Gilad Atzmon: Jazz and Resistance Unite for Palestine

By Mamoon Alabbasi

LONDON – Britain’s Respect party organized Monday a ‘night of live music and spoken words’ in London, where giant Israeli-born jazz artist Gilad Atzmon and jazz author Martin Smith coordinated to perform a spectacular show entitled ‘Jazz, Racism and Resistance.’

The show was meant to symbolize the strong link between jazz music and the struggle for justice, whether present in the civil rights movement’s fight against segregation or in the current fight for the rights of the Palestinian people.

The evening started by an introductory speech on the background to the civil rights movement in the United States, given by Martin Smith, author of John Coltrane: Jazz, Racism and Resistance.

With pictures of the suffering that the Black community had to undergo in the American south projected in the background, Smith gave shocking examples of the inhumanity of racism during that era, explaining the rise of the civil rights’ campaign with the parallel development of jazz music.

After highlighting the exceptional legacy of the jazz musician Coltrane, and reciting poetry to the background of Atzmon’s soft tunes, Smith concluded by arguing that jazz has always carried an encoded message – which is demanding respect and justice – and continues to carry that message regardless of time and space.

Atzmon took the floor with the words, “My personal Alabama is Palestine,” in a comparison between the struggle of the African American community during their suffering that included torture and lynching and the not so different treatment (if not much worse) that the people of Palestine have to endure under Israeli occupation.

His first song, entitled “Liberating the American People,” accordingly dedicated to the Americans, captured the full attention of a breathless audience that could not help but strongly applaud the mixture of the beauty of the music with the energy-draining effort to produce such a moving piece.

Also during his performance, there was a display of pictures portraying Palestinian women and children in distress amid the rubble of destroyed houses, as well as pictures of jazz artists, signaling a united cause that uses jazz to defend all oppressed people.

In an astonishing act of playing two saxophones at the same time, Atzmon reinforces the strong visual presence of his show, in addition to music, whereby his charisma is felt without the need for him to even speak.

After achieving comparatively stunning success and favorable reviews for his albums MusiK and Exile, Atzmon is currently promoting his latest album Artie Fishel and the Promised Band, a mixture of satire and comedy embedded within the music.

Appearing as a guest performer on the show, singer Dafar Yusuf made a vocal contribution during one of Atzmon’s songs.

Yusuf’s strong vocal expressions could be seen as an example of an outcry understood by all humanity; since there was no particular language used other than sounds depicting universally understood suffering.

The presence of Atzmon’s band was also strongly felt during the performance; Whether Frank Harrison playing piano, Yaron Stavi playing bass, or Asaf Sirkis playing drums, the effect of their own music had put them in a state of trance in more than one occasion.

The mood of some of the audience appeared to be in a mixture of pleasure and pain; the sad or angry tones would remind us of the suffering of the Palestinian people (some of which were projected into the background) without undermining the sheer appreciation or enjoyment of that fine music.

Though it is often perceived as a career suicide for artists to mix their work with political views, Atzmon’s indifference to that threat is party based on, in addition to his spirit of sacrifice, the fact that his music will stand the test on its own – beautiful enough to capture the admiration of jazz lovers regardless of their moral conscience.

I dare add that his music could very well charm his political critics, conquering the hearts of the heartless.

On the whole, the general atmosphere of the event could be seen as a successful case of multiculturalism, of some sort.

Over a hundred people packed in the upper floor of Halaliano restaurant where you are received by staff members from Baghdad to Barcelona welcoming you with warm smiles.

Sunk in cozy sofas, Arabs and Israelis unite against injustice and as you overhear foreign accents as well various regional British accents, you no longer distinguish between Jews, Christians, Muslims, or non-believers (in the monolithic faiths) in the human struggle for justice for the people of Palestine.

Scheduled to be present at the event, but could not show up, was popular Respect MP George Galloway, who was held up by a Parliamentary meeting related to the Iraq war.

Being a spearhead champion for justice, his outspoken presence would have added an irreplaceable flavour to the evening.

Present at the show, was prominent writer, editor and activist Ramzy Baroud, who shared Atzmon’s sense of exile.

“I listened to the remarkable musician while wrangling with my own issues; living in exile, cannot return home, a Palestinian without a passport, an American, often demonized for my antiwar stances,” said Baroud.

“For a few hours listening to the music of this man, playing the saxophone, improvising with a wowing mixture of jazz and Middle Eastern tunes, one was able, even for a fleeting moment to come to term with exile and his own out of placeness,” he added.

Baroud concluded, “Atzmon is an extraordinary musician by any standard, but to understand his music even better one must familiarize himself with his writing, his ideas and his life. As idealistic as this may sound, listening to Atzmon made me feel for a moment that a just peace and coexistence in Palestine is possible, very much so.”

As Atzmon and his band made their way out into the street, carrying some of their musical instruments, walking in a humble manner, I could not help but wonder – are they carrying mere musical instruments?

For a minute or two, in my mind, those instruments could have transformed into bows and arrows of Robin Hood and his clan, rifles of freedom fighters fighting for liberation, banners of slogans demanding justice somewhere, crucifixes to redeem the sins of Israel, or just a heavy load that should be on the conscience of humanity.

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