Music Became a Weapon

Rim Banna - a singer and artist from Nazareth who studied in Moscow - will appear tomorrow at the 10th East Jerusalem Music Festival.

The natural landscape from the desert to the sea, Palestinian culture and history, the folk poetry and the contemporary poetry of her people - these are the sources of inspiration for Rim Banna, a Palestinian singer born in Nazareth. She has always seen her artistic mission as spreading Palestinian songs internationally and freeing them from external influences that have damaged their authenticity. This is the case now, too, although these aims have been pushed backstage a bit, "because during the past five years, since 2000, everything has been destroyed and has changed."

She says: "I have always expressed the Palestinian voice and sung political songs. I grew up in that kind of home, with a mother who always fought against discrimination and for human rights; but the art was not art under fire. I could devote myself more to purely musical thought. I could appear at Palestinian festivals as much as I wanted, in relative security, and concentrate on creating a Palestinian style that would be both original and genuine, and also personal and my own."

Now, she adds, "The atmosphere has changed, and I feel more like a fighter than a musician."

In this spirit Rim Bann will sing in a performance from her new disc, "The Mirrors of My Soul," which will be held tomorrow as part of the 10th East Jerusalem Music Festival.

Banna, accompanied by a Norwegian ensemble of instrumentalists, will appear as she always does, in an embroidered Palestinian dress, rich in bright colors: "I always perform in this dress. It gives me a lot of confidence and strength - really a queen on the stage."

On the sofa in her home in Nazareth are cushions she made herself, and a large cloth that she embroidered serves as a curtain, in beautiful colors: "There is nothing more beautiful than Palestinian embroidery. There just isn't. You can search the whole world and not find such beautiful embroidery. And the colors - like fire. Well, we're a fervid people, full of energy," she laughs.

She studied music in Moscow, at the Gnessin Music Academy and after she completed her studies in 1991, she embarked on an international career together with a fellow student whom she married, Ukrainian musician Leonid Alexeienko. They recorded and performed music that they composed together in concerts throughout Europe, and in the Arab world. Banna's songs became known to many and for them she won the Palestine Prize - the only female singer who has ever won it. Her songs also play an important role in films, among them Elia Suleiman's "Arab Dream," films by directors from Lebanon and Switzerland and appearances at many international and Arab festivals.

How did you change from a musician to a fighter?

"Everything happened with such great rapidity, greater than I could manage to follow. Suddenly people were falling victim, and tanks began to shoot, and bombardments, and blood. I couldn't understand - are we really here, or maybe in Afghanistan? As a Palestinian woman, I had to do something concrete, to help my people, to come myself and support them - and I knew that I had to travel and perform in cities in the West Bank despite the difficulty and the danger, that I mustn't stop, and that despite the roadblocks and the soldiers, the music would continue to be heard. In this way music became my weapon; unfortunately I need to use military images like "fighter" and weapon," but isn't this what we are seeing around us all the time?"

The trip from Nazareth to Ramallah, which in ordinary times tales a bit more than two hours, all at once became impossible for Banna. Nevertheless, she set during the very beginning days of the intifada, in the fall of 2000, for an outdoor concert as the helicopters were bombarding from above: "We just wanted to feel that life was going on," she says, "to stay in contact with the people, not to leave them in the difficult times of tragedy and siege."

The entrance to Ramallah was almost strange to her: "The bombed out roads strewn with large stones did not even resemble what I had known. This was a huge shock. The smell of war in the air, the avenues of trees at the entrance to the city had disappeared, and I think that I screamed more than I sang."

Since then she has been invited to concerts in all the cities of the West Bank, villages, and refugee camps around Nablus, Hebron, Ramallah and Jenin. Banna, whose innovations in lullabies and her repertoire of songs for children have brought her many young listeners, speaks enthusiastically of the children's responses at her performances: Although one time a soldier at a roadblock said to me that `there are no children there, in the refugee camps,' there are, and they are just waiting, wide-eyed, for a concert. For most of them this is the first musical performance in their lives and at the Qalandiyah camp, for example, they came all dressed up in their best clothes. With the help of the music I want to ease the suffering in their everyday lives, to quiet their fears a bit."

The couple often performs abroad, and Banna takes advantages of these performances to present the Palestinian experience to the world: "Through the songs I tell the world about our suffering."

In the form of protest songs?

"Yes, also protest songs, but not like propaganda placards."

At the festival, she will sing, among other things, "Sarah" and "Fares Odeh," about Palestinian children who were shot by Israel Defense Forces soldiers, and "The Carmel of My Soul," which refers to Palestinian and Israeli political prisoners in Israeli prisons, to whom she has also dedicated the disc. Banna: "In fact, it is the individual stories in these songs that express our tragedy better than anything."

Until the war ends

The couple's home is multilingual and multicultural: She talks with the children - a girl of 12 and 3-year-old twins - in Arabic, and Alexeienko talks with them in Russian; they also speak Russian with each other. They always take the children along on the concert trips: "In this way they learn to sit and listen patiently, and get to know people, and understand that wandering is this family's way of life," says Banna. "The twins' first time was when they were 11-month-old babies. We had to take them into Jericho on foot, so as not to miss a concert."

She almost lost her Hebrew during her years of studying in Moscow: "Somehow the Russian pushed it aside," she says, "and now I am getting it back for myself, with the help of my daughter, who is learning Hebrew at school."

Have you ever thought of presenting the Palestinian experience to the Israeli audience, the way you do in Europe? "Do you think that I need to do this? In my opinion this is the Israeli musicians' job, not mine. Anyway, I am not certain that the Israeli audience can accept a song that is dedicated to Palestinian prisoners in the prisons, for example, and I don't want to be greeted with boos at my concert."

Have you ever been invited to a concert in a non-Arab city in Israel?

"Yes, a long time ago, and they asked to see the words of my songs first, translated into Hebrew. This is more like an interrogation than a performance, isn't it?"

In the meantime, then, Banna is continuing to be "a singer on the front," as she puts it, and to set aside the life of relating to music as art for art's sake: "After we spend a lot of time on the roads, until we get to the concert and are delayed for hours at the roadblocks, I can fall straight into the performance - with my hair a mess and in dusty shoes. This isn't exactly an artistic atmosphere, is it? And then I ask them not to look at me at all, but just to listen, and sing along with me."

Asked whether it is important to her to prove that Palestinian artists can appear at the height of professionalism on an improvised stage in a refugee camp or in Hebron under the barrels of sharpshooters on the rooftops ("In fact it was a good performance, and maybe even the soldiers were listening"), Banna replies: "Although they try to interfere with us, we will not stop in this mission - until the end."

The end of what?

"Until the war is over, and the occupation is over, and until the Palestinian people wins its rights. Then maybe I will be able to go back to thinking only about music."

A week of intriguing concerts

The 10th East Jerusalem Festival of Music at which Rim Banna will appear tomorrow (at the Tombs of the Kings Amphitheater, 8 P.M.), opens tonight. The festival, which is produced by the Yabous (Jebus) association, aims to support the cultural life of East Jerusalem and Ramallah. During the coming week it is offering intriguing concerts, many of them by Palestinian artists.

The Maqamat Ensemble of the Edward Said Conservatory, the first group of musicians that plays classical Arab music in Jerusalem and the West Bank, will appear tonight in a debut concert of young musicians; the Shu Ismu group will play Arab jazz (next Tuesday) and the Palestinian Jubran trio (the brothers Wissam, Samir and Adnan) will play material from their new disc, the fourth in number (next Wednesday). There will also be attractive guests from abroad: the well-known Tunisian musician Anouar Brahem in an oud, piano and accordion trio (Friday); the South Korean percussion ensemble Dulsori in a colorful popular-modern spectacle (Saturday); Paola Estrella and her group in Argentine tango (Monday), and next Thursday will the closing night with the Herenica flamenco troupe from Spain.