Sabreen is considered the premier Palestinian musical group performing today. Influenced by Western rock and jazz, their distinctive style blends traditional Arab rhythms and instruments with subtly political lyrics reflecting the current active resistance to Israeli occupation. Two members of Sabreen, lead singer Camelia Jubran and founder and composer Sa‘id Murad, spoke to Kamal Boullata and Joost Hiltermann in Washington. Translated by Dina Jadallah.
Tell us about the history of Sabreen.
Camelia: The group started around 1980. Musicians here in the territories know each other because everybody used to work in bands that entertained at weddings and parties. So we got together to make music with a mission, with a message.
Sa‘id: What prevailed in Jerusalem were several kinds of musical work: traditional folkloric bands that sang the zajal [a type of poetry]. They depended on a zajjal [the person who sings the zajal], on the dabka dance, the flute player or the rababa [a kind of cello] player. There were also political celebrations. Finally, there were bands that emerged from private schools, like the Freres, Lutheran and Mutran, where students learned about Western instruments and music.
Such as al-Bara‘im, with Emile and Ibrahim ‘Ashrawi?
Sa‘id: Yes. They were aware of what was taking place on “the street,” and they wanted to effect change. There were also individual efforts, like Mustafa al-Kurd. I was in the al-Kawakib group, which was Western and performed at weddings and parties.
Do you mean Western instruments with Arabic lyrics?
Sa‘id: Yes. The first change was in reaction to the idea of we Arabs singing Beatles songs. These same transformations were happening in bands from the interior [inside Israel].
Did these groups know each other?
Sa‘id: Of course. Jerusalem plays a vital musical role. It has lots of schools that teach music. It has halls where bands could perform. There are traditional folkloric groups that perform at ethnic weddings in villages. And there are other groups that are Western-oriented and perform in hotels. They first sing wedding songs, and people dance the dabka. Then they perform foreign songs. Some used to create Arabic disco, with the same beat but translated lyrics. We started asking why we should import and reproduce this music. These were the seeds of the idea that became Sabreen.
What were you trying to achieve?
Sa‘id: We did not comprehend how to make Eastern instruments speak more than one language. We used the organ, drums, electric guitar, keyboards, synthesizer.
The lyrics were in Arabic?
Sa‘id: Yes. Instead of lyrics about love and so forth, we performed songs of [Palestinian poet Mahmoud] Darwish. We were influenced by the political atmosphere in the Arab world at large, and more specifically by the songs of Marcel Khalifeh and Qa‘bour. The Lebanese experience affected us deeply.
How did you hear of these Lebanese singers?
Sa‘id: Through cassettes. I ran a record store so I had access to tapes of new musical styles. There naturally developed the desire to sing local songs. The group I was in, Manar [Lighthouse], argued about who would sing, who would compose the music — so it broke up within a year. Those who remained, and others who had passed through similar experiences, got together and created Sabreen at the end of 1981. The first Palestinian poetry we found that.appealed to us had a populist ring to it, like Darwish, Khalifeh, al-Qasim.
But Darwish wrote this poetry in 1961.
Sa‘id: Some poetry discusses a specific event and ends with the event; other poetry lives on. When you say “And they chained his hands together,” it is about any prisoner and its power is timeless.
Darwish used to write about a wide range of topics. Why did you choose the political poems?
Sa‘id: These were the most expressive of how we felt. We also felt the audience could understand. I’m talking about the pre-1981 experience, where we used Western instruments for our compositions. The demo tape we made was not widely distributed; its recording quality was not very good. We considered it exploratory. The transformation was not complete.
The second change occurred in our second cassette, “The Smoke of Volcanoes.” We had been using organ and drums for a long time. We wanted to reach “the street” — simpler songs, more down to earth. We faced a very serious question. Should we put the Western instruments aside and use the oud [lute] and the kanun [horizontal harp-like instrument] instead? Or both? Due to sharp disagreements some would leave the group and others would join at each major point of transformation.
Were decisions made by majority vote?
Sa‘id: No. Change happens. An individual either had to learn how to play a new instrument and stay in the group, or he had to leave the group. Each stage created new challenges for group members. I used to play the organ. If I had not learned how to play the oud within six months, I would have had no place in the group.
How did listeners initially receive your music?
Sa‘id: Those who were aware of our experience always gave us moral support. But most people rejected us vehemently. Every new tape that we made was rejected. People would say that it was not good and that the preceding one was better!
Camelia, when did you come to the store?
Camelia: In 1982. I came to Jerusalem the year before to study social work. I had heard there was someone who played different kinds of music.
How did you first get involved in music?
Camelia: My father used to make musical instruments. He had a friend who had an oud. My father wanted to buy one but would have had to save up the equivalent of three or four months’ pay. So he measured his friend’s oud and started to build one. In three to four months he finished his first oud. He made more and their quality improved with time.
He used to be an iron worker. He went to Acre and worked for the Israelis. When he felt confident about making the oud, he got someone to make a kanunbuzuq and the mandolin.
Did he earn a living from this?
Camelia: He opened a small workshop under the house. We were born by then. In addition to teaching music he started making instruments. He preferred this to teaching, but not many people can afford handmade instruments.
What did you first sing?
Camelia: Umm Kulthum. Of course, I did not understand what I was singing. Then my father created a group with three or four music students. They used to go to weddings and he would take me to sing. Then in school they would ask me to sing at student celebrations.
I started out with Fairouz’s songs. By the 1970s, in high school, the political song came in. Marcel Khalifeh influenced me a lot.
Where did the name Sabreen come from?
Sa‘id: We were sitting in a restaurant and we were discussing what to do next and what to call ourselves. Issa Freij said that a woman named Sabreen came to his store. We thought it was a nice name for a band.
Then what happened?
Sa‘id: There was a gap between traditional bands and strictly Western bands. The question was how to make music that was personally convincing and how to discuss the Palestinian crisis in an appealing way.
We started by inserting Arabic lyrics, then by simplifying the words, approaching the colloquial. We tried to create a modern and more developed Palestinian song that reflects Palestinian life. The third stage was our own musical compositions with Eastern musical instruments and local poetry.
Did you decide lyrics together?
Sa‘id: We experienced problems about who would compose. The end result was that whoever wanted to compose would give it a try.
Did the lyrics come before the music or after?
Sa‘id: The music first. We became acquainted with Husayn Barghouti, who teaches political science at Birzeit and writes poetry. We told him what we wanted. He used to conduct experiments in the street in order to gauge public acceptance of particular styles of poetry. He used to write poetry in fusha [classical Arabic]. We talked him into writing in colloquial.
What is the process of musical composition? How do you and Camelia record the melody?
Sa‘id: With time. We are at a stage where we are in sync. I do the composition and Camelia sings simultaneously.
Camelia: He would read the words and experience a creative moment. We would come to practice and sit together. He would compose. I would listen. I repeat and he listens. It is very interactive.
What do you want to accomplish with Sabreen?
Sa‘id: We have a collection of musical instruments and a special way of handling each instrument, alone and in combination. We have several drums with which you can apply Western-inspired rhythm techniques. We divide up the music among different drums, using certain ones to play traditional rhythms. So the listener, instead of hearing just one drum, hears the bass in all the music, emanating from all the instruments. This is a new technique that we are trying to develop.
Camelia learned at home the classical style of singing. While composing, we try to accommodate this style. We use this traditional style in a new way so as to pierce the limits that enclose the Arab ear. We believe that our music is not limited to persons of one education or culture or background, not only Arabs or Palestinians. Music can break through many barriers.
Does your music concern innovation or modernization?
Sa‘id: We chose innovation that will be harmonious with traditional music and norms.
Where do you get your ideas?
Sa‘id: We were influenced by the beat and rhythm of Bob Marley — reggae is very similar to traditional Arabic rhythms, but with different emphases. Now we hear a lot of jazz and blues. We are also trying to explore deeply traditional Eastern music, like that of Sayyid Darwish.
Has the Israeli army ever tried to stop a concert?
Sa‘id: No. We do not use “direct” lyrics. But there is no place to perform except in theaters. In other parts of the world organizations support new artistic ideas and efforts. In Egypt, for example, ‘Ammar Shuray‘i told us that there they search hard for talent and support it. We have been doing this so long and trying so hard, yet there is no similar system of support.
You must realize that because of the current atmosphere [of repression and constant closures] under which schools operate, everyone’s experience is isolated. Israel does not tell you not to sing. But they take your place of rehearsal. There are circumstances that prevent you from building a school, from buying an oud, from learning music.
How do you break this?
Sa‘id: We are thinking of setting up a studio for all the groups, of building a school where all the new talent can get together. We are thinking of two directions. The first is to continue our project and the process of innovation. This requires support. The other direction is planning a new institute for new talent.
Has your project helped to redefine the Palestinian musical tradition?
Sa‘id: We destroyed all classical standards — not only Palestinian ones but Arab as well. Music specialists can appreciate the transformations we have accomplished at the level of musical composition, in the distribution of music in songs, in the use of bass.
Are there musical groups of Israeli Arabs and Jews who themselves come out of the Arab musical traditions?
Camelia: Yes, there are groups like Natural Alternative or Natural Select, and Shlomo, from Morocco.
Sa‘id: They use the same instruments that we use in their own classical conceptions. They use the guitar or the sitar next to each other. But they are not integrating them together.
If you want to summarize in one word the spark that initiated Sabreen or that led to its presence on the musical scene, what would it be?
Sa‘id: I think istimrar [continuity]. Anyone can start an experiment. You will only have iktimal [wholeness] if you continue the experiment.