Gilad Atzmon & the Orient House Ensemble
The Tide Has Changed
World Village (worldvillagemusic.com)
"The Wandering Who?" (book)
Sheikh Jarrah is not exactly a household name in most corners of the world, but it’s a different story in East Jerusalem. In 1956, displaced Palestinians were offered houses in the neighborhood and told by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency that the titles would be transferred to them after three years’ residency. That promise went unfulfilled.
Israeli settlers have for decades sought to wrest targeted East Jerusalem neighborhoods away from their long-time Arab Israeli inhabitants. In some cases, settlers have been allowed to move into one wing of a house while the long-time Palestinian occupants have been reduced to living in the other, subject to continued harassment by their new neighbors.
In April 2010, in the Palestinian wing of one such divided house, A Time to Cry: A Lament Over Jerusalem was recorded by four gifted Palestinian singers, backed by visiting musicians. Produced under conditions of adversity beyond the practical experience or comprehension of most listeners, there is a discreet sense of self-possession to this work, whose aural beauty conveys the quiet dignity, insistent witness and clear-eyed testimony to a human tragedy now in its fourth generation and seventh decade of struggle for justice. Some may recognize Rim Banna from the album Lullabies from the Axis of Evil: here, her composition “Al-Quds [Jerusalem] Everlasting” conveys the enduring spirit and rending beauty manifest in A Time to Cry:
Nothing is left for the residents of the city
But a few pictures, stories and memories
And the whole world is watching in silence...
A project of the Norwegian Culture Workshop, with support from the World Council of Churches, Norwegian Church Aid and the Edward Said National Conservatory of Music, artistic initiatives like A Time to Cry may constitute little more than an annoying fly buzzing at the margins of the collective Israeli Weltanschauung.
Perhaps more difficult for officialdom to tolerate is the native criticism of Israeli-born artists and activists like London-based saxophonist-composer Gilad Atzmon - also the author of a critical new analysis of Israeli identity politics titled "The Wandering Who?" Pulling no punches, Atzmon describes settler attacks on Palestinians as “a pogrom” and characterizes the prevailing situation as “the Neo Ghetto reality” - provocative language from one of Israel’s own.
I asked the artist about that via email and he responded: “Zionism was an attempt to bring to the world a ‘new civilized Jew’, an authentic human being, a productive subject driven by a love of the soil and an ethical orientation. But the scale of crimes against humanity committed by the Jewish State on a daily basis for more than six decades demonstrates beyond doubt that the Zionist project has been a disaster. The Neo Ghetto society that surrounds itself with an annexation wall may well be the most brutal tribal collective in the history of the Jewish people. And this is indeed a tragedy.”
Elsewhere Gilad writes, “The monstrous wall is a clearly true reflection of the failure of the Jewish national project. The annexation wall is, in fact, a devastating expression of Israeli collective phobia.”
What about his own intellectual and ethical journey vis-à-vis the Zionist project?
Gilad replies, “If I were to sum my journey in a single paragraph, I would say that at a certain stage in my life, I looked into the mirror and didn’t like what I saw. I realized that being an Israeli, I was living on someone else’s land. So I left Israel and settled in Britain. Then I began to grasp the more general ethnocentrism entangled within Jewish identity politics. It didn’t take long before I decided to move as far as I could from Jewish tribal identity, with the hope that one day I might manage to become an ordinary human being devoid of any sense of exceptionalism, or of being ‘chosen’. Israel is becoming more tribal, supremacist and brutal. There is no inclination towards peace there.”
Asked why he is compelled to express what most Israelis refuse to consider, or what they cannot bring themselves to acknowledge, Gilad observes, “I believe that being a musician is part of the answer. I am a free being. I am not dependent on a university salary. I am not subject to the tyranny of the Zionist thought police. Being an artist, I am spiritually driven. I am a truth seeker by nature. And this may also mean saying things that people do not want to hear.”
Gilad observes, “We’re all Palestinians now and we’ve lost our fear.” Regarding the title track of his new CD, The Tide Has Changed, and the composition that follows, “And So Have We,” I asked about the nature of that change. He relates, “For years I was subject to an endless, orchestrated smear campaign. The people behind it were both Zionists and some Jewish ‘anti’ Zionists. They clearly realized that my path might lead to a complete exposé of the devastating continuum between Jewish supremacy, tribalism and the Jewish Left. I didn’t surrender to their pressure. I kept saying what I believed in. And as it happened, my line of thought is now far more widely accepted. The number of people who were willing to stand by my side before the publication of "The Wandering Who" is astonishing [e.g., Richard Falk, Makram Khoury-Machool, John Mearsheimer, James Petras]. Indeed, I guess we lost our fear. We believe that peace is patriotic.”
“One conclusion I draw in my new book is that peace can be achieved in just a few seconds. All it takes is for an Israeli Prime Minister to stand up and apologize to the Palestinians, and to welcome them to return to their land. This would mean an immediate end to violence. It would also be the ultimate success of the Zionist project. It would mean that Jews have managed to settle in their purported ‘promised land’ and to love their neighbors. However, I guess that for Israel to pursue such a simple move, it must first stop being The Jewish State.”
What can we expect next from Gilad Atzmon musically? “Good question. I will soon start a tour with the Orient House Ensemble [named in honor of the national headquarters of the Palestinian people in Jerusalem]. We will be on the road for three months. I imagine we will come out with a new album. The truth is that I have been very busy with the book in recent months, and I just can’t wait to be on the road and play loud and fast.”
The Tide Has Changed offers some sense of the shape of Orient House to come: Brechtian irony (the opening “Dry Fear” and closing “We Laugh”); the mournful, extended sax introduction to the title track, Shofar-like, an 11 minute suite that develops slowly and incessantly into a full-bore figure that doesn’t let go, against a wordless chorus, the percussive keyboard work of Frank Harrison, the loping bass of Yaron Stavi and agitated traps of Eddie Hick. “And So Have We” shifts into reflective mode, with Tali Atzmon on vocal lead, a melancholic expression of the price and inevitability of change. A dashing “All the Way to Montenegro” unleashes a certain Balkan frenzy, while Ravel’s unexpected “Bolero at Sunrise” unfolds in a lyrical interplay between the dawning light from the East and a fitfully awakening West. If the whole world is watching, it is no longer in silence. - Michael Stone
Further information, listening and reading:
Gilad Atzmon speaks about "The Wandering Who?"
Hear samples of the tracks from The Tide Has Changed
Atzmon's web site: www.gilad.co.uk
More about Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity:
Listen to Rim Banna's “Al-Quds Everlasting”
A Time to Cry: A Lament Over Jerusalem available from cdRoots