Haus der Kulturen der Welt

Music in Palestine and Edward Said

Edward Said National Conservatory of Music—Birzeit University

On Music in Palestine and Edward Said: A Statement

On Music in Palestine and Edward Said: A Statement

Rima Nasir Tarazi is a pianist and composer who co-founded, under the umbrella of Birzeit University, the National Conservatory of Music in 1993 which became, in 2004, the Edward Said National Conservatory of Music (ESNCM). Tarazi and is currently the chair of the ESNCM Supervisory Board. In 2013 she released her album Songs of Freedom and Hope; a compilation of her compositions.

Rima Nasir Tarazi

Music, being ephemeral and free in its nature, lends itself to universalism as it journeys across places and even epochs, by undermining set boundaries between them. When the National Conservatory of Music was founded in Palestine in 1993 by five Palestinian musicians, it was their contention that music not only integrates people, but that it is also integral to people’s lives. Furthermore, the founders foresaw music’s power as a means to confront and resist oppression; it could bring about change in the lives of those living under conditions of occupation; specifically the extenuating circumstances to which Palestinians have been subjected over the last several decades.

Upon the establishment of the Conservatory, Edward Said expressed his elation at the news by proclaiming that he thought it was one of the most important projects in Palestine. He later became an honorary member of the Conservatory’s board and, following his death in 2003, the National Conservatory of Music―Birzeit University chose to pay tribute to him by naming the Conservatory, the Edward Said National Conservatory of Music (ESNCM). As a thinker with an insatiable mind, a passionate music-lover and critic, and a consummate advocate for justice and freedom, Said leaves a rich legacy that evokes in many a multitude of thoughts and reflections.

At the same time as being a staunch critic of the colonialism to which Palestine, along with other countries, had been a victim and continues to be, Said was also influenced, like many of his generation, by some aspects of colonialism, especially in the field of music. Like him, most music students of the previous century in Palestine, such as Augustine Lama (1902–88), Salvador Arnita (1914–84), Hanna Khatchadourian who later became known as Ohan Durian Narc (1922–2011), and the founders of the ESNCM themselves, were trained in Western, not Arabic classical music. Arabic music, however, has always been part of popular culture and Palestinian social life, especially folkloric music, but Arabic classical music was never formally taught in schools; it was taught on a one-to-one basis or passed on from parents to their children; people were exposed to it by radio transmissions and films, and by live performances taking place in the larger cities of Jerusalem, Jaffa, Haifa, and Nazareth, mainly before the Palestinian Nakba (Catastrophe) of 1948. Among the most notable Arabic classical composers and musicians of Palestinian origin of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries are: Wasif Jawhariyyeh, Yusef Batroni (who was well versed in both Western and Arabic classical music), Riad al-Bandak, Rohi Khammash, Yahya Saodi, and Yahya Lababidi. Such Arab icons as Um Kulthum (1898–1975), Abdel Wahab (1901–91), Asmahan (1917–44) and Farid al-Atrash (1910–74) were regular guest performers in the larger cities and in the Palestine Broadcasting Service, an organization that played a prominent role in disseminating Arabic music and embracing musical talent in the region.

Aware that music reflects the spiritual history of people, as it takes into consideration their social experiences and cultural heritage, the ESNCM founders, despite their education in Western classical music, were keen from the outset to include Arabic classical music in the Conservatory curriculum. This allowed students to explore and elaborate on its musical aspects, and contribute to its many in-between notes, having reached other musicians and audiences in regions outside Palestine. These endeavors, as a matter of fact, correspond with Said’s emphasis on the importance of cultural crossings, which are expressed in a number of his writings, but also of the cultural and social contexts in which music is composed and performed, as he emphasizes in his book Musical Elaborations (1991/1993). Although this book deals with Western classical music, Said’s ideas on music there—his comments on performance, improvisation, and other skills—are as relevant and intrinsic to Arabic classical music as they are to the Western canon. To a large extent Arabic classical music depends on improvisation whereby performances are fluid and emanate a sense of unpredictability and liberty among performers as much as their audiences.

As ESNCM offered, in addition to Western and Arabic classical music, a variety of musical genres, this has brought about various musical initiatives formed by the ESNCM. Among these are the ESNCM Student Orchestra, the Palestine National Orchestra, the Palestine Strings Ensemble (which played at the Proms in London in 2013 with the renowned British violinist, Nigel Kennedy), the Palestine Youth Orchestra, and the Arabic ensembles: Maqamat, Turath, Anat, the Jirzeem Trio, the Arab Music Ensemble, and the Tarab Ensemble of Bethlehem. All these classical music orchestras, and an increasing number of Arabic music ensembles, jazz bands, and choirs, are made up of students who are sometimes joined by their teachers from the five ESNCM branches in the cities of Jerusalem, Ramallah, Bethlehem, Nablus, and Gaza. In the context of Palestine, all these efforts, over the last two decades, have actually earned music a dominant place in the cultural landscape, which the Israeli occupation has been trying to systematically undermine, thus gradually embodying Said’s call to “reaffirm the power of culture over the culture of power” (cited in Ahdaf Soueif 2011, p. 249). Concurrently, the ESNCM has sought to contribute to the musical field worldwide and enrich the global cultural landscape, bringing to fruition a dream held so dear by its founders and by Said himself as well. As a theorist versed in world literature, Said would have valued these musical initiatives for embracing a variety of musical genres and also contributing to their development, echoing a musical and cultural exchange that resembles the movement of counterpoints in music.


Books and Articles

Said, E. (1991/1993) Musical Elaborations. New York: Columbia University Press.

Soueif, A. (2011) Interview No. 12. In: British Muslim Fictions: Interviews with Contemporary Writers, ed. C. Chambers. Hampshire, Basingstoke, and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011, 245–57.

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Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Symphony No. 35 in D major, K. 385, mtv. II (Haffner Symphony) and Kinan Azmeh, November 22nd, Palestine National Orchestra (with Kinan Azmeh, clarinet), Amman 2012, excerpts. Courtesy of ESNCM.

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Antonio Vivaldi, The Four Seasons (Nigel Kennedy “fresh insights” Proms 2013), Nigel Kennedy, Palestine Strings (ESNCM), and members of the Orchestra of Life, London 2013, excerpt. Courtesy of ESNCM. Link to Source

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Marcel Khalife (lyrics by Mahmoud Darwish), Ahmad Al-Arabi, Palestine Youth Orchestra, Beiteddine 2009, excerpt. Courtesy of ESNCM.

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Rahbani Brothers, Ya Za’ary fee Aldouha, Maqamat Alquds Ensemble, Jerusalem 2009, excerpt. Courtesy of ESNCM.

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Ahmad Al-Khatib, Zawalif, Karmola Group, 2001. © ESNCM. 

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Suhail Khoury, Marge Ibn Amer, Oriental Music Ensemble, 2009. © ESNCM.