‘A trip down memory lane’: the lost music of the Palestinian uprising is restored | Palestinian territories

AAs Covid-19 swept the world in the spring of 2020, Mo’min Swaitat, a Palestinian actor and filmmaker living in London, found himself stranded in his hometown, the West Bank city of Jenin. On walks through the quiet streets, he was drawn to the closed Tariq Cassettes, a music store and record label he remembered from childhood that had closed years ago.

Intrigued, Swaitat contacted the previous owner, who let him spend the days of the pandemic rummaging through the dusty archives of tapes on the second floor. In doing so, he discovered a treasure: long-forgotten music that enlivened Palestinian life in the 1980s, when the first intifada (uprising) broke out.

After buying numerous tapes and bringing five suitcases full back to London, her mission became to digitize and re-edit this window into the past.

“I listened to 10,000 tapes in eight months – lots of synth and funk and disco stuff, wedding music, groundbreaking stuff. I even found recordings made by my uncle, who was part of ‘a Bedouin alliance,’ the 32-year-old said.

Riad Awwad was an electrical engineer specializing in musical equipment. He was arrested after the release of his 1987 album and most of the tapes confiscated.

“One of the most special discoveries was this bright yellow tape with no information except for a sticker with the handwritten word ‘intifada’.”

Swaitat listened to the album several times, captivated by the poetic lyrics describing a lost homeland and the struggle for freedom. On one occasion he let the tape run and realized that after a few minutes of silence the composer had named himself Riad Awwad. Awwad then thanked his sisters Alia, Hanan and Nariman for their help in creating the album, as well as Mahmoud Darwish – the Palestinian national poet – for writing the lyrics to one of the songs.

Swaitat couldn’t find any information about Riad online, but he managed to get in touch with his sister Hanan, a famous writer and activist now in her 70s. She tells him more about the creation of the tape, titled The Intifada Album.

“My brother was a very talented musician. He was very moved by the Intifada and the week it started [in 1987] he gathered us as a family in the living room in Jerusalem and asked us to help him ‘sing the song of the intifada’,” she said.

“He had a unique style and he made music about identity, which touched our people a lot. If you walked down Salah al-Din Street in the Old City, everyone was playing there.

As the Intifada grew increasingly bloody, Awwad ended up paying a heavy price for his art. Israeli forces confiscated most of the 3,000 tapes he made from music stores, as well as cafes and businesses that played them, fearing that the lyrics – some of which mention Molotov cocktails and stone-throwing – incite people to violence.

The 30-year-old man was detained for several months, during which he was tortured.

“He was never charged with anything, which was very common during the Intifada,” Hanan said. “They asked him a lot why he made music, what he wanted to do with it.”

I come from Jerusalem by Riad Awwad, one of the songs from the Intifada album.

An electrical engineer by training, after his release Awwad opened a music school for children in the West Bank and later formed a band called the Palestinian Union.

Awwad died in a car accident in 2005. While Hanan wishes her brother was still alive to see his music rediscovered, she said he would love to know his work is reaching new audiences.

“I was so happy when Mo’min contacted me to ask for the album to be reissued. It has historical significance and with the internet anyone can find it,” she said.

Upon returning to London, Swaitat received funding from Jerwood Arts to launch the Majazz Project, an online platform dedicated to restoring Palestinian musical heritage.

The digital release of Awwad’s Intifada album launched through the Majazz Project label in late 2021. The vinyl version, slated to launch in April, has already sold out half of its circulation.

“The response has been amazing. I have received messages from young Palestinians and members of the Diaspora telling me that they love it, or that they bought it as a present for their parents who were young when it was was originally released,” Swaaitat said.

“We intend to re-release more music – rock, traditional Bedouin recordings and newer electro.

“So much Palestinian culture has been lost or locked away in the Israeli military archives, so it was magical to find this. It is a journey through the past and the future of an entire people.

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