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To Make Up For What We’ve Lost | An Interview with Kamilya Jubran

كتابةمعازف - May 27, 2018

Original Arabic article by Hussein Al-Hujayri | 26/09/2017
Translated by Farah Zahra 

I’m still amazed by what Kamilya told me when we met. I’m not sure whether my sense of wonder stems from her ability to rediscover herself time and again as a way of breaking through intellectual conventions (for she is without a doubt someone who deconstructs as a way of constructing), from her belief in sharing the present moment with like-minded people, or from something else. Those questions aside, I can say with certainty that Jubran’s intellectual concerns represent the concerns of an entire society, and the fears she calls on us to conquer are not the fears of a single individual. In this interview, there is something for the casual reader interested in seeing the world through Jubran’s eyes. There is also something for the artist seeking to understand that world and find a more neutral voice.

First off, allow me to introduce myself. I’m a PHD candidate in music composition in South Korea. My interests are Arabic music, oud, and electronic music. I’ve been interested in your music for many years. For that reason, there are many topics I’d like to delve into today. One of those topics is how you arrived at your distinct musical style and how you envision it will change in the future. My first question is as follows: What are the artistic stages you have been through? And did you arrive at your current style?

That’s a simple question, but it requires a long answer! [laughter] Well, I can approach the question from several different angles. For one thing, I have been interested for quite a while now in going to places I’m not familiar with. This was the result of questions I had, questions I’d been asking myself – as simple and naïve as they were – since I was a teenager. I would ask myself, for instance: “What should one sing today?” This was in the seventies. Another question I’d ask myself was: “What is music today and what are we doing?” I come from a family with a great deal of respect for traditional music and cultural heritage. That’s what I grew up on. That, first and foremost, is what gave me the confidence to ask myself those questions. That is to say, without confidence one cannot question oneself. That’s not always how it happens, but that’s how it happened with me. So that’s where my journey began: with those questions I was asking myself when I was 15 or 16, which coincided with the proliferation of what is known as resistance music and committed songwriting, which my generation quickly came to see as a musical alternative.

So, you all felt that this music represented a serious musical alternative?

It was an alternative to all the unserious music we were hearing. I’m talking about people interested in music. I’m not talking about the general public. I’m talking about young people who were, like us, aware and had a thirst for culture in all its forms, in an isolated and restricted area, regardless of the level or form of imprisonment. As Palestinians we were in a prison inside a prison inside a prison. For that reason, we saw the new music of the resistance as a real alternative, regardless of whether or not we liked the “level” of the music. The first attempts at creating such a music were not all similar. Take, for example, Marcel Khalifeh with his oud, a phenomenon unlike anything we had ever experienced. We viewed the appearance of similar experimentations, with different content, as a great thing. There were monologues, plays, the works of Ziad Rahbani, all of Khaled Al-Habr and Ahmad Qaabur’s attempts in the seventies. We thought it was all great. “Ha!” we thought. “There are people out there doing something else.” Naturally, I was pleased by these experimentations. And in the context of those experimentations, and of the questions I had been asking myself, I went to Jerusalem and enrolled in university. And, as we all know, when one enters university as a young student, one begins to discover all kinds of things and to construct an identity for oneself. Not only a personal identity, but also a social, political, and cultural one. So, when I was 18, I began go about searching for answers to all of these questions. I was just like any other young person trying to figure out who they are and what they want to do. As far as questions of culture were concerned, I had come to university to “fill my head.” [laughter] From a political standpoint, my moving to Jerusalem played a decisive role in my life – my being a Palestinian born in a state called Israel, a state that forbids us from speaking freely about ourselves – and in particular my moving to the Palestinian city of Jerusalem, which, even as children, we had wanted to visit. The Israeli occupation of Jerusalem, and of the rest of the Palestinian lands from ‘67, benefitted us, the Palestinians of the Galilee, the third of Palestinians who felt imprisoned and suffocated, because we could finally join the rest of our people. We were young people thirsty for political action, and this is the background against which I was asking myself those questions I mentioned before.

When I arrived in Jerusalem in 1981, my brother, who had already been in Jerusalem for two years, told me about a band called Sabreen, whom he had gotten to know. He told me: “Come see what these people are doing.” In meeting Sabreen, I felt I had found an answer to the question of what I should be singing. The answer was that there was a band who were asking themselves the exact same question. So, we sang together. We sang together for twenty years, a collaboration built upon the hugely important question surrounding our contemporary musical identity. That period of collaboration resulted in four albums and a great many experimentations, all of which benefitted me. Sabreen were more than just a band. They were an alternative school of music, not only for myself, but for an entire generation.

Could you please elaborate on Sabreen being an alternative school of music?

Without overromanticizing it, we were a group of people who had a lot in common: ideas, fears, musical ambitions, experimentation, a lack of means, and a search for solutions. Our lifestyle was not unlike that of the rock musicians of the sixties, although we did not intend for it to be that way, and it was always our own. My point is that it wasn’t just about the music. It was about more than that. As a phenomenon, it transcended music, but we also used music as a means of expressing it. That’s why I say it was a school. Despite the difficult situation, the occupation, and the lack of possibilities that came with it, we were able, through strength, to accomplish something. We were teaching ourselves and sharing that which we had taught ourselves with others, spontaneously and free of institutions. My experiences with Sabreen provided a kind of answer to the question I had been asking myself since I was young, namely what we should sing. For me, and for the other young members of Sabreen, it amounted to a challenge, an adventure, and risk, all at once. We put aside everything secondary and dedicated all of our time and energy to living this experiment. That was my first step into the unknown, everything that is hidden, waiting to be discovered. But it was just the beginning.

So, your time with Sabreen was the beginning of your search for the unknown?


Were you certain that what you learned with Sabreen would eventually lead you to something new?

No, that wasn’t clear at the time. Rather, this realization took shape over a period of twenty years. At that time, I never once thought: “Oh, I’m in Jerusalem now and I’m 19. In 1982, I’ll join the band Sabreen, and in 2002, I’ll leave.” [laughter] That wasn’t my plan. With time, I realized I wanted to pursue a solo career.

And after that?

It’s all about the opportunities that come out of nowhere and surprise us. In 2002, I had an opportunity to try something new, without planning. It happened naturally. Experiences carry a certain electrical charge, and I reached a point where I felt that my battery was empty. In 2002, I moved to Europe, where I continued to pose musical questions and to search for answers, albeit alone and in a relaxed and less ambitious manner. I soon picked up a new thread, although I continued to build on everything I had done up until that point. It was a new adventure, which bore the marks of a new geographic location: new encounters, new ways of thinking, new possibilities, and new horizons. Horizons first and foremost. From 2002 onward, I began working on an experimental project, which I called Mahattat (Stations). That was the beginning of my most recent journey, which has lasted 15 years, and which has led me to where I am today.

Would you say that Mahattat marks the beginning of a new, more personal musical output, from a historical and intellectual standpoint?


Could you elaborate on how your moving to Europe served to redirect your personal journey? You described your first musical experiences in Europe as being more relaxed and less ambitious. Did your moving to a new geographic location require you to rethink your understanding of music?

Absolutely. It’s all about stepping out of your comfort zone. What I needed was to spend some time alone and to take another look at some things. During such a period, it is crucial to take a critical stance with regard to oneself, however painful it might be. Had I not passed through these stages, I never would have come up with anything new. What I mean is that had I remained happy with what I was doing, I never would have stopped doing it in the first place. When we leave somewhere small and go out into the wide world, we are at first blinded by the light. [laughter] So we buy sunglasses. [laughter] And we begin to grow accustomed to the new lighting. I’m speaking figuratively, of course. So, I found myself faced with this challenge. I had an entire landscape before me – not just a street, a taxi, a city – but a whole world, one with its own rules, its own success stories, its own possibilities. And I was nothing but an interloper, a stranger. We are overcome with such feelings when we leave the places we come from. But at the same time, we feel the need to develop. It’s not an easy experience. Of course I wanted to do things I hadn’t done in Palestine. And I carried this hope with me when meeting new people, meetings which gave rise to new opportunities. In meeting people from musical backgrounds different from mine, I began to exchange ideas with them, learn from their experiences, and share what I had learned from my modest experiences. That’s how I grew, and how I began to build up a body of knowledge. I even realized that my understanding of Arabic music, the music I had grown up with, was insufficient. I also wanted to learn know all about the musical backgrounds of the people I was playing with – including people who had been raised on jazz or contemporary music. What did they worry about? What did they think about? How did they develop? I found myself going in two directions at once.

Did you find that there were any similarities between your musical worries and those of musicians working in other areas?

It’s not that simple. I found myself faced with a civilization that has passed through political and historical stages that we in the East have never gone through and never will. There will never be another industrial revolution. For example, our wars are nothing like the first and second world wars. Europe’s societies were permanently altered by the revolutions that took place there, revolutions we never experienced. For that reason, the social fabric of Arab society resembles that of, say, 17th century Europe. [laughter] Or maybe 18th century. [laughter] You can’t really compare them anyway. We might find only distant similarities with European musicians, but, sometimes, we find closer similarities too. Take, for example, Werner Hasler, who I’ve been working with since 2002, or Sarah Murcia. The ways in which we are similar differ from person to person, but we are all similar in that we all inhabit the same time and place. Nevertheless, each person expresses this similarity differently. There are ways in I resemble my friends, in terms of the things that are important to us, despite the fact that I wasn’t born in Europe and don’t share any history with Europeans. We don’t share a past, but we share a present. This is where we meet. I’m talking now about my collaborations with Werner Hasler and Sarah Murcia. What I see when I work with them is a coming-together, not a resemblance or even a shared set of concerns. What is important to me might not be important to them. They might not even have concerns to begin with. [laughter] I don’t know. This coming-together is what lets us create something new together.

And what about your most recent projects? Could you tell us a little about them?

As far as the projects are concerned, my most significant collaborations, from when I arrived in Europe up until today, have been with Werner Hasler, a musician based in Bern, Switzerland, and Sarah Murcia, a Parisian contrabassist. These two individuals have left an indelible mark on me, on numerous levels. For one thing, I learned a great deal from them musically, as both have a huge amount of experience and a highly developed aesthetic sensibility. At the end of the day, it all comes down to aesthetics and taste. I have worked with them on many project, beginning with Mahattat and all the way up to an album entitled Habka, which will be released in September. It’s something Sarah and I recorded together with a string trio. In its structure, it resembles the album Nhaoul’, which Sarah and I recorded in 2012. Habka is the second part of this project. We began working on the project two years ago, and I hope that there will be a tour to promote the album. Before Habka, there was Wasl, a project I produced myself and released on Youtube, because, at that time, I couldn’t find a production company who would take it on. Wasl is a collaboration between the three of us, that is to say, Werner, Sarah, and I. It is an expression of our shared passion for music, which took shape a long time ago.

And what about your projects that transcend the realm of music?  

I have a wide range of interests. For one thing, I’m interested in transmitting musical experience. In 2014, I established the organization Zamkanah, through which I hope to collaborate with a younger generation of artists and musicians, most of whom – but not all of whom – are Arabs. The idea behind Zamkanah is to provide artists the space and time to meditate, think, and produce. One of the projects centers around producing a musical work here in Paris in the fall of 2018 with a group of young people I got to know through workshops I gave between 2014 and 2016 in various Arab cities.

Wonderful. I’d like to return to your personal conclusions with regard to music. Does your relationship with Arabic music and the oud present artistic difficulties?

Not difficulties, but complexities. There are beautiful aspects to our music, but ugly ones too. There is a sense in which it’s restrictive and not conducive to freedom. We have come to understand that there are many gaps in our history. At the same time, we must not forget that our societies are first and foremost consumerist and operate according to an outdated mentality. For this reason, we go in search of what has eluded us, what we’ve been deprived of, what we need. This is part of the complexity. Our generation is wiping away the dust and discovering many things. A generation shining light on dark areas.

Are you suggesting that there is a responsibility that comes with making music, that one must always continue to ask questions?

I don’t have a rule nor do I have a message. I’m talking about my personal interests. As someone who benefited from the experiences of others and from opportunities that were given to me, I feel that I should do the same for others. This is a personal decision. Every art form has its own cultural characteristics, and those characteristics can be manifested differently. In music, for example, there are aesthetics that transcend the voice, aesthetics that can be communicated unintentionally. It depends on the type of art, the type of music in question. I don’t have a clear rule as far as that is concerned. What I’m trying to say is that, because I benefited from the knowledge of others, I do feel a sense of responsibility to benefit others in the same way.

Terrific. I’d like to take this opportunity to ask you another question. Since I’m interested in electronic music, I’m curious to learn how your relationship with electronic music began, and what approach you took in incorporating it into your work. Could you talk about that?  

Of course. I became interested in electronic music in the late nineties. At that time, I was still in Palestine. I had the opportunity to hear a number of different things. I was traveling a lot in those days. This enabled me to meet people who were making electronic music. Most of the people I collaborated with were interested in trip hop and rap, and, although I wasn’t interested in those styles, the music that accompanied the rappers and performers caught my ear. From that point on, I started making electronic music. I learned to differentiate the different genres, and my interest grew. Getting to know Werner Hasler in Bern gave me the opportunity to delve into electronic music in a more serious way. Slowly, I began to understand why I was so interested in that kind of music. I began looking for unusual and unfamiliar sounds.

Why did you feel that you needed to distance yourself from what was familiar to you?

Maybe because it was my dependence on that familiar sound that caused me to hit a plateau.

Is finding a new sound the key to getting over that plateau?

Yes, because I don’t want a sound that puts me into a box. I began to ask myself how much flexibility and openness there was in the sounds I was working with. I don’t want to hear familiar rhythms, for example.

Do you mean a rhythm that persists for the duration of a song?  

I didn’t want to hear the sound of a tabla. I didn’t want to hear the sound of a daf. I didn’t want to hear the sound of a qanun. I didn’t want to hear the sound of a ney. Not because I hated the sounds of those instruments, but because, during that stage, impartiality was something I considered very important in and of itself in that it helped me to discover new things. That’s why, as I told you, I chose to isolate myself, to distance myself, and to take another look at things. Everything was subject to experimentation. I found, for example, that the oud was the closest thing I had to an instrument that I could play freely and without restrictions. As for electronic music, if we listen closely, we can hear that these are manmade sounds, that humans created them. It was necessary for people to create a whole new musical landscape with a new set of sounds.

Are you saying that one needs new sounds in order to come up with new ideas?

I think that people invented instruments, and they continue to invent new instruments, because their needs continue to grow and change. When people’s need change and they find answers to those needs, their behavior begins to change too. And when behaviors change, it is reflected in the results. That’s how new things are invented – not just in music, but in every other area of life. By the way, I’m not a person who destroys. I’m a person who questions and deconstructs. If I do destroy something, it is only so that I can build something new from the same components, together with things that are not necessarily made of the same raw material. These factors are all part of the journey. As far as I’m concerned, at the end of the day, all that really matters is taste, which is purely individual. Another truth is that I am not in search of any particular result. I don’t know what the result will be until it happens. At the end of the day, I’m just looking for a melody or a song I consider stable to some degree. At the same time, I don’t think songs are really stable entities. I might sing the exact same song, with the exact same components, once today and once tomorrow, and the spirit of the song could be completely different.

Is there anything else you would like to add with regard to this topic?

Nothing comes to mind.

As a final point, I’d like to touch on the issue of the isolation and alienation that musicians feel, because I feel that, although we didn’t talk about it directly, it was somehow implicit in our conversation.  

It’s normal to feel alienated. At the same time, it’s possible to overcome that feeling by getting together with likeminded people, even if they are not members of the same community.

What you’re saying is that any musician who wishes to better herself should look for like-minded people who support her. It’s so true. As a music student in South Korea, I can say that I have learned much more from my interactions with fellow students than I have in the classroom.

I spoke recently with a young Egyptian guy who is living in Germany, and who is part of a small group of students from the Arab world who are interested in contemporary European classical music. They’re members of the group I’m talking about. You need to find these social circles. As someone who has been living in South Korea for some time, you must have met people who have benefitted you and whose experiences you have learned from.

Yes. I’ve met a lot of people who have had an effect on my understanding of music.

Now I’ve remembered what it was I wanted to say as a parting thought. It’s something very urgent. There is a kind of fear that we must overcome. It’s a fear we learn when we are very young. It’s a fear that dictates that when we leave our circles, we must someday return, that we must die among those who are similar to us. What I’m saying is the exact opposite. What I’m saying is that we must leave our circles, so that we can renew ourselves, and, from that point on, rethink what it is we want to do for our original community. We decide. We should not accept what has been chosen for us unquestioningly. Our responsibility, I think, is to evaluate, to learn, to compare, and to express. And to try to transmit this spirit to future generations. Our world is not limited to a sixty-square-meter plot of land, half of which is desert. And we won’t go extinct. Didn’t you ask me a little while ago what I wanted to add?

I did.