Jewish music for Palestine

Published July 12, 2010

The album cover for “The Rising Tide Sinks All” depicted Shell oil canisters leaking in to the ocean. John Kitsess 12-year old drawing was like a premonition waiting to become true. -Photo Courtesy:

HOUSTON Deep in downtown, the teasing strum of a guitar, hypnotic beat of percussions, and the wooing echo of horns bounce off lime-green soundproof walls in a dimly-lit rented studio.


It is close to midnight on a weekday, and the Free Radicals are rehearsing a song inspired by a centuries-old Jewish music genre called Klezmer.



In its historic form, the purely instrumental compositions were structured to facilitate expressive celebrations and dancing at traditional Jewish weddings in Eastern Europe. But the Free Radicals are anything but traditional.


By day, the band members are activists, volunteers and teachers and by night, they gather in a rented studio to practice. They often play pro bono at protests and peace benefits.


“Outside the political sphere, we take radicalism in our approach to music,” says percussionist Chris Howard.


The Free Radicals have taken the high energy and exotic scale of Klezmer and turned it into something verging on punk rock. Since they formed in 1996, the band has experimented with diverse international instrumental styles and have collaborated with over 50 other musicians.



But in Klezmer, folk music inherited from some of their Jewish ancestors, the Free Radicals saw potential beyond bar mitzvahs and weddings.


The drummer and founder of the band, Nick Cooper thought it could be a powerful voice to gather support to “boycott Israel.” Coopers own band, the Free Radicals abides by the call from Palestinian academics “and refrains from performing at or recording on projects sponsored by Israeli institutions unless they are explicitly anti-occupation.”


“I actually got the idea from a Pakistani-punk rock band,” said Cooper referring to the Kominas, who were inspired by a fictional Muslim punk-rock band in Michael Mohammad Knight's book “Taqwacore.” (The work of fiction that struck a chord with young Muslims has been made into a recently released documentary. You can watch the trailer here.)


“I was outside a show with The Kominas in New York and my friends were talking about how Taqwacore started a movement that hadnt previously existed, so I wondered if I could create a scene that didnt exist of anti-occupation Klezmer music.”


So Cooper decided to invite over 400 Klezmer bands to his newly-found cause.


“Most of them ignored me,” said the activist-cum-musician.


Some bands responded angrily to his invitation. Some musicians said they would love to participate but couldn't because it would alienate their mostly Jewish audiences. And some said they liked his idea but asked him to tone down the album's message.


In the end, 14 bands from the US, Israel, Germany and the UK were ready to take the next step and do a compilation CD called “Klezmer Against the Wall” which is now available on iTunes. All profits from the digital downloads will go to music and arts programmes in Palestine.


The album's mission statement does not call for a boycott of Israel as Cooper had first envisioned but it does “oppose the Israeli apartheid and occupation through non-violent protest, targeted boycotts, civil disobedience and direct action.”


The album features modern Klezmer songs influenced by Jazz and punk rock. Songs like “The Occupation” and “Enemy Combatant Playground” and “You and the Night and the Music” by popular Israeli musician Gilad Atzmon's band, carry a heavy political message.


Some participating traditional bands like Shpil and Aufwind follow the kind of classical Klezmer composition that features at weddings; often accompanied by a human voice weeping and laughing, they spring from a slow melody that conveys the parental sadness of losing a daughter to an upbeat tune that entices everyone to get up and dance.

These songs have the power to appeal to more traditional audiences and carry the Hebrew prayer on the album cover that says “may the Merciful One create brotherhood between the children of Isaac and the children of Ishmael.”


Claire Bergen from Shpil, joined the project because she believes that music can be a powerful source of social and cultural change. "I hope that this project can contribute to a rich Jewish culture that upholds the dignity and human rights of all peoples and cultures, including those of Palestinians who today live under the occupation of the Israeli military," said the third-generation Klezmer musician.


And that message echoes in the horns - a classic Klezmer instrument - that is breaking down a wall on the albums cover.


Other artwork from the CD depicts a Klezmer troupe perched on a concrete wall, with their feet dangling above graffiti that says “Free Palestine” and shows a big red beating heart that is being protected by a Klezmer drummer. A young girl pulls at an Israeli soldier's uniform as he orders a bulldozer to knock the musician and the heart down.

According to Cooper, artwork is central to the album and his band, the Free Radicals.


“We play instrumental music, so we may be thinking about all kinds of things when we are playing, but it may not be as overt in terms of a message but our album covers are usually pretty heavy and political.”


When the Free Radicals put out their first album, “The Rising Tide Sinks All” in 1998, the album cover depicted Shell oil canisters leaking in to the ocean and an offshore drilling site pointing its many guns at an innocent octopus. John Kitsess - the artist - 12-year old drawing was like a premonition waiting to become true.


The artwork also included a powerful warning against American foreign policy “Wanting so badly for more stores to honor our coupons and warranties, that we impose martial law, wage war and warm our extremities in the war-time economies rubbing our hands in the warmth of the infernos of oil wells, exhaust fumes and off-shore refineries, waving our hankies to the underhand bankers.”


In 1998, those kinds of words would have been labeled as progressive mumbo-jumbo appealing exclusively to radical fringes. But things have changed since 2001.


And it was this change that really inspired bassist Theo Bijarro to be a part of the “Klezmer Against the Wall” project.


“After 9/11 a friend asked Cooper, 'don't you think you should be doing something more important with your life instead of just playing music and creating art?' His response was no. It is the opposite,” narrates Theo.


“They didn't bomb Juilliard (School of Music). They didn't run their planes into Juilliard. They ran them into the World Trade Center.”


Weeks after the Gaza Flotilla tragedy, it is with that kind of spirit that Claire Bergen from Shpil hopes Klezmer Against the Wall, “can start a discussion through something beautiful, joyful and fun to listen to.”


(Update The CD has already made an impression in the US. Florida's main Jewish radio station, Shalom South Florida, has responded to “Klezmer Musicians Against the Wall” by banning all American and European Klezmer bands featured on the CD from their airwaves.)



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