On Wednesday, 11 November, more than 200 persons packed into La Sala Rossa, a slightly operatic Montreal venue. Three sets of musicians fascinated listeners with a dance of ouds followed by a soft and multi-dimensional interplay of harp, cello, pedal steel, percussion and flute. The experience was concluded by a trio of piano, erratic Miles Davis-esque trumpet ala Bitches Brew and synthesizers playing in tandem with photographs of the lives and conditions of Palestinians in the occupied West Bank.
These beautiful performances were part of the ongoing concert series “Artists Against Apartheid,” which is held in solidarity with the call from Palestinian civil society for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) from Israeli apartheid and is organized by Tadamon!, a Montreal collective working in solidarity with Palestine. This was the eleventh concert in the series, which collects musicians in support of the Palestinian struggle for justice while simultaneously interspersing and contextualizing the performance with the realities of oppression in Palestine through information, analysis and art.
The room swelled to a full before the concert began, with the diverse range of instruments set not on a stage but at the heart of the room, encompassed by the eager crowd. Tables selling Palestinian olive oil and flags, radical literature and calendars in support of political prisoners were enveloped by interested faces and served as a place of discussion prior to the first performance.
An oud trio kicked off the concert in an entangled and hypnotic piece that felt simultaneously ancient and alive. Sam Shalabi, a Montreal-based musician whose numerous projects range from traditional Egyptian to psych-rock, played the oud with Omar Dewachi accompanied by the percussion of Pierre Guy Blanchard. Shalabi is celebrated internationally and recently released Land of Kush on Constellation Records. The meditative interaction between the ouds, a strange dialogue of sorts, was grounded in the fabric of the complex hand movements over a djembe drum. As the oud trio’s last strum slowly faded into the amazed silence of the crowd, the atmosphere was set.
The night’s focus was on Palestinian political prisoners and the testimonials of Adeeb Abu Rahme and Mohammed Othman were presented with “the hope that they will add faces to figures, stories to statistics, and will better illustrate the conditions that prisoners face.” Mohammed Othman’s arrest for dedicated BDS activism was especially pertinent in illustrating Israel’s ongoing criminalization of social justice movements. The stark realities of children being held for six months without being charged and with primary evidence being obtained through coercive interrogation in the absence of a lawyer served to illuminate what the Israeli (in)justice system is perpetrating in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. It also raised pointed questions about Canada’s support and complicity in these violations of international law.
These testimonials were followed by Seven Arrows, a newly-formed ensemble which includes members from A Silver Mt. Zion and Lhasa de Sela and is composed of a cello, harp, pedal steel, percussion and a flute. The full and rich cello and harp tones which mingled with the escalating pitches of the pedal steel and the sounds of the percussionist interestingly bowing a construction of metal bars of different lengths culminated in an awe-inducing performance that was reflected in the audience’s attentive calm throughout it. Considering the complex relationship between these instruments within the pieces, Harpist Sarah Page explained how they interact: “There is a lot of improvisation in what we do, and there is also a lot of structure to contain that improvisation.”
Page added, “Everybody brought in ideas, but always just as a starting reference point. It then becomes a matter of working with people I have enormous confidence in, and knowing that they will come up with a lot of surprises that are incredible which can’t be planned. We try to work with ideas and flesh them out as much as we can but always within the understanding that there has to be as much room as possible for spontaneity.”
The night of solidarity was closed with a performance by the Visual Music Project, a trio led by composer and pianist Antoine Bustros, which placed a beautiful score to a projected excerpt of Territories by Mary-Ellen Davis. This moving film contains a collection of photographs from Larry Towell of the Magnum photo agency that contextualized the cruelty of apartheid in the daily lives of ordinary Palestinians.
The Artists Against Apartheid concert series will hopefully continue to flourish and expand in the same way that the global initiative for BDS grows and gains momentum daily. As harpist Sarah Page explained, artists like other concerned citizens should “do their research and inform themselves and if they feel like they agree with the Israeli government’s actions towards Palestinian people then by all means, but if that doesn’t sit well with them, they should consider what they want to do about that.”
Tyler Nadeau is a science student at McGill University who organizes with Tadamon!, a Montreal collective in solidarity with the struggle for Palestinian self-determination. Tadamon! organizes the Artists Against Apartheid concert series.