A voice of inspiration

Amal Murkus, an Israeli Arab singer from a Christian family, uses music to convey her thoughts, beliefs and emotions – and she has a non-musical message too.

Amal Murkus, an Israeli Arab singer 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Amal Murkus, an Israeli Arab singer 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Amal Murkus says she is growing up. Considering that the forthright 42-year-old singer, actress, TV and radio personality, and campaigner for social and political change has been putting her artistic wares and opinions on the line for close to two decades, that sounds almost like overstated self-deprecation.
Murkus makes the observation from the comfort of her living room in Kafr Yasif in the Galilee, in reference to the timing of her latest album release, Baghanni (I Sing), her fourth in the last 13 years. “My previous CD came out three years ago,” she says. “I think I am making CDs more frequently now because I have matured and, maybe, I have become more efficient. With this album I felt more aware of myself and what I want.”
That said, the mother of three has rarely concealed her thoughts, beliefs and emotions from the public. She is a straight shooter. She shies away from neat pigeonholing but, if pressed, identifies herself as “a Palestinian Arab from a Christian family, as are my parents and as my grandparents were.”
“I read an article recently with which I identify very much. It talked about how people are unable to change their lives, and how they have lost the sense of there being someone more important than themselves. There is this thing about capitalism that places the person at the center, and they become egotistical and feel that that the whole world revolves around them. Everyone has a blog, and Facebook, and it’s all about me, me, me,” she says.
“I am secular, but I think we have to work hard to improve ourselves, and to give something to the society in which we live,” she continues. “The article also talks about how people spend their whole lives looking for their real selves, even into old age. I don’t think that’s the way to spend your whole life. With this CD, I felt I knew exactly what I wanted from myself, and from the project.”
Part of that meant recording the music close to home. For some time, Murkus had had her eye on a large abandoned house in Kafr Yasif as a potential recording space, and Baghanni came into being there.
“It has amazing natural acoustics and a great feel to it, even though it was run-down,” she recalls.
Hardly one to be deterred by hard work, she set about cleaning the place up herself, and is generous with the kudos to her partners in music.
“It felt right to do the recording where I live. And today, there is the technology to make it happen almost wherever you want, and there are so many talented youngsters in the music field, too – composers, players, sound engineers, you name it. I also have a very talented 27- year-old arranger, [Mahran Moreb,] who knows classical and contemporary Arab music, and Western music, very well.
Unlike in the past, when had I to go looking for artists, today I am surrounded by lots of talent.”
She also enjoyed the quality services of veteran oud player-violinist Nassem Dakwar and bouzouki player Jameel Mansour, with Moreb also playing oud, bouzouki and qanoun.
IT MUST be said that Murkus isn’t short on talent herself. She got an early start to her performing career, taking the stage for the first time when she was just five.
“My mother says that I knew all the letters of the alphabet at the age of nine months, and when I was two I was already learning and singing songs. People were always sticking me on a crate or a chair to get me to sing to everyone. No one asked me, it was taken [as a given] that I would sing. By the time I was five, I was being invited to sing at official occasions, like the 25th anniversary of the village and for gatherings of student unions and all sorts of political gatherings.”
Her epiphany came all of five years later, in 1979. “I knew I was going to be a professional singer when I was 10, when I took first prize in the national Arab children’s song festival. I saw my parents with tears in their eyes and the rest of the audience crying. I realized I had some baggage in me which moves people. I’ll never forget that.”
That was that. She never took a singing lesson, she just got on with the job at hand.
“At every May Day gathering, I was asked to sing ‘We Shall Overcome,’” she recalls. “Even though people may not have understood all the words in English, they knew what the songs was about.”
She is also highly active in other areas of the arts, having graduated from the Institute for Stage Art in Tel Aviv in 1990.
An accomplished actress, she has appeared in feature films and was nominated for the Israeli Oscar for her performance in Ali Nasar’s movie The Milky Way. In 2003, she won the Best Actress award at the Haifa Theater Festival, and she appears regularly on TV in various educational and cultural programs.
Although she is far short of the “dowager” age of most divas in the Arab world, Murkus is something of a throwback to a bygone era. Both her first, eponymous album, Amal, which came out in 1998, and her second effort, Shauq, which was released six years later, feed off Arab folklore and tradition – though there are some nods to more contemporary musical styles in there, too. For her third recording, Na’ na’ ya Na’ na (2008), she dug deep into her own cultural and geographical milieu and came up with a collection of traditional Arab folk songs from Galilee, along with the odd tune from the Negev. The topics covered run the life cycle gamut, from songs that celebrate birth, marriage and harvesting, to songs of struggle, nomads and parting couples.
“You know, it is only by staying close to your roots that you can spread your wings, and sprout new leaves,” she says, adding that while she feels at home in the here and now, she takes much of her artistic and cultural lead and life philosophy from an earlier time. In fact, she has all temporal bases covered: “I constantly hover between the past and the present, and I am always looking to the future.”
Murkus comes across as a single-minded character, which may be partly due to her having grown up in a very feminine, if not feminist, home (she is the fifth of six girls) with an activist ethos.
“Yes, I think that being all girls has influenced who I am as a person and as an artist, but we also had a very clearly defined political – communist – agenda in our household,” she notes, adding that her father’s political leanings often left him in hot water. “My father belonged to the Communist Party, and he was fired from his teaching position for that. He was held under house arrest for a long time and was jailed for a while, after the May Day demonstration of 1958. He fought for equality and the rights of everyone.”
She also grew up in a rich cultural environment.
“My parents were, on the one hand, very deep-rooted and connected to the land, in a simple way, but also very intelligent and learned. They were involved in art in the mundane sense of the word, not in the philosophical sense. My father would cut out pictures of paintings from magazines, of Van Gogh, and Picasso and Renoir, so we could see them and learn about them. There was no Internet back then, and no money at all. My father also edited the first Palestinian magazines that came out after 1948, like Al Jadid, which published articles about literature and poetry, including Palestinian literature, Arab literature and international literature. People could also read in these magazines about Martin Luther King and the Vietnam War, and about the records of Joan Baez.”
In a neat act of closure, the singer got to share a stage with Baez in 1988, at an anti-war concert in Tel Aviv. She has also appeared with late Argentinean diva Mercedes Sosa, staunchly left-wing British singer Robert Wyatt, Greek singer Glykeria and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra from the UK.
By all accounts, Murkus grew up in surprisingly cosmopolitan surroundings. “It was a household that dreamt beyond the boundaries of its reality and which, I believe, continues to do so and to sow the seeds of hope, despite the poverty and difficulties.”
That may explain where she got her name – Amal means “hope” in Arabic – although there was gender aspect to it, too: “After I was born, people came to encourage my mother, even though she’d had a girl for the fifth time. But it was also a name designed to combat any feelings of despair. [Still,] my father has never been disappointed that he never had a son. He is proud of all of us.”
Murkus is plainly proud of Baghanni, and the album reflects her eclectic educational upbringing.
Alongside the Arabic melodies, there are more Western- oriented classical arrangements, and other Western elements. Kahol Celtic music band leader Uri Miles and Vital Podolsky play accordion on a couple of tracks, and Shahar Kaufman plays classical guitar throughout.
“I grew up with Western classical music, too,” says the singer, “but I like almost every type of music, from rap to blues, jazz, tango, classical Arab music and rock ’n’ roll. I try to keep up with all the new music that comes out, as much as I can.”
That all-embracing approach to music spills over into other areas of her life: “I don’t like cataloguing things – music or my life. I grew up with all kinds of music, and my voice can handle all of that, too.”
While she may not yet have the years to make diva status, she certainly has the vocal wherewithal to qualify. Her delivery on “Kam Albe Sedo” (How Far Is Far), for example, is succinctly plaintive without resorting even remotely to emotional extortion. Then, on “Kol Shi” (Everything), the vocals step up a gear and her sunny side comes into clear view. Her selfdeclared maturity comes through, both in her vocal capabilities and her go-with-the-flow mind-set, as she tackles the carefully picked material with gusto.
Murkus, who has performed in the States, Europe and Australia, returned from a concert in London a few days before our meeting, and it seems to have gone over well.
“I am delighted that people abroad get what I try to convey in my music, despite the language barrier,” she notes.
In fact, she believes non-Israelis often tend to be more appreciative of her work than Jewish Israelis. “I am happy that the disadvantage of being a Palestinian, from a minority group, which can hinder the natural progress I might have achieved had I been born elsewhere, in a more normal place, is less of a problem abroad. But I know that if I came from somewhere else, I could perform more frequently.”
She is aware that her decision to sing almost exclusively in Arabic also cuts down on her concert opportunities in this country, and elsewhere.
“I don’t have a psychological problem with singing in Hebrew,” she states. “I don’t have any problem with Hebrew or with the Jews. I have a problem with Zionism as an ideology. But I want my career and my work to be in my own language. I didn’t fall from the sky. I come from a rich and widespread culture, and I do my work well – I do it better in Arabic than I would do it in Hebrew or in English.
“Anyway, there’s no point in me singing in English to English-speaking audiences,” she continues.
“You’ll always find posters of [mega popstar singers] Beyonce and Rihanna in Arabs’ homes, but you won’t find pictures of, say, the wonderful Lebanese singer Julia Butrous in the home of some kid in America. I don’t even want to be asked about the issue of language. It is like asking a Palestinian poet why he doesn’t write in Hebrew, or in English, so that he can gain wider recognition.”
The bottom line, says the singer, is the quality of what she has to offer. “I think that if I perform well, and with dignity, any audience can appreciate what I do. I appear abroad three or four times a year, including at the most important [world music] festivals.
At last year’s WOMAD [World of Music, Arts and Dance] Festival in Australia, I was chosen as one of the top five performers out of 250.”
WHILE NOT exactly taking her soapbox along on her travels, Murkus says people get her non-musical messages, too.
“I am identified as a feminist and as a Palestinian.
I am discriminated against as a woman, and as a Palestinian. As a woman I have much in common with Israeli women or with British women. It is the same sort of discrimination in that respect,” she says.
“There are a lot of women victims around the world, not just Palestinians. There are plenty of Palestinian events where the organizers don’t want women to sing. We have the same saying as the Jews, that a woman’s voice is her nakedness. But I come to sing about important social issues, I am not a belly dancer,” she goes on. “I think I can offer support for women, but I also need support as a woman who is discriminated against. In that respect, it doesn’t make any difference if I am Palestinian, or Israeli, or come from anywhere else.”
Murkus takes an across-the-board approach to the cause of the downtrodden. “It’s a single package,” she declares. “It can’t be just a matter of a Palestinian agenda, or fighting for women’s rights. If you use your art as a vehicle for achieving social change, it has to apply to all spheres. You have to talk about the plight of women, of children, of the poor and of foreign workers.”
At the end of the day, however, Murkus is a singer – and a fine one, as evidenced by Baghanni.
The CD is available at select locations around the country, including Yaffa Books and Coffee in Jaffa, Maestro CD store and art school in Nazareth, and Fatush Restaurant and Gallery in Haifa. For more information about Amal Murkus: www.myspace.com/amalmurkus and www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=120641424453