INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
Resident Advisor APRIL 11, 2018 - by Tom Faber
THE WALLED OFF HOTEL: A CREATIVE RETREAT IN PALESTINE
The Black Madonna, Mashrou' Leila, Brian Eno and others recently took part in a creative retreat in the shadow of the separation barrier in Bethlehem. In the first of a two-part feature, Tom Faber explains how the artists made music inspired by one of the modern world's most intractable conflicts.
The antique fittings of the Scenic Suite in Bethlehem's Walled Off Hotel look classy, but the walls are cement grey and the artwork has been sabotaged. One painting's frame is blackened and burned. A river scene seems to have dead pixels like a glitching television, while the painting opposite shows men fishing in a lake for Apple's rainbow wheel of death. These subversive details are the hallmark of the hotel's creator, the British street artist Banksy.
When Marea Stamper, AKA The Black Madonna, stayed there in early February, she couldn't help but notice the room's main feature: its view of an eight-metre high concrete wall, topped by barbed wire, security cameras and a watchtower. "That room is made for just one thing," she said. "To see the wall. It is so impossibly large. You can't fathom how psychologically terrorising it is until you've stood next to it and looked it squarely in the eye."
The wall is officially known as the separation barrier. Israel began constructing it in 2002 to divide the country from the Palestinian territory of the West Bank. From the beginning, it has been contentious. Israelis say it protects them from Palestinian terrorist attacks. Palestinians call it an "apartheid wall," isolating communities and annexing land. It was just metres away from this ominous structure that the creative duo Block9 gathered artists, including The Black Madonna, Róisín Murphy and Brian Eno, to talk politics and make music inspired by one of the modern world's most intractable conflicts.
It wasn't just art and activism that drew people to this project. Most were also motivated by deeply personal reasons. For Gideon Berger, who runs Block9 with his creative partner Steve Gallagher, it's part of family history. Berger, who's forty and has keen blue eyes, traces his journey to Palestine back to rural Lithuania in the late 1930s. It was from there that his Jewish grandfather, fearing the rising tide of fascism across Europe, left for South Africa, where he became embroiled in the politics of apartheid.
"As a Jew who lived through the Holocaust," Berger said, "he was by default unable to support apartheid." His grandfather set up a press for Jewish literature, secretly printing materials for Nelson Mandela's African National Congress on the side. At one point when Mandela was on the run from police, he hid in Berger's grandfather's factory, which was raided many times. Activism ran in the family. Berger's mother campaigned against apartheid, nuclear weapons and boycotted Israel. After she died, the family sent her cardboard coffin to the crematorium with her favourite "Free Palestine" badge on it. So whenever Berger, who DJs as Gideön, was invited to play in Israel he always said no. "I didn't want to make my mum turn in her grave."
It took Banksy to change his mind. As Block9, Berger and Gallagher create large scale artworks and radical designs for music and art events. They are responsible for the queer hedonist history lesson of NYC Downlow at Glastonbury Festival, as well as production design for touring artists like Gorillaz, Dua Lipa and Lana Del Rey. In 2015, the pair worked with Banksy on his Dismaland project, creating the sinister, tattered Disney castle at the heart of the "bemusement park." A year later they were invited to contribute to a new Banksy project in the making, a hotel being built in the West Bank that would satirise British colonial intervention in the Middle East. "I thought the idea was fucking genius," said Berger. "I knew I wanted to be involved. So I reconciled with my dead mother and took a DJ booking in Israel to fly me out there."
Block9 designed two of the hotel's nine rooms. The hotel aims to use Banksy's name to attract a new kind of tourist to the West Bank. Its manager, Wisam Salsaa, said, "Now the Palestinian message can reach a new audience, who are interested music and art. This is our cultural resistance."
Berger felt invigorated by the project. "I felt like I was doing honour to my mother and my grandparents," he said. Soon after opening, they conceived of "a wet dream of a project": to run a creative retreat for musicians in Palestine. Artists would be invited to "the hotel with the worst view in the world," in a country known as much for its internecine conflicts as for its landscape and history. Afterwards they would make music inspired by what they'd seen, which Block9 would release as a free compilation.
It took a year to assemble the artists. First in Block9's sights was Brian Eno, someone known for his outspoken views on Palestine. "His musical contribution to this planet is significant, and I knew he'd have the balls to touch this project," said Berger. Despite having twenty-eight projects on the go at once, Eno agreed to take part. He suggested they also invite FRED, the producer who works regularly with Eno and has produced for pop and hip-hop artists like Charli XCX and Stefflon Don. Next was the Irish artist Róisín Murphy and then The Black Madonna, who Berger met at Panorama Bar "after she'd literally blown the fucking roof off the universe with a DJ set."
For the Arab voices, the Lebanese band Mashrou' Leila, giants of the independent regional scene and one of the few acts to achieve international acclaim while singing only in Arabic, were an obvious choice. "We really had to make sure our project was fully watertight to get Mashrou' on board," Berger said. "It's illegal in Lebanon for a citizen to have any contact with an Israeli, punishable by prison time, so we had to be careful our project wouldn't put them in any danger." A pair of Palestinian instrumentalists completed the group: the violinist Akram Abdulfattah, who Berger calls "the king of sad music," and Samir Joubran of Trio Joubran, three brothers who play the oud, a lute-like instrument from the region. Then there was the wildcard, an unsigned singer from south London named Eben Figueiredo (EBS), who's twenty-two. Berger was at a party when he met Figueiredo, "this young, bearded guy, like a cross between Karl Marx, an Indian guru and a Brixton rudeboy, sat smoking a skunk spliff, playing one of his tunes on his phone and singing along. It was fucking amazing."
With the team assembled, there was still a logistical minefield for Block9 to navigate. While working on the hotel they had become familiar with Israel's notorious security apparatus, which makes simple operations, such as entering the country, very difficult. There were concerns that complex, sometimes arbitrary travel restrictions might prevent some artists from attending. Marea Stamper recalled being aggressively interrogated at the airport on a previous visit to DJ in Tel Aviv, while friends of hers reported being strip-searched or having laptops, which contained irreplaceable music, permanently confiscated.
Each side of the wall presented its own obstacles. On the Israeli side, it was security and customs. Berger called on the help of friends (who he calls the "gay Jew mafia") from Berlin and New York. On the Palestinian side, equipment was hard to find and some situations were simply unsafe. Once when Berger was out buying palm trees for the hotel in the West Bank, he found himself in the middle of an armed stand-off.
Berger said he felt like he'd "aged ten years in three months," but by February 5 this year the project was ready to begin. The artists were picked up from the airport in Tel Aviv in taxis. To get to the hotel in Bethlehem, they had to cross from Israel into the West Bank. Bethlehem is the most visited city in the West Bank. Busloads of tourists descend each day to see the birthplace of Jesus in the Church Of The Nativity and Manger Square, before heading back to Jerusalem. They rarely explore the rest of Palestine.
Getting out of their taxis at the hotel, the artists were greeted by a fibreglass monkey bellboy holding a suitcase. Classical columns and elaborate stonework are painted ironically onto the facade. Just across the unpaved road is the wall. It's covered in graffiti, from the humorous (a "kosher" version of Pickle Rick from Rick And Morty) to the political (Banksy's engraving resembling a note from the Queen that reads "Err...sorry"). The hotel provides graffiti supplies to visitors, and sometimes video-projects football matches straight onto the wall. As with much of Banksy's work, the humour is broad but pointed. "The hotel is both beautiful and ugly," Samir Joubran said. "You have beautiful, warm moments inside. Then you go back to your room and look out the window at the wall and you feel something burning inside you."
During the first night, the artists got to know each other over a meal of traditional Palestinian food. Two local musicians, Charlie Rishmawi on oud and Wassim Qassis on the tabla drum, played at dinner. The percussion caught Stamper's interest. "It had a lot in common with things that work in dance music," she said. "The pace builds and then parts of the room itself become an instrument - the table becomes a kick drum, everyone's tapping out a 4/4. It took on a very techno-like quality."
Her contribution to the compilation, Jerusalem Is A Mountain, is edited together from a recording of this drumming, showing off the dizzying range of timbres that Qassis summoned from his instrument. It's a virtuosic performance, where percussion serves as both rhythm and melody. Qassis also had a trick up his sleeve: his hands leave the drum and he slaps his cheeks, creating sounds more like a synthesiser than anything human. Stamper used this as her outro. "I wanted to reflect that no matter what difficulties people endure, there's so much beauty and dignity in the people and their music," she said. "You can't put a wall around it."
The next day the group went exploring and took a deep-dive into local history. First was Dheisheh refugee camp, just south of Bethlehem. Many imagine refugee camps to be chaotic scenes of pitched tents and shared bathrooms, but Dheisheh is more permanent. It was established in 1949, a year after the Arab-Israeli war that followed the declaration of the state of Israel and resulted in the expulsion of seven-hundred-and-fifty-thousand Palestinians from their homes. Arabs refer to this event as al-nakba, "the catastrophe."
The camp was built to house three thousand but now around fifteen people live within its one-square kilometre. Residents have been forced to build upwards: the houses climb vertiginously, some storeys improvised with wonky breezeblock landings. At ground level the walls are plastered with political graffiti and the faces of martyrs. Some streets are so narrow that two people cannot pass at once. The artists were given a tour of the camp by a resident, who said his house was raided by Israeli soldiers fifty times in one year. Israeli snipers have been known to target the knees of people, resulting in many disabled young men at Dheisheh.
Afterwards they were taken to East Jerusalem, the Palestinian part of the city, which was under Jordanian control until it was occupied by Israel in the 1967 war. The group learned about life for Palestinians under Israeli control. They then arrived at the old town of Jerusalem, where some of the holiest sites of Christianity, Judaism and Islam are built practically on top of one another: the Dome Of The Rock, the Mount Of Olives, the Church Of The Holy Sepulchre and the Western Wall. For as long as it has been a site of pilgrimage, it has been a site of conflict.
As the sun began to set, they climbed to the roof of the Austrian Hospice, a guesthouse that's been open since 1863. "We had been walking all day," remembered Alyssa Nitchun, a friend Berger had invited to chronicle the trip. "We were exhausted, thirsty, hungry, emotional, raw, heads overflowing and trying to process."
The sky was tinged a grey-blue and a flock of birds was flying home to roost. At that moment the adhan, the Muslim call to prayer, began to arc across the sky, first one, then more separate calls, each starting at different times, chanting according to different maqams (Arab musical scales). The entire group was moved to silence. Nitchun's voice slowed as she remembered the scene: "Standing on that roof and looking out over thousands of years of history and beauty and strife and hearing the call to prayer, it drilled out a hole in my brain and made space where nothing else could."
Sound suffused with history can evoke a particular sense of longing. This is captured on Brian Eno's contribution to the compilation, Stones, which features oud from Trio Joubran. The plucked strings, at once delicate and warm, seem to be searching for something. They echo over Eno's supple, shifting synthscape, a distant drum beating like the march of time itself. Akram Abdulfattah's solo track is even more nakedly moving. On Cave the sobbing violin communicates a well of sorrow without losing poise.
The remainder of the trip was devoted to discussion. The artists got together in the Walled Off Hotel's piano bar, which is modelled on a colonial outpost from 1917. The website describes the room as "equipped with languid ceiling fans, leather-bound couches and an air of undeserved authority." Framed CCTV cameras hang on the walls like hunted game animals, while in the corner a classical bust chokes on clouds of tear gas. They discussed their responses to the experiences of the last thirty-six hours. Due to travel restrictions, Brian Eno and Mashrou' Leila couldn't attend in person, and took part in the retreat via video link.
On Wednesday morning, the artists were given a lecture on Arab music theory and history by a local academic. They learned that each maqam has its own identity and emotional associations. One evokes nostalgia, another pride and masculinity. One is for sadness from love, another sadness from death. Block9's track on the compilation, Maqam Hijaz In Dub, is a trippy slice of deep house. It features snippets of Abdulfattah's classical violin in maqam hijaz, a key signature associated with "longing and the distant desert."
The diversity of artists around the table produced some strange parallels. Joubran recalled a time he played oud nonstop for twelve hours at a charity fundraiser. "I didn't even know where the melodies were coming from anymore, it was like meditation," he said. "When I finished I collapsed backstage and they brought doctors. The crazy part was that when we were done we just wanted to start playing all over again." Stamper related to this experience, but in a radically different setting: playing an eleven-hour set at Berghain. "Some kind of trance came over me," she said. "I got so hot that I hopped into the mop sink. I had to be helped out of the building and into a car at the end, but when I got to the hotel I couldn't sleep for twenty-four hours."
It was natural, given all they'd seen, that the talk turned to politics. The group discussed BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions), a movement that aims to pressure Israel into granting Palestinians equal rights with non-violent tactics. Among them is a cultural boycott, discouraging international artists from touring in Israel. Of all the political questions that this trip had thrown up, this one affected the artists most directly.
Each came at the question from a different angle. Despite his public support of the movement, Eno held back, asking the Arab participants what they thought. Samir Joubran, Mashrou' Leila and the hotel manager, Wisam Salsaa, all added different nuances to the question. They agreed that BDS is for a good cause, but that the application of the boycott is often clumsy. For any outsider, artist or otherwise seeking to understand the Israeli-Palestinian question, Joubran offered advice. "Come, visit, eat, travel, stay with us," he said. "Live the life for one week and see for yourself. Then decide. But ultimately, you need to choose. You can't be in the middle because you will lose both sides."
Stamper was struck by the vast distance between common perceptions of Israel in America and the reality on the ground. Her voice in the dance music world has often borne traces of an activist background, and when it was her turn to speak she was unequivocal, citing the human rights abuses inflicted on Palestinians. "People should be able to live peacefully in their homes," she said. "No one should worry about where clean water comes from. No groups should be harassed by the state for being who they are."
While she said she felt out of her depth with the BDS question, Stamper argued that "it's essential to get away from the extremely wrong idea that this issue is so complicated that the common person cannot understand it or take a stand. If I play in Israel, my Palestinian friends can't come. I don't know what the answer to this problem is. What I know is that I don't wanna play any parties that my friends can't come to."
Strikingly, almost every artist emerged from the retreat with a different perspective. Many drew from their family histories to understand what they were seeing. Block9 cofounder Steve Gallagher related the situation to formative years spent in the border towns of Ireland during the Troubles. Figueiredo made links to his ethnicity and his family's Christianity. Each person put different numbers into the political equation and came out with different results.
On the last evening, FRED asked Joubran to get his oud, saying he wanted to record some samples. Joubran returned to find that Fred had assembled a mini production studio with two computers, a keyboard and a microphone. FRED asked Joubran to play over a beat he'd made. Joubran played a few phrases, just warming up, when FRED smiled and stopped him. He had what he needed. Joubran, a traditional instrumentalist, was bemused. FRED also sampled Abdulfattah on the violin, while Eben Figueiredo sang over the top. The Block9 crew were thrilled to see an impromptu jam kick off on the last evening of the retreat. Róisín Murphy sat on the side of the room, working through some lyrics in her head. FRED invited her to sing and, in Gallagher's words, "she sprinkled magic onto it. It was absolutely supernatural."
After the retreat FRED reworked the track and invited Figueiredo to his studio in South London to record some new vocals. The finished house track, Wisam Jam, dedicated to the hotel's manager, is the compilation's secret weapon. Even though it samples two Palestinian instrumentalists, it has a distinctly Latin swing, like an early Nicolas Jaar track. Figueiredo's voice tumbles deliciously over his phrases, and though some of the lyrics (particularly the line about "prayers in a rave") are a little on the nose, there's no denying that it's a stone-cold groover.
Two months later, the artists now have some perspective on what they witnessed in Palestine. Figueiredo, who was the youngest person involved, responded most to the stories of individual Palestinians. "Just hearing their numbness," he said, "and their deep history of pain. I felt honoured to have heard it first-hand. For us this wasn't about trying to find answers, it was about hearing people."
Stamper agreed that, both in her music as The Black Madonna and in her own life, "acknowledging the humanity of Palestinians is essential. There's an idea that this place is just violent and you think, 'Oh, that's just how it is there.' That's not right. The people in Palestine have lives that are as sacred and precious and fragile and irreplaceable as anyone's. One of the wonderful things that music does is that it reminds us of the humanity of the people around us."
Two potential criticisms of the retreat emerged. Despite encouraging participants to make up their own minds, the retreat arguably had a pro-Palestinian skew to its programming. Gallagher had a simple response: "Israel's voice is very loud on the world stage and Palestine's is much quieter. That's the starting point, really."
The second: what would a group of outsiders have to meaningfully contribute to this intensely complex issue after a few days in the country? It would be a cruel repetition of history to, as Alyssa Nitchun put it, "plop our big fat Western asses on top of everything." Yet Palestinians were included at each level of the project. Salsaa saw the involvement of the international community as pivotal in shifting the political tide for Palestine. He referenced the ongoing protests in the other Palestinian territory, Gaza, where Israeli forces have (at the time of writing) killed thirty-one Palestinians and injured more than fourteen-hundred in ten days. "The people of Gaza are not idiots," he said, "they know they will not defeat the occupation with a protest. They come out like this to make the West take notice and stop the siege, to bring life back to Gaza. What's happening here is unfair and we need internationals to make people listen. The international community will help us to open more windows for hope."
In a similar way, the creative retreat was designed to reach a new audience with impressions of the conflict. "In an ideal world," said Nitchun, "people are going to hear the music and go, 'That's Brian Eno with these oud players - what the fuck's an oud? I love it, what's the story here?' So it becomes this tiny pinprick entry point to tell a huge story through human eyes."
If the project is inherently political, it's not didactic. "It's political," said Gallagher, "inasmuch as it encourages people to take action and participate in the world, as opposed to being a passive bystander. It's about taking some fucking action. Engage."
On the final morning of the retreat, some of the artists visited the Church Of The Nativity in Bethlehem before crossing back into Israel to catch flights, at which point the project moved to its next phase. The artists had to make their music, which would be compiled into a free release that would be launched at the second Palestine Music Expo, an event in Ramallah that promotes the Palestinian music industry. This year Brian Eno will brave travel complications to launch the Creative Retreat with Block9. Trio Joubran, who are local heroes, will play the closing concert.
Though the artists spent only four days together, intense experiences often forge intense bonds. "By the end of the trip," Stamper said, "we were practically all eating off each other's plates." Mashrou' Leila and Murphy collaborated on their sprightly alt-pop cut long distance from studios in London and Beirut. On the discovery they both lived in Balham in south London, FRED and Eben Figueiredo booked in studio time together.
But the biggest reunion took place in Paris, ten days after the retreat. There Brian Eno met with Gallagher and Trio Joubran to start discussing a collaboration. They were joined by Berger and Stamper, who were playing a Sunday afternoon set at Cabaret Sauvage. At the age of forty-five, Samir Joubran had never considered himself a fan of club music, but still feeling the warmth of the retreat, he wanted to see Stamper in her element. "I was still burning from inside," he said. "I wanted to see her onstage." From the stage, backlit by her signature neon sign that reads "We Still Believe," Stamper could see Joubran. "Yeah, I saw him," she said. "He was dancing his little butt off."