Though far removed from the occupied Palestinian territories, the Akha people of South East Asia have a saying about music that strikes a universal note; a village without music is not a village. Back in the 1930s and 1940s there was a Palestine Philharmonic but now it’s called the Israeli Symphony Orchestra, just one more example of the cultural occupation that Israel exerts on Palestinians. The conditions that Palestinians are forced to live under mean that, like the Philharmonic, there is no longer a Palestine. Nevertheless, the Palestinians voice and aspirations for statehood cannot be ignored, and neither too, can the flame of music be extinguished there. Remember Shakti’s concert at the Ramallah Cultural Palace in aid of and in solidarity with Al Mada, was a reminder of the power of music to inspire, to empower and to heal.
There was a wonderful symbiosis about the coming together of Palestinian organization Al Mada and John McLaughlin and Zakir Hussain’s legendary group, Remember Shakti. Formed in 2009 by Executive Director Reem Abdul Hadi and Artistic Director Odeh Turman, Al Mada is dedicated to improving the quality of people’s lives in the occupied Palestinian territories, not in the physical sense, but by lifting the human spirit through the medium of music and art as therapy. McLaughlin, perhaps not by design, has been doing something not too dissimilar for more than forty years, with music so powerful, and often so beautiful, that it is, in its own way, inspirational and transformative.
Remember Shakti’s concert was a fundraising event in support of Al Mada’s work with Palestinian children, youth and adults. Inspired by pianist / conductor Daniel Barenboim’s efforts to improve understanding between Israelis and Palestinians, McLaughlin became aware of Al Mada’s pioneering psycho-social interventions in the West Bank and responded immediately; when Jazzahead! honored him with the 2010 Skoda Award for services to jazz, McLaughlin donated the 15,000 Euros to Weltfriedensdienst, the German World Peace Service, which is co-founder of Al Mada. WFD is also one of the longest serving NGOs in the occupied Palestinian territories, having operated there since 1968.
However, helping highlight the 64-year plight of the Palestinian people was an equally important aspect of this historic concert, as Jean Gough, Director of UNRWA – partners with Al Mada in its mission to improve lives – explained: “In Palestine more than half of the people are below 18 years. There is a lot of talent in these young people, a lot of power that they bring forward, today and for the future. However, we also realize that given the conditions, there is a lot of violence facing children; on the streets, sometimes they face violence at home, and violence in the institutions. They are also affected by the violence of the conflict. ”
UNRWA is responsible for two million children across the Palestinian territories and although the grinding violence and oppression they suffer is known to a greater or lesser degree the world over, Gough’s statistics are sobering: “In 2011 there were 20 Palestinian children killed in Gaza and the West Bank due to the conflict, and more than 450 children were injured. There has been an increase in attacks on schools, 48 cases were reported, which is a 50% increase on 2010. We also see more demolitions happening – more than 600 children have been displaced due to house demolitions. All of this brings great stress to the lives of children and we have a duty to find solutions if we can. It’s important that we speak on behalf of these children.”
This is where Al Mada and music comes in. Al Mada reaches out to the vulnerable and the marginalized, which includes children, youth at risk, women and girls affected by domestic or sexual violence, children in conflict with the law, special needs children and adults, traumatized children, and anyone suffering from stress. Its center in Ramallah has a state-of-the-art recording studio and a music therapy room, furnished with beautiful cushions and an array of percussive and stringed instruments. Meditation, relaxation sessions and training also take place here. Music therapist Buran Saada has been with Al Mada from the beginning of its journey and talks with passion about the needs of Palestinians and the effectiveness of the music therapy programs. “They need to express their feelings and their daily conflicts,” she explains. “There are no age limits for people who want to take music therapy and they come from all backgrounds. Everyone can take a music therapy session; people who are displaced, stressed or who need to express themselves or to feel in a safe environment and to feel better in themselves.”
Much of Al Mada’s work is done in the West Bank’s 19 official refugee camps, which accommodate around 200,000 Palestinians. The camps are clearly not as well appointed as the music therapy room at Al Mada’s center, but for Buran this is not a disadvantage. “I prefer to go to the camps to work in the environment they live in,” Buran explains. “It doesn’t matter how beautiful the room is. It depends on the dynamics of the group; how they are with each other. You can make them feel comfortable in a garden. Every group has its unique character, and it depends on the personality of the people.”
A musical background is not necessary to participate in the therapy sessions. “If they know music before it can make them more comfortable with the instruments, but just that,” says Buran. “To an outsider it maybe sounds like noise at first, but it’s amazing to feel their emotions and expression through the playing. “
Buran is one of just three music therapists at Al Mada, but an essential part of their work is training people in other organizations to bring music therapy into schools, psycho-social programs and clinics across the Palestinian territories. So far, more than 100 social workers, counselors and educators have graduated from Al Mada’s 40-hour training course in basic music therapy, thereby helping reach many more Palestinians. “This is the main idea,” explains Buran. “I close the circle I open and the psycho-therapist continues with them. It’s not just about playing music. The psycho-therapists and educators are very open to the idea and trust in the effectiveness of music therapy. We have had many success stories and it’s very exciting to see that.”
The success of Al Mada’s music therapy program is notable, according to data collected by the UNRWA office in Jerusalem. Children have reported improved feelings of well-being as a result of their participation in the music therapy programs, and that they are able to think more clearly. Significantly, they have expressed greater feelings of hope and motivation for the future. Parents for their part have noted that their children are less stressed, less nervous, and closer to them than before. Some parents stated that their children stopped wetting their beds following music therapy sessions. Parents have also observed improved communication in their children, improved performance in school with their studies, and an improvement in their social relationships.
Clearly Al Mada’s music program is one worth supporting, and this is why John McLaughlin brought Remember Shakti to Ramallah, to promote its work and show solidarity with the Palestinian people. “It is my conviction that music is one of the most powerful healing processes in the world,” says McLaughlin. “Now while it is also true that there are many instances of music therapy, music itself is a natural cohesive power that unites peoples. A world without music is frankly inconceivable.”
McLaughlin has been asked many times what the message of the concert in Ramallah is: “What is the message in music? Well, what message do you see in a painting? It really doesn’t have a message, does it? The only message is we are here because we care. We have played in most other countries and we want to play in Palestine.
“The Palestinian situation, not just for the children but for all the Palestinian people, we all know about to some degree or other. It’s my personal feeling that the Palestinian situation is not broadcast enough. More awareness and attention needs to be brought to Palestine, and if we as musicians can bring a little more awareness so much the better.
The love and joy that is in music is the only message we can bring, and bring a smile to the faces of the Palestinian people, because we’re all human, we’re all brothers and sisters. This is really the message. However, Zakir and I and the musicians are under no allusions about changing the political situation,” states McLaughlin. “This can only happen in the long term.”
On the question of encouraging children who perhaps doubt their musical abilities, to embrace music in their lives, McLaughlin is clear: “First of all you have to have an institutionalized encouragement; without the encouragement they will doubt themselves. But children by nature are very positive, aren’t they? They believe anything is possible. This is the marvelous thing about being a child and this is why it’s so important that work being done for children takes place.
“This encouragement needs to be affirmed and reaffirmed on a daily basis. You need the presence of teachers, you need instruments, you need access to the different methods of music teaching that exist, and there are many, and you need enthusiasm. Enthusiasm is probably one of the greatest of the spiritual qualities.”
Zakir Hussain has no doubt as to the innate musical ability of all children: “Kids are actually born with Mozart-like qualities to be able to relate to and recognize tone, tempo and rhythm. If you look at the southern part of the United States where they use some kind of a washboard to play music, or in Africa where they use a piece of string on a little stick in a bowl of water to play bass, or just a one-string guitar. In India you have kids playing on the road with tin cans; they find ways to make organic instruments out of whatever they can find and express themselves. They have the ability inside of them. The thing is to be able to create the environment around them to make them tie the knots together, that what they are thinking, what they are hearing in their subconscious mind does actually exist.”
“Music,” notes Hussain, “is something that has been blessed and given as a boon by the God that exists, to all of us. The first thing is to recognize and to note rhythm; some of us have turned those into war drums but a lot of us have made it into instruments of love and vibrations of the good kind.”
Remember Shakti’s concert in Ramallah was the embodiment of joyful communication, and the love and good vibrations flowed for two unforgettable hours. At the concert’s end, and after a standing ovation, eight children from several of the refugee camps presented the musicians with mementos and tokens of thanks.
Outside the Ramallah Cultural Palace, there was a buzz about the people exiting the hall, clearly on a high from the energy and emotion of Remember Shakti’s performance. Three children aged 8 and 9 from the Amari refugee camp, Duha, Rahwan and Asrar al Zaman (the secrets of time, in English – a name that could have sprung from the poetry of Mahmoud Darwish) gave their reaction to the concert. “I felt very good when I was invited to attend,” said Rawan. “It was very beautiful. I’m very pleased I came to the concert,” said Doha. Remember Shakti’s concert will hopefully encourage these children to continue playing music. All three now play music – guitar and piano – following their music therapy sessions with Al Mada, an experience that Asrar al Zaman described as giving her “a very pleasant feeling.”
McLaughlin describes the concert in Ramallah as the most difficult concerts ever to pull off. After several years of organizing, the music itself was over in a flash. At once, we are reminded of the ephemeral nature of music, and of its lasting power. Al Mada, and children like Doha, Rawan and Asrar al Zaman can take further encouragement when McLaughlin says: “The Palestinian people need us just as we need them. I would hope, really sincerely, that now we’ve made it one time that we can come again.” Hopefully, McLaughlin and Remember Shakti’s concert of solidarity will serve as inspiration to others to follow suit. It has certainly provided a measure of inspiration and hope for Al Mada, its supporters and its beneficiaries.
For more information on Al Mada visit its website at:www.al-mada.ps
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