Jerusalem, a Musical Postcard

Exploring the sonic mashup of the ill-named City of Peace

A 7 minute read

My report on Palestinian pop and politics.
There were daughters dancing alongside their mums in the shadow of the Old City walls on one warm night in September: US pop rap outfit The Black Eyed Peas had come to play in the Sultan’s Pool in West Jerusalem, and several thousand Israelis had turned out to shake it in a city they would normally do their best to avoid.

Jerusalem, with all its politics and contradictions, its beauty and violence, is a city you either love or hate – and most young Israelis fall decidedly into the latter camp. It is easy to see why: religion gives the ill-named City of Peace a reputation for tension more than serenity, and all that devotion and arguing certainly doesn’t leave much room for having a good time. If Alpha Blondy was a resident, what odds of peace in the Middle East?
Jerusalem is a poor city, and emigration of tax payers has reached such an alarming level that secular professionals are almost a protected minority. The Black Eyed Peas are here to support them – rather than the fans supporting the band – as part of a charitable event that hoped to persuade Israelis and the world that Jerusalem can groove just as well as it can fight.

Kutiman's Jerusalem mashup
Jerusalem grooves alright, but not in an obvious way; many of its musical charms are hidden away and can jump out without warning. My own love affair with the sounds of this city was kindled by a job researching a documentary film about the British: this year marks not just the sixty year anniversary of the establishment of the State of Israel and the Palestinian naqba, but also sixty years since an ignominious British exit. Catholic Arab scout band, Jerusalem.
Yes, those are Scots bagpipes.
As part of my efforts to unearth those corners of Mandate Palestine that remain forever British, I stumbled across Jack, the scoutmaster of the Catholic Arab Scouts, who watches over a crack troop of forty teenage drummers and bagpipers – boys and girls – who march in formation across the city on Christian holidays playing Arabic and Scottish tunes. As we walked in slow formation down the Mount of Olives on Easter Sunday, the band played Scotland the Brave on their tartan Scottish bagpipes.

Jerusalem is of course a place of pilgrimage as much as it is a place to leave behind. It has also served as a place of refuge over the centuries well before 1948. Sufi singers in the Old City Sheikh Abdul Aziz Bukhari, head of the Uzbeki Holy Land community knows about this tradition: his forefathers fled to Jerusalem from present day Uzbekistan some three hundred years ago, and in his religious and cultural centre on the Via Dolorosa, he looks after the needs of the city’s small Bukharan Sufi community.

Pop up Bratslaver Hasidic rave During Ramadan he often welcomes visitors to a special rooftop concert: six singers with tambourines, sitting sedately in their long white gallabiyas and embroidered hats. It is searching and controlled rather than ecstatic – the exact opposite of the Bratslaver Hassidim.

Walking down West Jerusalem’s main pedestrian shopping street, Ben Yehuda, is like listening to the world’s most eccentric jukebox: passing by Boris, Armenian liturgy, Jerusalem
the second oboist from the Khabarovsk Symphony Orchestra strumming folk tunes on his mandolin to the sound of a funk drum machine, we get to the twelve piece Korean evangelical choir singing about the Day of Reckoning, Ades, Jerusalem's main Syrian synagogue
and finish up at the mobile Hassidic disco, with its banging techno beats, intensely repeated mantras and young devotees dancing feverishly on the roof of their soundsystem with their white kippas and tsitsit flailing.

Jerusalem pianist, 90 year old Ethiopian nun Tsege Mariam Gebru Alongside the Bratslavers and the Black Eyed Peas is a more conventional cultural scene in its own right: from hip-hop to Palestinian debke to classical and a lot more besides. But it is liturgical singing that is Jerusalem’s real musical treasure: from the stereophonic collage of muezzins echoing off the hills to the South, to the other-wordly incantations in the Old City’s Armenian Patriarchate, to the gentle sound of Syrian and Persian zmirot table songs that fill the Nahlaot neighborhood on the evening of the Jewish shabat. Of course there is chaos too – Jerusalem is a hot-tempered, blunt kind of place, and its sounds reflect that. But without anyone making a big deal of it, the shofars, church bells and adhan call to prayer all quietly coexist in the ether.

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