The Sound of Resistance

Becky Minio-Paluello reviews Palestinian Music in Exile: Voices of Resistance by Louis Brehony (AUC, 2023)

Waking up to a troupe of bagpipe-playing scouts marching past to the beat of Arabic melodies was one of the first surprising musical experiences for me in Bethlehem, Palestine, having moved there at short notice in 2015 with no prior introduction to the breadth and melting-pot merging of instruments and modalities in Palestinian music-making. One Easter, a Jerusalemite family snuck me into the Old City to witness the Saturday of Light processions, again with bagpiping Palestinian youth marching in tartan styled in the colours of the Palestinian flag, accompanied by twirling batons and joyful zagharit (ululations) of onlookers. Another memory of collective musical joy is the evening in 2017 that Palestinian singer Yacoub Shaheen won Arab idol, and people left their cars in the middle of the streets to join the spontaneous eruption of celebration with fireworks, dancing and song.

On my first reading of Louis Brehony’s Palestinian Music in Exile, I was overwhelmed by re-encountering so many musicians who formed a backdrop to music-making in the years I lived there. From Brehony’s self-stated positionality of an “involved supporter”, this book evokes the pulse of the people by foregrounding the voices of displaced Palestinian musicians in a breadth of musical situations. Brehony presents stories from Turkey, Kuwait, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, as well as from musicians displaced in the West Bank, Gaza and the Dakhil – the area within the borders of the Israeli state.

The Nakba in 1948 utterly ruptured the social fabric of historic Palestine. This book charts how this has rippled through Palestinian music-making over the last 50 years within the differentiated social and cultural landscapes navigated by exiled musicians. Building on the writings of Ghassan Kanafani, Louis Brehony formulates a Marxist framework for understanding the social contextsof music in Palestinian displacement.

Central to the understandings of musical resistance presented in this book is the concept of sumud, which Brehony defines as “steadfastness, a tactic of resistance or defiance to colonialism”. In the introduction he lays out steadfastness more extensively in Palestinian narratives, and in the conclusion he summarizes how it is vocalized by musicians themselves. In various chapters of thebook, narratives of musical steadfastness are unearthed in the refusal to participate in normalization and co-existence projects, through organizing between musician-comrades, in memorialising through repetition and acknowledging places of exile, by musical commitment of asra (political prisoners), through survivalist utilization of traditional Arabic instruments and use of the maqamat, and conversely through renewal and appropriation of non-traditional instruments and more cosmopolitan styles. Brehony’s musical understanding allow him to analyse creative musical choices alongside vocalized and symbolic meanings of lyrics.

“Music is not a universal language but a site of confrontation.” The situations of music-making in this book include weddings, family gatherings, jam sessions, concerts, takht ensembles and bagpipe bands. The music in each setting tells a particular story of connectedness to Palestine alongside being the product of a particular journey of exile and differentiated exposure to musical mediums and styles. Brehony mentions the Scottish bagpipes that were reappropriated as a vehicle of Palestinian cultural expression and became instruments of sumud in Lebanon. As musician Ahmed Haddad states, “speaking about Palestine doesn’t meanplaying in a particular style or tradition”.

At various points in the book, Brehony presents critique of the post-Oslo-Accord NGOization of Palestinian cultural institutions whereby Western musical systemization has been grafted onto Palestinian cultural life (“who needs a French horn?!” Khaled Jubran p.129). Brehony carefully distinguishes between a cosmopolitanism “from below” that invokes Jodi Dean’s concept of comradeship and a shared intentionality in collective music-making, versus an elitist form that sits upon the “third world” notion of having to elevate indigenous cultural expression through recourse to a standardized medium. Along these lines, I recall a concert of the Palestine National Orchestra being introduced by the bold statement, “To-day an orchestra, tomorrow a state.” The lines are blurred on how much the idea of a national orchestra to pre-empt a national state panders to the imaginations of international stakeholders or is an actual reflection of what has been composted through processes of NGOization. Having witnessed young Palestinian trombonists and French horn players developing their own maqam-playing on those instruments and participate in takht ensembles, I would argue there is a steadfast continuation in how “musical traditions seen as apolitical, elite, foreign are reappropriated, nationalized, and injected with new radical meaning by a committed grass-roots” (p.22).

According to UN figures, more than 85 per cent of the population of Gaza have been displaced since this book was published in 2023. Brehony’s study recentres exiled Palestinians in the narrative of creative-critical resistance and recognizes the steadfast collectivity across borders of dispersal. His concluding question “where to?” resonates now more than ever.

Becky Minio-Paluello is an Edinburgh-based musician. She lived for three years in Palestine.