Songs for change: Reem Talhami

Reem Talhami at the Geneina Theater

“Ya leili, ah ya leil,” sings Palestinian Reem Talhami, calling the night like many other singers have done to witness all things that pass. Geneina Theater is only half-filled as the performance begins on Friday evening, but Talhami and her accompaniment dressed in an understated black show no sign of uneasiness.

The audience, too, gives no cause for complaint, generous in their applause, conversing freely with the singer. The atmosphere is warm, casual even. It is a meeting among friends, Palestinians and Egyptians — friends that share a long history attuned to each other’s traditions, secrets and inside jokes.

To the skilled oud accompaniment of Habib Shehadeh, Talhami delivers a typical homage to the host country by singing Sayed Darwish’s beloved “Shedd El-Hezam” (Fasten Your Belt).

“Music, and songs, and culture could be a weapon, and can urge you to action,” Talhami tells Daily News Egypt.

In light of the Israeli occupation of Palestine, “songs are dangerous”, says the artist.

One of Talhami’s songs, “Kull Shee Helw” (Everything is Beautiful) has been featured in the Israeli movie “The Band’s Visit.” Collaborations such as these can often be dangerous, says Talhami, because “we are not mature enough as a nation.” Artists’ loyalties are called into question over collaborations.

“There are a lot of contradictions between our being Palestinians inside Palestine, and being artists who think cultural messages are one of the big issues. I think that culture and music and literature are the new guns against Israel. I think our fight is cultural.”

Yet Talhami says she does not seek out collaborations. “My songs are part of a protest against occupation and against Israel as an occupation state.”

“Even the love songs,” says the singer, “should be taken as Palestinian love songs.”

“Every song is provided with power or strength.” They do not have to express resistance; some are songs about their own national identity. Wedding songs, such as “Oom, Etla, Ya Zeina,” (Come Out, Zeina) and “Aarisna Zein El-Shabab” (Our Groom is the Best of Youth), express a rich Palestinian heritage and invited the audiences at Geneina to an intimate family atmosphere.

Other songs, such as Talhami’s cover of Fairuz’s “Ishar” (Staying up Late), express the musical influences on Palestine from surrounding regions. The song sung by the Lebanese icon, was also composed by Egyptian Mohamed Abdel Wahab, both neighbors to Palestine.

While some found the songs monotonous , many found the dominant oud and vocal combination soothing. Certain songs carried dramatic overtones such as “Hannili Yamma” (Put Henna on Me), which turned from a soft start to an exaggerated low tone speaking of destruction and apocalypse. It was met with audience applause all the same, seeing as it clearly carried a tone of resistance, one with which Egyptians sympathize.

“People under occupation are freer than people in other Arab nations,” said Talhami during the interview, “We are stronger, we have goals. It’s a daily urge to act, to think to try to fight. And we are not asleep, because there is a fear and anxiety of what is going on around us and we have to be awake all the time. “

Unlike most of the Arab world, Palestine having a “democratic occupier” is also free to express itself. “Most Arab nations command loyalty coming out of fear, not out of belief.”

“When we plant hope in an Arab citizen it is dangerous — dangerous for the government, for the leaders, because you are planting optimism. It’s a country belonging to the citizen not just the leader. That’s why songs are dangerous.”

Other songs, says the artist, are dangerous because they drive you to forgetfulness with their sexual and commercial intents.

“Our part serves our daily troubles because we are very different in a distinguished situation — [dealing with] occupation and seeking your Palestinian identity all the time,” said the oud player Shehadeh.

Their art is “a mission,” both Shehadeh and Talhami agree.

Starting with classical and western band “Ghurbeh,” and moving to a Western-heavy “Washem,” Talhami says she has finally found a balance in expressing the Palestinian and Arab identity which is nevertheless enriched by world music.

For the most part, the music was gentle on the ears, some songs breaking one out of a pleasant stupor. The night has witnessed many, yet carries on quietly.

Originally published online on Daily News Egypt, August 23, 2010.

About CK

i sleep, i wake, i write chitra[dot]kalyani[at]gmail[dot]com
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