Rising Palestinian music stars delight London audience
London - Rising Palestinian stars Nai Barghouti and Mohamed Najem and Friends enchanted audiences across Britain with a blend of Arabic and jazz music during a tour that took them to North London’s historic Union Chapel, a live entertainment venue and charity drop-in centre for the homeless.
Using traditional Arab instruments accompanied by the piano to produce a unique musical language, the performers highlighted the Palestinians’ suffering under Israeli occupation in many of the songs. Part of their fee was donated to assist UNICEF’s work in Syria.
The double bill in London’s historic Union Chapel began with a performance by Najem and Friends. Formed in 2016, the quartet — Najem on clarinet and ney, Clément Prioul on piano, Thomas Julienne on bass and Baptiste Castets on drums — is popular in the Paris jazz scene and has appeared in festivals across France and in Gabon.
Najem described his first piece, “Instant Love,” composed in 2011, as a reflection of his feelings towards the audience.
“From Bethlehem to Angers” and “Floor No. 4″ were said to reflect Najem’s personal experiences, which had deeply moved the singer. Convinced that most people in the audience have never heard of Angers, a city in western France where he studied, Najem described its old town with timbered houses that were built in the 14th century. He said the smells of the old town reminded him of Bethlehem, his home town.
“Floor No. 4″ referred to Najem’s time in Ramallah, where he lived for a year. In the evening, he could see the lights of Jaffa, a city close to the village of Al-Musheer, which was destroyed in 1948. “I got permission to go [to Al-Musheer] but I did not go as I wanted to remember it as my grandfather, who died three years ago, described it,” Najem said.
Barghouti thrilled the audience with a combination of her original compositions and new arrangements of some of the best-known Palestinian and Arabic songs.
Barghouti, with flowing black hair, looked stunning in a long black dress. She was forceful, proud, dignified and defiant as she introduced her songs, which included one about Palestinian refugees yearning to return home and a song dedicated to every child in the world deprived of childhood due to war.
Her song “Pulse,” written a few months ago, was an experiment in using the voice as an instrument. “Stages of Love” was a tribute to her family, who accompanied her on her British tour.
Barghouti said she hoped to convey the struggle of Palestinians living under occupation and send a message that racism can never stop them from trying to reach their dreams.
“We have talent, we have beauty, we have art and we have strength,” she said. “No one can take that away from us, not even a wall of segregation. We are here today not only because our rights are being violated but also because of our music, [which is] our way of resistance.”
Regarding the challenges facing musicians in the Palestinian territories, Barghouti said: “I was born and raised in Palestine but I am currently pursuing my jazz performance studies in Amsterdam. I experienced living in Palestine as a musician and living abroad as one. The struggle is real (at home)!”
“The idea of not having to worry about checkpoints and being able to move freely between cities or even countries has become a dream rather than a reality or a basic human right,” she said. “When planning certain activities in Palestine such as concerts, rehearsals or any other appointments, I always needed to be ready for a sudden checkpoint that might pop up somewhere on the road or some gas bombs that might be thrown at civilians or a stubborn, racist soldier who might refuse to let me pass through.
“I have been denied entry to Jerusalem, my city of birth, but thousands of Palestinian refugees have been denied entry to Palestine as a whole, so who am I to complain?”
Barghouti performed in Britain last year with the Palestine Youth Orchestra, selling out at venues from Glasgow to London. This year she returned with an all-star band that included musicians who performed with some of the most popular young Palestinian bands, including members of the Awan Quartet, Al Raseef and the Mohammed Assaf Band, as well as her Amsterdam-based band with roots in Nigeria, South Korea and Tunisia.