Sunday, July 27, 2008

The Palestinian bagpipes

As a strange and distant memory, I remember a news item I had seen once on Danish TV where a Palestinian pipe band was marching in a parade through a town in Palestine. Not that it had always been there in my mind, but the memory surfaced again after I came to Ramallah. A Palestinian bagpipe band! I joked about it with my Palestinian friends on several occasions, but they told me that there actually were Palestinian pipe bands. They play at festive times, at Christmas and Easter, when they march through the streets in the big Palestinian cities. After hearing this, the Palestinian bagpipes gradually became something of an obsession for me. Why do they play this mysterious and fascinating instrument in Palestine, something that when normally placed on the cultural map of the world belongs in Scotland?

In the course of time during my stay, I had been to quite a few concerts and rehearsals with students from the Edward Said National Conservatory of Music. They played on instruments that were normally associated with classical European music, or traditional Palestinian folklore. I had heard violins playing Mozart and ouds playing classical Palestinian music, but I’d never seen or heard the bagpipes which clearly weren’t part of the classical Palestinian music course for which the Conservatory is responsible. Samar told me that the Easter and Christmas parades were normally arranged by the Palestinian scout movement, and that the bagpipe bands were probably mostly based in the scout movement, or maybe in the Palestinian security forces. So the Palestinian bagpipes were associated with the military culture (of which the scouting movement is also a part). The pipe bands were part of the Palestinian armed forces. Samar promised me she would ask her brother whether there was a band in Ramallah. He had some connection with the scout movement and he could probably help if I wanted to get in touch with a band.

One of the reasons I became so fascinated with the Palestinian bagpipe was that in many ways it short circuits the usual cultural divisions and creates disorder in the categories that have to do with cultural authenticity and ownership of particular forms of cultural expression. This is especially true in Palestine, where war is constantly being waged and land is being claimed precisely on the basis of arguments about indigenous rights and cultural authenticity. “We were here first, it was us who built the first temple”, etc. In this context the bagpipes were such a fantastically concrete indication that cultures are constantly being mixed, absorbing other cultures and splitting into new cultures. Also, I have always, in fact, been greatly attracted to the mysterious and intense sound of this instrument.

After researching the background of the bagpipes a little, I found out that, historically speaking, it isn’t particularly Scottish at all. The Romans brought it with them to the British Isles and the Scots adopted it. Most people immediately associate the bagpipe with the Scots and my initial assumption was that the Palestinian bagpipe was a remnant of the colonial period and the British Mandate that ruled here from after World War One until 1948. This story of its origins is, perhaps, also true for the present day Palestinian bagpipes. But, in fact, the bagpipe can be traced back to the Middle East. The first known depiction of a bagpipe comes from ancient Mesopotamia, with precursors in ancient Egypt existing long before European culture emerged. So, if you see it that way, the bagpipe is not authentically Scottish at all and today the bagpipe is played in many cultures: in the Basque Country and in Serbia, amongst other places.

When I got back to Samar and asked if there was any news from her brother, she smiled and said she’d actually thought I was joking. She didn’t think I was really that interested. However, I insisted that it had truly become something of a project for me. After that things moved quite fast, as they had to, since my stay was very soon coming to an end. It turned out that the only bagpipe band that practices regularly on the West Bank is based at ‘The First Ramallah Group’, which is the meeting place of the scouts in Ramallah. I’ve walked past their activity centre almost every day, since it’s on the way to where I live. Someone is almost always playing basketball, watching films in the outdoor cinema and drinking coffee at the cafĂ© tables under the pine trees. I hadn’t seen any particular signs of scouting, such as shorts, bivouacs or timber huts as we know them from the scouts in Denmark. The First Ramallah Group mainly had the character of a youth club, but here, it seems, there was also a bagpipe band that practiced regularly.

Samar had been talking to the leader of the band. He had wondered why a foreign artist was interested in the band and wanted to meet them. When we finally met, he was very friendly and actually seemed very proud of his band. I told him I was really fond of bagpipe music. It turned out they were practicing that same evening and I was welcome to come and film them as they played. It was like a dream that came true when they put the pipes to their mouths, and the buzzing monotone sound spread through the area. There were six people in the band. Two beat the drums and four played the bagpipes. They were all very young, perhaps in their early twenties, and they assembled on the basketball field to practice their repertoire. They were wearing jeans and T-shirts like most of the men down here. From the bagpipes hung ribbons and tassels in traditional Scottish clan colours combined with Palestinian flags. They played several traditional Palestinian tunes, for example Wein ala Ramallah and the Palestinian national anthem, as well as some Scottish marches. It was quite a special experience.


Padraig O'Neill said...

Hi Jakob
I was watching Aljazeera on TV today 24/11 and spotted a pipe band at the Yasser Arafat shrine and was also intrigued had a google and found your article, very interesting. Just to say most Scottish pipers are aware of nearly every culture in the world has a form of bagpipe and take great pride in telling people this when they visit Scotland as we love the idea of how it connects us to the wider ancient world. A lot of other countries pipe bands find themselves in Scotland performing and are seen by pipers in Scotland as part of an international fraternity.

JJ said...

Yeah, I loved the music and the pride of the Palestinian pipe band. Especially in a context where the idea of origin is abused to the extreme. I have got a video somewhere with the band. Will upload.