BETHLEHEM, WEST BANK — With continuing tensions and the area's troubled history, the West Bank and Gaza Strip are not where you might expect to find music flourishing. With little to celebrate, little leisure to create, and little money to buy the necessary equipment, Palestinian musicians do not have an easy life. But you only have to meet eight enthusiastic young men and women who form the musical group Al-Baraem to see that a new music is being born.
Al-Baraem is Arabic for "the opening of a new flower." But, as the band explains, the name also conjures up the image of the continuous process of the birth of new life, whether of a flower, a child, a season, or a new outlook on life. As Palestinians work to gain their statehood, the band hopes this image will be apt. "This name was chosen because we feel it describes a newness and freshness that we try to convey through our music."
Most of the members have been in bands for many years, playing at festivals, weddings, and parties. But, seeking something more out of their music, they came together to form a new group in 1985. Al-Baraem's goal was ambitious: "developing musical activities in the direction of establishing a Palestinian independent culture."
All were committed to the highest standards in words and music, producing original material that would draw on the best of native Palestinian musical and literary traditions.
By 1987 they were well known throughout the Occupied Territories but, during the Palestinian uprising - the intifadah - public celebrations, such as concerts, came to an end. Al-Baraem put this time of enforced silence to good use by recording its first album, "Fulfillment of the Promise," released in 1991.
The group is made up of Christian Palestinians, but its songs are not specifically religious.
As Rana Soudah, one of the singers, recounts proudly, "The group is ecumenical, with members of the Latin Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Syrian Coptic, Armenian, and Protestant churches. We work well together, and are an example for all Christianity."
Says Bashir Akkawi, the drummer and prime mover behind the band: "Our work is not directly religious, but anything that serves humanity is religious."
Maher Turjman, who composes, sings, and plays the oud, a traditional stringed instrument. agrees. "It is important there is a Christian contribution to Palestinian culture. We are always part of the Palestinian community ... We have no fear about showing our Christian identity." But Al-Baraem does not direct its music at a Christian audience. Akkawi says, "The songs of life under occupation are not just about Christians, but are about Palestinians, both Christian and Muslim."
The musical tastes of young Palestinians include both Western music and Arabic pop music from neighboring states, especially Egypt. "There is only one theme to this music," says Bashir wearily, "and that's love."
Al-Baraem has been trying to raise the level of public awareness with songs that are more challenging and original - and more relevant. "We try to create music that is close to the pulse of our life." The group provides an authentic blend of traditional Palestinian sounds with more modern instruments and rhythms.
The creative process is lengthy. The group takes work by leading Palestinian poets and, after a process of absorption, the music is added. "Each person takes the lyrics and starts to live them," explains Akkawi.
They also look for songwriters for new lyrics. "We talk to writers who put together the lyrics. We have to think what we want to sing." Just recently, several members of the group have begun to write their own lyrics. Turjman, for example, has written a song about his home city of Jerusalem, proclaiming that it should be a city of peace, open to all. "The main goal for us is Jerusalem," explains Akkawi. "It is very important for Christians, Muslims, and Jews."
Al-Baraem has played for all kinds of audiences, whether Palestinian, Israeli, or foreign. They maintain contact with groups in Israel that support peace, and the band has taken part in music festivals in Jaffa with bands from Israel and Egypt.
Music and culture, they firmly maintain, can build "bridges of understanding" between people of different countries. "If we don't know each other well, how can we understand each other?" asks Soudah. The high point for Al-Baraem came when it was invited to play at the Oslo Peace Concert, held in 1994 to mark the first anniversary of the Oslo accord between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization.
Akkawi concedes that the financial side of the band is "very complicated." One problem is that while they would ideally aim to sell their cassettes for 10 shekels (about $3), the average price of a music cassette in the market is 5 shekels, so it would have to follow suit.
"People are used to getting cheap cassettes," says Soudah. Pirated tapes are common. This means that revenue from sales is not enough to build up money to invest in equipment. All the members of the band support themselves with full-time jobs.
Studio time is expensive, and the mixing has had to be done by Israeli firms in Tel Aviv. But the group has built its own 8-track recording studio in a rented apartment on the edge of Bethlehem, helped by the Pontifical Mission. It is here the band recorded its second album, "The Bride of the Waves." Turjman, who works for the mission in Jerusalem, sees the mission's support as a vital link and inspiration for Al-Baraem. "They encourage us to compose and to be creative."