To be a Palestinian musician you play at the edge of the abyss
A selfless sensibility
Khaled Jubran, by his own testimony, is in Cairo every other month. Yet, perhaps for reasons coloured by politics, an appointment with him is hard to come by. On the present occasion, interminable rehearsals at the Townhouse Gallery's New Space allow for no more than half an hour prior to the Arab-African concert to be staged there, the outcome of a workshop directed by Jubran in collaboration with Alfred Gamil and other musicians.
And then it is disappointing to realise that, Jubran being musically focussed and logically minded, loquaciousness is not one of his traits. "He has no sense of self," a mutual acquaintance subsequently supplies. "He just plays music." Nor is there any evident self-consciousness as he nods, conceding her remark in the most natural manner.
The information he provides is largely factual and simply put. But there are moments of subdued eloquence. "Imagine," he intones, in response to a question concerning the circumstances under which his concerts take place back in Palestine, "three musicians crammed into half a square metre; and if you take one extra step in any direction you fall off an immense height." The description, interestingly, is no mere metaphor for vulnerability; it reflects a real-life situation; a kind of physical danger Jubran has grown used to accepting. One takes such risks -- and this is what the thrust of his argument seems to be -- because one is convinced of "the importance, the palpable necessity of music".
"I grew up in a musical household," he begins... Considering his reticence, it is fortunate that his family background can be gleaned from other sources.
The son of Elias Jubran -- Abu Khaled, as he is known, is one of the most skilled oud makers in the Middle East -- Khaled is also brother to the inimitable Kamilya Jubran, a remarkably gifted singer of international, if still somewhat minor, fame. At the age of 25 Abu Khaled, a soldering and welding worker in the Galilee village of Rameh, had encountered live oud music for the first time. Borrowing the one oud that existed in the whole village he discovered a talent for reproducing, and eventually mastering, tunes of the classic Arab repertoire. Overtaken by the urge to possess his own specimen of the instrument, Abu Khaled undertook a gargantuan research project, soliciting the help of a host of relations and friends in order to produce, with his own two hands, the perfect oud. Soon after this he progressed onto other instruments, becoming a self- taught artisan of the most refined standards.
In the meantime he was studying music, and his children grew up not only immersed in the sound of the oud, the buzuq, the qanoun, but in an atmosphere of puritanical classicism. Kamilya, for one, while she was still barely able to walk, would be placed on top of the dining table to perform her numbers for visitors eager to hear an already reputable voice. Instruments would be brought to the hallway to be assessed by an increasingly focussed Abu Khaled, who was soon to become a musical authority throughout Palestine. It was as if, in the house where Khaled Jubran grew up, Arab music was being invented from scratch.
Music would have come naturally to him, yet he started out on the path of the physician. "For three years I studied medicine in Jerusalem. It wasn't something I felt too strongly about, no. But there was this old story of a young man whose secondary-school grades are high and who's therefore in a position to qualify as a doctor: a prestigious position if ever one existed among Arabs. To me medicine was all dryness, tedium, angst. I was soon to discover that, in order to follow something like this through, you have to be inclined to it from the start. I, on the other hand, had no interest in medicine."
Instead he enrolled at the Ruben Music Academy in Jerusalem, where he acquired a firm grasp of Western classical music. "I think it was great that I started out studying Western music, because this made my understanding of Eastern music, which remains the principal inspiration behind the work I do now, more objective and total. Arabic music," he explains, "is not institutionalised in Palestine. So in either case it would be up to me to acquire knowledge of it. The benefit of the academy is that it also provided me with an understanding of musicology and music theory. I studied composition and orchestra conducting."
In his own time he had learned to play the oud and the buzuq, his two Eastern instruments of choice. It was a conscious decision, in 1993, to "abandon the Western altogether" and for seven years teach Eastern music at the Music Institute in Ramallah. "In the inter-Intifada period," Jubran elaborates, "I taught Western music theory, Arabic maqamat (modes) and music appreciation as well as the oud, the buzuq, the small ensemble and improvisation."
The second Intifada put an end to Jubran's involvement with the institute. But political considerations aside, is there a vital music scene in Ramallah? "Hardly," he retorts. "There is no comparison between Cairo, for example, and Palestine, where there are far fewer artists and teachers. And what few teachers remain tend to be engaged in more than one task at the same time, as a consequence of their need for an income.
"In 2002," Jubran announces, "I founded the Urmawi Centre for Mashriq Music," named after the Abbassid musician. An independent institution, the centre brings together Palestinian musicians, teachers and students, preserving existing or potential practitioners' knowledge of the musical heritage, producing contemporary music and putting on shows throughout the country. "I would say that we have a bit of an instrumental bias, which I suppose reflects my own orientation. We study all kinds of music, but if it comes down to a choice between the saxophone and the oud, I'd always insist that the student should go for the latter. Because I feel one shouldn't blindly follow the West, even though a familiarity with the Western tradition will obviously make one's engagement with the Mashriq heritage all the more firm and vital."
Does the centre provide Jubran with a sufficient income? "Thankfully," he says, "I don't have to play at a nightclub or otherwise demean what I hold dear. Because in Palestine commercial opportunities are limited and they make for a largely unpleasant set of options," he explains. "All things considered, in the end, I'd say I survive..."
And survive he does; and considering the circumstances in which he works Jubran would seem to be rather good at it. "An awareness of the political circumstances of Palestine is always with you, he says; "if you are born there, that means you are born with it. But not until the age of 13 or 14 do you begin to experience the difficulties it creates for yourself. Let me just give you a very simple example: within the last two years I was shot at four times in one week. If you leave Jerusalem for Ramallah, with the purpose of giving a oud lesson 20km away from where you live, this can be the most perilous journey you have made in your life. Everywhere there is this sense of impending danger, and of the possibility that whatever you have started, you will not have a chance to complete, if you are to preserve your life." This is the extent of Jubran's statements on politics, yet it is also known that he has had active political interests -- a fact he would rather not acknowledge, at least not in the present context.
"You are performing on a Tuesday," he says in another revelatory moment. "And there is a curfew; it has gone one since the Tuesday before and will go on till next Tuesday. So you have to perform at four in the afternoon and, midway through the show, while you're playing, the tanks begin to trudge into the performance space.
"As a child music was a burden to me, an extra duty that I had to perform," Jubran has already confessed, "and I am naturally lazy. So I stuck with the daily homework; another little star was already rising on whom musical attention was lavished and they finally let me be." And the journey from his initial, complete rejection of music, to an embrace of Western music and back to a thorough engagement with the extra duty Abu Khaled had tried to impose on his childhood seems to have been tied to his political sense of self. "Artistic awareness," he once said, "is to me by definition political awareness."
For now he is content with the subtlest allusions. "My life is not simply that I play music. There is also the question of what music is and why it is important." Is his music a political statement? "We try to come up with new and vital distributions of classic tunes," he seemingly ignores the question. "If there is one advantage to being in Palestine it is relative artistic freedom. My music is an attempt at making something different that is still Arab, but not simply derivative. What are the sounds you want to hear? Those that reflect your sense of self and your awareness. But you start from tradition and your very intimate knowledge of how it's played out in your own life. Heritage, what you have inherited, can be a curse. But you have to start with it. Even when we're playing the most unfamiliar things, we always include some well- known stuff. At least one quarter of every programme is made up of well-known tunes."
Travelling to those parts of the Arab world to which he has legal access Jubran has, since devoting himself to this dubious calling, formed a well-rounded idea of his place on the musical map of the region. "The exchange of experience that workshops afford is very valuable. But what's even more valuable is the perspective you gain on what others are doing, the point at which the music of any one country hovers. In Egypt, as I have said, commercial opportunities sometimes make for derivative or repetitive patterns. But there is always a wealth of material, both past and present. In the Maghreb music has a broader range of precedents and influences, and people can be very discerning in the process of responding to you. I have travelled to Europe and parts of Africa, not America. Everywhere I go, there is always something for me to learn."
Jubran refuses to talk about his private life. "There was an early attempt at that," he says, referring to marriage, "but the conditions of life in Palestine are such that defining yourself, even at that level, is problematic. My life consists largely of my work," besides, one surmises, the unnaturally difficult business of surviving while he is doing it.
"But as I've said," Jubran repeats, "it is not merely a question of practising but of questioning and working things out. What is the use of art? How can art be made relevant?"
On a previous occasion, one on which he was openly discussing the political activity he undertook in his youth, Jubran seemed to be answering that question: "Not once did my father say to me, 'Listen, you are a Palestinian Arab who must hate the state of Israel... After I joined the [Israeli] Communist Party, intelligence agents went to him and said, 'Your son is good at his studies; don't let him compromise his future.' And he replied, 'I did not ask him to join the Communist Party and I won't ask him to leave it.' The only thing he persuaded me of was to learn music... The first person to give me back my respect for the oud was Marcel Khalifa. Before I heard him playing I used to feel that all the oud meant was tradition, that is defeat. There is a poem by Nizar Qabbani... in which he talks about 'the subjugated oud'..."
Jubran would never put it so bluntly himself, but maybe it is through freeing the oud, risking his life on a daily basis in the process of defining a new and vital use for it, that this Palestinian musician finds a use for art, making it relevant.