INTERVIEW: 'My repertoire is my story' - Palestinian Kamilya Jubran enchants Alexandria

Nourhan Tewfik , Monday 10 Aug 2015

Ahram Online speaks to Palestinian singer, songwriter, and oud player Kamilya Jubran about her career and current projects during her recent visit to Alexandria

Kamilya Jubran
Kamilya Jubran's performance at Bibliotheca Alexandrina on 8 August. (Photo: Butheina Shalan)

The trumpet embraces the electronic music. An array of melodies later, Jubran's voice joins, resilient yet calming. The way she sings soothes the abrupt qualms created by the electronic music. In fact, she masterfully employs short pauses stressing on each word she sings. In doing so, she demands the audience to pay close attention to the lyrics she is bringing to life.

“I step over following the arks of your footsteps
And the enemy’s battalions pass me by escaping in the storm
(who will captivate who in the labyrinth)
I know you sleep in the source of life
That’s why I drink the water of the rivers – maybe it passed by your body
Wrapped in silence I continue walking alone
And I stare at the feelings that have befallen –
And they stare back”

We are at Palestinian singer Kamilya Jubran’s concert as part of this year’s Bibliotheca Alexandrina Summer Festival.

The concert, held on 8 August, featured Jubran on oud and as vocals and Swiss musician Werner Hasler on trumpet and electronic instruments. The duo played a selection of songs from their three collaborations together: Wameed (Gleam), Wanabni (And We Shall Construct, 2010), and Wasl (2013).

“We can call it a process of questioning that is both collaborative and similar. It becomes a way to find a solution that is both analogous and different at the same time,” Jubran, now on stage, introduces her 12-year collaboration with Hasler.

Throughout the night, Jubran and Hasler performed a number of texts by poets like Gubran Khalil Gubran, Aicha Arnaout, Hassan Najmi, Salman Meslaha, amongst others. The political underpinning of Jubran's repertoire was, as always, audaciously present; every song standing out as a form of activism.

The collaboration between Jubran and Hasler immediately exhibits its harmonious character. Hasler is in possession of an inexplicably honed talent; his sheer sensitivity towards the instruments is very palpable. 

The relationship between the electronic music and oud reaches an apex when Jubran pauses the singing, and an oud interlude ensues, complemented with the electronic music. The oud tunes become more grounded, and with much intensity; in as much as the oud embraces the trumpet’s shyness giving it the space to appear contentedly.

But this collaboration - which has a jazzy essence at times - entices a powerful sense of poignancy. The poignancy begins to linger when Jubran employs a technique of repetition of lyrics, her mounting voice and the soaring tune of the trumpet communicating the sense of urgency that characterizes her process of questioning.

This poignant underpinning is also made possible by Jubran’s own approach to her music and how she performs besides what she performs.

On space and movement

But Jubran’s collaborations with western artists go back to her infatuation with movement.

Jubran is a nomad par excellence. Space and movement are two powerful forces that fuel her repertoire.

From Akka where the familiarity with classical Arabic music originates at the hands of her father Elias Jubran (a music aficionado himself who taught music and was an instrument maker), to Jerusalem where for two decades she would sing and play the oud and the qanoun, amongst other instruments as part of Sabreen musical group which encouraged Palestinian resistance; to Europe where she travelled with her first project Mahattaat and embarked on her collaborations with Western artists, thus crocheting her attempts at experimentation.

“Movement is important to me on a personal level, but I was also forced into it somehow. I benefit from this movement, from this space. The space that I give to myself first and also the space that allows me to get to know new things within these different places,” Jubran talks to Ahram Online about her constant yearning for movement.

It is a personal trait that would characterise both the shape and essence of Jubran’s musical project. In Makan (2009), for example, she chose nine contemporary Arabic texts and moulded them into music in an attempt to contemplate the notion of ‘place’.

On her website, Jubran explains that, “while composing, I thought of the beautiful ensemble of tunes and moods from those places where my life began. And, nourished by their ancient roots, I freed them to confront and collide with those of more recent places which have shaped my life.”

“So for those who listen to my music well, they’ll feel that there’s a component of space,” she tells me prior to her concert in Alexandria.

“I do not confine myself, despite the fact that my work is really focused. But it is precisely because I am focused in my work that I feel the necessity of a wider background that allows me to be more joyful in this fixed thing I’m doing.”

Kamilya Jubran and Werner Hasler
From Kamilya Jubran and Werner Hasler's performance at Bibliotheca Alexandrina on 8 August. (Photo: Butheina Shalan)

Between East and West: On questioning, experimentation, and identity

“Besides my interest in space, I am also interested in meeting the other ‘culture’ whatever it may be. And when I say the words ‘other’ and ‘meeting’, I mean trying to understand what is unfolding on other side, in that, how does this process of (musical) improvement happen there? And what does this necessitate of me on the other end. What should I look more into and research more about (in my music)?”

Jubran’s other collaborations include working with Sarah Murcia, a French double bass player, during the former’s experience with Sabreen, and with whom she would collaborate in Nhaoul (Loom), and most recently in Wasl (2013), in which Jubran, Murcia and Hasler come together as a trio.

Jubran proceeds to explain that this questioning involved trying to understand how Murcia and Hasler play their music the way they do.

This encounter with the other is therefore an attempt at coming to peace with one’s own identity.

“A new context,” Jubran gives me the keyword.

“I am trying to find a new context that could convince me and make me feel comfortable with my own heritage and also with my own present,” she explains.

Dialects posing challenges to faulty narratives 

Jubran wanders about the realms of language the same way she globetrots the world and its musical repertoires. Poetry is where Jubran settles; it is where her music is at ease the most.

“I love language,” she asserts.

“The text holds a very important position in my work. It is true that most of my work continues to focus on contemporary texts. But this did not prevent me from looking into different dialects spoken by different people."

Jubran travels from the Palestinian dialect, itself comprising different sub-dialects depending on area and city, to the Moroccan vernacular all the way to the Bedouin patois. Behind each employment of a dialect stands an anecdote, or rather a reason.

The Palestinian dialect would accompany Jubran for two decades as part of her experience with Sabreen. As for the Moroccan dialect, Jubran says she was introduced to Moroccan writer Hassan Najmi and chose some texts of his written in Arabic fus-ha (modern standard Arabic) in the albums Makan and Wanabni.

For Jubran who says she was not adept at the language, the Moroccan dialect was a challenge.

“It is a way of communication, similar to building a bridge,” she explains. 

As for the Bedouin dialect, which Jubran would choose for three songs of her album Naoul, she says the idea was introduced in a spontaneous manner.

“I met people with Bedouin origins when I lived in Palestine. They would come to our city, and talk to me. I was young at the time and did not understand a word they said. When I grew up, I began to understand (the dialect) more.”

As she employed the Bedouin accent in her music, Jubran was also determined to challenge the ever-existent cliché regarding how Bedouins are seen as different and uncivilised.

“So when I came across a book comprising texts by Bedouins in the deserts of the Sinai and Negev and published in the collection of Bedouin Poetry by Clinton Bailey, I found much richness in the content of these poems, and chose to integrate some in Nhaoul.” 

Kamilya Jubran
Kamilya Jubran's performance at Bibliotheca Alexandrina on 8 August. (Photo: Butheina Shalan)

Boundless explorations of self

But whether it is the philosophy of space and movement, her experimentations with two different worlds of music, and her employment of different dialects, Jubran says such distinctive features of her repertoire emanated naturally. The same is also true of the blurriness between the personal and political which emerges in a congruent way in her songs.

“My repertoire is my story, yes. And so I don’t put an effort into becoming this way. I am this way. These things come with me. Together, we are a package,” she explains.

“This is the present I come from, and I therefore find it important to employ a logic when integrating these different factors and to know where I want to head with my music.”

Jubran’s upcoming plans include recording Wasl, which she tells me was performed ten times until now. This comes along with preparations for a new musical project—titled Habka, in which Jubran will again collaborate with musician Sarah Murcia. Upcoming concerts include a performance of Wasl scheduled for October in Oslo and December in Beirut.

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