Bringing Jews and Arabs together 4 bars at a time

British musician Dan Blackwell is embarking on an ambitious musical project in Jerusalem

DAN BLACKWELL with members of the Zohra orchestra in Afghanistan. ‘I’m coming to [Israel] from a humanitarian angle with a simple concept – promoting peace and unity and good music. (photo credit: Courtesy)
DAN BLACKWELL with members of the Zohra orchestra in Afghanistan. ‘I’m coming to [Israel] from a humanitarian angle with a simple concept – promoting peace and unity and good music.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Dan Blackwell is nothing if not optimistic. The 27-year-old British musician thinks the situation between Israelis and Palestinians can be improved – four bars at a time.
The founder of the 4bar Collective, Blackwell is preparing to pack up his guitar and make his way to the Holy Land in a couple months to record around 50 Israeli and Palestinian musicians performing a short section – four bars – of an original song, each musician composing a new layer with their voice or instrument.
“I want to show that through music, these cultures that are in constant conflict can get along as people,” said Blackwell from his home in Northampton, about an hour from London.
“It’s strictly apolitical. I’m no politician and I know how complicated everything is there on the ground. I’m coming to it from a humanitarian angle with a simple concept – promoting peace and unity and good music.”
Blackwell has a successful track record in that direction using the 4bar Collective approach. Last year, he traveled to Afghanistan to record his song “Sister” with Zohra, the country’s first-ever female orchestra. He concurrently produced a well-received 30-minute documentary called Sister that chronicled the process.
“A lot of those musicians have been disowned by their families or hunted by Taliban, yet they’re still pursuing their passion of music,” said Blackwell. “It inspired me to go there and the experience has prompted me to continue making a series of songs and documentaries on how cultures can collaborate and celebrate their differences through music.”
Blackwell honed his four-bar approach after working for years in the British music industry as a session musician and bandleader for singer/songwriter Billy Lockett.
“I began to get sick of the negativity in the music business and the very unfriendly competition among musicians. So, in 2013 I started traveling around the UK and recording four bars of music from each musician I would meet and create a complete song that would showcase them all.”
The Joe Strummer Foundation, established in memory of the late leader of The Clash to develop and support new musicians and music, heard about Blackwell’s efforts in Afghanistan and offered to fund his Israel-Palestinian project.
Last month, Blackwell began posting announcements on social media to recruit Jewish and Arab musicians and said that he’s gotten a strong response. He explained that his main connection to the music scene in Israel is via the Yamma Ensemble, the world music adventurists who perform the songs of Jewish communities from Yemen, Babylon as well as hassidic music using ancient instruments like the kopuz and duduk.
“They run a music hub online and know lots of musicians in Jerusalem, both Jewish and Arab. I’m hoping to work with about 50 musicians on the track,” said Blackwell, adding that he intends, like in Afghanistan, to film the project for a documentary.
He’s also hoping to recruit Victoria Hanna, the Israeli vocalist who combines hip hop with traditional Jewish texts in Hebrew and Aramaic.
“That would be a brilliant addition; she can rap in ancient Hebrew style,” said Blackwell, adding that his challenge so far has been to confirm the participation of Arab musicians.
“By October, I think I’ll have plenty. In any event, I want to play it loose. Once I’m working with musicians, one will say ‘I know this guy,’ and he’ll call someone else and I’ll just roll with it. It will create a natural, authentic kind of process,” he said.
Blackwell intends to post the still-untitled song online and promote it heavily as well as market the documentary he plans to produce. He has no illusions that his project will make much of a dent in the well-worn paths of behavior and thought that have continued to divide Israelis and Palestinians, but his aim is also to show Israel in a different light than the negative one it’s usually pegged with in the usual stories focusing on strife.
“There’s so many media reports in the UK about Jerusalem and Israel and it’s all about the conflict. I want to show something beyond that – that there’s a lot of good in Israel and a lot more going on.”
That’s something you can hum four bars to.