“You come out of all this with a clear, sharp feeling that you are a stranger in all of this. Your real homeland is in exile,” composer Wisam Gibran says in Nili Belkind’s new book, Music in Conflict: Palestine, Israel and the Politics of Aesthetic Production. 

“So you start to search for it—to create it—in the music; in musical language. And at the end, you understand that identity you don’t inherit; you make, you create. For me Palestine, whatever it’s called, is something very very individual.… Every person has his own Palestine.”

Given the shifts in borders and powers over the last century, this seems only natural. Palestine entered the 20th century as part of the Ottoman Empire; fell under British rule after World War I; saw geographic erasure and mass displacement in with the Nakba of 1948 and again in 1967 with the Six-Day War; and, despite the attempted peace processes of the 1990s, continues to face an uncertain future—especially in light of this year’s expulsion of Palestinians from Sheikh Jarrah, which has resulted in the worst violence seen in years. At the same time, western influences on Palestine have shaped and reshaped the music to come out of cities like Ramallah and Bethlehem, and around the world from composers who are part of the Palestinian diaspora. By no means comprehensive, this playlist offers a primer to the generations and geographies that have created music both political and personal. 


Rawhi al-Khammash: “Sama’i Hijaz Kar Kurd” 

The launch of Radio Jerusalem was initially a propaganda move on the part of British Mandate authorities, who came into power following the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire and the Treaty of Versailles. However, in terms of broadcasts the British were more interested in the news than the music, and this led to a significant turning point for Palestinian musicians and the country’s broader musical landscape. One of the composers to come out of this era was Rawhi al-Khammash (1920-1998), who led the station’s modern music programming. Unlike his contemporary Salvador Arnita, Khammash was far more focused on Arabic classical music than on its western counterparts, and had a particular talent for sama’i, which tempers the sort of theme-and-variation structure beloved by Bach with the melodic impulses of the maqam. Khammash left Palestine in 1948, relocating to Iraq where he became a figurehead of the Baghdad music scene.  


Youssef Khasho: “The Jerusalem Symphony” (1968)

Born to a Christian family in Jerusalem, Youssef Khasho (1927-1997) grew up as an orphan within the city’s Franciscan order, the Fathers of the Holy Sepulchre. As an adult, Khasho spent time among the international culturati of Beirut; turned his attention to orchestral composition in Aleppo; and continued those studies under Alfredo Casella in Rome. Casella’s propensity towards nationalism was (to put it mildly) problematic in practice. In theory, however, it was well-suited to Khasho—a proud Arab who grew up in a city that struggled under British Mandate, came of age in the era of the Nakba, and, in 1967, was heartbroken by the country’s Six-Day War. 

“The Jerusalem Symphony” resulted from Khasho’s experience of the war from abroad in Amman, Jordan, and was one of several symphonic suites that he wrote with narrative and sonic history in mind. But the work is at its best in more reflective and intimate moments, such as a memory Khasho had of seeing his local church in Amman taking in Palestinian refugees, many Muslim. They joined in the weekly services, underscoring the Catholic rites with their intonations of “Allahu Akbar.” 

A Palestinian composers playlist featuring the generations and geographies that have created music both political and personal. @vanmusicmag Click To Tweet

Salvador Arnita: “Identity” (1970)

An influx of missionaries in Palestine during the late 19th and early 20th centuries brought with it the western classical music tradition. (Ironically, given the roots of music theory and notation in this area, this is also when formal, notated composition became a modern practice.) Augustine Lama emerged from this era as the “grandfather” of modern Palestinian music, studying under these missionaries in the early days of the British Mandate, before teaching the next generation. Among Lama’s most prolific students was Salvador Arnita (1915-1985), who showed early promise as a church organist before continuing his studies at Rome’s Santa Cecilia Academy. Exiled in Beirut following the Nakba, Arnita’s subsequent compositions meditated on interior worlds disrupted by exterior realities. Most notable is “Identity,” his cantata which sets the text of Mahmoud Darwish alongside Palestinian folk songs, creating a sweep that’s both intimate and dramatic. 


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Amin Nasser: “A Letter to Mother” (1973)

Wisam Gibran’s assertion that each person has their own Palestine is one way to view the complex backstory of “A Letter to Mother” by Amin Nasser (born 1935). One of Nasser’s greatest strengths as a composer are his art songs, which balance painstaking craftsmanship with primacy of emotion. No stronger are those skills put to use in the setting of his cousin Kamal’s poem, “A Letter to Mother.” Kamal wrote it while lost somewhere between Syria and Beirut; in a place, as he begins in the verse, “from somewhere, from nowhere in the world… weary and lost in the darkness of my destiny.” At the time of the writing, Kamal’s mother—Amin Nasser’s aunt—was in the throes of dementia, not fully able to grasp where her son was or what had happened to him. 

What happened next complicates the narrative, as Kamal Nasser was allegedly involved with the massacre of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics. He was killed by Israeli forces in a targeted attack the following year in Beirut. What we hear in Amin’s setting of his cousin’s text is a bewildering, complicated grief; encompassing a shadowland of figures as we see them presented in history, and as they were seen by those closest to them at home. 


Mounir Anastas: “Né du Néant” (1993)

Bethlehemite Mounir Anastas (born 1963) represents the first generation of Palestinian composers to have grown up almost entirely with the geographic realities of the region as we know them today. The tensions of that geography often manifest in his works, which also speak to the era in which he came of age as a composer—one defined by a musical landscape both organic and digital. After studying, like Lama and Arnita before him, music under a Christian diocese (in this case, the De La Salle Brothers), Anastas moved to Paris, where he studied music cognition before pursuing composition under Iannis Xenakis (while also drawing inspiration from Pierre Boulez, Olivier Messiaen, Luigi Nono, and Elliott Carter). Xenakis’s DNA is acutely present in “Né du Néant” (“Born from Nothing”), a seven-minute monodrama for solo saxophone, scaffolded by ebbing and flowing tension that ultimately collapses back into the void. 


Ramallah Underground: Tashweesh (2008)

Leave it to Kronos to find a way of translating Palestinian hip-hop for string quartet. The now-defunct musical collective Ramallah Underground was cofounded in 2002 by DJ and rapper Muqata’a, who, like Augustin Lama, is considered a latter-day patriarch of Palestinian music. He has been responsible for a modern renaissance among younger, genre-defying musicians. He is also credited with the original song “Tashweesh,” whose titular, electronic interferences come in like knocks of fate—half Max Headroom, half Beethoven’s Fifth—against pizzicato strings that echo Rawhi al-Khammash. But whose glitches are they? As Muqata’a has said in interviews, his use of samples including classical Arabic music are their own form of interference: “When our land is being taken away, our culture is muted. So it’s a way to try and disrupt that—being a glitch in the system is very important.” 


Samir Odeh-Tamimi: “Leila und Madschnun” (2010) 

Berlin-based Samir Odeh-Tamimi (born 1970) grew up, and developed his craft, in the ripple effect of several generations of cultural exchange between European composers and Arab musical traditions before him. Where Arnita and Khasho in some ways sound like first drafts of this musical amalgam, Odeh-Tamimi’s music stands in both worlds at once (especially in the style of his musical role models, Giacinto Scelsi and Xenakis). Both sides of the coin are palpable, but the edges are invisible. His flair with remixing and revising works, like an epilogue to Bach’s “St. John Passion” and, on a grander scale, his 2010 music-theater work “Leila und Madschnun” (based on the old Persian folktale) speaks to the transformative power that can come with telling and retelling the same stories. 


Wisam Gibran: Piano Quintet No. 1 (2014)

Unlike many of his contemporaries, Wisam Gibran (born 1970) didn’t trade Palestine for Paris when it came to conservatory. Rather, the Nazarene prodigy spent his teenage years studying in Haifa under Russian violinist Eliahu Kagan before pursuing his master’s in Moscow. The setting was well-suited to Gibran’s works, which reflect a sense of melancholy and longing equally at home in Tchaikovsky and Chekhov as it is in the yearning aches of Arabic maqam. In Gibran’s Piano Quintet No. 1, there’s a piercing nostalgia for something that no longer exists—perhaps something that never existed to begin with.


Patrick Lama: “Passé-Présent” (2016)

The son of Augustin, Patrick Lama (born 1940) inherited his father’s musical talents, along with an ingrained duality of European sense and Arabic sensibility. Unlike his father, however, he extended his musical service beyond the ecumenical call of duty, and his current catalogue is as vast as it is underrepresented on available recordings. This includes what’s considered to be the first Arabic-language opera, “Kanaan,” which premiered at the Ruhrfestspiele in 2000 and is based on the first notated music, discovered on cuneiform tablets in present-day Syria in the 1950s. Lama was one of many composers who, in the late ’60s, found himself in Paris, and his style further developed under Henri Dutilleux. Dutilleux’s influence is clear in Lama’s solo piano works, which oscillate around simple, often folk themes that progressively deepen and expand over time. 


Donia Jarrar: “Seamstress” (2017)

Also known by her stage alias Phonodelica, Donia Jarrar was born in Kuwait in 1986 to a Palestinian father and an Egyptian mother, and raised primarily in the United States following the first Gulf War. She represents not only a generation of diaspora-descendant composers making sense of their inherited histories through their work, but also a generation of female Arab composers re-centering—as she puts it—the “matriarchal lineage” of their ancestral homes. Described alternately as a documentary song cycle and opera, Jarrar’s “Seamstress” couples these two threads of her biography, while telling the stories of other women and girls central to her life, such as her Aunt Sania’s childhood in 1960s Jenin. If we are shaped by the stories we’re told (and re-told), “Seamstress” is as much a portrait of Jarrar herself. 


Muyassar Kurdi: “I’ve Been Here Before” (2017)

It’s not happenstance that listening to Palestinian-American multi-hyphenate Muyassar Kurdi (born 1989) calls to mind Meredith Monk. Kurdi is an acolyte and alumna of Monk’s workshops; subsequently, she delights in playing with sound much in the way a golden retriever gleefully dives into a pile of leaves. This, she said an interview with The Kitchen last year, goes back to her father’s Palestinian heritage: “The sounds of language imprint on your nervous system, and when I hear Arabic, I feel connected to my roots.” While there’s no Arabic used in “I’ve Been Here Before,” the vocal tones—alternating between dizzying heights in Kurdi’s voice and textured growls of her partner Nicholas Jozwiak—evoke something primal and primordial, a deeply-rooted sense of “mother” tongue.  ¶