By Louis Brehony
One of Palestine’s most loved singers Shafik Kabha was gunned down on his way home from singing at a wedding in Umm al Fahm, Galilee on 22 October. He was aged 53. Shafik was famous for his staunch support for the Palestinian cause, which he bravely upheld as a ’48 Palestinian, forced to live under the apartheid rule of the Israeli state. His musical approach was diverse, modern and highly skillful. He refused to let obstacles stand in his way and sang anthems for a free Palestine wherever he went.
Shafik Taqfiq Kahba was born on 24 September 1960 in the Arab town of Kafr Qara, 20 miles south of the city of Haifa. Following the tradition of many of the most technically gifted Arab singers including Umm Kalthoum, Shafik learned to recite the Quran as a youngster. He joined his first band at the age of 16 and his popularity grew rapidly. He performed at weddings and gained a reputation for exhilarating performances. He produced more than 10 records, all of them well known, with over 100 of his live shows being circulated on cassette. Shafik has been hailed by some as a truly ‘pan-Palestine’ singer, with huge popularity in Gaza, the West Bank and Galilee.
Musically, Shafik walked the line between tradition and Western-influenced modernity, often using keyboards, guitars and drums in new arrangements of traditional Middle Eastern songs. Over the decades that followed the nakba of 1948, Palestinian singers have taken these songs on as anthems representing national aspirations for independence and return. Shafik sang updated versions of songs such as Zareef el Tool (Tall Handsome Man), which pleads with the traveler to come back to his homeland. The new style of mijwiz music (named after a reed pipe of the same name) combined intense, decorative keyboard playing with a style of singing strongly influenced by the folk voices of the region. Shafik’s singing style drew comparisons with popular Iraqi singers like Nazem al Ghazaly, yet his message was distinctly Palestinian. He sang, “Freedom is ours, we will gain it… Palestine, call on the lovers to come back to your pure land.” Palestinian ‘ud player Nizar Rohana told me that, Shafik “was an icon for many Palestinians and played an important role in preserving and disseminating Palestinian folk tunes.”
As other Palestinian musicians have found, the preservation of an oppressed culture is a political act. As the son of a Palestinian family who remained in Galilee after 1948, Shafik faced the stigma of being labeled an ‘Arab Israeli.’ Family friend Sana Fayez relates how Shafik “was arrested by the Israelis because he sang for a Palestinian state and for fedaeen (armed resistance).” Israel banned him from performing in the West Bank for 10 years, due to the fiery revolutionary nationalism of his songs. But his status as an Israeli citizen meant that he also faced a obstacles to performing in Jordan and Egypt, countries whose past boycott of Israel included boycotting the Palestinians who have little choice but to hold Israeli passports. During the first Intifada in the late 1980s, Shafik was banned from Egypt and sent home by the authorities. The irony is that these countries have frequently defended Israel, particularly with Egyptian collaboration in the blockade of Gaza.
Shafik dealt with the political maneuverings of Israel and its allies with a sharp tongue and witty sense of humor. He called Western-backed Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak “the only politician that respects international law – he respects the agreements he signed with his beloved Israel.”
Despite the huge obstacles that stood in his way, Shafik never gave up his positive message of independence, singing songs of love and politics. He could sing of the warmth of marriage but also of the “cold hands” of the Israeli occupation of the Golan Heights, and saluted the people of Gaza for their courageous struggle.
The late singer’s passing has brought tributes from across the musical spectrum. Tamer Nafar of the rap group DAM said the tragedy was “one of the saddest things I have ever heard.” Said Murad, founder of the Palestinian band Sabreen said that, “Some people are creators and it is their mission to bring new things to life. And some others keep alive our traditions and history. Shafik was one of those who kept our soul alive.” Composer and ‘ud played Issa Boulos paid his respects to a “great artist who departed well before his time. Despite the fact that his contributions and versatility mark the history and evolution of Palestinian music and song in such a profound way, Shafik had still a great deal more to offer and his passing is a huge loss. Shafik meant a great deal to me, I loved his voice and his commitment to the various genres and styles he presented and mastered… His vocal ability was superb and his deep understanding of traditional genres, dialects, and tonalities show how this master travelled with his voice to show how “song” can transform communities and influence how people think and perceive art. He will be missed, though will remain alive as a major point of reference well after his passing.”
Just hours after singing at a wedding in Umm al Fahm, Shafik was shot four times by unidentified assailants riding motorcycles, apparently taking him by surprise at the town’s intersection before speeding away from the scene. He was taken to a local medical center in a critical condition but was pronounced dead soon after. He leaves behind a wife and four children and is described as a warm man who had a good relationship with all he knew. According to his daughter Faten, Shafik was a tireless performer, playing 250 shows a year and earning his reputation as the “guardian of the heritage and folklore of Palestine.”
[All of the quotes from musicians in this article were given directly to the author.]
– Louis Brehony is a musician and activist from Manchester, Britain. He is currently planning research for a book on Palestinian music.