Interview with Muhammad Qundous from Qarar band.
When I think about bands that represent “our area”/Palestine/Israel/ how ever you wanna call it, I think about Qarar. A non-profit project which was formed by Muhammad Qundous: a teacher, musician and community figure in Jaffa. He writes original songs dealing with the Palestinian narrative, past present and future and specificly the story of Jaffa.
I discovered Qarar around 2016 via Yoav Beirach, a musician and bass player that joined the band and was inviting me to join and play kanun with them. When I heard the recordings for the first time I was overwhelmed by the vibe of the music, pure original contemporary “tarab” music. Qarar are creating a new contemporary Palestinian culture in Jaffa. Qarar members are: Andre Jubran- a violinst, Elias Hadoub playing buzuk ,Yoav Beirach- bass, Muhammad Qundous – oud and vocals.
I met Mohamad at Jaffa’s old port for a talk.
Who are Qarar?
Mohammad: Let’s start with the name Qarar – the name has a lot of the story of Qarar. This word has two meanings in Arabic: First , the literal meaning of the word which is a decision, and second meaning is in music ,which means the basic tone of the scale -the tonic.
Lets dwell on the first meaning which is a decision. Its the decision I took to tell through music , my Palestinian story, and also all the stories around me. If it’s the stories of the reality around me, if it’s the stories of Qarar members, you have there Muslims, Christians and Jews. There’s different people and each one comes with his story. For me it was important that Qarar, via the music , will be able to tell my Palestinian story , the story of Jaffa, the political complexity and conflict in this country, to be able to speak about the daily life difficulties of being a Palestinian with Israeli passport but with Palestinian identity. Especially in Jaffa which is one of the tragedies of the Palestinian -Israeli conflict, and music is the most pure instrument to connect people, With all the difference there is between the different narratives towards the conflict. Inviting for conversation, inviting for a dialogue, inviting for a conflict between contradictory narratives, narratives that some people have never heard: the story of Jaffa from a Palestinian point of view.
The vision of Qarar is to create a just society, an egalitarian, tolerant society which sees commonalities between people. The mutual music of this area is the “eastern” music (Mizrahi music). The Palestinians played it, the Jews also, also the Christians, everyone that lived in this area.
If we’ll go 70 years back you will see in the band of Oum Kalthoum people from all the population diversity, from different religions: Jews, Christians and Muslims, everyone. And that’s what is missing in Jaffa and in the general discourse, to create a language that invites for connection. Qarar is not a choice in conflict.
It’s noticeable In the texts , it’s not apologetic.
The texts are political, realistic. There is a language which is real and that’s for me the most respectful thing. I am not apologizing for who I am, I am sharing who I am, and for respecting the other I have to be honest with who I am. To tell the story as it is and not hide it under pink titles of peace and coexistence and all that, It’s actually dealing with it .
And the brave decisions you made, the texts and the music is purely Arabic, it is not obvious.
That is actually the message we are trying to deliver and that is why Qarar evolved from a band to a music school. With all the struggles, and that there is no financial support, or public support, we are doing it from our pocket because we believe in this Mission, believe in music as a foundation for connecting people.
And in general it’s supporting the community.
Totally. We are engendering a change in the community, a change in the society we’re living in: musical culture, artistic culture, which is part of historical Jaffa. After the Nekba of 48 it disappeared. We are trying to return the cultural musical status of Jaffa via Qarar.
So many missions, its a big role, pioneering.
With all that, we are trying to work in the most professional way: music wise, recording wise. But we are also against the music industry that turns everything to a product without a meaning. We want to maintain the classics and authenticity of the music and the original instruments.
The music of Qarar is indeed very artistic and high quality and really far from the worlds of the music industry, which might make it harder for it to break through.
I believe that Qarar one day we will succeed in breaking the boundaries. Everyone that heard us enjoy and wants more. We are very patient and waiting and we don’t throw ourselves to every offer or industry. We are keeping the quality that we started with, with all the difficulty around it. With all the respect to electronic music and the industry.. It has also good stuff of course, but it’s not us. We are trying to revive the classic instrumental music that characterizes the east.
The tarab…lets talk about this term
Tarab is an emotional term in Arab music. It’s a moment of catharsis while listening to the music. Tarab brings to an emotional meeting between the player and the listener, between the performer and the crowd.
Until now you told us a lot of things about Jaffa, things about the complexity of Jaffa that people who read this didn’t realize. How can you explain to someone that has never been here or heard about it, what is the story of Jaffa?
One of the most ancient cities in the area – only Jericho is older – it has its historical status. Jaffa is divided to two: Jaffa before ‘48 and Jaffa after ‘48. And for me it’s important personally and also to the art I am creating. Jaffa before ‘48 was the cultural capital of Palestine and the Middle East. Oum Kalthoum, Abdel Wahab , the most famous artists in the Arab world had to pass through Jaffa to get recognition from their crowd that they are on the right path. Oum Kalthoum got her nickname “kaukab a shark” (the star of the east) in Jaffa, there were cinemas, there was a music center “Halil El Rumi”, it was very developed. In the Nakba Jaffa went through a big tragedy. From 120,000 souls that lived here only 3000 stayed. And it is not only the people who were deported that are significant. There’s a crisis of culture, erasing language, erasing the powerful status of Jaffa. And I was born into this story, the difficult story of Jaffa, and for me the story of Jaffa is part of my Palestinian identity and part of my social, human identity. And I am also trying to recover this identity with the project of Qarar. For me Qarar is making the connection between the historical Jaffa before 48 with contemporary Jaffa. To revive this culture and the big cultural status of Jaffa. We are trying to use Qarar as an intercultural project. If Jaffa of before 48 was intercultural – a city that connects Cairo, Beirut and Damascus, now we are trying to revive this intercultural point, to make Jaffa an intercultural meeting point, that invites different connections with different cultures with emphasis and respect to the Palestinian story of Jaffa without apologizing about the real identity of this place, the people here, and the music of this place. That’s for me Jaffa in the story of Qarar.
How do you experience Jaffa of today. What is the thing you like the most here?
Being in the port, in the beach next to the sea. me as a person that believes in education; I like teaching. I am taking seriously the artistic vision alongside the educational vision and for me Qarar is an educational project. In all senses. Jaffa of today has everything, she has the multicultural and in the same time the very violent conflict between the narratives. On one hand more and more Jewish people are moving to Jaffa , and on the other hand the attempt to preserve the Palestinian identity of Jaffa, the housing shortage, gentrification, Hebraization of the streets names, is very salient. There is a risk of deletion, also language-wise. This is something that bothers me personally and is part of the air of Jaffa.
What hasn’t changed in Jaffa in your opinion? Things that didn’t disappear.
The stories of the people, the view, the houses, the sea, the port. The stones of Jaffa tells the story of Jaffa. The geography of Jaffa is part of the identity. This air, the mosques, the churches, old city, the sea, the fresh food from the sea. On a Saturday you go and buy fish that just came from the sea, those are the most daily things which are part of the identity and you can’t take it away.
Which stories do you mean?
From the Nekba stories until the stories of today, of living, surviving, stories about connection between families who were separated, about people who are still communicating with people from Gaza or Beirut , who were originally from Jaffa. The refugee story is part of Jaffa’s identity. The story of the Nekba and the Palestinian refugees is part of the identity of every resident of Jaffa because every family in Jaffa has family in Gaza that immigrated there in 48. You have 116,000 who are in Gaza, Jenin or Beirut. Those families are still in touch. And the dream to come back is also part of the identity. The most natural dream, the most basic right of any person to come back to where he lives and it is something which is part of the identity and part of the stories that exists.
I want to use art as a tool that tells a story, for talking, for making a protest.
It is also a healing process for you no?
Totally , totally
Because words are only ine part. Words has meanings , art creations has a different power.
Lets talk about qundous the composer
Until age 27 I didn’t know how to read and write music.
And when did you start playing oud?
And what comes first the words or the melody?
The music of Qarar is based on the foundation of tradional Arabic music
Yes,totally. That’s what I feel , that’s what comes out of me, that’s my spirit. And each one which is interested in this spirit is welcome, ahlan wa sahlan.
What about Sabreen band?
(Sabreen is a legendary Palestinian protest band based in east Jerusalem from the 80’s-90’s)
Sabreen is one of the bands I grew up on
At home did you listen to them?
My parents listened to them, my sisters..
It seems to me like a big sister of qarar
Totally, Sabreen, Marcel Khalife, Cheikh Imam, Mahmoud Darwish, Oum Kalthoum, Wadih El Safi. When You play Oum Kalthoum at our home it becomes a celebration.
There’s the Arab music which is based on love songs and then you have the genre of protest music like Cheikh imam and Sabreen, and now I though of it that you combine both in a way, you write songs that are some kind of a love song but also protest. I like this combination of not just preaching,but has also emotions and love in it.
I never looked at it like this , now you describe it like this.
Nice, I am happy to hear, I thing it is right. If we would cool it “a loving protest”. Cause also at home we grew up on it, in the same evening we would listen to “al atlal” (Oum Kalthoum) and then Marcel Khalife ( a protest singer)
And it’s not in every house like this
So there was a strong awareness in the home
Very strong. And in the same time also Quran. Quran as a religious spirit but also as music, as tajwid- the recitation of the Quran. I like to make tajwid, this is the first music I’ve heard.
Do you think that all the members of the band are sharing same ideas about politics, about Jaffa?
There’s both, there are points of agreement, and also disagreements. Political and also musically. Until this day yoav is trying to persuade me to add electric guitar and I say no,no,no .(laughing)
Sometimes we make a concert of protest music and sometimes we say lets make folk music. And that’s the specialty of Qarar, it’s the ability to be everything, to be this and that, and not to be stuck only in one thing.
Interview conducted by Yael Lavie