Monday, November 26, 2007

The voice of Palestine

Reem Kelani filled Sheffield's Memorial Hall on 17 October, with her presence, her music and her voice that ranged further than the hills of Palestine and the Mediterranean sea bordering the Gaza Strip. Her band of top class jazz musicians, renowned in their own right, provided vibrant improvisation to support her voice and the adaptation of traditional Arabic rhythms and melodies to modern interpretations of classical Arabic poetry and songs.

Reem has collected traditional folk songs from Palestinian women around the world. The women she has met have inspired her to sing, to portray their struggle through the celebration of Palestinian musical heritage. She told the story of how she learnt a wedding song in the bedroom of a Palestinian woman in a Syrian refugee camp - how that woman had held onto her songs and memories despite having left her land over 60 years ago.

Her passion for the voice of women through song echoes the tribulations of Palestinian life through the centuries through to the modern day. It belies the propaganda which denies the Palestinians their past and their culture. It belies the notion that Palestinian women (or any Arab women) are not a central element of creating and maintaining the strong sense of Palestinian life, culture and society which has enabled them to carry on their national struggle.

As Reem explains: 'I care about the land, but without Palestinian culture it's meaningless. Turning my nation into refugees has meant that we have lost, and continue to lose, our cultural heritage, but what is worse is Israeli cultural appropriation. We can't access many of the manuscripts of our poets and musicians because they are held by the Israeli government, and you need a permit to visit the archives.'

Born in Manchester, raised in Kuwait and now living in London, Reem has worked to bring Arab and Non-Arab musical traditions together. Her use of a jazz section as a backing band, allows her the flexibility of improvisations whilst she maintains the conventions of classical Arabic singing. The power of her voice to ring clear on the lowest softest notes through to ululating during a wedding song, and threatening to break the windows in the hall, captivated the audience.

With the sublime accompaniment of Zoe Rahman on piano, Samy Bashai on violin, Ian East on saxophones & flute, Patrick Illingworth on drums and Oli Hayhurst on double bass, Reem sang wedding songs, songs of return, of labourers and of the harvest. She had adapted traditional and modern poetry into song. Her poignant rendition of Mahmoud Salim al-Hout’s poem, Yafa, left the audience holding its breath as the last note rang out across the concert hall. It tells of the poet having to flee his home when Israel was established, how he walked away never to return.

Reem explains to the non-Arabic speakers, the meanings and sometimes the literal translation of the lyrics, and why and where they were sung. One song that dates back to the Ottoman period (14th – 19th century) tells of a woman wishing her husband soldier to return safely.

Reem was able to convey the Palestinian woman's soul and the Palestinians’ claim to identity and rights far more effectively than weeks of leafleting streets or holding vigils and marches. There were no need for slogans, no need to push the message home, the beauty of her voice, her presence and of the women who have sung the songs over centuries was captured for us in that concert in Sheffield.

The concert was jointly organised by Yorkshire Palestine Cultural Exchange, Sheffield Palestine Solidarity Campaign and concert4palestine, as a fund-raiser for children’s projects in Gaza Strip. For more information, see

Reem Kelani’s 2006 album, Sprinting Gazelle is available via her website: , priced £14.99

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