Sunday, June 28, 2009

Al-Kamandjati Summer Camp 2009, al-Fara'a, the West Bank (part 1)

One of the seminal teaching events for al-Kamandjati of the year is their summer camp, which is a seven-day music festival for their students around the West Bank. Due to the difficulties of moving students from one town to another, this is a chance for all the students to meet and perform with each other. The camp is taking place in the village of al-Fara'a, close to the city of Nablus.

The mornings involve private lessons for all the students. Many volunteer teachers from all over the world came to teach in the summer camp on various instruments.

There are two orchestras in the camp; a junior orchestra made up of string students, and a full orchestra made up of the more advanced players.

Here's me teaching clarinet to one of my students. I'm also teaching composition to a few students; for the younger ones I am teaching them basic writing skills and for the older ones I'm trying to introduce them to counterpoint and tonal harmony.

During the afternoons we have a choir session where the students can all sing together. This is us right before we all sang a song by the famous Arab singer Fayrouz. We also have afternoon outdoor concerts made of up performances by children and faculty.

During the afternoon they have several workshops they can get involved in, including composition, notation, improvisation, and so on.

It's really interesting to see how contemporary classical music is fitting into this; we're doing this piece called "Self-Portrait" which involves a set of boxes on stage with notes on them; it's a bit hard to explain. We're also doing Riley's "In C" and Reich's "Clapping Music."

Here's the improvisation workshop. The children took to it really quickly!

There are also small chamber groups involved in performances.

One of the centerpieces of the al-Kamandjati program is the Oriental Ensemble, a group of performers playing on native Palestinian instruments. The group has been essential in bridging the gap between Western classical music and Palestinians; it was interesting to see that they teach the children Palestinian songs in solfege. Here's them performing at one of the nightly concerts.

The faculty is involved with performances- here's a few playing the Mozart Flute Quartet.

More next time.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Concert in the al-Amari Refugee Camp

I had originally planned to do a bigger report but that will have to wait until later. Yesterday the teachers of al-Kamandjati gave a concert in the al-Amari Refugee Camp, which is walking distance from the school. Like many refugee camps, al-Amari suffers from overcrowding and poor services; and like poorer areas in general it has a high birthrate and a large number of children.

Ramzi Aburedwan, the founder of the al-Kamandjati school, is himself a native of the al-Amari camp. He was lucky enough to be able to study violin at the Edward Said National Conservatory, which led to more training in France. After al-Kamandjati was set up in Ramallah he installed an auxillary school in al-Amari where teachers can train refugee children as well as give performances.

The concert was packed with children, many of whom have little to do during the summer months. Here are a few pictures.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Puccini gets a standing ovation in Nablus

As one of the more conservative Muslim areas of the West Bank, the city of Nablus may not be a place to expect an opera, let alone one with plenty of wine-drinking and skirts. But Puccini's opera "La Boheme" premiered here tonight to a packed crowd in the An-Najah University, put on by the touring Choir of London. I was really interested in seeing the opera here, since the social dynamics of Nablus are really different from that in Ramallah or Bethlehem.

The opera was entirely in Italian, but had the addition of a narration in Arabic at the beginning of the acts by Saleh Bakri, a famous Palestinian actor who may have been responsible for drawing a lot of the crowd. It definitely helped to keep attention focused on the scene.

The crowd seemed like it was from a fairly wide spectrum, with many from the college-age crowd as well as families bringing their children. I was half-expecting that the parts of the opera might cause some offense in the crowd, like when the dying Mimi's shoes were pointed directly at the audience (traditionally disrespectful in Arab culture).

But of course I was wrong. The crowd gave them a raucous standing ovation at the end which was really touching to see.

Some more of Nablus.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

"Music is something's essential." Heather Bursheh, musical director of the ESNCM

The Edward Said National Conservatory of Music is the oldest music education program in the Palestinian territories and perhaps the most established. It has centers in Ramallah, Bethlehem, and Jerusalem, in addition to auxillary partner centers in Jericho, Nablus, and refugee camps.

I was able to sit down with Heather Bursheh, the musical director of the ESNCM, and talk with her about her experience in the West Bank. Bursheh is a native of Scotland and was educated in the Royal Northern College in Manchester. After graduating she was confronted with the idea of entering the freelance performance scene, but she found herself wanting to see the world. She heard about a job teaching flute in Palestine, an area which she knew little about. "I just thought, well, it can't be as bad as everyone says it is if it has a music school."

Her duties involve auditioning students, choosing repertoire and conductors and the overall coordination of the program, which includes several large ensembles for Palestinian children to perform in: a children's orchestra in Jerusalem for those with two to three years of performing experience, the ESNCM Orchestra with advanced students, a wind band, and the Palestine Youth Orchestra.

The Palestine Youth Orchestra is comprised of Palestinian children not only from the West Bank, but from Israel and the broader diaspora in Syria, Jordan, the United States and even Honduras. The conservatory takes pride in the way that it brings Palestinians together. "The events leading up to and after the creation of the state of Israel led to a situation in which there are Palestinians who have never even seen their homeland or met Palestinians living in Palestine.

Everyone talks about how we need to bring Israelis and Palestinians together. Well, we need Palestinians to see other Palestinians. It's their country. It's their cause. For us it's absolutely vital."

Bursheh described the ways in which the conservatory tries to capture the attention of the Palestinian community. "If you sit back and do nothing, the people that come to you are middle class, more liberal, and fairly well off. We try as well to get into other segments." It hasn't been easy, for both socioeconomic and cultural reasons. "Some people are in a situation which is more deprived and don't have music in their first kind of vision. Others have a view that music is something that is not quite okay." But she notes that these problems are faced in many places in the world.

When introducing the conservatory to new people, they focus as much on indigenous music as much as possible. "It is one less barrier to have a Palestinian teaching in familiar sounds and scales than to jump into learning the clarinet." They also take their professional and advanced students to play educational concerts around the West Bank to give a better idea of what they do.

The environment of military occupation has placed additional difficulties at the school. "99.9 percent of our problems come from the occupation." She gave me a common example for many organizations in the West Bank: work permits. International staff have to come on 3 month tourist visas; at the end of the term they must exit the country and return with the hope that they will get a visa reissued. "In 2006, during the Lebanon War, Israel imposed a blanket ban on people entering the West Bank. So if any of our teachers told the truth of where they were going they were instantly denied entry." Bursheh herself was denied entry for a period of nine months, despite being married to a Palestinian.

Another problem has been the restriction of movement of students between branches due to military checkpoints. "Trying to get them together is like climbing Everest." As a result they have intensive three-day camps during holidays instead of regularly scheduled rehearsals, one of which concluded in Bier Zeit today. "If they're two hours late to a camp it's not a disaster," she reasons.

Bursheh believes that the ESNCM has broad social importance. "It is very much a national Palestinian institution, and it's important for us to be perceived as this. It becomes important for students, to strengthen their sense of identity.

I think it is important for music to grow. It is a human activity in all societies over the world. It's something human, it's something we all do. It's essential."

Monday, June 15, 2009

Edward Said Conservatory Summer Camp- Birzeit

I'm a little drained to do a fuller writeup on what I've seen and heard from the Edward Said National Conservatory of Music so I will try and do so tomorrow. But I visited their three-day summer camp, which is taking place in Birzeit, a village a few kilometers from Ramallah. I wanted to post a few pictures, because it's quite amazing and the people there are great.

The mural outside the school is incredible. I really need to get a bigger camera lens.

The summer camp is an orchestra program; they're doing arrangements of the William Tell Overture and Finlandia.

They have a larger summer camp in July so hopefully I will be able to see more of them.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

From Alabama to Ramallah

Ramallah is fortunate compared to other locations in the West Bank due to its proximity to Jerusalem and the passage into Israel proper, which means that it receives a good deal of international visitors and artists. Featured this morning at the Beit al-Hiya al-Jadid (the Home of New Life) was the Voices of Mobile, a choir from the University of Mobile in Alabama. I was told last week by Rev. Munir Salim Kakish about the performance and was very interested in seeing them.

The religious service was very similar to what I have seen in some evangelical churches in America, following Rev. Kakish's education in New York. Raised arms, intermittent "amens" from the audience, congregational singing of hymns replete with lyrics projected on a screen via Powerpoint were all features of the service, which was delivered mostly in Arabic but with some English for international visitors.

The choir was able to set up the tour through familial connections according to Alan Miller, the associate dean for the Center of Performing Arts in the University of Mobile. After visiting Jordan and Israel they were wrapping up their tour in the West Bank, and then going to perform in Paris. While at the church they sang such hymns as "I Surrender All," and appropriately for the West Bank, "Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho."

I was able to speak with a few of the choir members after the concert. One of them, Maggie, talked enthusiastically about her shared religious experience with Arabs. "We're singing the same song but not in the same language and it's incredible to worship the same God with these people. I love them and would love to learn Arabic so I could have conversations with them."

Another choir member, Britney, said that she had gained a heightened awareness of relations between religions. "I think for me the growth of Islam in America is very intense, and I've become more aware of Islam." I asked her to elaborate. "There is so much of it here...and just...I pray for the Christians here, and for Jerusalem and for peace. Because we as Americans just don't understand the tension here." She was disputed by the Rev. Kakish, who doesn't believe there are such problems between the Muslim and Christian communities here.

Miller said that the choir has been appreciative of the sincerity and graciousness of Palestinian Christians, though there hasn't been much interaction between the choir and people here. "Americans are spoiled, we have too much, we choke on our blessings. We come to the Holy Land and see these people who are so gracious. It just helps us to take our music inward even more."

Thursday, June 11, 2009

"La bohème" in Jerusalem

As I might have mentioned before, the Choir of London has come to West Bank to do a tour of performances, including Brahms's German Requiem and Puccini's opera "La Boheme."

A group of girls from the al-Kamandjati school are taking part in a scene of the opera which is really exciting. The rehearsal today was in East Jerusalem, and as I saw first-hand, getting past Israeli restrictions can be extremely difficult. In addition to the difficulties of acquiring permits for visitation, these permits can be summarily refused at the checkpoint.

Here was the group trying to get the permits and papers all together. The children had to bring a copy of their birth certificates in order to prove that they were under the age of 15, which would technically allow them free(r) passage.

In the end 3 of the 15 girls were refused entry into Israel and had to go back home.

The rehearsal was really great to see. Here are a few pictures from the rehearsal.

Also the time in Jerusalem offered me a chance to see one of the major things that I did not see last year.