Najib Saad had a long journey home on a Friday morning earlier this month. He made the trek to Tel Aviv from Nazareth to see an alternative Arab music concert hosted by the Roots of Art. The Arab-led organization produces shows, most often in Tel Aviv, for musical groups that fall outside of typical Arab pop music, also known as Tarab. The concert was a celebration of the organization’s first birthday.
“We promote Arabic art without any connection to politics. And the most important thing is that each time we constantly prove that we are no less than any other community,” said Roots of Art director of public relations Adi Hagag. “We saw that people like our events and we want to give them more.”
Popular Palestinian bands Ghazall and Apo & the Apostles were the first two acts before Ramle native and well-known rapper Saz and Palestinian hip hop star Tamer Nafar. The show was held at Haoman 17, in a south Tel Aviv neighborhood known as Florentin.
“I think it’s a really good idea to have such a show, especially in Tel Aviv. Because mostly, the shows here are in Hebrew and this was in Arabic – so it was special. It’s something that belongs to me, something that represents me,” Saad said.
Saad wasn’t alone in that feeling. The audience was filled with a variety of music-lovers including screaming teenage girls, Arab Christians rocking big crosses on gold chains, Israeli Jews, Palestinians from all over the country (but mostly Jaffa) and a sprinkling of married couples.
Dema Hassan, an 18-year-old from Acre, says she’s always checking to see where Tamer Nafar will be performing next.
“I’m crazy in love with him. He’s for the Palestinian people and he’s promoting peace. That’s what this generation is about. I cry when I see him. Happy tears because I’m so excited.”
The venue was the perfect cross between night club and stage. There was plenty of space for dancing as the four acts performed one after another, with a DJ spinning records in between, and a master of ceremonies duo leading through the night. What was most unusual about this concert, however, was the abundance of audience participation.
Artists came down off the stage, high-fiving the crowd, and even welcomed concert-goers who jumped up on stage to stay for a moment. All the while, performers didn’t seem phased or upset. Yasmina Abu Nassar, lead vocalist of Ghazall set the tone – making her way into the crowd to enjoy the rest of the show after her performance. She graciously took photos and conversed with her fans after her set, which stole the show. Ghazall opened the concert, but stood out as the most memorable performance, even after three other rounds of artists took to the stage. Each song presented a different vibe, with a mix of some reggae notes and elements of rock, the performers were lively and those who knew the words were belting them out while they danced.
“I think it’s amazing and it’s about time that we have something like this – this platform to express ourselves and be who we want to be without any borders,” Nassar said.
APO & THE APOSTLES added even more flavor to the mix. Lead singer Apo Sahagian jumped down into the crowd, dancing and interacting with fans. He made his way through the crowd, giving attention to groups in every corner of the event space. The Armenian singer/guitarist who lives in east Jerusalem, has held the group together since the band was born four years ago. It was his crew that spearheaded Arab alternative music, which in the East is anything that isn’t Arab pop or Tarab. Here, mainstream can also include rap, hip hop, electronic and pop rock, whereas in the west, alternative music is usually more guitar-heavy.
“There were a few Arab folk rock and Indie rock bands but when we released our first album, it sort of broke the damn and then the water came out flooding. It’s because we did it in a very simple and novel way, with simple chords and simple lyrics,” Sahagian said.
Because Sahagian is not a native Arabic singer, and some of his band members aren’t either, it made sense to make the lyrics easier for the tongue. The group performed two new songs during the show, which the lead singer says is a good way to introduce new music. Sahagian commented on the mix of audience members – noting while show’s goal was to give Palestinians a place to perform, the outcome was a blending of cultures.
“The Palestinians in the audience came from towns I’ve never heard of in my life. You have a lot of students here, too. But because [this music] has become mainstream, you also have a lot of Israelis tapping into it, and why shouldn’t they also come to the show? I think it’s good for Israelis to come see what the neighbors are doing, what 50% of the land listens to.”
Apo trumpeter Firas Harb marveled at the crowd.
“Five years ago, you wouldn’t have been able to collect an Arab scene in Tel Aviv with that much closeness, that much people enjoying their time,” Harb said as he waved his hand over the crowd. “We’ve been building all of this. Every f***ing person.”
Harb is working with the rest of the crew on a new album to be called La Rawaq. The concept for the title came about two years ago when the band visited the Druze town of Majdal Shams in the Golan. The term rawaq, coined by the Druze community there means “chill,” similar to the Palestinian use of the word sababa.
“The people there were so gentle, and we really wanted to give them a tribute, [so we chose] to keep the name as a loving heritage,” Harb explained.
While the event was focused on music and dance, politics slowly seeped into room as the night came to a close. Nafar was the final act, and his energy riled the crowd. The audience couldn’t get enough of him, screaming out the lyrics to his raps, throwing their hands in the air and bopping to his intense beats. In one of the last songs of his set, Nafar rapped a line naming a handful of Israeli government officials, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and former defense minister Avigdor Liberman at the top of the list. Though the rap was in Arabic, one can only assume he wasn’t making blessings over the controversial figures.
When the musicians were finally finished for the evening, one of the emcees addressed the crowd, noting everyone at the event had been participating publicly in Palestinian culture “against the wishes of [Minister of Culture] Miri Regev.” The crowd roared, but the moment passed quickly as the clock struck 3:30 a.m. Yawning partiers put their beers down and calmly headed for the doors.
Hagag says the organization intends to triple the number of events this year, averaging out to around two per month, while expanding the brand up into Haifa. He plans to pick things up in June once Ramadan is over.
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