'I'm the only trip-hop artist in Palestine!': the musicians shaking up the occupied territories

Refugee rappers, ska stars from the Golan Heights, the Kraftwerk of the Levant … meet the acts redefining Palestine in the shadow of the wall and the watchtowers

‘Already deals are being struck’ … Moody Kablawi performing at the Palestine Music Expo.
‘Already deals are being struck’ … Moody Kablawi performing at the Palestine Music Expo. Photograph: Sami Alalul

'I'm the only trip-hop artist in Palestine!': the musicians shaking up the occupied territories

Refugee rappers, ska stars from the Golan Heights, the Kraftwerk of the Levant … meet the acts redefining Palestine in the shadow of the wall and the watchtowers

Guests arriving at international music conferences are usually welcomed with a bit of a meet-and-greet by the pool, an ice-cool daiquiri and some tasty canapes, perhaps. They are not normally whisked off to sites of forced evictions and summary killings. But when the host city is the Palestinian capital, Ramallah, normal rules – as with most of life in the occupied territories – do not apply.

The hilly West Bank town has just hosted PMX, the first ever Palestine Music Expo. Dreamed up by three locals – a rapper, a composer and a journalist – and a British record label boss, PMX showcased a blossoming of musical talent among a people whose voices have struggled to be heard. What emerged after three memorable days of talks, tours and live performances could form the blueprint for a whole new music industry – and even the re-branding of a nation.

Martin Goldschmidt set up his label, Cooking Vinyl, in the 1980s and has worked with Billy Bragg, Marilyn Manson and the Prodigy, among many others. He came to a music-biz conference in Tel Aviv two years ago and decided to venture out into Palestine. There he met rapper Mahmood Jrere from Palestinian crew DAM, composer Abed Hathout and journalist Rami Younis from progressive news site 972mag.com, and they introduced him to several local acts. The place was alive with talent – but lacked a music industry of its own.

“We knew we could provide delegates with an experience, an insight into the place,” says Goldschmidt as he recalls hatching the plan for PMX. “Once you visit Palestine, it gets under your skin. It messes with your head in quite a shocking way. It really makes you think.”

Hip-hop group Sa’aleek, from the Qalandia refugee camp in Palestine.
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Snapped up … hip-hop group Sa’aleek in the Qalandia refugee camp in Palestine. Photograph: Sami Alalul/Breathing Stories

Jrere agrees: “We wanted to give delegates a different perspective from the one they get from the news.” And so, at 10am, a bus takes us to a refugee camp at nearby Qalandia. There are 20 delegates from Britain, the US, Canada, Zimbabwe, Brazil, Switzerland and France: agents, managers, lawyers, promoters and producers, as well as NGO representatives.

As the bus sways through a blasted landscape of rubble and twisted metal, our Palestinian guide points out evidence of what he calls an apartheid society. It is shocking just how many walls there are. “These are apartheid roads,” he says, indicating a sleek dual carriageway stretching for miles. Walled on both sides, and topped with razor wire, this road is for Israelis only. To travel the same route, Palestinians must go five times the distance through a series of grubby checkpoints that are studies in dehumanisation.

There are no tents in Qalandia. Occupied by the Israelis after the six-day war in 1967, the camp has existed since 1948, and is a maze of jerry-built, breeze-block units and gaping rubbish sacks. Vivid black stencils on the whitewashed walls depict the faces of young men killed by Israel’s security forces. Our guides are three camp residents who make hip-hop under the name Sa’aleek, meaning “the Scrawny Ones”.

“Sa’aleek also means Vigilantes,” says 20-year-old Mohammad Silwadi, a whip of a boy with an eerie intensity. Despite unemployment among Palestinians being at 51%, he works at a petrol station and as a hospital chef – but he lives to write rhymes. “This man was a journalist,” he says, pointing to a stencilled face. “They shot him. Knocked down his house. It is forbidden to build it again.”

He walks over to another face. “This was my friend,” he says, showing a miniature of the same image on a chain around his neck. He’s close to tears. His voluble bandmates fill in, invoking Tupac Shakur and Immortal Technique, all in American English learned from hip-hop lyrics: “We are revolutionaries, you get me?”

The wall separating Israel and Palestine  at Qalandia
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The wall separating Israel and Palestine at Qalandia. Photograph: Maria Zreik

At the edge of the camp is a checkpoint through which all Palestinians must pass – on foot and only with the correct permit – to enter east Jerusalem. Built into the wall and blackened by the smoke of burned tyres, an Israeli observation tower looms over a perpetual jam of people and vehicles.

In the shadow of the tower, Silwadi opens a metal door. “Our studio,” he says. We squeeze into the tiny room, which contains a computer, a keyboard, two speakers and a mic. Dust fills our eyes and mouths, as well as every crevice of the equipment. Silwadi clangs the door shut, the others fire up the beats, and Sa’aleek unleash a torrent of rhymes.

During the drive back to Ramallah, we learn that Sa’aleek are not actually on the PMX bill. Ninety acts applied, but the Qalandia trio had never performed live before so didn’t make the cut. This seems a shame, so the delegates decide to petition the organisers.

After lunch comes a speed-networking session, held at a fashion boutique in Ramallah. The musicians line up amid the mannequins, while the delegates sit at tables, looking dazed after the morning’s crash course in life for your average Palestinian. A buzzer sounds to start the first 10 minutes of networking – or in my case, interviewing. DJ Odai sits down. He’s a refugee from Jaffa. He tells me he has often sneaked into the city of Haifa for gigs. I assumed its walls – solid concrete eight metres tall – were unscalable. Not so, clearly; though Odai once fell off and had to play his set with a broken leg.

“Being Palestinian fucks up your sense of identity,” says singer Rasha Nahas, my next interviewee, “because Arabic is eradicated here and Hebrew is everywhere. Eventually, you find yourself thinking in Hebrew, and you say, ‘Wait – this is the language of the oppressor!’ So English is a way to escape that.” Finally there’s Moody Kablawi, a smiling, 6ft 5in trip-hop artist (“the only one in Palestine!”) who has a gargantuan afro and controls his own lighting from the stage.

Goldschmidt and the expo’s other organisers are uncertain how many people will buy a ticket to watch the evening’s music in the huge tent that has been pitched in the hotel grounds. But by the time the first note is struck, there are 1,000 people in the crowd. What is most striking is the variety of styles. There’s a folky flavour to opening band Talila, while Nahas has the theatricality of Weimar cabaret with added violins and rockabilly. Then Jrere and his friends in DAM bring the noise, closing the night with an incendiary set.

Rasha Nahas live at PMX
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The theatricality of Weimar cabaret with added violins and rockabilly … Rasha Nahas live at PMX. Photograph: Sami Alalul or Breathing Stories

The next night the crowd is larger still, and barrel-chested MC Saz does the pogo in full flowing white robes and fez, before stripping down to his vest – and even that comes off in the end. Already deals are being struck. From the Golan Heights on the border with Syria come the winningly named Toot Ard. Their fusion of ska with the desert blues of bands such as Tinariwen quickly persuades Scottish booking agent Isla Angus to make a move.

Angus handles the live careers of a roster of artists including Sleaford Mods, and plans to bring the Palestinian group to Europe for shows at the end of summer. Why does she think they’ll do well? “They sing in Arabic, but the rhythm section is from the Prince Buster playbook,” she says. “It’s a joyful package and there’s always something special about seeing a bunch of musicians at the top of their game playing together. Plus, like everyone I’ve met here, they are the personification of grace under pressure.”

After a final set of panel discussions and a moving livestream with musicians in Gaza who are forbidden to leave the strip, PMX moves towards its finale, which will take place in a cavernous basement. Its low ceilings bring an added intensity – perfect conditions for Sa’aleek, back by demand from Qalandia, for their first-ever live performance. They’re so excited (and under-rehearsed) that they can barely remember how their songs go, but the crowd get behind them, and when they go a cappella they turn things round. As they bounce their way through the closing tune – a rousing mix of marching-band snare drums and keening strings – the effect is overwhelming.

Then comes the final act, Zenobia. Two guys at keyboards making pulsing electronic instrumentals that build to emotional climaxes, like some crazy Kraftwerk of the Levant, and wild Arabic double-time clapping spreads through the crowd.

It all goes to show that the best music is often born from adversity. Supported by friends from many nations, in this swaying, cheering room of young people, a new side to Palestine is emerging – one that is about joy, fun and laughter. “Through music,” as one artist said to me, “we can be free.”