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.
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 40 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 28 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."