Tag Archives: folk music

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.


Roma Musicians Discuss Inclusion In Larger Czech Community

While festivals often feature live Romani music, mainstream media outlets largely ignore it.

Roma music band Bengas. Photo by Jiří Bernovský, used with permission granted by Migel Milan Horvát.

This article was written by Elmira Lyapina. It was originally published by Global Voices (GB) on July 1st 2021 and is republished here according to the media partnership between GB and Shouts.


While Roma people are the largest ethnic minority in Czechia, comprising about 2.2 percent of its population, they are considered one of the most stigmatized and discriminated minorities in the nation. But even with the discrimination and undue stereotypes, the Roma people continue to have a huge social impact and are extremely prominent in Czechia’s music scene.

This author conversed with representatives of Czechia’s Roma music community about the prejudge and discrimination they face, the latest news of Roma oppression, and the borderless nature of music.

Roma minority and their social exclusion

Anti-Roma discrimination was brought to the forefront last month after a Romany man was killed by the police on June 19. The death triggered a wave of turmoil and protests within the Roma community as some Roma media compared the conflict to the George Floyd murder in the United States. Although it was determined by forensic autopsy examination that the police were not responsible for the man’s death, the case drew attention to tensions between the Czech majority and Roma national and ethnic minority.

These tensions are nothing new, particularly when it comes to Czechia’s social and cultural dynamics. For instance, the Council of Europe (COE) recently noted, that many European school programs fail to acknowledge the Roma people in their curricula and many historical accounts related to the Roma are unobjective or incomplete and fall prey to stereotyping.

In its 2020 report, the COE recommended Czechia address the ongoing discrimination and prejudice against the Roma people by including their history in school textbooks and addressing the issue of propaganda and false information about Roma people on the internet and social media. They also warned Czechia regarding the lack of advancement on its Roma language programs, where elementary and high schools were supposed to offer Roma language classes. These initiatives are part of a 20-year plan to protect Roma people and Travellers and fight against racism, intolerance, and social exclusion.

Results of a June 2021 poll showed that 70 percent of respondents in Czechia expressed antipathy toward the Roma. 

Roma musicians and their social inclusion 

Roma music band Kale. Photo used with permission granted by Emil “Pupa” Miko.

Despite the unpopularity and social exclusion of Roma as people, prevailing public opinion considers them a very musical nation.

Migel Milan Horvát from the band Bengas explains:

We are six musicians. We have no problem with fusion, the whole family plays some instrument. We play not only Romani-Gypsy folklore, but also a lot of Latin music, Balkan music (Kusturica or Bregovič), Russian Gypsy music, Polish songs, funk, soul, and of course such evergreens as Bésame Mucho.

Roma music is favorite among the general public, and world-famous Czech classical composers like Karel Bendl or Antonín Dvořák often included Roma melodies in their work. In recent years, Roma music can be found on almost every radio station, due to the popularity of the French Gypsy Kings or Czech-US band N.O.H.A., which are famous for their Roma-Latin style.

In the Czech pop music scene, there are a solid number of musicians of Roma origin, but they mostly sing mainstream melodies.

Horvát explains:

Czechs are a rock nation. Chinaski, Kabát — these are the leading Czech musicians, which is listened to by almost every Czech. Jan Bendig, musician of Roma origin, is probably the only one who has established himself out of many Roma people.

Emil “Pupa” Miko, a Roma musician and long-term member of the bands Věra Bílá and Kale disagrees:

…on the Czech scene you can hear and see musicians of Roma origin, but they do not sing Roma music, but they rather are musically assimilated with Czech music or taste.

While live festivals throughout the country often feature Roma or Gypsy musicians, they are not included in many mainstream media channels.

Miko reflected on the issue:

We have been officially playing since 1996, when we released our first CD. Since then, we have played not only in the Czech Republic but also abroad, we have toured 36-37 countries. We play our universal music, it’s Roma music, positive, dance, that everyone likes.

Czechs perceive our songs positively, they even sing our songs along with us in our concerts…

However, when we tried to promote our music on radio, even through commercial channels, they refused to play “black music”, due the fear of losing their listeners… In fact, since then did not changed much, they play old songs, for example of Antonin Gondola, or our old songs only if there is some “great” occasion.

Horvát expressed similar opinion:

The Roma are a musical nation, we have a musical tradition for centuries… Our group is called Bengas, translated from Romani as “devils”, since we play such energetic things and as fast as devils…

Czech people invite us a lot, but privately, to their celebrations. We also play a lot at festivals. The Czechs like the way we play, it won’t take even 5 minutes before someone dances. Although, we are called as the “band on which you dance”, however, on the Czech market, in larger scale it is hard to get, and I know it is on the basis of the nationality. Couple of times we were giving an interview to the Czech TV and radio, but none released our music, and they didn’t want to promote us in any way…

Both address the issue of such phenomenon as Gypsy World Music, noting that the recent peak of acceptance and recognition of Roma music in Czechia was around 2004, which was connected with the world-famous band Gypsy Kings visit the country.

Horvát recalled that his band performed as the opening act on the Gypsy Kings concert in the T-Mobile arena in Prague:

We also travel a lot in Europe. There are only 4–5 of us such Roma bands that travel around Europe. We lived in France for a while. Although, we try to avoid the negative thoughts, but when we compare the attitude, in Czechia, at the official level, there is a different relationship with the Roma than, for example, in France or even in neighboring Slovakia. Privately, Czechs, individuals, love us. But political discourse does not always benefit society.

While both musicians shared largely positive experiences of acceptance by the Czech people individually, they both agree that on a wider level discrimination exists, including media discrimination, prejudices, and difficulty finding housing for themselves or work for relatives.

When asked what Roma musicians need to gain to have equality in Czechia, Emil “Pupa” Miko replied:

I think it would take time to change that mood, the mentality and the way people with different skin colors are perceived, as it is in the USA now.

Migel Milan Horvát concluded:

I believe, the future is in the hands of children… What I am most interested in, when we play, is the reactions of the children. If the child is interested in something, it is immediately recognizable. Adults can lie, but children will not. I know that. We played for over 10 years in orphanages. Plus, we’re all in the band around 50 years old now. It is important to stay positive, and Roma music is positive.


New EP From A Duo Exploring Humanity And Dehumanisation

“Not sure who I am or who I’m meant to be”…

Internalised is the EP’s first track and behind acoustic guitars, Naz and Ella beautifully cover the topic of queerphobia. From there we hear the duo sing about sexual harassment, the exotification of women of color, speciesism as well as the ups and downs of long-distance relationships.

Their music is something that transcends me to a dim place, with candlelights. I imagine a setting like the Alice In Chains MTV Unplugged concert. Naz and Ella have a lot to say, about a lot of things, but they do so without alienating others in their lyrics. The beautiful part about their music is that their anger can be heard at the same time as their empathy can be felt.

In true DIY fashion, the duo also released a zine on their Bandcamp page which explains more about their personal essays and their music. Check it out!

✊ ✊ ✊ ✊