Palestinian group tackles gentrification, occupation on new album

The London-based four piece, all of whom are of Palestinian origin, have generated huge buzz. (Photos supplied)
Updated 11 February 2018
0

Palestinian group tackles gentrification, occupation on new album

DUBAI: Almost three years on from introducing the world to a new sound with their debut release, “Shamstep,” 47Soul are back with what they are calling their debut studio album, “Balfron Promise,” released earlier this month.
The London-based four piece, all of whom are of Palestinian origin, have generated huge buzz in that time, receiving critical acclaim for their songs, but also for their high-energy, wildly-celebratory live shows, which have connected with audiences in the West just as strongly as with youth in the Middle East.
“Shamstep” is the name the band give their anthemic blend of electronic hip-hop, hints of reggae, and the traditional dabke music of Bilad Al-Sham, topped off with raucous unison vocals in both English and Arabic. The party vibe balances the group’s socially conscious lyrics, which — while still often optimistic — focus on the struggle for freedom and equality of all kinds, and the feeling of rootlessness shared by so many in the Palestinian diaspora, the Middle East and beyond.
The idea of 47Soul becoming a full-time venture for its members took some time to arise. When the four musicians — MC/vocalist and darouka player Tareq Abu Kwaik (aka El Far3i), percussionist and MC/vocalist Walaa Sbeit, guitarist and vocalist Hamza Arnaout (aka El Jehaz), and keyboardist and vocalist Ramzy Suleiman (aka Z the People) — first got together, it was for a short-term project at London’s biennial Shubbak Festival. All four were already established artists in their own right, whether solo or with bands (Arnaout in Jordanian indie outfit Autostrad, Sbeit in Ministry of Dub-Key).
“The idea of 47Soul wasn’t that this could actually become a band,” El Far3i told Arab News. “It was more like a ‘seasonal collective.’ It wasn’t serious. But after we played those shows in the UK and we felt the impact of what we’d done, the idea of this becoming a full-time band started to come out.”
El Far3i said the hugely positive reception of the band’s work was a surprise but “not completely unanticipated.”

BALFRON PROMISE | وعد بلفرون

A post shared by 47SOUL السبعة و أربعين (@47soul) on

“We had that feeling when you’re writing songs with friends and you go, ‘man! If we did this… I bet it’ll go hard and people will feel it.’ That feeling of what you think the collective musical mindset can receive at that point in time,” he said. “It feels very good to see it was received well. The tracks also resonated a lot in Palestine, specifically, and in Syria. People felt like this is something connected to how they feel. Especially the youth. They’re proud that we’ve found a way to play their music outside their region.
“This isn’t the traditional form, clearly,” he added. “This has English in it. And guitars. It’s different, but it’s still understood that it’s an attempt to work with ‘our’ music.”
The chemistry between the four, onstage and off, has much to do with the band’s success.
“I’d say the four of us had a high interest in creating something new and claiming a genre that has to do with where we’re from. The relationship of each of us with that — as in Syrian and Palestinian music — is different in terms of the music we listen to, but we all share that interest,” El Far3i explained. “I think that’s the main reason (we work well together); that feeling of pride in doing music that does represent — or at least hint at — our culture’s music, given that our culture, identity-wise and existential-wise, is facing a lot of obstacles and oppression.
“But the other area is very sonic,” he continued. “We all find the sounds of the wind instruments that we play on keyboards in this genre of Arabic music very interesting and we thought it could go different places. We want to be the band experimenting with this kind of sound, regardless of how experimental we go on some tracks and how shaabi, or traditional, we try to keep it. In both directions, we feel it’s worth exploring for a good part of our musical journey.”
The fact that their journey has taken them to London is partly because of that appearance at Shubbak Festival in 2013. But it has also, ironically, proved easier for the four band members to actually be in the same location in the UK than it was in the Middle East.
“The four of us cannot exist in a lot of Arab countries at the same time — at least not for any length of time — because of our passports,” El Far3i said. “That’s a reality. And it’s a reality for many musicians in the region. And people in the region. There’s a problem here with communication. That’s our story at the end of the day, and our people’s story.
“But,” he adds. “It’s not the only part of our story.”
That is an important distinction that gets to the heart of what 47Soul are about. Despite the obvious frustration and anger at the heart of their lyrics, they also try to find light in the darkness.
El Far3i pointed out that the power of social media and the many online channels for music distribution has given alternative Arab artists, who traditionally struggled to be heard, new opportunities.
“To be frank, alternative music — or non-commercial music, let’s say — in the Arab world is consumed on the Internet,” El Far3i explained. “So your geographical location, or where you make it, stops being important.”
It is an opportunity the band have fully exploited, and one which has allowed their music to reach a truly global audience.
The new album takes that into account. The title “Balfron Promise” is a clear reference to the Balfour Promise, which first established the state of Israel and drove their families from their homes in Palestine. But it also refers to Balfron Towers in London, where the band resided for some time and which has now been sold to a luxury developer. The band immediately saw parallels between gentrification and occupation — the implication that one group of people is somehow more important or supposedly valuable than another — as well as an obvious joke about the similarity between the names “Balfron” and “Balfour.”
“But the idea that started as a joke actually became the reality,” El Far3i explained. “Palestine was lost because people were told to leave on the promise that they would be getting something different. The idea of gentrified neighborhoods is all over the world, of course, but especially in a city like London, you’ll see the gentrified neighborhood issue where people have to leave because some other people want to expand and capitalize, so some people lose their houses. It’s not very different from the idea of colonization and occupation and the story of Palestine. This is the line of connection. It’s comparing gentrification and saying that the pain people feel is kind of the same. At the end of the day, the issue of war is the issue of home. And the issue of gentrification is the issue of home. And it’s based on capital, you know?
“It was enough to elaborate on some ideas that we’d written in that tower, and a little before and after that. So we made it the theme of the album, and it’s kind of a shout out to London,” he continued.
Although their lyrics tackle thorny social issues, 47Soul are, at their heart, a party band — “this is dance music,” El Far3i stressed. Ultimately, their music is a celebration of their culture, their history, and “the idea of return.” That celebration is clear in their live shows.
“The wildness comes from the actual sound, and the beats,” El Far3i said. “That’s why Arab parties get wild — because they use these rhythms, and the consistency in the rhythm keeps you in it, you do deeper inside the beat, kind of a trance.
“Maybe the first five or ten minutes you’re warming up, but after that, it’s over, you know? People will be jumping and moving. I think that’s the reason for the wildness,” he continued. “I would thank these ancient beats that have been around for thousands of years for that.”


Middle Eastern art exhibition celebrates life and work of Kahlil Gibran

Updated 16 August 2018
0

Middle Eastern art exhibition celebrates life and work of Kahlil Gibran

LONDON: What is it about the work of the famed Lebanese poet, writer and artist Kahlil Gibran that touches the hearts of so many people across the world today, decades on from his death in 1931? An exhibition of art inspired by his writings held this month at Sotheby’s in London provided an opportunity to consider that question
“Kahlil Gibran: A Guide for our Times” was organized by the peace building movement, Caravan, and co-curated by Janet Rady and Marion Fromlet Baecker. It featured work by 38 artists from across the Middle East. The vision for the exhibition grew out of a recent book on Gibran titled “In Search of a Prophet: A Spiritual Journey with Kahlil Gibran” by the Rev. Canon Paul-Gordon Chandler, Caravan’s founding president.
Chandler is committed to breaking down cultural, racial and religious barriers. Through the Caravan initiative he has hosted numerous exhibitions using art to build bridges between the Middle East and the West. He sees the message contained in Gibran’s 1923 book “The Prophet” as profoundly relevant today.
Speaking to Arab News at the packed-out event, he said: “All the artists in this exhibition are trying to express how they have been inspired, challenged and encouraged by Gibran’s themes of peace, love and harmony for all of humanity. The thread running through all the work is the unique role that Gibran plays in reminding us that we are one family.
“The idea of the Caravan movement is that we are all journeying together, regardless of background, tradition or religion,” he continued. “The arts have a unique role in peace-building between the Middle East and the West.”
Lebanese-Syrian artist Rana Chalabi, who was raised in Lebanon, said she first read “The Prophet” at school, but made a point of re-reading it several times before starting work on her contribution to the piece, “On Giving.”
Her painting shows a throng of people gazing upwards at a transcendent figure — the Prophet — who seems to shimmer above the multitude in hues of gold.
“To me, Gibran’s Prophet represents an enlightened mystic,” she explained. “He was so ahead of his time and such a spiritual person.”
For Chalabi, Gibran’s work continues to resonate. “The wisdom of Gibran is very much needed today,” she said. “He could explain his ideas in a simple way to people. In his day he was misunderstood and branded a heretic by those who missed the essence of what he was saying and took his teachings at a very superficial level.”
Chalabi was clearly pleased to have been invited to submit work to Caravan’s exhibition.
“I believe in what Rev. Chandler is trying to do,” she said. “We have to bridge the differences in the world and try to understand each other’s religions, cultures and perspectives.”
Bahraini artist Lulwa Al-Khalifa showed a striking painting of a woman, titled
“Blind Faith.” The starkly expressive figure looks perplexed and stares out from the painting with an abstract and tense expression.
Al-Khalifa said: “There are a lot of emotions I wanted to convey through this work. I was exploring the concept of faith and how sometimes people have to abandon some of the ideas that give them their own sense of identity and take a leap of faith. I consider the question ‘How much of you are you prepared to surrender for your faith?’ Faith is surrender with cause but without proof. Sometimes people have to face ambivalence, fear and anxiety on this journey.”
Al-Khalifa also stressed how relevant Gibran outlook remains today.
“I love how Gibran explored many aspects of many themes. His thought process is very fresh and modern — even today,” she said. “It is not rigid, but very hopeful and expresses love and acceptance.
“I really believe that all people are united as human beings. But we try so hard to separate from each other, even though in reality we all have the same concerns and loves and hates. We should come together,” she continued.
Lebanese artist Christine Saleh Jamil echoed Al-Khalifa’s sentiments. “Gibran means so much to me. Reading his book ‘The Prophet’ taught me a lot about life, how to live peacefully and accept things in a harmonious way,” she said. “His message is very important today.”
Jamil created “The Wanderer,” a captivating image of Gibran as a child, for the exhibition. Her work, she said, was based on a photograph and inspired by Chandler’s book, which, she said, “took me back to my childhood in Beirut.”
“That’s why I chose to represent Gibran as a child and in this image you see his face set among birch trees, as he loved nature,” she explained.
Lebanon’s ambassador to the UK, Rami Mortada — a special guest at the event — spoke to Arab News about Gibran’s legacy.
“The interest shown here tonight and the big turnout is an indication of how the message he stands for is relevant, badly needed and timely in our world today,” Mortada said. “It is a message of harmony and peace, of removing barriers between nations and cultures, and of interfaith dialogue. This is what Gibran encapsulated. If I had to sum up his work up in one word, I would say (it is) inspirational.”
Another ambassador, Dr. Alisher Shaykhov from Uzbekistan, stressed that Gibran’s work is of truly global significance.
“Gibran’s fame extends far beyond the Middle East. He is a person who has succeeded in transferring the spirit of the Islamic people in a harmonious way,” he observed. “One of his most important messages is that of the unifying elements, rather than the differences, between religions. He has a gift of being able to express the feelings of the people. The artists here, imbued with his spirit, have transferred his message through their artworks in their own personal way.”
Art enthusiast Mira Takla said she had attended a number of ‘Caravan’ art events and always found their message very persuasive.
“As far as I am concerned these events do more for interracial understanding and comprehension and tolerance of different cultures than many other such initiatives,” she said.
Another guest. Anthony Wynn, gave a good example of Gibran’s cross-cultural appeal, pointing out that he had often heard Gibran quoted at weddings in the UK — particularly a verse from “On Marriage” from “The Prophet”:
“Love one another, but make not a bond of love/Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls/Fill each other’s cup but drink not from one cup/Give one another of your bread but eat not from the same loaf/Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone/Even as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music.”