Palestinian Music

Palestinian Music
Blending Levantine Sounds and the Power of Poetry

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Palestine Broadcasting Station's "Oriental Band"

The "oriental band" (takht) of the Palestine Broadcasting Station entertaining guests at a private party, Jerusalem , 1940.

G. Eric and Edith Matson Photograph Collection

Palestinian music is an organic part of Arab music, and more specifically, of the music from the Levant . Nevertheless, music composed by Palestinians has a unique character: on one hand, it uses Palestinian folklore as a foundation for musical composition; on the other, it draws on the different genres of world music that have penetrated Palestine since the late nineteenth century. Ultimately, this has created a distinctive Palestinian musical diversity and sound. 

Music Prior to the Nakba

Information about music in Palestine, including information about Palestinian musicians, prior to the twentieth century, is quite scarce; this is a period that deserves further research. More is known about Palestinian music in the first half of the twentieth century, in large part thanks to the memoirs of Jerusalem musician Wasif Jawhariyyeh (1897–1973), who describes a sophisticated, modern musical life during the Ottoman period and afterwards during the British Mandate. Palestine was clearly an important passageway for musicians traveling between Egypt and the Levant; they held concerts in Jerusalem, Jaffa , and other Palestinian cities and influenced musicians in those regions.

From the end of the nineteenth century to the early twentieth century, several western Christian missionary schools had been founded. These schools brought western classical music and the practice of writing musical notation to Palestine, which paved the way for the development of written musical composition in the country. Franciscan monks were among the first to teach music to Palestinian children and youth to prepare them to perform in church services. One of the first Palestinians to study under the monks was Augustin Lama (1901–88), who then taught classical western music to other Palestinian musicians. Among Lama’s most well-known students were Salvador Arnita (1914–84) and Yousef Khasho (1927–96). Lama composed primarily for the church. Arnita studied music in Italy ; prior to the Nakba, he was instrumental in promoting classical music, a genre whose popularity remained fairly limited at the time.

Established in 1936, Radio Jerusalem played a critical role in fostering musical production during the British Mandate period in Palestine (1920–48). Radio programs were broadcast in three separate divisions, Arabic, Hebrew, and English. The British-owned radio soon became a hub for musical production and attracted musicians from Palestine and neighboring Arab countries, who came to broadcast or record their works. Most musicians at the time did not read musical notation, and so music was circulated through the oral tradition. Yusuf Batruni , a teacher and composer, studied the principles of western music, but he also composed Arab music, and was entrusted with the task of teaching other musicians how to read and write musical notation as practiced in the West. Other prominent musicians from this period were Yahya al-Libabidi (1900–41), who ran the Arab music division of Radio Palestine, Rawhi al-Khammash (1923–98), Mohamed Ghazi (1922–79), Yahya al-Saudi (1905–65), and Riad al-Bandak (1924–92). All of these musicians composed in the traditional Arab genre of music and based their compositions on classical Arabic poetry and the muwashsha1 or the taqtuqa.2 Radio Palestine was popular in Palestinian circles on a grassroots level; unlike private homes, many public coffee shops had radios, and men gathered to listen to the music it broadcast.

Music after the Nakba

Most of the Palestinian musicians who were forced to flee their homeland as a result of the Nakba in 1948 found refuge in neighboring countries, where they continued their musical lives. Al-Khammash moved to Iraq , al-Bandak moved to Syria and later Egypt, while Ghazi and Arnita moved to Lebanon . Many other musicians moved to Amman and later worked for the Jordanian radio station. Radio Palestine moved to Cyprus , and as a result, Jerusalem as a city no longer played a central role in Arab music, as it had done for the twelve years prior to the Nakba. For the small group of musicians and composers who remained in Palestine, life had come to a standstill; over time, however, some started composing music again, and Birzeit College played an important role in the revival and production of music during this period. Musicians affiliated with that community college included Yusuf Batruni; Rima Nasser Tarazi (b. 1932), who had studied under Arnita before pursuing piano classes in France ; and Amin Nasser (b. 1935), who also studied under Arnita as well as Khasho before continuing his musical studies in Germany . This exceptional trio composed national anthems that told of Palestinians’ displacement and that tried to rally popular sentiment for the cause. The nationalist poetry of Kamal Nasir (1925–73), who was later assassinated by the Israeli Mossad in Beirut , provided the three composers with lyrics.

A New Kind of Music after 1967

Palestinian musical output changed significantly after 1967, when Israel occupied the rest of Palestine. A new kind of music emerged in opposition to the new occupation, and what became known as “committed songs” gained prominence alongside the national anthems that had been popular before. Mustafa al-Kurd  and the group al-Bara‘em were among the most important names associated with the new music of the early 1970s. There were also developments outside Palestine; in Syria, the Palestine Liberation Organization created its own official ensemble, al-Ashiqeen. Hussein Nazek (b. 1940), a musician from Jerusalem who had studied under Yousef Khasho, composed music for the group, and the poetry of Ahmed Dahbour (b. 1946) was fitting for the unique experience of the group. Nazek’s work in particular gave a sense of how the character of contemporary Palestinian music was changing. Nazek took popular Palestinian music and skillfully infused it with traditional Arab music he had studied, while taking advantage of his theoretical musical knowledge. The music he composed had a particular character and greatly influenced the musical taste of Palestinian listeners. Other prominent composers from the Diaspora were Abu Arab (1931–2014) and Mahdi Abu Serdaneh (1940–2016), two composers at the main PLO radio station broadcasting from Cairo .

In the early 1980s, the musical group Sabreen, with Said Murad , as composer, and Kamilya Jubran , as the lead singer, appeared on the scene. The group created music with a distinctly emerging Palestinian flavor. Composer Murad drew upon both Arab and world musical traditions to create a distinctive musical fusion. Several Palestinian groups and performers followed in Murad’s footsteps, including dance troupes for which he composed. The late poet Hussein Barghouti was a key source of lyrics for Murad's compositions. Sabreen as an ensemble continued to perform until lead singer Kamilya Jubran left the group in 2002, after which it focused on musical education and production. Another group that had an important effect on Palestinian music was al-Funoun Palestinian Popular Dance Troupe; its collaboration with composer and author of this essay, Suhail Khoury  (b. 1963), laid building blocks for what could influence the direction of Palestinian music. Khoury studied music with Amin Nasser before continuing his music studies in the United States and later the United Kingdom . Like Nazek’s experience with al-Ashiqeen, Khoury drew upon his musical knowledge and took inspiration from popular folklore, which he adapted throughout his musical works. Wasim al-Kurdi 's poetry and song lyrics were a main source for Khoury's works. Other important popular musical figures at the time were Walid Abdul Salam and Jameel al-Sayih , whose powerful political songs were widely known.  

Although most of the music emerging from the Palestinian areas occupied in 1948 bore resemblance to the music from the Arab world, important musical figures emerged who made original contributions. Musicians who gained prominence in their communities include Rim Banna , a Nazareth singer and composer with a unique vocal style and the musical group Yu‘ad led by Nabil Azar as well as Amal Murcos .

The First Intifada : A Turning Point

The first intifada, which began in late 1987, did not initially inspire new kinds of music. Musicians primarily created music by combining well-known folkloric songs with new lyrics, which spoke to current conditions and called on people to rise up against the occupation. Nevertheless, the surge of popular revolution left its mark on Palestinian musicians, who felt the need to start laying the foundations of a future free nation. Towards this end, in 1991, preparations to establish the first music conservatory in Palestine began, and in 1993 the National Conservatory of Music opened. Later renamed the Edward Said National Conservatory of Music, it functioned under the umbrella of Birzeit University . Among the important contributions of the conservatory was its focusing on Arab music and its developing curriculum around it. Many professional musicians have graduated from the conservatory, thus changing dramatically the Palestinian musical scene and encouraging new musical compositions.

Shortly after the National Conservatory was founded, several other music schools were also established. The most important among these is the Magnificat Institute in Jerusalem, which is affiliated with the Franciscan Order. The Magnificat Institute could be considered an extension of the work the monks began with Augustin Lama in the early twentieth century. Other important schools include the Al-Kamandjati Music Center in Ramallah  and Beit Almusica in Shafa 'Amr

The Twenty-First Century: New Beginnings

Since the early 2000s, young Palestinian musicians have been influenced by new types of music, particularly rap and hip-hop, which both have origins in America. There are many bands that perform this kind of music with Arabic lyrics, the most well-known of which is the group DAM.

With the music schools and the emergence of many professional musicians, many exceptional composers of non-commercial music have risen to prominence in the twenty-first century, including oud virtuoso players Simon Shaheen , Le Trio Joubran, Ahmad al-Khatib and Khaled Jubran , and song composers Khalid Sadouq , Habib Shehadeh , Issa Boulos , Odeh Turjman , and Basel Zayed . The music of these composers, amongst others, will undoubtedly shape the character of Palestinian music in the years to come.

National initiatives like the Palestine Youth Orchestra in 2004 and the Palestine National Orchestra in 2011, both created by the National Conservatory of Music, have also made substantial contributions to the music scene in Palestine and elevated it to the global level.

After the accumulation of experiences drawn from a variety of musical influences over more than a century, it is possible to sense the emergence of a new Palestinian musical personality. These experiences are connected by a common vision and a common sound that listeners can identify as an Arab sound with its uniquely Palestinian dimension. It is a sound seeking to establish its own personality, distinct from commercial Arab music: an Arab musical and cultural voice with a clear Palestinian character.

  • 1. A musical genre that originated in al-Andalus during the tenth century and is based on a strophic poem in classical Arabic with repeated rondo-like returns to a musical refrain.
  • 2. A genre of light song in colloquial Arabic.
Selected Bibliography: 

Al-Kurd, Mustafa. “Journey in The Palestinian Political Song.” This Week in Palestine, no.108 (April 2007): 36–37.

Jubran, Kamilya. “One Tune or the Other . . .  Musical Interrelations between Galilee and the West Bank.” This Week in Palestine, no.108 (April 2007): 26–30.

Kanaaneh, Moslim, Thorsen, Stig-Magnus, Bursheh, Heather, and McDonald, David A. Palestinian Music and Song. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013.

McDonald, David A. My Voice is My Weapon: Music, Nationalism, and the Poetics of Palestinian Resistance. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2013.

Morgan, Andy, and Adileh, Mu'tasem.  “Palestinian Music.” In Simon Broughton, Mark Ellingham, and Richard Trillo, eds., World Music, the Rough Guide, Volume 1, 385–390. London: Rough Guides, 1999.

Murad, Said. “Palestine: Between Creativity and Art Production.” This Week in Palestine, no.108 (April 2007): 42–44.

Ohannessian, Serop. “Got to be Rock 'n' Roll Music.” This Week in Palestine, no.108 (April 2007): 8–10.

Tarazi, Rima. “The Palestinian National Song: A Personal Testimony.” This Week In Palestine, no. 108 (April 2007), 4–6.

Touma, Habib Hassan. The Music of the Arabs. Portland, OR: Amadeus Press, 1996.

Willson, Rachel Beckles. Orientalism and Musical Mission, Palestine and the West. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

Zughbi, S. “Salvador Arnita, the Brahms of Palestine.” This Week In Palestine, no.108 (April 2007): 58–59.