From Palestine to the world stage

Faraj Suleiman at the Odeon Theatre in Amman, Jordan
Internationally acclaimed musician: Faraj Suleiman during a performance at the Odeon Theatre in Amman, Jordan (image: Razan Fakhouri Photography)

Pianist Faraj Suleiman has developed a style all his own, rich in ornamentation and with a powerful rock energy. At an unimaginably difficult time this Palestinian musician, who lives in Israel, has released a new album: "As Much As It Takes"

By Stefan Franzen

As Western journalists, our mistaken reflex when speaking to Palestinian musicians is often to demand answers to the conflict between Hamas and Israel. But what if artists want to stay out of these discussions? 

They have every right to – just as you can't force German musicians into a conversation about the AfD or Germany's provision of arms to other countries. The evening before my Zoom interview with Faraj Suleiman, a request from his record company arrived to head off this reflex: no questions on the Middle East conflict, please. I should say that, at this point, 7 October had not yet happened. 

A short time later, as Faraj Suleiman's album "As Much As It Takes" was released, the Middle East had become a different place. And in the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attack and the onset of the war in Gaza, radio stations and newspaper editors were reluctant to publish an article about him: the situation was too sensitive. 

Suleiman, who lives in Haifa, is a textbook example of how inherently unpolitical music necessarily took on a political aspect in the face of the horrific terror attack by Hamas and Israel's retaliation, which has now lasted for more than 100 days. But to judge a musician's work in a way that is fair to them, you have to detach it from political events that aren't directly connected to its release.

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A head full of Oriental melodies

Faraj Suleiman grew up in Rama, in northern Palestine. As a young boy he was forced to take piano lessons, despite his protests. Why did he have to sit inside ploughing his way through Bach and Beethoven while his friends were outside playing football? He turned his back on music, only finding his way back to it fifteen years later. Realising that a lot of melodies were slumbering within him, he opted to become a professional composer and stage musician. His style is unmistakeable. "I think these Oriental melodies are just in my head," he says. "I can't run away from them. My music corresponds to my way of life, my culture, my food. That's the most important for me: your art has to correspond to what's around you." 

Suleiman may have grown up with the music of his homeland, and a number of his pieces sound as though they began with a folk song – but he avoids reworking specific pieces of folk music. He found his role models less in American or European jazz than in the piano style of Armenian Tigran Hamasyan. 

"We both have our own, Orientally-influenced music, and we both have a great knowledge of classical and jazz. When you listen to us, it doesn't sound anything like New York or Europe. I want to retain my original soul when I compose." 

Looking through the very large catalogue of the Palestinian's published music, it becomes clear that alongside his instrumental jazz albums, he has released a few records with songs on them. Two souls live in his breast, he admits. On the CDs "Upright Biano" and "Better Than Berlin" he has written pieces that are sometimes reminiscent of Arab chansons, and sometimes have a rock-opera feel to them – think Queen. Amid the wealth of imagery in the verses written by his lyricist Majd Kayyal, some lines can also be read in a political light. 

Cover of Faraj Suleiman's album "As much as it takes"
Released in difficult times: the cover of Faraj Suleiman's new album "As Much As It Takes" (source: Two Gentlemen, Schubert Music Publishing & Seochan)

Melancholy contemplations

Yet you can't class them as activism; they are melancholy or despairing contemplations of the Palestinians' situation, and they express the desire for peace. "No one in the old market of Nazareth wants to buy my troubles; no chemist in Jerusalem's old town to mix my tears," goes a line in "Unnamed Street", which continues: "Nothing breaks the silence of sadness but fearful questions". And in "Down With London Bridge", Kayyal exposes the absurdity of cursing the British empire in a fifteen-minute narrative rock song. 

Even when there are no lyrics, the new album "As Much As It Takes" tells a story: the story of a child doggedly pursuing his goal of one day bringing his music to the world stage. Of course there is an autobiographical element here – these days Suleiman plays everywhere from Toronto to Montreux, and has bands in Israel, Paris, Switzerland and Berlin. 

"The album describes this journey, from the moment I first sketch out the music to its arrival in concert halls all over the world," he says. The oud (an Arab lute) and the electric guitar come together to create a dialogue with the piano that is intense, sometimes almost aggressive. But there are also reserved, ballad-like tones on "As Much As It Takes", in the dedication to his birthplace, Rama, or in the "Oriental Melody" featuring guest Erik Truffaz on trumpet. 

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Creating a new Palestinian music?

Faraj Suleiman has left Palestine and now lives in Haifa, in Israel; it is with real emotion in his voice that he calls the city he has lived in for twenty years "my home". He likes the relaxed atmosphere there, the beach, and the people are nice. "Most of the time," he adds. 

Does he see himself as a representative of a new Palestinian music? "To this day, you can't speak of a 'Palestinian music'," he tells me. "We have to come to terms with the occupation and as yet we haven't had the time to create a typical music or art. It's in the last twenty years at most that we've seen something like a Palestinian music developing. And yes, you can find a few jazz things – but hip hop and rap, the alternative scene, that's what dominates." 

Things are unlikely to get any easier in the near future for Palestinian musicians, who have to survive in a climate of naked hatred. And an internationally established artist like Faraj Suleiman will be constantly confronted with questions that would be better asked elsewhere. 

Stefan Franzen 

© 2024 

Translated from the German by Ruth Martin