Voices of Peace: In First, Emirati Songwriters Team Up With Jerusalem Orchestra

A musical collaboration between the Jerusalem Orchestra East & West and songwriters from the UAE shows the great, untapped cultural potential of the agreement that many tend to dismiss

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Tom Cohen and the Jerusalem Orchestra East & West in the video for “Hash Bi” (“Feel Me”).
Tom Cohen and the Jerusalem Orchestra East & West in the video for “Hash Bi” (“Feel Me”).Credit: YouTube screenshot

The peace agreement with the United Arab Emirates is often presented as the institutionalization of existing ties, especially in business and trade (including weapons), and not much more than that. And indeed, since the agreement was signed, our exposure to it is mainly via one-way tourism – of Israelis to Dubai – which drew criticism, especially because of those who brought back the coronavirus and its variants with them. The cultural and social ties between the countries, however, are still lukewarm, and it will take some time for both sides get used to seeing each other as possible partners to reap the great potential.

And yet, the first buds of joint creativity are beginning to emerge. The first collaborative musical effort came out about a month ago: a new single by Emirati songwriters and the Jerusalem Orchestra East & West, conducted by Tom Cohen.

“In most of the Israeli musical productions in the UAE, Israeli singers appear before an Israeli audience in Hebrew,” Cohen says. “The difference between their productions in Israel and in Abu Dhabi, for example, is only the scenery – the tall buildings, the cars, the malls. It’s as if the UAE is not part of the equation here.”

Cohen was interested in cooperation of another sort – one of mutual inspiration, which would express a new and unique sound in the Middle East. “Economic peace existed before this. People traveled to the Emirates and Qatar even before the agreements. The difference is that today we, the simple people, can speak to each other. If so, why not turn to someone who can write us a song, send it to them and have them record it there? As someone who’s not a politician, I have the privilege not to deal with the conflict and to look at things in deeper resolution. That’s what I wanted to bring,” Cohen says.

The single, “Hash Bi” (“Feel Me”), was written by Emirati poet Ahmad bin Idris and Emirati composer Mohamed Hussein especially for Cohen’s orchestra. The coronavirus made the project particularly complicated, and the collaborators have never met face to face. Cohen arranged and produced the song, the Israeli orchestra performed it and the recording was sent to a studio in Bahrain, where the choir singers and the percussion musicians from the UAE recorded their parts. To all these parts the Israeli American singer Rechela added her voice.

Rechela specializes in Khaliji music, which originated in the Persian Gulf and combines elements of Bedouin, African, Indian and Persian music. It is characterized by the use of stringed instruments such as violins alongside traditional percussion instruments. Today, modern Khaliji music dominates mainly in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain.

Despite the cooperative breakthrough, Cohen says the endeavor was very complicated. The attempt to promote the new song in the Emirati market made it clear to him that there was still a fear of active collaboration with Israeli cultural figures in Emirati cultural circles, and that Israeli music is still taboo for the local radio stations.

“I tried to take an Emirati PR firm to promote the song there,” Cohen says. “They told me they couldn’t get it in anywhere. Musically speaking, they still weren’t speaking to Israel. As opposed to our image of them, they see a more complex picture and aren’t rushing into collaborations. They’re very polite and super-nice, and we’re all going there all the time. But none them are coming to us yet. Meanwhile, we know how to be tourists and they know how to be a tourist destination. That can completely change with time. There are people there who immediately accept this change, but most of the people need to cross a certain distance regarding Israel.”

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