This year at the festival we had more programming than ever that focussed on the stories and struggles of those working for peace and equal rights in the land some call Holy – Palestine/Israel. We even won an award because of the spotlight we shone on artists and activists from the region at the festival.
At Christmas time – as those of us who brave a carol service (or two) will know only too well – our attention is drawn inescapably to Palestine/Israel, to the gospel stories and the towns and places they mention. We especially think of the “little town of Bethlehem”, today cut off from Jerusalem by the separation barrier and in the occupied West Bank. We remember that, according to the story, this is the place that Jesus Christ was born. (You might want to check out Alternativity on BBC2 for a glimpse into a particularly festive form of beautiful resistance being enacted there this year.)
And so this Christmas we want to stand in solidarity with the people of Bethlehem who switched the lights off on the Christmas tree in Manager Square in protest at President Trump’s crass and unjust pronouncement about Jerusalem being the capital of Israel only. And with those Palestinians living as second class citizens inside Israel in the northern city of Nazareth who have cancelled their Christmas festivities altogether in protest.
The incarnation – whether you believe it really happened or not – is perhaps the supreme act of imagination. The idea that, in order to really love something or someone, you need to become one with them. Walk in their shoes, feel their joys and pain. Stand in solidarity with them.
But this Christmas, we also remember that the Palestinians are resilient, resourceful and creative people and that they are always in the business of birthing fresh hope. We’ve long had links to our sister festival in Bethlehem, Bet Lahem Live, of course. But this spring, our Programme Manager Katherine travelled out to the West Bank city of Ramallah, to the inaugural Palestine Music Expo (PMX), too.
Here is Katherine’s story.
This year I took my first trip to Palestine with 20 other delegates from around the world to be part of the first Palestinian Music Expo.
It was an amazing experience, but you knew I was gong to say that. So, here’s why …
There is no real music industry in Palestine. No established agents, promoters, record labels, managers. There are a few venues in which the artists play. But they are all small. And nothing is guaranteed. Gigs can be cancelled, check points can be closed, permits can be denied, groups congregating may be seen as dangerous and so dispersed.
PMX put on a full production event over three days in a 1000+ capacity venue in Ramallah and kept ticket prices at around £5 to attend. We had no idea what was going to happen, who was going to show up or how it was going to be received.
The first night was electric. Young people seemed to come from all around for what was actually one of the biggest music events of its kind ever in Palestine. The music that these artists were creating was incredible and nothing like the stuff that a music nut like me usually experiences in the gigs I go to. It was music that told the artists’ stories, music that was created because people needed to have their voice heard; because people needed to bring joy and hope to the residents of an occupied land. It wasn’t distorted by having to fit into a ‘mould’ or ‘style’ of a band in order to gain notoriety, wealth and fame. Yet it could, because it was great …as you will have seen if you caught TootARd and Apo and the Apostles at Greenbelt this year. I felt so lucky to be there listening to this and I felt lucky that Greenbelt could be part of bringing this music to a wider audience.
What was great about the trip was that it wasn’t like a normal industry conference where delegates are wined and dined and kept in their own bubble, separate from the region and its people. It was important to PMX that everyone saw why we were there, why we had travelled so far to meet these artists, and why it was so important to them.
So, our days were spent visiting refugee camps in Qalandia and Bethlehem. We went into home-made studios, we walked through the maze of breeze block ‘houses’ and we met the people that lived there. We heard the stories of what these people endure daily and we learnt the ways in which they are using culture and art to get their voice out. We heard of some of their friends who had been killed and we saw graffiti-ed pictures of young men whose lives had ended all too soon covering the walls of buildings throughout the camps.
We held a Gaza showcase on one of the days via live streaming – as we couldn’t get into Gaza and the musicians couldn’t get out. We saw great music coming from artists who are playing on old instruments (because it’s almost impossible to get musical equipment into Gaza). Some of these Gazan artists had learnt their skills via the internet. We heard how it’s almost impossible to have live music events in Gaza, but that artists are still making music, because it’s important to their identity and meaning. Although there was very little we could do, we heard them and I know there are intentions to try and reach these musicians, too.
We took time to meet with the artists and offer advice, support and to listen to what the people there needed from us. We held workshops for the artists, sharing our knowledge on the roles of managers, agents, promoters, how to get your music out via social media, and how to access other parts of the world in order to get gigs and artist development opportunities. We talked with cultural institutions about how we can help, and what can we do.
PMX also started a mentorship scheme and funded some emerging artists managers and agents to come come over the UK and learn from people like Martin Goldschmitt from Cooking Vinyl and one of the founders of PMX. One emerging music manager came to Greenbelt this year with In Place of War who headlined our Monday night with the band Grrrl.
The first PMX was entirely funded by individual and organisational donations. Everyone’s time was put in voluntarily to create the event and the delegates paid their own way on the trip. All the money raised went directly to help the artists and the emerging music industry hopefuls in the region.
But this was just the start.
In 2018 it’s happening all over again – with Greenbelt having been invited back to take part. Just think what a vibrant music industry could do for Palestine!! The talent is there, I promise.
We’re raising money now in order to fund the next PMX event and so if you would like to donate and help us then please take a look at my own Just Giving page here.
I’ll leave you with this quote from Tom Horan, a Guardian journalist on the first PMX trip:
“It all goes to show that the best music is often born from adversity. Supported by friends from many nations, in this swaying, cheering room of young people, a new side to Palestine is emerging – one that is about joy, fun and laughter. ‘Through music,’ as one artist said to me, ‘we can be free.'”
His whole article can be read here.
Thank you, and Merry Christmas!
Pictured: Moody Kablawi, performing at PMX 2017
Photograph by Sami Alalul