REUTERS - On the hugely popular "Arabs Got Talent" TV show in Beirut last month, five young musicians in chequered black-and-white scarves brought the house down with a traditional Arabic song that left the judges weeping and earned a ticket straight to the finals.
In the Gaza Strip there was much weeping and celebration too, especially at the Edward Said National Conservatory of Music, where the group, made up of four boys and a girl aged between 12 and 16, learned to play their instruments.
For the past three years, Anas an-Najar, a teacher at the conservatory, has dedicated himself to the band, honing their skills on the zither, lute, drum and wooden flute, while the fifth member sings in soaring, lilting melodies.
Because they will perform live on the finals show on Feb. 28, Saudi-owned broadcaster MBC has asked them not to speak to the media. But their success -- a YouTube video of their performance has been watched more than 8.7 million times -- has drawn the school where they practice into the spotlight.
Occupying a single floor of a non-descript building owned by the Palestinian Red Crescent Society in Tel al-Hawa, a middle class neighborhood of Gaza city, the conservatory would barely pass notice from the outside.
On the inside, the walls are lined with posters of Arab and Western musicians -- Tchaikovsky next to Kamal Al Taweel, a renowned Egyptian composer -- and the classrooms are a hive of activity as dozens of students are put through their paces.
Started in 2008 as a project of the AM Qattan Foundation, which runs cultural programs in the Arab world, the school was taken over by the Edward Said National Conservatory in 2012, becoming its fifth branch in the Palestinian territories.
Despite three wars in six years and a blockade imposed by Egypt and Israel, playing music has steadily gained popularity in Gaza, serving as an outlet in times of hardship.
More than 250 students now apply to the conservatory each year, with between 30 and 40 gaining places. The staff of 13 gives lectures on music theory, individual lessons and instruction for small ensembles to a near-full orchestra.
"Music is able to transfer these students from a world full of pressures to another more comfortable world," said Khamis Abu Sha'ban, the school's deputy administrator.
'Language of peace'
In a rehearsal room, the orchestra is practicing with intensity, the conductor asking individuals to repeat passages to get the phrasing precise. The school, which bought most of its instruments in Egypt or Syria or received them as donations from Belgium's Music Fund, lends them to the students.
"Music is the language of peace and harmony," said 11-year-old Firas Al-Shrafi, who has been learning the zither since he was four. "It brings joy to our souls at a time of sadness."
While music may be gaining popularity among the young in Gaza, it remains less of a draw than other activities. As students practiced their scales last week, some 17,000 youngsters graduated from a week-long military camp run by Hamas, the Islamist group that has controlled Gaza since 2007.
Still, for those bitten by the music bug there is one focus: getting better while cheering on the five young Gazans hoping to become the first Palestinians to win "Arabs Got Talent".
"A lot of work has been done with those children," said Abu Sha'ban of the young hopefuls. "We wish them victory."
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