Better the debka you know
It isn't exactly trendy, but one Haifa band is using the traditional Arabic folk dance, mixing it with reggae music and political lyrics to powerful effect
In its current incarnation as light-hearted wedding music, debka doesn't have the power to influence popular culture, says singer and actress Maysa Daw. "I always liked dancing to it, but not listening to it at home or going to a concert of someone singing debka," she admits. "But debka is something very powerful, not just for Palestinians but for all Arabs. I never heard anyone take debka and put words from the heart to it, the way we do," she says.
Daw, 20, is the latest addition to Ministry of Dub-Key, an unusual band originally from Haifa that creates a unique mix of reggae, spoken word and debka - an Arabic folk dance. The band was established by 28-year-old musician Bruno Sebag, who is in charge of production and the electronic side and 25-year-old singer, dancer and songwriter Walaa Sbeit. Percussionist Nizar Qabbani, the oldest member at 36, completes the band.
Sebag explains that most of the music the band performs live is prepared in a studio beforehand. Unlike roots-reggae bands, the group works more with a sound system, singing and playing live on top of studio-produced, recorded music and beats.
Over the past year Daw appeared with the excellent reggae band Toot Ard from Majdal Shams. The band is also collaborating with Ministry of Dub-Key in the recording studio. In addition to writing about the shared past and identity of Palestinians around the world and in Israel, the band's songs are, to a large extent, aimed inward at the local Arab population. Sbeit, who writes and sings primarily in Arabic, dares to touch on topics that are somewhat taboo in the culture from which he hails - for example, honor killings.
Sebag: "We performed two years ago at a Haifa municipality event billed as a 'coexistence festival.' Walaa, another musician and I were onstage and within 20 minutes of the concert's beginning the audience started getting angry. They didn't like the content of our songs. They stopped our concert, claiming our lyrics didn't fit the spirit of the festival."
Sbeit explains that what angered the audience was a spoken-word excerpt: "The words talk about me as a terrorist, but not the kind that comes to mind - I'm a terrorist of my folklore through creating, singing and break dancing. Then afterward I read in the paper that I'm a terrorist who wants to kill your mother and your sister." Sbeit and Sebag were even summoned for police questioning after the concert. "If Israel is democratic then let me sing what I want," says Sebag today.
Ministry of Dub-Key's songs also inspire and speak to those who don't understand Arabic, but undoubtedly people who understand the language have a fuller experience. "We also talk about Arab unity between Christians and Muslims, and about our additional domestic problem - the high rate of violence among Arab youth," says Sbeit.
On Friday, Ministry of Dub-Key will perform at the Haifa Museum of Art at an event entitled "I'm a Haifa-ite," which will deal with the somewhat varied topics of architecture, hummus and Arabic music. Journalists Modi Bar-On and Nissan Shor will appear at the event, alongside and director Amos Gitai and Watan al-Qassem, who will lecture on contemporary Arabic music.
Daw says her inspiration for music comes from her father, respected actor Salim Daw (known for the movie "Avanti Popolo" and television series "Arab Labor" ). "My dad, apart from being an actor, also really likes music and sings and plays oud, just on a small scale," she says.
She gets excited as she relates that a day earlier her father shared a video of the band in concert on Facebook. The other band members cannot believe it either. Daw says her family supports all of her artistic endeavors. "When I told my dad that I wanted to study music and theater he suggested I learn something else too, just to be safe. But when I insisted that I want to devote myself entirely to this he understood me. Perhaps this won't be true of the Palestinian families in the room, but in my family the tradition was always to say what was in your gut, to sing it."
Like Daw, Sbeit also grew up in a theatrical family and was also a member of the Salama dance company for more than 18 years. He studied sociology and acting in Boston, specializing in peace education and conflict resolution at Brandeis University. He says the four years he spent in the United States led him to connect with the African population and to reggae and hip-hop. "When you're far from home for a long time naturally you look for people like you, second- and third-class citizens. Africans there are like Palestinians here."
Sebag has a background in classical piano and adds, with a wink, "I became a DJ when I realized there aren't any girls to be found in playing piano." In the past he has spun house and original material in some of the big Tel Aviv clubs.
Percussionist Qabbani studied African music in Belgium. "I fell in love with the multiculturalism of the place," he says. He learned to play the djembe drum with leading teachers and traveled the world in search of new musical styles. Currently, aside from being in the band, he is finishing his studies in music therapy. "For therapy you need roots that I found in Walaa and Bruno's music. Listen, debka for Palestinians is like your folk dancing: a bit untrendy, not of the young generation."
Get up and dance
Qabbani claims Palestinian culture is in a rut and has hardly evolved since the expulsion and, for him, music is therapy, helping him to "lift his head." He thinks that part of Ministry of Dub-Key's role is to make a culture that got stuck in the middle of the previous century more relevant.
Debka (from the Arabic word for "feet stamping" ) is a traditional dance from Middle Eastern and Arab countries. "Every region has its own debka, and it varies in style, movement and expression," says Qabbani.
Sbeit: "We're an oppressed people and we also oppress ourselves and this is also reflected in our embarrassment with our bodies, and therefore we hardly dance."
Sebag agrees: "Yes, in our culture the most the audience does is clap after a song. What's that? Get up. Dance. Get into it."
Sbeit is trying to enlist early hip-hop ideology from the 1970s and 1980s, which sought to fight gang wars by using hip-hop and singing battles. "I'm also a refugee, but an internal one. My family was expelled from Ikrit in 1948," he says. "Two Israel Defense Forces orders permitting us to return there have not been implemented since then."