Music and Cultural Self-Assertion

Internationally, Palestinian singer Rim Banna was relatively unknown. But when the Norwegian jazz singer Kari Bremnes in 2003 sang with her on the antiwar album "Lullabies from the Axis of Evil," Europeans became aware of the Palestinian artist for the first time. Martina Sabra reports

Rim Banna (photo: &copy
Most of Rim Banna's songs tell of the suffering of the Palestinians – haunting, emotional, at times bordering on kitsch

​​She has everything an Arab diva needs: voice, personality, beauty. But affectations are foreign to the Palestinian singer. During her rather sporadic public concerts Rim Banna acts absolutely natural: unpretentious, reserved, musically professional.

One senses that she's less interested in presenting herself than her music and the cause – the Palestinian cause. At the beginning of the 1990s Rim Banna first became well-known among Palestinians in Israel because she recorded many beautiful Palestinian children's songs, which were on the verge of being forgotten. Today many songs and counting-out rhymes are again being sung in Palestinian families only thanks to Rim Banna.

Traditional songs and Palestinian poetry

Rim Banna's current repertoire includes modern Palestinian poetry and traditional Palestinian songs, which she and her husband, the Ukrainian guitarist Leonid Alexeienko, set in modern arrangements: "I'll be away for a thousand years; sheltered by your gaze. The camel herdsman spoke: My dear, bitter as myrrh is a life on the road" laments the song "Ya Jammal" on her latest CD.

Music for her as a Palestinian is the most important means for cultural self-assertion, says the singer: "A part of our work consists of collecting traditional Palestinian texts without melodies. So that the texts do not get lost, we try to compose melodies for them that are modern, yet inspired by traditional Palestinian music," explains Rim Banna, while in the background her three children romp about and her husband Leonid serves coffee.

The musician couple met in the 1980s, while Rim Banna was studying singing in Moscow. Today they live in Nazareth. Palestinians in Israel and the occupied territories love Rim Banna – not only because she saved Palestinian children's and folk songs from oblivion, but also because she is very different than the traditional Arab female singers, more modern:

"Oriental singing techniques are mostly ornamental, and we appreciate strong, penetrant tones," explains Banna: "But my voice is more two-dimensional, thicker. I try to write songs that fit my voice. I want to create something new in every respect. And that includes bringing people elsewhere closer to the music and soul of the Palestinians," says the singer.

"Lullabies from the Axis of Evil"

Rim Banna has been a star in Israel and Palestine for over ten years. She owes her growing popularity in Europe in part to the Norwegian singer Kari Bremnes, who became aware of her Palestinian colleague during a visit in Israel and spontaneously invited her to Oslo. The result was the 2003 CD "Lullabies from the Axis of Evil" – a musical antiwar message to U.S. President Bush from female singers in Palestine, Iraq, Iran, and Norway.

Most of Rim Banna's songs tell of the suffering of the Palestinians – haunting, emotional, at times bordering on kitsch. Irony or criticism of the Palestinian society is not Rim Banna's concern. She wants to musically treat the everyday lives of Palestinians, she explains, and in the West Bank their lives are characterized by violence and repression:

"I have seen with my own eyes how soldiers at a checkpoint deliberately stirred up dust in order to torment women with children," she recalls indignantly. "The tires of the jeep spun, the dust flew into their faces. And the soldiers stood there and laughed! There are people with no power whatsoever, and others with power who can do whatever they want with it."

Tensions between Jews and non-Jews have grown not only in the occupied territories and in Gaza, but also in Israel. Many "peace projects" have been put on hold. Rim Banna has little contact with her Jewish colleagues, nor is she looking for it. More important for her is strengthening the Palestinians' cultural memory.

Rim Banna does not want Palestinian identity to be understood only as a political message, but also as a message of love – as in this song on her new CD "Mirror of My Soul."

"I will welcome you / In my homeland / God, send us rain, for just one night / Let water flow through the riverbed / And my arms shall be the bridge bringing the beautiful girl to me."

Martina Sabra

© 2006

Translated from the German by Nancy Joyce

Portrait Reem Kelani
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Rim Banna's website