro-American cultures including hip-hop and reggae. Walaa patented the glue that brought the band together.
Rapper and multi-instrumentalist El Far3i (Tareq Abu Kwaik) had been making a name for himself in Amman, Jordan, with a poetic style of singing and rapping over ‘desert guitar.’ Keyboardist ‘Z the People’, grew up in a Palestinian family in Washington DC on a diet of gospel music. The Youtube video for ‘Don’t Want Your Life’, a collaboration between Z the People and El Far3i captures the spirit of musical experimentation and political vitality that was at the heart of this project. Z’s soul-inflected ad lib melody says, “I don’t want your laws if your laws ain’t principled.” El Far3i raps back: “The story is as follows: It’s an imperialist world; A quick solution to a capitalist system? You’re delusional.” In a time when formerly cutting-edge artforms have been commercialized and stripped of their implicit threat to the system, these musicians began to breathe new life into them. And add a great deal more.
To their ranks they added El Jehaz (Hamza Arnaout), who had been working as a guitarist and producer in Amman with Jordanian band Autostrad, and drummer Rami Nakhlee from Israeli-occupied Golan in southwest Syria. They met up in Amman in 2013 and due to the difficulties of negotiating border crossings, only had three rehearsals together before their first gig in Jordan. Despite the difficulties of getting together, they used the forced condition of diaspora to unite and perform, coming together across continents to fuse the celebration dance musics of their Shami (Palestine, Lebanon, Jordan, Syria – Bilad el Sham) heritage. The crowd response to their Amman performance was wildly enthusiastic. “We planted a seed”, says Walaa. Soon after, they went to London to make it grow. With only their second gig, “We got on stage to see people from around the world dancing dabke.”
Any one of these musicians had the talent to be a star in his own right. But they chose to uphold the power of a collective project with a commitment to Palestine. Despite their electro-acoustic, multi-angled take on music, there is something deeply traditional, almost conservational about what 47Soul came to perform. On meeting Z the People, Walaa recalls, “He said, ‘I’m looking for the mijwiz.’ So I said, ‘you’ve arrived brother!’” The mijwiz, the reed pipe from bilad el Sham, acts as the ‘master of ceremony’ in traditional Palestinian wedding ceremonies. Hamza echoes the experience of many when he says, “this is the wedding and celebration music that I grew up around.” When I interviewed Tamer Nafar from Palestinian rap group DAM, he was insistent that hip-hop was his main musical interest, but admitted that he had to have traditional music at his wedding!
The history of Palestinian music walks a creative tightrope between maintaining and breaking traditions. From artists as diverse as protest singers Abu Arab or al Ashiqeen, to jazz-influenced settings of national poetry from Basel Zayed or Reem Kelani, or commercialized Arab neo-pop (a direction Arab Idol winner Mohammed Assaf seems to be taking), all show that the Palestinian situation has only served to nourish creative and often revolutionary music making. The revolution has the potential to be social and political as well as musical. With 47Soul, says Walaa, “We are challenging all the passports and all the visas.”
They are also challenging the idea of performance in today’s increasingly unstable, increasingly bi-polar world. Shamstep, the band’s first EP, was released on 17 June and defies the logic I assumed when I saw them in concert: how will they make this zany, energetic, essentially live music work on a recording? But the truth is, it works! In five short tracks spanning less than 25 minutes, 47Soul show us what they mean by shamstep as their invented genre. The mijwiz-inspired analogue synths are in fact nothing new – the late, great vocalist Shafik Kabha and the now US-based Ibrahim Sbehat were pioneers – but with 47Soul tracks like Everyland, this electronic evocation of the rural Palestinian tradition bounces off Arabic and English lyrics set to reggae beats, hip-hop and conscious lyricisms. Palestinian music continues to be revolutionary. 47Soul demands freedom. Their next battle will be against a European music industry that runs a mile at the sound of the ‘P word.’ Lets fight their corner with them and support their cause!
Download 47Soul’s ‘Shamstep’ EP at http://www.indiepush.com/album/shamstep
– Louis Brehony contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.