Who owns Arabic music?

Who owns Arabic music? Who should get to play it? Who should get paid for it? Palestinians or Israeli-Jews? What about cultural appropriation? Are Israeli DJs playing Arabic music – as some Palestinian critics put it – “art washing” Israel’s human rights abuses in Gaza and the occupied territories with feel-good club nights featuring appropriated Arab tunes? Or are these DJs in fact, building bridges, connecting cultures; doing something that Palestinians can benefit from as well?

At the moment a typically Middle Eastern tiff is taking place on social media over who has the right to DJ Arab music in Berlin clubs, and all this coming in the midst of an acrimonious debate surrounding calls to boycott Berlin club ://about blank because of alleged blacklisting of pro-BDS Palestinian DJs. 

Ever since the Balkan music wave began to subside somewhere around 2010, Arabic music has become more and more audible on global beats dance floors and in the sets of DJs searching for the next World Music trend de jour 

There have been Palestinian and Israeli party nights, as well as Arab and Israeli joint productions in Berlin with names like Flying Arabs, Arabs do it better, Arab Beats and Achtung Hafla! (hafla being an Arabic name for “party” used by Israelis and Palestinians alike). Acid Arab, a much touted French DJ cooperative that incorporates Palestinian DJs, has a residency at Gretchen, a Berlin concert venue that features world music acts. Jazar Crew, is a Berlin Palestinian techno outfit who have now morphed into a group called Acid Habibti, and who occasionally drop Arabic tracks.

Meanwhile in Israel, a country marked by Middle Eastern music generally, a Mizrahi (Jews from the Middle East and Maghreb – historically given short shrift in western-oriented Israel) renaissance has been influencing the avant-garde club scene for the last ten years. Yemini sister group A-WA has been winning over audiences and critics with their Arabic-spiced hit Habib Galbi, which has been on rotation everywhere in clubs from Tel Aviv to L.A., and in many ways is the hottest global thing to happen in Israel music-wise since Ofra Haza. 

Suddenly in Israel it’s cool to be Mizrahi, blend Arabic and Hebrew and feature Arabic instruments. Hipster Oriental parties in Tel Aviv abound, and new record label, Fortuna, has started up, specializing in the forgotten psychedelic sounds of Israeli and Middle Eastern grooves on vinyl. 

Out of this Middle Eastern melange has emerged an Israeli subculture of progressive DJs and musicians, many who have flocked to the German capital, lured by Berlin’s famously affordable lifestyle and climate of creativity, DJs who lay down Oriental sounds and Arab beats on Berlin dance floors.

However, they are not without their vocal opponents. Yasmin A. is a Palestinian activist who has been agitating against what she regards as “whitewashing” and “cultural appropriation” of Arabic music by Israeli DJs in Berlin.

“Israelis can play whatever they want to play, we just don’t have to like it,” she says. “They claim hummus [in reference to an annual joint Israeli-Palestinian ‘Hummus Festival’ in Berlin] to be theirs, our Arabic tunes to be theirs, our language to be theirs when in the end they have no roots in the Arab world, but instead want to achieve a better standing and promote their state.” 

Yasmin furthermore claims that the Israeli government sponsors many of the Israeli club events.

“It is one thing if an Israeli organizes parties with international artists, but it is cultural appropriation when an Israeli purposely creates an event series to host Arab artists and attract Arab community. It is even more critical when they get funded by the Israeli government. It is the strategy behind ‘brand Israel’.” 

Eden Cami is a leading singer of “Kayan Project”, a Berlin based band composed of musicians from different parts of the Middle East. She was born in the Galilee, speaking Arabic and Hebrew as her native languages and was immersed in both cultures of the region from a young age (Israeli and Palestinian-Arabic). Her position is very different. 

“Claiming that only one group is allowed to play or perform a specific type of music is a completely wrong and dreadful idea. I don’t believe that we exclusively own either the native languages we speak or the music that developed in our cultures. These things belong to whoever wants to learn and master them. I do understand the anger and the protesting of some Palestinian-Arab artists when cultural appropriation of their musical traditions is at stake. However, I still believe that an Israeli-Jewish artist playing and performing music in Arabic does not automatically mean “white washing” of the actions of the Israeli government or cultural appropriation. This black and white thinking keeps any discussion about that topic shallow and limited.” 

On 9 August a Palestinian Initiative called #DJsforPalestine called for a boycott of three German clubs, Golden Pudel in Hamburg, Conne Island in Leipzig and ://about blank in Berlin. 

The argument regarding ://about blank was that Palestinian DJs were being blacklisted for supporting the BDS movement – an organization advocating economic and cultural boycotts of Israel, like what existed against apartheid South Africa. 

Alla Malak of PACBI (Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel) states, “Conne Island, Golden Pudel and ://about blank are complicit in Israel’s far-right regime of apartheid, ethnic cleansing, occupation and settler-colonialism, through their repressive actions, including censorship and intimidation against artists and audience members who advocate for Palestinian human rights. In particular, ://about blank is attempting to cast itself as somehow neutral, despite its racism and anti-Palestinian censorship being a matter of public record.” 

There was a panel discussion on August 16 held at ://about blank in which two DJs spoke, La Fraicheur, a French techno DJ, who came out in favor of #DJsForPalestine, and Marion Cobretti, an Israeli DJ and promoter of events at ://about blank, and BDS critic.

La Fraicheur claims to have been blacklisted my several clubs, including Mensch Meier, after joining the campaign. “But it’s a small price to pay in my opinion for getting an issue out there and making it visible and creating an electroshock in the Berlin leftist scene, forcing them to face their hypocrisy when it comes to the Israeli government,” she says.

In response, Marion Cobretti had this to say: “We are probably the only crew that overwhelmingly invites refugees from most of the Arabic lands to be part of our parties. We don’t offer a solution, but we live the solution. We bring people together. And this is what I believe in – dialogue, while the BDS people are not interested in any solution. These kind of people live out of the conflict. This is what defines their activism in the public sphere.” 

Ultimately, Berlin remains for many, both Palestinians and Israelis, a place where old animosities stoked at home can be set aside and former enemies can see eye to eye. Despite some Palestinian rights advocates charges of “white washing”, the mood of conciliation and cooperation in Berlin appears to be genuine.