Category Archives: History

Retromania and resistance: Record label MaJazz Project reissues new dawn for unsung Palestinian pioneers

This article was written by Benjamin Ashraf and originally published by The New Arab.

In what became a cult classic of musicology, Simon Reynolds’s Retromania describes a Western culture intent on self-cannibalism.

Exhausted by consumerism and technological acceleration, the book claims the West has become a Zeit without a Geist; where the recurrence of older styles has replaced the possibility of innovation. Ideals are defeated by pastiche and futures are stunted by late capitalism’s urge to reminisce.

But while Reynolds can level such a charge at the Global North, can the same be said for the Global South?

“In each cassette reel and crackled vinyl lies not only forgotten Palestinian melodies but the fractured lives of its listeners”

More specifically, can the same really be said about cultural production in Palestine, where to exist is to resist? And can the very things Reynolds labels as problematic – remixing, reissuing, resampling, and reproducing past trends – instead keep the memory of and hope for a Palestinian nation alive?

This is the intriguing story of the 1980s Palestinian folk group Al Fajer, retold by the Palestinian sonic archive, research journal and record label MaJazz Project.

Out of time and place

Mo’min Swaitat, the founder of MaJazz Project, cuts a unique figure among London’s record label owners.

Surrounded by a faceless haze of ‘world music’ aficionados and diggers, Mo’min’s MaJazz Project – a Palestinian-owned label releasing Palestinian music – is a welcome departure from the saviour types that own the repress market.

We all know them. Went backpacking in [insert exotic country here] only to fall in love with the music, returning home with a limited catalogue of the classics. And whilst it’s not our place to judge their motives, it raises concerns about the co-option of imported sounds to a wider, whiter audience.

One look at MaJazz’s releases instead reveals a discography dense with anecdotal histories, sourced by a child of the country with a stake in its future. Its first album reissue, Riad and Hanan Awwad’s The Intifada 1987 proves this identity case and point.

Produced one week after the First Intifada began in 1987 – the first album released after the outbreak of the uprising – The Intifada 1987 was a family effort; utilising keyboards and synthesisers then synonymous with funk to express a DIY initiative now natural to the Palestinian cause.

Despite distributing 3,000 cassettes of the album on the streets of Jerusalem’s Old City, the Israeli Army confiscated all the copies they could, with most continuing to remain in military archives today.

Had it not been for the fortuitous work of Mo’min and friends the cassette would have been lost. Mahmoud Darwish’s involvement as a co-writer on the album would have also been forgotten and with it a wondrously rhythmic example of Palestinian cross-pollination.

These instances of cross-pollination preserve the Palestinian experience post-Nakba and so inform the releases MaJazz Project puts out.

Whether field recordings of the Palestinian Black Panthers jamming in the mountains of Jenin or the label’s upcoming release – a compilation of Kuwait-based Palestinian folk group Al Fajer – MaJazz Project is not only tied to the separation of space and place but how music can provide a glimpse into shared Palestinian consciousness.

So as The New Arab sat down with MaJazz and Al Fajer, the idea that in each cassette reel and crackled vinyl lies not only forgotten Palestinian melodies but the fractured lives of its listeners seemed somewhat appropriate.

A rightful revolution

In an article essentially about the merits of old and new, it was fitting that The New Arab interviewed a 1980s folk band over Zoom.

Now in their 50s, the long-disbanded group were once the darlings of the Palestinian diaspora in Kuwait, with their regional success branching out to festival-packed performances across Europe and the Middle East. “Not bad for a bunch of amateurs,” laughed Jamil Sarraj, the group’s oud player.

Ironically, Al Fajer’s rejection of the then ‘trend’ contributed to their initial success.

At the time of the band’s peak, the late 1980s and early 1990s saw a surge of accessible electronic instruments enter the Arab market.

For Al Fajer – Arabic for The Dawn – such sounds were to be avoided. Each band member cherished the soul of the oud and shebbabeh too much to be enticed by the digital wave, with Al Fajer member Dr Bashar Shammout commenting that “amid such chaotic circumstances, we wanted… and felt people needed… a calming classical influence.”

Jamil (left), Sima (centre) and Bashar (right) of Al Fajer performing at East Germany’s Festival of Political Songs, Berlin, 1989 [photo credit: Mahmoud Dabdoub]

The circumstances that Bashar alludes to were of course the First Intifada. Sparked by the Israel Army’s murder of four Palestinians in Gaza’s Jabaliya refugee camp, the Intifada shook off the shackles that bound Palestinians and sparked a revolutionary mobilisation that would last six years, the ripples of which continue to be felt.

And much like the nida’ – or appeals – of political pamphlets distributed among the streets, musicians and artists alike would galvanise the public in their own way, as Edward Said wrote in Intifada and Independence, to create “a focused will”.

Whether Sliman Mansour’s artistic interpretation of sumud, Naji Al-Ali’s stirring caricatures or Al Fajer’s calming call to endure, each had to role to play.

“When we established the band during the First Intifada there were two streams of music in Palestine and the Palestinian diaspora,” Bashar explained to The New Arab.

“On the one hand, you had the stuff authorised by the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) which was ultra-nationalistic and in your face about revolution and resistance.

“On the other hand, you had bands like us and Sabreen who adopted a different mindset. Our thinking was ‘how can we get our message of a confident Palestinian identity across in a subtle, implicit way?’ You don’t need to be loud to distribute your message, you can avoid the Israeli authorities and stir the audience in your own way.”

One look at Palestinian music today and Al Fajer’s vision seems somewhat prophetic. With time, Palestinian music has evolved from sounding hyper-political to more mundane reflections of daily life. With it, more organic notions of nationhood have emerged.

The legacy then of Al Fajer lies not only in their talent but in the message they carry. Sima Kanaan, Al Fajer’s lead singer agreed: “That’s why I think re-issuing our album on MaJazz is so timely. We realised early on that the Palestinian struggle for liberation was also about a global struggle for human rights.

“Our struggle will always be about the land, but the Palestinian narrative today has increasingly shifted towards rights. It’s satisfying to know that our thirty-year-old message continues to resonate.”

A series of unfortunate events

Al Fajer’s perennial messaging and music would take them all over the world, playing to festival goers in their thousands. In particular, their involvement in East Berlin’s 1989 Festival of Political Songs drew special acclaim and is remembered fondly.

“You need to remember; we weren’t professional musicians. Our success was spontaneous. Yet here we were performing in Berlin…it was remarkable really,” said Jamil. “After we performed our song Halalalaya, the 5,000-strong audience shouted ‘Zugabe’ which we figured meant encore.”

Al Fajer’s folk frees us from a modern Palestinian history tainted by Israeli aggression whilst acting as an antidote for Palestinians living under day-to-day occupation”

Bashar also chimed in with an anecdote from the East German festival: “Backstage after our performance, the popular German musician Esther Béjarano came to greet us. She was known as one of the last survivors of Auschwitz and for her involvement in the Women’s Orchestra of Auschwitz.

“She loved our performance so much she wanted us to sing together. We agreed but only if she sang in Arabic, so we sat there teaching her a transliteration of our lyrics. That festival and that performance was a special moment for us.”

For Palestinians today, Al Fajer epitomise a calming and confident expression of Palestinian identity [photo credit: Mahmoud Dabdoub]

However, as Palestinians are all too aware, moments of euphoria are often followed by periods of strife. “The fall of the Berlin wall changed everything. One day we were accepted as heroes, the next we were pariahs,” lamented Bashar, who now lectures on cultural heritage in Germany. “East Germany was sympathetic to our struggle and supported us [the Palestinians] with cultural and political funding. Since reunification, the policies of the German Government toward the Palestinians have become very antagonistic.”

Jamil continues. “Then Iraq invaded Kuwait. So in one year, we’d gone from playing festivals to being without a place we could call home.” The two events dealt a hammer blow to Al Fajer and the group disbanded soon after, with the band members now scattered around the world.

In reissuing Al Fajer’s work, MaJazz Project has not only given a new life to their music – dormant now for over 30 years, but to past conditions where Al Fajer’s music had been publicly celebrated.

As Bashar alluded to, Germany today treats Palestinians quite differently. Palestinian memorials and Nakba demonstrations are pre-emptively banned under the pretext of anti-Semitism, and visible symbols of Palestinian identity are routinely targeted. This has led to a consistently hostile environment for Palestinians and their allies.

Conversely, Al Fajer’s music gives us an insight into what Kuwait meant for Palestinians during the late 1980s. “It’s very important to mention that Kuwait was an oasis for the Palestinian resistance,” remarked Sima. “The heads of the PLO – including Arafat – used to live in Kuwait, and there were around 400,000 of us living there at the time. It’s important to link our music to this community, people were attached to our music because they were attached to the resistance. In other countries, Jordan for example, this wouldn’t have happened.”

Reissued and reunited

Listening to the album pre-release, it’s no surprise that Al Fajer continues to be flooded with messages. Jamil’s chords have a nostalgic feel that suspends the listener in his grasp, whilst Sima’s vocals both soothe and compel.

What Reynolds’s Retromania, therefore, failed to consider was the possibility that rather than being enslaved by the past, there are certain realities in which it sets you free. The tragedy of Palestine is one of them.

Al Fajer’s folk frees us from a modern Palestinian history tainted by Israeli aggression whilst acting as an antidote for Palestinians living under day-to-day occupation. And it is precisely this message of confident compassion that will scare the Israeli authorities the most. An amateur Palestinian group: a Professor, an HR expert, and a World Bank official has had a lasting positive impact on the national psyche.

Whilst Al Fajer indeed became a victim of their times, MaJazz has breathed new life, and optimism, into the group. “Palestinian music should be given another life,” said Mo’min. “But this time we release it on our terms. We no longer need to explain ourselves; our story is our story.”

Together, they are proof that music is an artform not primarily about social and political authority but a means by which a community can engage itself in a generous, non-coercive and attainable way. And as we’ve learnt from Al Fajer and MaJazz, it is then possible to turn victimhood into celebration. 

Benjamin Ashraf is The New Arab’s Deputy Features Editor. He is also a Visiting Research Fellow at the University of Jordan’s Center for Strategic Studies.

Follow him on Twitter: @ashrafzeneca

Cover image retrieved from MaJazz’s Soundcloud page.


Bella Ciao: A travelling anthem of resistance

This article was originally written by Ananya Wilson-Bhattacharya and published by The New Arab.


Ananya Wilson-Bhattacharya explains why the revolutionary protest song, ‘Bella Ciao’ continues to play a role in global struggles today, and how it has served anti-government Gota Go Gama protests in Sri Lanka which forced the president to resign.

Earlier this summer, a video from the Sri Lankan ‘Gota Go Gama’ protests circulated online: the president Gotabaya Rajapaksa had finally resigned, and protestors were singing a Singhala version of ‘Bella Ciao’, the popular Italian song which was used in the Partisan anti-fascist resistance movement of the 1930s and 1940s. While the military violence and attacks on protestors in Sri Lanka continue, this was a clear moment of victorious celebration in the ongoing movement against the authoritarian regime.

The song – which details the singer’s awareness of their imminent death at the hands of the ‘invader’ and desire to die as a ‘partisan’ or freedom fighter – has been adapted by various anti-fascist movements globally prior to its use in the Gota Go Gama protests. In fact, the protests are part of a wider trend of anti-authoritarian resistance movements across South Asia in recent years, several of which have been characterised by new versions of ‘Bella Ciao’ in different languages.

”This cyclical, continual reproduction of ‘Bella Ciao’ across starkly contrasting yet uncannily similar contexts of protest is ultimately testament to the unifying power of protest music, as reproduced across time and space, in illuminating connections between struggles across decades, centuries and continents against a backdrop of evolving forms of capitalism.”

Symbolic image of the people’s revolution based on the series “La casa de papel”. Image by AbarcaVasti, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

Anthem of struggle

Certain features of the song have held throughout its reproduction across different contexts: its undeniable catchiness, and its clear theme of political resistance, despite drastic shifts in its lyrics. The song has even found its way beyond the realm of resistance movements into mainstream television, famously featuring in the hit Spanish crime drama Money Heist.

A Hindi adaptation of the song was released around the time of the mass protests against the fascistic Citizenship Amendment Act, or CAA, introduced in India in 2019. Broadly, the CAA aims to deny Indian citizenship to (Indian) Muslims; it is widely perceived as a step towards ethnic cleansing, indicating the current escalation of Modi’s Hindu supremacist regime into full-blown fascism.

Following the popularity of ‘Wapas Jao’, the songwriter, Poojan Sahil, subsequently penned a Punjabi version retaining the same melody with new lyrics, also entitled ‘Wapas Jao’ (‘Go Back’), for the large-scale Indian farmers’ movement protesting new anti-farmer legislation introduced by Modi’s government in 2020. These farm laws, which received global coverage and were largely retracted in Autumn 2021 following the year-long mass protests, were set to adversely affect poor farmers, and are widely seen to represent the ongoing corporate takeover of agriculture in India.

Both versions of ‘Wapas Jao’ have a similar theme lyrically to ‘Bella Ciao’ – although, as Sahil clarified, the songs are not translations. The Hindi version alludes to the fascism of the Indian government through the repeated line ‘go away, o you tyrant’, explicitly locating the singer within the resistance movement, and the song as an unmistakably anti-fascist anthem.

‘Wapas Jao’ (across both versions) also moves away from the somewhat personal lyrics of ‘Bella Ciao’, which uses the singular pronoun ‘I’ throughout (in contrast to ‘we’ in ‘Wapas Jao’) and captures the fear invoked by the rise of fascism through the line ‘I feel death approaching’. By contrast, the lyrics of the Punjabi ‘Wapas Jao’ discuss the movement against the Indian government and the major companies which are profiting from the farm laws. Both versions of ‘Wapas Jao’ are thus references to the context of the original song which take its anti-fascist commentary a step further, situating themselves within a specific anti-fascist protest movement.

By pairing the original melody with a sparse acoustic guitar, these versions both highlight the timeless catchiness of ‘Bella Ciao’ as well as showing its versatility in lending itself to diverse musical styles – and languages – of different eras and locations. The case of ‘Bella Ciao’/ ‘Wapas Jao’ illustrates Walter Benjamin’s suggestion that reproduction allows the work of art ‘to come closer to whatever situation the person apprehending it is in’, and thereby ‘actualises what is reproduced’.

Interestingly, the anti-fascist or partisan ‘Bella Ciao’ is not, in fact, the original version -despite being the best-known – but is adapted from the ‘mondine’ version, which originated as a folk song sung by mainly women paddy workers (mondine) in Northern Italy in the late 19th century in protest against harsh working conditions. This agrarian context is evoked – intentionally on Sahil’s part – by the Punjabi version of ‘Wapas Jao’ centred on the farmers’ movement, which includes the lyrics ‘each grain of soil sings in chorus’.

Taking on the tyrant

Whilst the anti-fascist version of ‘Bella Ciao’ focused on resistance against ‘the invader’ as opposed to ‘the boss’ of the original version, the Punjabi ‘Wapas Jao’ evokes a new kind of invader – or ‘tyrant’ – the Indian government and the companies taking over Indian agriculture, which are being urged to ‘go back’ by agricultural workers. This version recalls the voice and perspective of the original song, in a new political, geographical, and temporal context.

Indeed, this evoking of the original version also underlines the concentration of agricultural workers in the Global South and their relative decline in the Global North during the 20th century.

Having originally been centred on workers’ experiences, and subsequently been reproduced and adapted in various contexts of anti-fascism, ‘Bella Ciao’ is once again being used to shed light on (agricultural) workers’ struggles through the Punjabi ‘Wapas Jao’.

Through both versions, meanwhile, Sahil arguably utilises the fame of ‘Bella Ciao’ as an anthem of resistance against the widely-known rise of fascism in 1930s Europe, referencing the song through reproduction as a way to emphasise the gravity of the current situation in India through implicit comparison.

This cyclical, continual reproduction of ‘Bella Ciao’ across starkly contrasting yet uncannily similar contexts of protest is ultimately testament to the unifying power of protest music, as reproduced across time and space, in illuminating connections between struggles across decades, centuries and continents against a backdrop of evolving forms of capitalism.

The Gota Go Gama protestors singing ‘Bella Ciao’ sends an affirmingly hopeful message – that the movement recognises itself as situated within a history of people’s struggles all sharing the same determination for change, from the anti-fascists in Italy to the farmers in India and everything in between and beyond.

Ananya Wilson-Bhattacharya is a writer, activist and co-editor of Red Pepper magazine, interested in arts and culture and social movements.

Follow her on Twitter: @AnanyaWilson

Cover photo by AntanO. Image licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.


The Kuti Clan Protesting Through Music, And Other Nigerians Who Sang Against Apartheid

Femi and Seun Kuti, have kept Fẹlá’s protest music alive.

Orlando Julias’ band (Nigeria). Image by Steve Terrell, September 26, 2015 (CC BY 2.0)

This article was written by Nwachukwu Egbunike and originally published by Global Voices on 31st of March 2022.


Nigerian musicians have been very vocal about social injustice in the country. The term protest music as a genre, which gained popular cultural validity in the 1970s, has continued to date. These songs fought military dictatorship, apartheid in South Africa, and police brutality, as part of the youth-led #EndSARS protests.

The father of Nigerian protest music

An artistic representation of Fẹlá Aníkúlápò Kútì. Image by Danny PiG uploaded to Flickr on September 11, 2012. (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Fẹlá Aníkúlápò Kútì (1938–1997), the father of protest music in Nigeria, employed his distinctive Afrobeat genre with lyrics that were replete with “sarcastic humor, rebellion against authority, and political consciousness” as a means of fighting social injustice, notes Titilayo Remilekun Osuagwu, a culture scholar in Nigeria’s University of Port Harcourt.

Fẹlá’s genius lied in his conceptualization of the root causes of oppression. That’s why his music has remained — to date — a powerful tool in the “sustenance of ongoing protests,” asserts Olukayode ‘Segun Eesuola, a political science scholar in Nigeria’s University of Lagos. In the course of his over three decades-long musical career, he heightened the political consciousness of generations of Nigerian citizens. However, this attracted brutal visitations from security agents of successive Nigerian governments.

Understandably, most of Fẹlá‘s music was directed against the excesses of successive military governments in the country. Nigeria was under military dictatorship for 29 years (from 1966 to 1979 and 1983 to 1999).

At the time of his death in 1997, Fẹlá fiery musical body of work had earned him a place “in global consciousness as a quintessential ‘political musician,’” asserts Tejumola Olaniyan, professor of African Languages and Literature at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in his seminal book “Arrest the Music! Fela & His rebel art and politics.”

Femi and Seun Kuti, like father like sons

Fẹlá’s two sons, Femi and Seun, have inherited and “carried forward” their father’s passion for social justice through music.

Femi Kuti, performing at Warszawa Cross Culture Festival. Image by Henryk Kotowski via Wikimedia Commons, 25 September 2011 (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Femi Kuti, Fẹlá’s eldest son, is an accomplished Afrobeat musician and saxophonist in his own right. Femi’s songs like “Sorry Sorry“, “What Will Tomorrow Bring” and “’97” — do not spare Nigeria’s corrupt and incompetent rulers. For instance, in “Sorry Sorry”, Femi laments the hypocritical attempt by the ruling elites, who in secret destroy the nation but pretend at finding solutions in public:

“Politicians and soldiers hold meetings/they want to repair our country/ they behave as though/ they don’t know/ that they are the ones who spoilt our country.”

Femi, a multiple Grammy nominee, is as brash and impatient as his late father. In an interview with Vanguard, a Nigeria newspaper, in February 2011, he decimated Nigeria’s corrupt class: “It is very evident that things are very bad in our country; politicians keep stealing money, we don’t have good roads, proper education, and potable water and so on. I can’t accept that. The majority of Nigerians are suffering. I don’t accept this and my father showed us a way to complain through music and that is what I am doing.”

Seun Kuti at the 2008 Marsatac Festival in Marseille, France. Image by Benoît Derrier via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Fẹlá’s youngest son, Seun Kuti is a musician and social justice advocate. Seun was an active participant in the 2012 #OccupyNigeria protests against the gas price hikes. He was also involved in the 2020 #EndSARS protests.

Seun has been described as the “Prince of Afrobeats,” in the footsteps of his father, the king of Afrobeat. Toyin Falola, Nigerian historian and professor of African Studies further asserts that: “Seun’s alignment did not start recently. He showed an early interest in music, especially the type of music his father sings, and he started to perform alongside Fela and the Egypt 80 band when he was just nine years old. It would not be out of place to call that a prodigious act.”

Nigerian voices against Apartheid in South Africa

Cover of Sonny Okosun’s Vinyl record

Critical music against political leadership was not limited to military dictatorship alone.

Nigerian musicians like Sonny Okosun, Majek Fashek, Onyeka Onwenu — and many others — also protested against apartheid in South Africa, calling for the release of Nelson Mandela.

Sonny Okosun (1947—2008), Nigeria’s highlife and reggae star, in “Papa’s Land” (1977) and “Fire in Soweto” (1978) condemned the suppression of black South Africans by their apartheid governments.

Following in Okosun’s footsteps was Nigeria’s guitarist and reggae star, Majek (Majekodunmi) Fashek (1963-2020) dedicated his song “Free Africa, Free Mandela” to South Africa’s Nelson Mandela, whom he described as a prisoner of conscience.

Onyeka Onwenu (Image credit from Onyeka Onwenu Facebook Fan Club)

However, one of the most endearing and emotional protest renditions against apartheid came from Nigeria’s singer, actress, and journalist Onyeka Onwenu in her song, “Winnie Mandela.” Onwenu described Winnie Mandela as the “soul of a nation, fighting to be free!”

Onwenu explained that she wrote the song after watching a documentary about the Mandelas, which moved her to tears. She “identified” with Winnie’s “loneliness and some of her pain.” During the sleepless night that followed, the Nigerian musician put her “pain to a song” to “give something back to Winnie for the sacrifice of her life to the Apartheid struggle,” Onwenu wrote in April 2018.

Other Nigerians who sang against the social injustice of apartheid were Victor Essiet and the Mandators in the song “Apartheid.”