Samer Rashed takes ‘Arabic gypsy jazz’ to the UK

The Palestinian viola player tours England this month to promote new album. (Supplied)
Updated 08 November 2019

Samer Rashed takes ‘Arabic gypsy jazz’ to the UK

CAIRO: “Think of a viola soloist presenting a fusion of gypsy jazz and Arabic music, then think of the viola — itself an underrated musical instrument in the Arab world — as the leading instrument of this blend,” Palestinian violist and composer Samer Rashed says of his singular musical project, ahead of his UK tour this month.

Between November 16 and 29, the Jerusalem-based musician and his trio will perform in London, Coventry, and Birmingham as part of a double-bill featuring British-Bahraini trumpet player Yazz Ahmed, before concluding their tour in Sheffield on the UN International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People.

The tour will bring Rashed’s second album, “Tales of the Gypsy Jazz,” to an international audience following its launch concert at Ramallah Municipality Theatre in May, which began his tour across Palestine. Now available on several streaming platforms, the album has created considerable buzz since its May release, with “April in Jerusalem” and “Wedding, for Zeina” in particular gaining acclaim.

In August, the magazine This Week in Palestine named Rashed “Artist of the month,” praising his new album for its “diverse range of upbeat and slow music that takes listeners on a variety of journeys and presents yet again an unprecedented employment of the viola as the key instrument in this genre.”




The Jerusalem-based musician and his trio will perform in London between Nov. 16-29. (Supplied)

Rashed’s success, the review continued, “sets a great example for young Palestinian musicians, showing them what can be accomplished with minimal resources and maximum ambition.”

Featuring seven original compositions all written by Rashed, the album was sponsored by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation and the Palestinian Performing Arts Network.

While Rashed’s signature sound certainly employs the “joyful and upbeat rhythms” typical of gypsy jazz, he says he is not interested in  “imitation of the genre’s features or the simple creation of musical replicas.”

“It’s not like listening to the music of Romani guitarist Jean Django Reinhardt or French jazz guitarist Biréli Lagrène,” Rashed says of his musical style. “I try to bring in my own interpretation of the genre.”




“Tales of the Gypsy Jazz” is Rashed’s second album. (Supplied)

In “Tales of the Gypsy Jazz,” that “interpretation” means the viola takes center stage, explains Rashed, and is apparent in the “musical experimentation” that underpins the compositions, particularly the inclusion of the accordion and buzuq.

Two years in the making, “Tales of the Gypsy Jazz,” builds on the success of Rashed’s first album, “Gypsy Rhapsodies,”” albeit in a “more experimental manner.”

Released in 2016, Rashed’s debut album also consisted of seven tracks; five original compositions in addition to “innovative rearrangements” of two traditional Arabic songs: “’Ala Moj al-Bahr” by Syrian singer Mayada Bsilis, and “Bint e-Shalabiyah” by Lebanese legend Fayrouz.

A 2012 graduate of the National Conservatory of Music in Jerusalem where he would later teach, Rashed chose to specialize in the viola (“a very challenging instrument,” he says) early on.




Rashed’s signature sound certainly employs the “joyful and upbeat rhythms” typical of gypsy jazz. (Supplied)

“It’s unusual to see instruments like the viola or violin become leading instruments or main solos in a music project, with other instruments like the piano, buzuq or accordion as only accompanying instruments,” Rashed says.

Determined to create his own viola-inspired sound, Rashed traveled to Istanbul in 2013 where he studied Turkish gypsy and jazz music with renowned Turkish violinist Nedim Nalbantoglu, before returning to Jerusalem and specializing in music composition.

He has since performed in music festivals across the Arab world and in Europe. He has played alongside established musicians including Lebanon’s Marcel Khalife at Beiteddine Art Festival and British violinist Nigel Kennedy at the The Proms in London.

Being invited to play at major festivals, is, Rashed says, a major boost for instrumental music, which remains underappreciated in the Arab world.

“People still believe that an instrumental performance is not worthy of their time,” he says. “But things are changing, and we are discovering that people are thirsty for change and are starting to like this music more.”


South Asian marriage websites under fire for color bias

Updated 12 July 2020

South Asian marriage websites under fire for color bias

DHAHRAN: An online backlash has forced the matrimonial website Shaadi.com to take down an ‘skin color’ filter which asked users to specify their skin color using descriptors such as fair, wheatish or dark. The filter on the popular site, which caters to the South Asian diaspora, was one of the parameters for matching prospective partners.

Meghan Nagpal, a Toronto-based graduate student, logged on to the website and was appalled to see the skin-color filter. “Why should I support such archaic view [in 2020]?” she told Arab News.

Nagpal cited further examples of implicit biases against skin color in the diaspora communities – women who are dark-skinned are never acknowledged as “beautiful” or how light-skinned South Asian women who are mistaken as Caucasian consider it a compliment.

“Such biases stem from a history of colonization and the mentality that ‘white is superior’,” she said.

When Nagpal emailed the website’s customer service team, she received the response that “this is what most parents require.” She shared her experience on a Facebook group, attracting the attention of Florida-based Roshni Patel and Dallas-based Hetal Lakhani. The former took to online activism by tweeting the company and the latter started an online petition.

Overnight, the petition garnered more 1,500 signatures and the site eventually removed the filter.

“Now is the time to re-evaluate what we consider beautiful. Colorism has significant consequences in our community, especially for women. People with darker skin experience greater prejudice, violence, bullying and social sanctions,” the petition reads. “The idea that fairer skin is ‘good’ and darker skin is ‘bad’ is completely irrational. Not only is it untrue, but it is an entirely socially constructed perception based in neo-colonialism and casteism, which has no place in the 21st century.”

Overnight, the petition garnered more 1,500 signatures and the site eventually removed the filter.

“When a user highlighted this, we were thankful and had the remnants removed immediately. We do not discriminate based on skin color and our member base is as diverse and pluralistic as the world,” a spokesperson said.

“If one company starts a movement like this, it can change minds and perceptions. This is a step in the right direction,” said Nagpal. Soon after, Shaadi.com’s competitor Jeevansathi.com also took down the skin filter from its website.

Colorism and bias in matrimony is only one issue; prejudices are deeply ingrained and widespread across society. Dr. Sarah Rasmi, a Dubai-based psychologist, highlights research and observations on how light skin is an advantage in society.

The website took down the skin filter following backlash.

“Dark skin tends to have lower socio-economic status and, in the US justice system, has been found to get harsher and more punitive sentences.

“These biases for fair as opposed to dark skin comes from colonial prejudices and the idea that historically, light skin has been associated with privilege, power and superiority,” she said.

However, in the wake of #BlackLivesMatter protests, change is underway.

Last month, Johnson & Johnson announced that it will be discontinuing its skin whitening creams in Asian and Middle Eastern markets, and earlier this month Hindustan Unilever Limited (Unilever’s Indian subsidiary) announced that it will remove the words ‘fair, white and light’ from its products and marketing. To promote an inclusive standard of beauty, it has also renamed its flagship Fair & Lovely product line to Glow & Lovely.

“Brands have to move away from these standards of beauty and be more inclusive so that people – regardless of their color, size, shape or gender – can find a role model that looks like them in the mass media,” said Dr. Rasmi.