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︎ Long Read: Music Experiences in the West Bank #2


by Sarah Vasen, December 9, 2020



Last December I moved to Bethlehem, Palestine, to experience music life and do research on music in the West Bank. My goal: a documentary. I want to show, visually, how powerful music can be in a place where daily life is interrupted by a strong political conflict. With my affection to the Arabic culture and experiences as a musician in the Netherlands, I decided to go to Palestine. In this blog series I would like to share with you some of the musical experiences I had.


#2 My Ears Can Listen!

Thursday morning; it is time to go to my first rehearsal with the Bethlehem University Band. I am feeling rather nervous, because I have no idea what the level will be, how many people will join us and what they will think of my presence. The first time I always feel like I have to prove myself. I remember a passage in the book ‘Among the Jasmine Trees’ of Jonathan Shannon, where he describes that as a foreign music researcher he always had to demonstrate what he could do on the Oud, a Middle Eastern string instrument, and how closely he could approach the “Oriental Spirit - that key yet elusive element of Arab musical aesthetics.” I reassured myself by remembering that if I had to perform, they would at least praise my attempt. Luckily, I can always count on my strong skills when reading sheet music.

I locate my destination using Google Maps and within twenty minutes I arrive at the University gate. The building is beautiful! There is a large garden with many wooden benches and a (non-working) fountain in the center. People are sitting in the midday sun, relaxing and talking. I ask myself, “Ok, what now?” I look around for somebody I might know, but unfortunately I know no one.

A security guy approaches and asks if he can help; I probably look a bit lost. “Do you know where the band rehearsal is?” He knows. Walking together, he tells me that tomorrow one of the political parties will stage a festival, “There will be a DJ, so feel free to come.” We arrive in another building and he tells me that I have only to walk further and follow my ears, “Shukran, shukran” I say.



When I open the door to my surprise I see Ali, a friend from the conservatory, and Ramiz who I know from some jam sessions. “Wow” I think, “the music scene is so small!” I hug them happily and Tamer, the conductor, says “Ah, you already know some of us.” I unpack my violin and join them in the circle. There are about ten students in the choir and Ali, Ramiz, Tamer, two other guys and myself playing. I am the only violin, as Ali and Ramiz play the keyboard, and Tamer and the other guys the Oud. Everybody first introduces him/herself to me, and I introduce myself to them. Then Tamer says, “we are going to start with the Medley”. I look at him with questioning eyes, expecting to get the sheet music. He answers my eyes by saying, “Oh, yes, I wrote down some lines for you, I will bring them next week. It changed a lot, just listen and play with us.” He says it as if it is the most normal thing in the world. Suddenly the room feels very hot: “Oh no,” I think, “how can I play without sheet music?!” I have never played without sheet music, I mean I do listen to others when I play, but not to figure out what I can play myself! I look at Ali who is sitting next to me and he whispers, “just use your ears.” They start. I try to play some notes, but nothing really sounds right. I begin to feel giggly, simply because it feels so strange to be unable to play, “What must they think?!” “Ok Sarah” I say to myself, “just trust your ears, trust yourself and go.”

I look at the others and slowly I notice that my hearing is turning into conscious listening. Carefully, I begin to play more and more. Unfortunately, by the time I had finally figured out which notes to play in that key, they had often modulated. After the rehearsal Tamer takes me home in his car. I tell him that I found it very difficult to trust my ears. He replies that I should listen to the songs at home and try to play them, but in any case, he will bring some written notes next week.



A couple of weeks later, I note in my diary: “My ears can listen! My listening and playing have changed. I feel like I don’t just play what is noted anymore; I try to feel the others, feel the music, let go of insecurity and trust my ears much more. Keep practicing, this might really transform your way of using your ears.” I look at the others and slowly I notice that my hearing is turning into conscious listening. Carefully, I begin to play more and more. Unfortunately, by the time I had finally figured out which notes to play in that key, they had often modulated. After the rehearsal Tamer takes me home in his car. I tell him that I found it very difficult to trust my ears. He replies that I should listen to the songs at home and try to play them, but in any case, he will bring some written notes next week.

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