"You get a couple of hours at night where you're not behind walls." Tom Faber travels to the West Bank to meet the people who are creating a dance music scene against the odds.
Odai knew how to find the discreet spot where an opening had been cut in the barbed wire. He paid a people smuggler 70 shekels (£15) to bring him a ladder. He climbed up, swung his leg over the top and grabbed the rope to slide down into Israel. Then he slipped.
Time seemed to slow as he fell. He landed awkwardly and felt his leg break. Two men who had already crossed helped him up, and he hobbled into a nearby house and out to another street. It was important to be quick: though there are no Israeli guard towers at Al-Ram, soldiers in jeeps frequently patrol the road looking for Palestinians crossing without permission.
Out in the street in Jerusalem, the other men left. They both had jobs to go to. Odai did too—his DJ set was supposed to begin in a few hours. He rushed to find a bus to the port city of Haifa. He didn't think there was any point looking for medical help on the Israeli side, assuming that as a Palestinian from the West Bank without a permit he would be denied aid. Settling down, he opened his bag and saw that his laptop screen had smashed in the fall and his two Traktor controllers were broken beyond repair. His heart sank, but he didn't turn back. There had to be some way he could still DJ.
He made it to the party in a forest just outside Haifa. A friend wrapped the broken leg in a splint and gave him something to dull the pain. The party was billed as a "Psychedelic Picnic," but Odai's opening set, mixed on a borrowed laptop, was straight techno. When he finished he felt elated, and finally sat down to rest his leg and watch the yoga, juggling and jam sessions that spread across the party's fringes.
After two days in Haifa, Odai's leg had turned purple. He needed to go home. Luckily, getting into the West Bank is much easier than getting out. He just had to take the bus. At the border he used his favourite trick, pretending to be a foreigner who had forgotten his ID—Eddie from Chicago, home of house music, come to DJ in the West Bank. With his tattoos and earrings, Odai doesn't look like a typical Palestinian man from Ramallah. The Israeli soldiers bought it and waved him through without questioning. He finally saw a doctor, who put his leg in a cast.
When he isn't touring, Odai also runs his own parties inside the West Bank, which are fractionally simpler experiences. He and his local scene have acquired a reputation for going to extreme lengths to put on parties: dodging soldiers, suffering serious health concerns and convincing artists to come to Palestine, despite its reputation, for the dance.
Jazar Crew has built bridges between Haifa's scene and Paris, Berlin and London. But more importantly, it has connected the city with other Palestinian populations. After the exodus in 1948, different communities were splintered, and not just between Gaza and the West Bank. According to the Palestinian Central Bureau Of Statistics, more than 60 percent of the Palestinian population is living outside of Palestinian territory—in northern and central Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and further afield. They are separated by distance and their distinct experiences of exile.
One of Jazar Crew's first connections was to Anna Loulou bar in Jaffa, a traditionally Palestinian neighbourhood south of Tel Aviv. Though owned by a diverse team, the bar has become an important space for Palestinian artists. Co-owner Marwan Hawash had his own personal experiences with dislocation, having grown up between the West Bank and Israel. "When I was a child in Ramallah or Bethlehem [both in the West Bank], people looked at me like I was privileged, that my life was easier than theirs," he said. "But then in Israel, Israelis looked at me like I was Palestinian and didn't belong. Wherever you go, you don't know where you belong."
Now Kabareet and Ana Loulou share their programmes, working together to pay the fees required to bring DJs over from Europe. "When we are two together we are stronger," said Marwan. "One of us can't always handle a big act alone."
Unfortunately it's easier for Palestinians living in Israel to host artists from Europe than it is to invite musicians from the West Bank a few kilometres away. West Bank residents like Odai Masri need to apply for permits to enter Israel, which are often denied. Odai is happy to jump over the wall, though he acknowledges that this puts everyone involved at risk. Many others are less willing to smuggle themselves in for the sake of a gig.
When Ramallah couldn't come to Haifa, at least Haifa could come to Ramallah. While West Bank residents need permission to travel, Palestinians with Israeli passports, like Jazar Crew's founders, can travel in and out of the Palestinian territory freely. With their biggest event to date, they united the three nodes of the Palestinian scene.
Jazar Crew decided to try and book Nicolas Jaar in 2017. Though generally known as a Chilean-American producer, Jaar is descended from the Palestinian diaspora in Chile, the largest outside of the Arab world. (The name Jaar has roots stretching back centuries in Bethlehem.) While he played in Tel Aviv a couple of times early in his career, Jaar then joined a growing group of artists who avoid performing in Israel. He never made a public statement on the politics, like Habibi Funk, Acid Arab, or big artists like Roger Waters and Brian Eno have, but his absence spoke volumes.
It took time and delicacy for Jazar Crew to woo Jaar. They started with a carefully worded email, explaining who they were. They were then invited to meet Jaar's manager in Tel Aviv. Finally, Jaar himself paid a social call to Haifa, talking to the team and watching a show by rising reggae-rock band TootArd. After months of courtship, Jaar decided that he would perform three shows, but only in Palestinian-run venues. He played once in Ramallah and twice in Kabareet, with its capacity of 250. A gig this intimate was a rare coup; Jaar regularly plays to crowds numbering over a thousand.
At Kabareet on September 27th, Jaar started with the ambient sounds of his Sirens album, incorporating samples of poetry by the Palestinian national poet Mahmoud Darwish, performed by Lebanese musicians Marcel Khalife and Omaima El Khalil. But it wasn't long before he abandoned his planned set. He told Pousta, a Chilean website, "After 10 seconds of my intro I realized we all just needed to release," so he switched into party mode, which he described as "outside of time and context and yet extremely rooted in its own pained reality." He called it "a highlight of my life thus far." At the end of his Kabareet performance he played the perennial favourite "Mi Mujer," and left the stage to cries of "Nico! Nico! Nico!"
The concert was a major event for the Palestinian scene. Marwan Hawash described the Ramallah performance as "the best musical experience of my life." Jaar even returned to visit Kabareet's independent film festival and performed a surprise DJ set that was billed on Facebook simply as "Jazar Crew." Ayed Fadel laughed recalling the frantic phone calls that Haifa clubbers made to their friends to tell them Jaar was playing right now. One group heard the news and drove down from Tel Aviv, arriving at Kabareet just in time for Jaar's final track.
The Palestinian scene was able to grow in Israel before it ever took root in the West Bank, partly because of the relative freedoms, ease of travel and influx of external culture around Haifa. But eventually, with the work of Jazar Crew and dedicated locals, Palestinians started to construct an independent scene in the West Bank.
Laith Al Bandak, a 25-year-old engineer from Bethlehem, started Radio Nard as an online radio show in 2014. Nard means "dice" in Arabic, "because it's fucking random," he said. Tuning in, you might hear Mauritanian blues, Bedouin folk songs, psychedelic trance or techno. As long as it isn't mainstream, they'll run it. Their tongue-in-cheek motto translates to "The music that people don't ask to hear." Laith sees the radio as a way to transmit Palestinian culture globally. "It's a weapon," he said. "It's a faster way to get to people's souls, through their ears."
For the past couple of years, Radio Nard has also been throwing parties in Bethlehem and Ramallah. They had organised one for the second night of PMX. From downtown I walked down a steep hill, passing an evangelical Lutheran church with grilles protecting its stained glass windows. Opposite a seemingly pointless tangle of razor wire I found Radio Bar, a chic spot hidden behind stone walls, with a large garden lit by soft yellow lamps.
Watching the young crowd start to arrive at 9 PM, I was tempted inside by the effervescent synth lead and agile rhythm of DJ Sotofett's "Nondo." Laith was playing a warm-up set of African-influenced house. Over the course of the evening, almost every player in the Palestinian scene showed up, and not just DJs. The best set of the night was by the hip-hop producer and MC Haykal, who played a trippy selection of hip-hop, dancehall and reggaeton punctuated by sudden tempo shifts and his own impromptu raps. At its peak there were probably 100 people dancing expansively, sweating under the one flickering red light behind the booth.
Then, just after midnight, the DJs stopped. Events in the West Bank cannot usually play loud music later due to police restrictions. But rather than ending, the party transformed into a big chill-out. Inhibitions had dissolved over dancing and drinks, and there was a communal warmth in the garden for hours after the music stopped. For those who wanted to keep dancing, there was an afterparty at a house around the corner. When I stumbled out of there at 5 AM, a core crowd was still going, shuffling to deep house with a faded euphoria unique to the small hours.
Since the gig, having experienced the hospitality of Odai's family, El-B has felt personally implicated in the question of Palestine. He tries to educate his friends at home about the history of the conflict. "I came away feeling blood connected to Palestinians," he said. "It totally shatters everything I've grown up watching on the news." Other DJs then visited Ramallah, like Sam Binga and Exit Records' Sinistarr (the locals seem to have a particular taste for higher BPMs).
Though Sam Binga didn't play there, he compared the Palestinian scene to the origins of house in Chicago, back when dance music carried a powerful political message. "House music was born from people in oppressed situations," he said. "The West Bank is clearly an oppressed situation. So it's quite an honour to support people in what to us in the West feels like a normal thing: to go and have a dance."
For each success story, there are as many cruel reminders of the conflict on Ramallah's doorstep. German digger Habibi Funk was supposed to play on New Year's Eve 2017, but the show was cancelled when Israeli forces entered Ramallah to quell protests against Trump's recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital. When Odai had booked one of his favourite musicians, Italian lounge-dub artist Spy From Cairo, riots in support of Palestinian prisoners on hunger strike forced them to cancel. Odai had been trying to book Spy From Cairo for three years, and was so upset by the cancellation that he suffered a heart attack and ended up in hospital for three days. Spy From Cairo played in Kabareet in Haifa and Ana Loulou in Jaffa, but never made it to the West Bank.
As we sat in the serene garden of Radio Bar, Odai reminded me that at that exact moment, violent clashes were taking place at Qalandiya checkpoint, less than ten kilometres away. This is a regular Friday afternoon ritual where Palestinians, generally young men, throw stones at Israeli forces near the wall and the Israelis respond with tear gas. The protest is unlikely to result in any changes, simply reminding Israel that Palestinians are deeply unhappy with the status quo. I first imagined that to be sipping beer and listening to trendy electronic music close to a site of active conflict would feel inappropriate. But here it felt like a curious kind of protest. This fight is not going away any time soon, and Palestinians need to live in the meantime. To lead rich, cultural lives despite the systematic oppression of the Israeli state is its own kind of resistance. "It breaks my heart but what can we do?" said Odai. "We can't do anything. We have to live. I hate violence, I will never see myself holding a gun or killing somebody. Everyone has their way of resistance. This is mine."
On June 22nd, 2018, the Palestinian scene had its most public party to date, a Boiler Room session in the same garden where I met the promoters in April. Jazar Crew played with Odai Masri (as Oddz) and Sama Abdulhadi, alongside local beatmakers and rappers. While filmed DJ sets don't often make for the best parties, in Ramallah the crowd were going hard. Some dancers seemed to be deliberately challenging Western stereotypes of Palestine, such as the topless man in leather straps and the woman wearing a niqab veil that showed only her eyes paired with a sleeveless crop top. A comment during Jazar Crew's show read: "So this is what terrorists look like?"
Boiler Room worked closely with Odai and Jazar Crew on the project. Ayed Fadel said: "Finally someone is putting Palestinian electronic music on the map. It's support for the Palestinian cause through music."
While she agrees that there is a political statement inherent in staging a Boiler Room in Ramallah, Debora Ipekel, researcher and programmer for the event, made clear that the music comes first. "If the music wasn't good in this region we wouldn't do a show. We're not just doing it because it's Palestine."
On my last night in the West Bank, I joined a young crowd gathering outside Murad Castle, an Ottoman fortress built outside Bethlehem in 1617. Most were there to see Yasmine Hamdan, a Lebanese singer who is much loved on the alternative Arab music scene (her indie credentials were cemented when she was featured in Jim Jarmusch's 2013 film, Only Lovers Left Alive). I was interested to see Hamdan, but really I was there for the closing support act, Sama Abdulhadi, the techno producer I had met at Radio Bar.
Inside, over a thousand people sat on folding chairs spread across the ancient stone courtyard. I squeezed in at the front next to Odai Masri and Sama Abdulhadi, who are old friends. They were sharing vodka in plastic cups they had smuggled in backstage. The historic fortress did not have a bar.
Hamdan took to the stage solemnly with her band. She started slow, wrapped in a red scarf, singing with the melismatic yearning common to Arab music. Then she kicked up a gear, her drummer laying down a smoky trip-hop beat as Hamdan threw off her scarf to reveal a glittering shirt that looked liquid under the lights, pulling dance moves that split the difference between rock chick and bellydancer.
The band's blend of indie rock, electronica and Arab music, with its mesmeric quarter-tone intervals, was having a powerful effect. Most of the audience were bobbing their heads and tapping their feet. It felt strange to be sitting down. In a burst of energy, Sama got up next to me and started to dance. A couple of friends joined her. Though we were at the very edge of the courtyard and disturbing nobody, two big men in security jackets came to ask her to sit down. She refused, joking with them, asking why she couldn't dance—she was the DJ, after all. There was an edge of tension to the scene.
I turned away to take a few photos, and when I looked back more than 50 others had come out of the crowd to dance with Sama. The security weren't happy. Their boss marched up, shouting and gesturing for everyone to sit back down, but more and more people got up to dance. Finally Hamdan finished the song she was singing and made things simple: "Why are you all so far away?" she cooed in Arabic, "come closer, come closer."
The entire crowd rushed towards the stage, leaving the security helpless. Hamdan looked at us with a half-smile, before launching into one of her most famous numbers, greeted by rowdy cheers and dancing. Sama looked at me and grinned. Sometimes all it takes is for one person to stand up.
Sama is slight, with a disarming openness and an easy laugh. She has been playing techno for nine years, but was into breakdancing and playing hip-hop long before. After studying sound engineering in Beirut and Amman, where she specialised in granular synthesis, she ended up back on the scene in Ramallah, where she has been playing regularly since Jazar Crew's first party. Now based in Paris, she performs internationally as the West Bank's biggest DJ export.
Like many artists on the scene, Sama has a complex relationship with her Palestinian identity. On the one hand, she is keen to share ideas from her culture. An early track, "The Beating Wound," sampled recordings from the war in Gaza. She was also responsible for Palestine being added as a nationality option on Resident Advisor's DJ pages, when she discovered it wasn't listed.
She takes her role as emissary seriously. When Sama plays in Berlin or Paris, people come up to her and ask what Palestine is all about. "So I say," she put on a sweet voice, as if talking to a child, "OK you definitely know Israel, right? We're the people annoying them. We're the terrorists." Others are more knowledgeable. At this year's Riverside festival in Glasgow, where Sama played, Jackmaster displayed the Palestinian flag in solidarity.
While her background inevitably plays a role in her music, Sama is also reluctant to be pigeonholed by her nationality. A flurry of articles have been written about her recently, each one selling the "female DJ from Palestine" angle. "I use it to my advantage," she said, "but it's annoying when you play a three-hour set and someone comes up to you and says, 'Oh cool, you're a girl' or, 'Oh cool, you're Palestinian.' What about the music?"
As Yasmine Hamdan finished her performance, Sama prepared to start her set. A woman stepped up to the microphone to thank Hamdan for her performance, and announced that the concert had overrun and Sama would not be able to perform a full set. She would just play for five minutes, and those who wanted to see more could attend a nearby afterparty.
In the end, she didn't even get five minutes. After barely a minute of a pounding kick drum, someone pulled the plug and the music came to an unceremonious stop. Sama looked furious as she packed up her equipment. She later told me that she believes the concert promoters were punishing the crowd for dancing. Odai suggested they were worried about the complaints of neighbours. "But still, this shouldn't happen," he said. "It's fucked up."