Palestine one song away: Yalalan group performs in Egypt

Nourhan Tewfik , Thursday 23 Jun 2016

The group was founded in 2005 and comprises 12 members

Yalalan group performs at the Cairo Opera House on 22 June. (Photo: Ahram Online)

“O Palestinians, the fusilier has shot you

With Zionism which kills the doves that live under your protection

O Palestinians, I want to come and be with you, weapons in hand

And I want my hands to go down with yours to smash the snake's head

And then Hulagu's law will die

O Palestinians, exile has lasted so long

That the desert is moaning from the refugees and the victims

And the land remains nostalgic for the peasants who watered it

Revolution is the goal, and victory shall be your first step”

Thus sang the late iconic Sheikh Imam to lyrics molded into life by Egypt’s poet of the people Ahmed Fouad Negm in Ya Falastiniyyeh (O Palestinians, 1968), in which the duet celebrated the Palestinian people’s steadfastness and resistance, both of which still persist today.

It is with Ya Falastiniyyeh that the Palestinian group Yalalan opened their concert held yesterday 22 June at the Cairo Opera House’s open-air theatre, and organised by Palestine’s embassy in Cairo. Throughout the course of their performance, Yalalan took the audience on a journey that commenced in Palestine and travelled across the Arab world, showing how music can transcend the ugliness of Israeli settler colonialism, and reminding us that Palestine, despite the decades-old occupation, will always be one song away.

The group delivered a vibrant programme that included Sheikh Imam’s Ya Falastiniyyeh, Baqaret Haha (Haha's Cow); Sayyed Darwish’s Iqra Ya Sheikh Qufaah and Dinga Dinga; as well as Palestinian folkloric songs like Yama Mwel Al-Hawa, Al- Rozana, Zarifet-Toul and Dal'ouna. Moreover, the group revisited songs by the 1980s Palestinian musical group Sabreen, including Aan Ensan (On Man), which is based on the poetry of late Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, and also delivered some of their own songs, including Lama Yekoon and Zeitek.

Yalalan is scheduled to conclude their Egypt tour tomorrow, 24 June, with a concert at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina.

Moulding a vocation

Yalalan Group for Music and Singing was founded in 2005 by a group of friends who were studying at Birzeit University as well as the ‚Ä™National Conservatory of Music in Ramallah. Performing together in a university troupe called Sanabel, they were “united by common grievances,” Mahmoud Awad, the group’s co-founder, manager and one of its three main vocalists, tells Ahram Online in an interview conducted one day before their Cairo concert.

“Whenever there was an event in Ramallah, the organisers would call on us to perform, and so as time passed we decided to found our own troupe. We wanted to revisit and create covers for songs that spoke to our grievances and thoughts, including nationalist songs, muwashahat (singular: muwashah, a genre of classical Arabic music that came to light in Al-Andalus — now southern Spain — and is an important facet of Tarab), as well as selections from the Arabic musical heritage, especially focusing on the period of the 1920s and 30s,” adds Awad, who is also a music composer, teacher and currently the public relations and community officer at the Birzeit University Museum.

The group thus “took it upon themselves to disseminate the Palestinian and Arab musical tradition as a unified voice while they transmit their artistic and national message,” reads the description section of the group's official Facebook page.

As a result, the group’s early repertoire came to be divided along three main lines:

“First, there was the tarab element, which was shaped by our own academic backgrounds and influenced by Egyptian music, and especially Mohamed Abdel-Wahab and Sayed Darwish’s muwashahat and adwar. The second line was that of nationalistic songs dictated by the repertoires of Sayed Darwish and Sheikh Imam. The third and last line was influenced by Palestine’s own musical heritage,” explains Ibrahim Najem, who is an oud and contrabass player, music composer, oud teacher and an established writer.

That said, the aim was not to “duplicate the music of Darwish and Sheikh Imam, but rather to creatively revisit it. Put differently, we saw ourselves as an extension of their music vocations,” Najem adds.  

(Photo: Ahram Online)

The group quickly garnered acclaim and throughout the years witnessed the coming in and departure of many members.

Its current line-up comprises six vocalists – Mahmoud Awad, Ahmad Mizro, Mohamed Mustafa, Youmna Abu Hilal, Mira Abuhlal and Henna Al-Hajj Hassan – and six musicians – Mohamed Najm (clarinet and nay), Jacob Hammodeh (qanoun), Maher Al-Shafi (violin), Samer Jaradat (percussion), Majd Al-Sheikh (bass) and Ibrahim Khalil Najem (contrabass and oud).

In parallel to their work in Yalalan, members were encouraged to develop their own independent projects or even collaborate with other music troupes.

For example, Henna Al-Hajj Hassan, who recently joined Yalalan as a vocalist, is also involved in the Jenin-based troupe Naqshe Lal Dabke as well as the Thawra Choral, in which she performs alongside other Yalalan members.

The Thawra Choral also features Mahmoud Awad and was founded by Samer Jaradat – Yalalan’s own percussionist and an independent music producer – to revive the Palestinian nationalistic songs that came out during the 1960s/70s/80s. In the Thawra Choral, they explore the repertoire of Sabreen — a 1980s musical group that encouraged Palestinian resistance and whose lead singer was Palestinian singer, songwriter and oud player Kamilya Jubran.

Henna says that whether it’s Yalalan, Naqshe Lal Dabke or the Thawra Choral, what brings these different projects together is an interest in “the decipherment of the rich Arabic musical heritage.”

The 2008 war on Gaza and the notion of committed art

It was during the 2008 Israeli assault on Gaza that Yalalan’s musical project would transcend its Arabic musical heritage component to accommodate the group’s own fresh compositions.

“I remember how people were crying in front of the TV screens, and how we were frustrated and wanted to do more than just watch and sympathise,” explains Najem.

“One piece of news particularly shook us to the core — namely that when electricity is cut off to any hospital in Gaza, it could immediately kill 70 babies in incubators. We quickly planned for a concert tour in four Palestinian cities —Ramallah, Nablus, Jerusalem and Bethlehem — and proceeds from these concerts went towards powering up Gaza’s hospitals,” he adds.

Since that moment on, explains Najem, the group delved into social and political critique, writing and composing their own music in the Palestinian dialect and performing these songs in concerts along with their usual covers of selections from the Arabic music repertoire.

Najem shares this interesting anecdote behind one of the group’s own songs—Lama Yekoon, which he wrote the lyrics for and which centres on the Palestinian of the West Bank.  

“I had just written the lyrics and was asking one band member for his opinion, and before I knew it, all group members were collaboratively composing the music for those lyrics. I think this was the spark for us to begin creating our own music and in turn make our own contribution to the Arabic music library,” adds Najem.

The group plans to collect these songs in their upcoming debut album, which is currently in the pre-production phase. The album will comprise 12 songs written and composed by Yalalan’s own members, including a total of eight tracks (four compositions and four songs) written by Ibrahim Najem alone, and which, as Najem explains, “document and speak of a new stage in the decades-old Palestinian-Israeli conflict.”

Yalalan’s aspiration to make their own music can be seen in line with the notion of fan multazim (committed art, multazim being a term coined for an artist whose repertoire speaks to the people and their sufferings).

“Our music is our testimony for the moment in which we live, and will help those who in the future will be interested to look back at that moment, and explore what Yalalan’s members loved or hated, and how they reacted to their surroundings,” explains Najem.

Yalalan group performs at the Cairo Opera House on 22 June. (Photo: Ahram Online)

On circumventing challenges

That Yalalan was able to sustain itself for 11 years is particularly inspiring given the production challenges that characterise the Arab, and even more so the Palestinian, music scenes today. One way the group could circumvent such challenges is through Samer Jaradat, who besides being the group’s percussionist is one of the most celebrated independent music producers in Palestine today.

For Jaradat, music production was the tool through which he, as a musician, could “document this period we are living in.”

“When I started researching music production in modern-day Palestine, I found out that there exists no documentation of music projects since maybe the 70s,” explains Jaradat.

“This meant that there’s a gap in our knowledge of our own music production. And so came the idea to focus on music production and in the process document Palestinian musicians’ experiences in the context of their social and political surroundings.”

Jaradat responded to this gap by founding a music studio in Ramallah and collaborating with a huge array of Palestinian and Arab musicians. In 2012 for example, he founded the Naqsh project, in which he brought together budding musicians from all over historic Palestine, including some of Yalalan’s own members.

Another major challenge the group had to deal with was movement restrictions of the Israeli occupation in Palestine. While most of today’s group members reside in Ramallah (but are originally from different areas across Palestine), this was far from being the case a decade ago when some of the members lived outside Ramallah and had to find the means to travel to and from Ramallah for rehearsals and performances.

For example, Najem was first approached by the group to join them as a contrabass player in 2006. He was living in Bethlehem at the time and the group had to secure his trips to and from Ramallah, and also later when he moved to Abu Dis, a town that sits between Bethlehem and Jerusalem.

“So with every new place of residence we had to make special arrangements to accommodate Najem and would organise our rehearsals accordingly,” explains Awad. “We had to cover the transportation expenses and also deal with the reality of occupation and especially Israeli checkpoints,” he adds.

But perhaps it is the collective nature that characterises Yalalan’s project which helped the group battle through all the aforementioned challenges.   

“We collaborate in the management, music making, singing etc. And I think this is what best explains the group’s strength,” explains Awad.

“We do not operate as a ‘one-man show’,” adds Najem. 

On new collaborations and dreams

Besides their scheduled Egypt concerts, Yalalan also made use of their first trip in Egypt to embark on a novel collaboration with Egyptian band Eskendrella. The two groups chose two songs from Sheikh Imam’s repertoire; Ya Falastiniyyeh (O Palestinians) and Shayed Qusorak (Build Your Palaces) and recorded them together — both songs being the “perfect choices to embody the encounter between Yalalan and Eskendrella,” explains Jaradat.

The songs will be released via social media platforms soon, and will serve as a lead-up to an even bigger collaboration with Eskendrella in the near future.  

For the group’s members, Yalalan is more than just a music project. It is more of a home that embraced them and helped them develop musically.

“I’d love for this group to live on and for more generations to join. Why not dream of seeing Najem’s five-year-olds eventually performing in Yalalan?” Awad asks.

The group is indeed working on realising this aspiration in their latest project titled Bara’eim Yalalan (Yalalan’s rosebuds), which will comprise seven young musicians and six to 10 singers aged seven to 14 years old.

“We hope to pass on our own repertoire which we’ve moulded over the years, and proceed to work on a brand new repertoire. I think we’ll all be in tears when these children take the stage for the first time. What can be more beautiful than witnessing an extension of your own vocation?” Najem adds.

(Photo: Ahram Online)

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