Dal’Ouna ensemble delights Washington

Friday 31/07/2015
Dal’Ouna ensemble.

Washington - People express a profound need to escape the quotid­ian, to breathe in nature’s respite in parks, moun­tains, forests or the beach. While circumstances limit choices, for most the route is not impeded by military blockades.

That’s why the Palestinian mu­sical ensemble Dal’Ouna’s recent performance of Al Bahr (The Beach) meant everything to some. Accom­panying the music, Washington jazz vocalist Lena Seikaly — in her en­semble debut — recited Mahmoud Darwish’s poem On this Earth, an ode to Palestine and to freedom.

“I was inspired to compose this piece for a generation of Palestinian children,” the ensemble’s musical lead and founder, Ramzi Abured­wan, told the audience. “Most chil­dren have only seen the beach on TV.”

As the musicians began to play, the white altar in the Washington church was awash in summer even­ing light. Ziad Ben Youssef on oud, Aburedwan on bouzouk and Tareq Rantisi on percussion transported the audience to the seaside.

Instead of being plucked, the strings were delicately stroked from the keys down to the sound holes, with occasional soft pinches. The Doumbek drum was not beaten but lightly brushed in rhythmic swirling motions with what turned out to be ordinary whisk brooms.

Waves ebbed and flowed and the surf broke gently. Improbably, even seagulls called from afar. Entranced in the mind’s eye, with a frisson of delight, the sea became real and close enough to “feel” its salty spray. Children would no doubt gaze across the water, wondering about places beyond the horizon where life is normal.

The theme of freedom echoed throughout the evening; Dal’Ouna shared the stage with author Sandy Tolan, who just published the book Children of the Stone. The audience was moved as Tolan read from the pulpit with soft musical accompa­niment. Tolan related how walking in Ramallah one day, he’d noticed posters showing photographs of Aburedwan as a child stone throw­er and, at 18, playing the violin. He said he realised that he’d met Abu­redwan years before.

“I’d asked about his vision for the future,” Tolan said. “He told me he ‘wanted to get really good at the violin and open a music school for Palestinian children.’ “Well,” ad­mitted Tolan, “that sounded like… a long shot.” Years later, in an un­canny coincidence, Tolan walked into a café and recognised Abured­wan. He asked what he was doing. Aburedwan replied, “I’m building a music school for the children of Palestine.”

“This book had to be non-fiction” Tolan told The Arab Weekly, “I worked on it for five years, conduct­ing over 100 interviews. I wanted it to be a human story [about the] inherent right of a child to live in freedom. I want American readers to understand what day-to-day life is like for these kids.”

With a journalist’s keen obser­vation, Tolan’s book engagingly shares students’ stories. “Music helps children develop a sense of self-worth and in this case even a sense of protection,” he said. “Mu­sic gives people a sense of power, dignity and even resistance.”

Tolan’s vignettes reflect the life-changing impact of Aburedwan’s Al-Kamandjati school where, be­sides nurturing musicians, music becomes “occupational therapy”.

Tolan described how once the ensemble was not allowed to cross the border and only reached East Jerusalem — to play Beethoven — by resorting to a smuggler, climb­ing through torn razor wire, in­struments in tow. Edwin Buger accompanied playing Beethoven on his accordion.

The ensemble played Hala la la laya, a folksong medley, transi­tioning effortlessly into jazz with tributes to Andalusia and riffs on Arabic refrains. During the solos, Rantisi’s stunning percussion drew lengthy applause. The crowd hap­pily clapped along to Seikaly’s Bint el Chalabiya, a love song popular­ised by cultural icon Fairuz. Differ­ent than jazz scat, Seikaly easily articulated “Arabic improv”, lend­ing her smoky velvet timbre to the often-haunting exotic tones. Her alto voice, at moments robust and playful, softened to the ethereal like a ghostly flute as her expres­sion alternated from smiles to ach­ingly soulful. There is an intimacy to a Dal’Ouna performance com­pared to larger ensembles, such as that of fellow Palestinian violinist, oud performer and now-US citizen Simon Shaheen. Both reflect the finest in execution of the Arabic music genre and explore and fuse beautifully native folk with classi­cal, Andalusian and jazz traditions.

Dal’Ouna’s stage footprint is small and its presence feels deeply personal and authentic; it’s not yet a machine. Perhaps its edge is precisely the edge; the existential struggle: hardscrabble financing — reliant on philanthropy, tickets and whiffs of retail sales — and the logis­tical challenges of operating from the occupied West Bank where a two-week application process is re­quired for each member to receive time-bound permits to cross the border for gigs.

Rantisi, a graduate of the Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massa­chusetts, casually remarked, “Mu­sic is more difficult to accuse or cleanse.” Aburedwan told The Arab Weekly that “Berklee sent a team to Ramallah and selected four stu­dents to receive nearly full scholar­ships.”

Dal’Ouna’s six-stop East Coast tour sold more than 1,000 tickets.