6. Performing Coexistence: Models for Cultural Citizenship?


This is an analysis of an on-going phenomenon. In conclusion, it is worth taking stock of the situation now (2004) while bearing in mind that things are in continual flux. What is the musical and social impact of these performers and their music? What are they doing now? And how do these musical encounters compare to other efforts at dialog and collaboration between Israelis and Palestinians?

The situation is rife with paradoxical contrasts. In June 2003, at a time of heightened suspicion and despair, the prestigious Tsavta Club in the heart of Tel Aviv presented a five-day festival celebrating coexistence and peace. But coexistence was not actually represented: not one of the ten concerts involved Jews and Arabs together on stage! This was particularly ironic in light of a concert of the band Joseph and One, which includes both Jews and Arabs, that took place in Jerusalem a few days later. In that event coexistence “happened” in a matter-of-fact manner, without any fanfare.

Hobbled by the fallout of terrorist and military activity, lack of managerial savvy, and individual health problems, Alei Hazayit enjoyed only limited success. Their demo CD garnered some airplay and one of their songs has been used as accompaniment by a Jerusalem dance troupe, but their high-profile performances in front of distinguished audiences did not lead to a commercial breakthrough. Bustan Abraham was far more commercially successful and garnered lavish praise from critics but eventually succumbed to the extended economic downturn in Israel as well as artistic differences among members of the band. Individual members of the band have been quite successful in other endeavors. For his part, Yair Dalal has continued to circulate on the world music market, performing in various configurations. He told me that he had learned long ago from his early experience of losing groups and name recognition to put his name in front. Thus he has a band, Al Ol, but it is billed after his name and he can perform in other contexts without jeopardizing name recognition. But some of Dalal’s appearances at European festivals have been canceled — due, he believes, to pressure from Arab performers who claim to represent Palestinians and have demanded exclusivity (p.c. September 2003). Such expressions of anti-Israeli sentiment have become increasingly widespread in Europe.

But what of the impact of these efforts? Inasmuch as these musicians have been heard relatively seldom by Palestinian audiences (at least in live performances), their effect on that side of the divide has been minimal. That there is a receptive audience in Israel is clear, yet it is almost certainly not large enough to constitute a movement for change. Sheer numbers may not be the best gauge. If one looks at the efforts of these musicians in a broader framework, one that encompasses other types of music and other types of activity aimed at fostering mutual understanding, then one can view this as part of a larger process. A variety of educational and social mixers and dialog groups take place in Israel at institutions such as the Jewish-Arab Center for Peace at Givat Haviva, an institute dedicated to fostering coexistence that is directed by an Arab former member of the Israeli parliament, or Beit Hagefen, a cultural center, in Haifa. The difference between Bustan Abraham or Alei Hazayit and these programs is that these mixed bands performed coexistence for a broad public. They demonstrated that Jews and Arabs, Palestinians and Israelis not only can live together but can enrich each others’ lives in working together creatively. This sort of self-exposure and opening up to the other is quite distinct from that which takes place in Palestinian-Israeli dialog groups just as it differs from the Weimar program instituted by Edward Said and Daniel Barenboim.

Barenboim and Said recognized the transformative potential of music in their jointly sponsored program to bring together young musicians from Israel and Arab countries to form an orchestra under Barenboim’s direction. But they also recount how some of the Arab musicians whom they gathered for their European-oriented ensemble met informally after hours to perform Arab music; at these sessions they excluded the Israeli musicians, on national rather than technical grounds (Said and Barenboim 2002). Such moments are absent from the history of Bustan Abraham. I draw this comparison not to denigrate the efforts of Said and Barenboim, but to point out the qualitative difference of the exchanges that they fostered. Both efforts are important for establishing communication and mutual understanding, both involve compromises. The nature of those compromises differs greatly.

One might ask whether it matters what kind of music you make as long as members of two warring peoples are making music together. I believe that there is a deep difference. The musicians gathered by Barenboim and Said are doing their best to live up to an intimidating array of standards as they tackle canonical European repertoire. But they can have no sense of ownership of this music through ethnic or national affiliation. Members of Bustan Abraham, on the other hand, originated almost all of the music that they played, through composition and improvisation. Furthermore, they worked in stable, ongoing association with each other. Their works may never rank alongside the Beethoven symphonies that Barenboim’s musicians play, but they had a maximal degree of creative control and authorship over their work.

This commitment to an ongoing process of mutual creative support accomplishes something quite different from projects such as the much-publicized efforts of Said and Barenboim. The stakes are higher not only because most of the musicians are already established performers who have their reputations to consider, but because this work demands a greater degree of personal initiative and responsibility, compositional and improvisational creativity. Rather than answering a call from prominent figures to attend a workshop where they strive to recreate musical masterpieces from a foreign culture, the musicians I study have decided of their own initiative to seek out partners across political and religious divides and to create long-term associations that result in new music rooted in their own heritages. While the Said-Barenboim project has its value as a step toward mutual recognition and the lowering of barriers, I argue that the musicians under discussion here are contributing something of greater value that has the potential for deeper, longer-lasting effects. And because the music draws heavily on the idioms of the Middle East, it “speaks” to audiences differently than a Mozart symphony — not necessarily more beautiful or moving, but embodying a sense of local cultural heritages and values.

I argue that these performers are helping their audience to envision a shared future by performing two important types of cultural work: their new styles of hybrid music demonstrate the possibilities of cultural production and consumption that is appealing and meaningful to people of diverse background, whether Israeli or Palestinian; their public interactions demonstrate the possibility of building complex interactions on the basis of mutual trust and respect. This is a radical message, given the fact of two peoples wanting the same thing, largely to each other’s exclusion, the ability of extremists on either side to call the shots and foil attempts at compromise, and the prevalence of mutual fear, distrust, alienation, and a basic lack of understanding. For many Israeli Jews the main context for seeing Palestinians is in menial tasks such as construction and the low end of service (dishwashing in restaurants, cleaning and carrying in markets), on excursions into Arab areas (a rarity in the past few years) or in the course of military service. For many Palestinians the chief context for interacting with Israeli Jews is as soldiers at checkpoints or undertaking military operations.

Every person who sees and hears these musicians has gained at least one striking “image” to counter these stereotypical engagements and all the images of violence and intolerance purveyed through the mass media. In the case of musical collaboration tied up with new music there is not only a humanizing and particularizing effect but the presentation of new possibilities for the future. The message: here, this is new music that draws on forms of musical expression that are near to us and therefore signify for all of us, though our associations may differ. It is a suggestion for the production of a shared cultural field, one in which people from various backgrounds with conflicting political interests and aspirations can find meaning and enjoyment.

At the very end of “Scenes and Sensibilities” Will Straw tosses off a particularly felicitous observation about urban scenes and “cultural citizenship” that resonates with the Israeli ethnic music scene in ways that he may not have foreseen. Citing Toby Miller (1993:xi) he writes “the virtue of scenes is that they offer laboratories for cultural citizenship which are largely untainted by the sense of unfulfilled collective obligation which national cultural policy so often seeks to impart” (2002: 256). The scene I am describing here arises out of a sense of untapped wealth, of possibilities that are more fulfilling and less transient than the music of the day. It should be noted that Israeli cultural policy was more successful, perhaps, than many other twentieth-century national policies in inculcating a sense of shared musical culture due to the relatively greater social mobilization of the Israeli Jewish public. But by the late twentieth century this was no longer the case (e.g., Regev 1996, Seroussi 2002), due in part to the disenfranchisement of North African Jewish immigrants and their descendants that led to culture wars that began in the 1970s and continue sporadically to the present (7). Furthermore, musika mizrahit, the music espoused by many of the latter as a form of resistance to hegemonic practices heavily dependent on European (and later American) models, did not work for others as an “authentic” form of expression for musical and social reasons: its “cheesy” pop sounds, produced with synthesizers and drum machines, and its links to a particular social group.

I suggest that the appeal of this relatively new musical scene is that it offers “cultural citizenship” that is rooted in the convergence of Arab and Jewish cultures but also reaches out to many others. By creating a new musical culture, or attempting to steer an existing one in a new direction, these musicians are practicing activist cultural citizenship and offering a cultural critique that attempts to subvert the musical status quo by offering the public possibilities other than mainstream cultural offerings.

Straw has also observed that “scenes find coherence through the slow elaboration of ethical protocols to be followed by those moving within them … Music scenes ground their distinctiveness in an ethics of cultural consumption (which music to buy, and where?)” (2002: 256). If one thinks that Palestinian-Israeli rapprochement and peaceful coexistence are worthy goals, then supporting musicians who realize this goal by consuming their music in live performances and through purchase of their recordings or playback on the radio is an ethical action. This is another manifestation of cultural citizenship.

Recent ethnomusicological work influenced by cultural studies has sought out and celebrated the musical expression of opposition and resistance to various hegemonies and manifestations of power. In this particular case, rather than nationalist or class-based opposition we find opposition to political regimens of hatred and violence and to cultural regimens of ‘cheap,’ over-emotive music or overtly political music (e.g., the music of Israeli Palestinian singer Amal Murkus and the Palestinian band Sabrin) (8). The difference was summed up by one Israeli critic shortly after the beginning of the second Palestinian uprising:

“The only place, at the moment, where Jews and Arabs live together in complete harmony seems to be the new disk of Bustan Abraham … in contrast to shallow pseudo-ethnic bands like Sheva and Gaya, Bustan transmits the messages of peace and fraternity only through music, without needing tiresome texts that explain to boors what is at stake." (Hotem 2000, my translation).

These musicians have frequently expressed dissatisfaction with other types of music in which they had been involved and feel that they have a mission. Most of them will put the musical goals of this mission before the socio-political aims, but they are aware that their musical actions imply political stances that stand against the hegemony of distrust, recrimination, and despair in resistance to the dominant paradigms of conflict, separation, and extremism.

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