Posted on: 2011
Despite the precariousness of the peace that exists in the region, the last fifteen years have seen music in Palestine rise from being the sound of struggle to a celebration of emerging statehood. And, as Palestinian music reaches a wider audience internationally, it is still as much a statement of national identity as ever.
Rural Songs: Dabke and Qawwali
Although the great city ports of Jaffa and Haifa were already sizeable commercial centres in the first half of the twentieth century, most Palestinians were rural people who had either settled to become felahin (farmers), or who still pursued a nomadic, Bedouin lifestyle. Besides the functional songs of the felahin, there were also epic songs about old heroes and legends sung by itinerant storytellers or improvisers – zajaleen. The most important occasions for music and merrymaking were weddings and their associated feasts. The dances were collectively known as dabke, which literally means “foot-tapping”.
The singers who practise the art of the qawwali or zajal engage in a kind of musical debate, each participant often representing one of the families at a wedding. These punning, rapping, word-tussling sessions were always sung rather than merely recited.
Songs of Partition
The tumultuous events of the late 1940s which led to the partition of Palestine and the creation of Israel in 1948 did not destroy the culture of the felahin. Both the many thousands of Palestinians who fled to the refugee camps, and the Arabs who stayed behind and continued to live in the new state of Israel, clung tenaciously to their heritage. In the new climate of fear, anger and alienation, the gist of the improvised lyrics began to reveal a harder edge: the newly dispossessed sang about the power of the gun and the dream of nationhood, heroes and martyrs of the struggle were lauded in popular song.
The first singer to score a hit with a collection of essentially Palestinian songs was Mustafa al-Kurd in the early 1970s. Among the most renowned pop acts of the 1980s was Al-Ashiqeen, and later Sabreen became the most internationally successful Palestinian group.