Rocking in Ramallah: Palestinian music takes the stage

First Palestine Music Expo comes to the West Bank city with the aim of going international

Shadi Zaqtan (photo credit: SHMULIK TWIG)
Shadi Zaqtan
(photo credit: SHMULIK TWIG)
Earlier this month hundreds flocked to Ramallah for the first-ever Palestine Music Expo.
An unprecedented event of its kind, the three-day festival brought together musicians, industry activists and key influencers from the international music industry with the goal to discuss and raise awareness about the challenges surrounding local Palestinian artists and musicians.
International delegates from Britain, Brazil, Canada and the US included producers, festival organizers and booking agents – something that is felt to be severely lacking in the local Palestinian music scene. Among the names who attended were Scott Cohen, founder of The Orchard, one of the biggest digital distributors, and Malcolm Haynes, co-founder of the Glastonbury Festival, who joined fellow delegates on public panels with discussion topics curated around local Palestinian artists ranging from how to promote and market their music to how to monetize as a musician.
In attendance were some of the biggest names in the Palestinian music scene, including politically notorious rap group DAM, as well as other locally known artists such as Toot Ard, Hawa Dafi and Shadi Zaqtan. Live performances attracted large crowds of both Palestinians and internationals, who crowded the event’s ballroom at the Grand Park Hotel in Ramallah to dance to popular hits such as Baji Wenek by Apo & the Apostles, and The Fall, an exclusive single released by the Rasha Nahas Band just a week prior, in honor of the festival’s commencement.
The inception of the PMX is the work of Cooking Vinyl founder Martin Goldschmidt and Mahmoud Jrere, from the Palestinian rap group DAM.
The two came together to create the live showcase after sparking a discussion surrounding local Palestinian artists and the challenges they face. Most concerning to them was the lack of Palestinian representation in the global music scene as well as the shortage of opportunities available to them to develop internationally.
Local artists cite a lack of resources available to them, such as mentorship, booking agents and music festivals as a key obstacle they face when attempting to expand their music to a global scale.
Smaller, lesser-known Palestinian bands and musicians feel they face similar challenges of accessibility, identifying a lack of ecosystem and community surrounding the scene. Like many other global communities, developing cultural scenes such as tech, art and fashion often point to a lack of collaboration, resource sharing, and mentorship as a leading factor to their inability to escalate beyond their locality.
“There really isn’t an ecosystem here of booking agents and stuff like that.
One of the objectives [of the festival] is to create that mentorship and agent system you find in more developed markets,” explains Karim Morcos, guitarist for Apo & the Apostles, a Bethlehem- based band founded in 2013 that is already beginning to enjoy the fruits of its labor to attract a more international crowd. With an experimental musical style ranging from folk to rock, the group boasts songs in both Arabic and English; occasionally releasing tracks in Armenian, inspired by lead singer and guitarist Apo Sahagian who hails from Jerusalem’s Armenian Quarter in the Old City.
“Just by bringing together people in the international music industry with local Palestinian musicians and putting them together in one room for three days where they can talk it out, give feedback and exchange views is something that’s crucial here,” says Sahagian.
Social media platforms such as Facebook and SoundCloud have become critical distribution channels for upand- coming artists as they look to expand their fan base beyond local Palestinian and Israeli crowds.
A common hurdle can be something as nuanced as obtaining a visa to perform abroad or a permit required to tour locally. Often, touring musicians must jam-pack as many performances as possible into a short window of time in order to keep within regulation of their visa or permit requirements.
Though festival organizers invite Palestinian musicians to perform, frequently the extra bureaucratic layer of filing for visa invitations and obtaining travel permits can be grounds for festival organizers to drop previously invited acts for lower-maintenance bands.
As the Palestinian music scene continues to grow and expand beyond its own cultural boundaries, bands are taking inspiration from those who have already succeeded. Through continuation of shared cooperation, international support and local mentorship, it is anticipated that we will see continued international growth from additional Palestinian musicians.
Karim Morcos, guitarist for AAP, expresses excitement for the newfound sense of growth and community brought on by a festival like PMX.
“If you analyze any city with a rational number of successful bands, you can see that over time there is a domino effect of new acts coming out within the subsequent years. We’re witnessing something like that happen here with us as well.”