Remember Shakti: Ramallah, Palestinian Territories, February 14, 2012
Ramallah Cultural Palace
Ramallah, Palestinian Territories
February 14, 2012
Who believed at the end of Remember Shakti's 2006 tourand nine years after a twenty-year hiatusthat the legendary band would get together once again, half a dozen years later? With all the members so impossibly busy with their respective music-making, a reunion seemed unlikely. But in guitarist John McLaughlin's mind the band never went away; it had merely parked up for a while. Few would have envisaged a return to the stage with a concert in the occupied Palestinian territories. However, after several years negotiating the intricate tapestry of Middle Eastern diplomacy, Remember Shakti's triumphant concert in the Ramallah Cultural Palace proved the truth of the age-old proverb that hope really does spring eternal.
This concert was a show of solidarity with the plight of Palestinian children in the West Bank, and a fundraiser for Al Mada, a pioneering organization which uses music and art as therapy for traumatized children, and indeed anyone who feels the need to embrace music and art as a means of catharsis. The seeds of Remember Shakti's journey to Ramallah, as it turns out, had been planted years before: "I'd already heard of the work [concert pianist/conductor] Daniel Barenboim is doing in Palestine," explained McLaughlin, "and his work is the original inspiration behind my idea. He's part of the solution."
Barenboim and cultural critic Edward Said's Seville-based West-Eastern Divan orchestra have brought together Israeli, Palestinian and Arab musicians since 1999, and Barenboim has made headlines in spectacular fashion in pursuit of better understanding between Israelis and Palestinians on more than one occasion. Fearless in his convictions, Barenboim broke the long-standing taboo of playing Wagner's music in Israel in 2001, and ten years later led a clandestine orchestra of some of Europe's finest classical musicians across the Egyptian border for a performance in Gaza. He's also the only Israeli to hold honorary Palestinian citizenship, though whether this distinction now excludes him from driving on the roads reserved for Israelis/Jewish settlers in the West Bank is unclear. Inspirational indeed.
It was music that brought together seven hundred people inside the impressive Ramallah Cultural Palace. The Palestinian Prime Minister, Dr. Salam Fayyada progressive voice was there to lend his support, as was senior staff from the concert's co-sponsors, UNICEF and UNRWA (The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees), and appropriately, children from several of the territories 28 official refugees camps, who have participated in music therapy sessions with Al Mada.
Emcee Hala Turjman welcomed the audience with a poignant statement, quoted in part here: "It's not a luxury to sing and dance. We are like all peoples; free we were born, and free we will die. Like all people we have our own story. We may have come into the world by chance, but Palestinians we have always been and will always be on this land. If there's anything that can't be understood, it's to be refugees on our own land and prisoners in our own homes. We still continue to dance, to sing, to draw and to write, as our oppressors cannot see but their own shadow, and fear us..."
To enthusiastic applause, Remember Shakti took to the stage against the backdrop of a low sitar drone, and after a short tuning session, Zakir Hussain's gradually accelerating tabla signaled the beginning of the exhilarating "5 in the Morning, 6 in the Afternoon," with V. Selvaganesh a powerful presence on kanjira, the diminutive frame drum. The first sparks flew in charged interplay between Hussain and U. Srinivas's mandolin, and bursts of applause filled the pauses between the climactic peaks with a certain drama all of their own. McLaughlin's intervention was staccato to begin with, but he soon gathered wind in his sails, playing with the same fire as ever. Though he turned 70 in January, McLaughlin looked thirty years younger on stage, such was the energy and joy he exuded.
As breathtaking as the individual virtuosity was, equally notable was the disciplined interplay. The tightly woven unison lines between guitar and mandolin, and between tabla and ghatam, were utterly compelling on the vignette "Anna," whose conclusion after just three captivating minutes took most by surprise, particularly following the extended fireworks and pregnant pauses of the opening number.