When Jewish settlers started arriving in Palestine from Eastern Europe to Palestine at the turn of the 20th century, they observed closely the folkloric dance and music of the Palestinians, memorizing their moves, steps and tunes. After the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, such dances were re-packaged and presented to the world as “Israeli dances” or “Israeli music.” Palestinians who knew otherwise were too busy dealing with the pain of their defeat, occupation and displacement to lobby against this blatant cultural theft.
The entire country was being depopulated of its Arab inhabitants. Arab villages were either bulldozed to the ground or transformed into Israeli ones with new names (always Hebrew ones) and, of course, new residents as well. The appropriation did not stop there and extended to everything Palestinian, including, notably, the territory’s food: Jaffa oranges, olives, hummus, tabbouleh, and falafel.
Over the past 70 years, hundreds of Palestinians have tried to challenge this cultural theft, through international lobbying, academia, art and music. One of them was the prominent Palestinian singer and composer Rim Banna, who died on 24 March 2018, aged 51, at a hospital in Nazareth.
Eulogized throughout the Arab world after losing a nine-year battle with breast cancer, Banna has been hailed as the “Voice of the Revolution.” Part of the homage owed to the fact that she was a female activist in a male-dominated society – and a Christian, for that matter, which is becoming ever rarer, sadly, in an increasingly Islamized Middle East. She supported the Palestinian resistance even when radical groups including Hamas took ascended to power 11-years ago, excommunicating activists like Banna who felt that perhaps sometimes music served the Palestinian struggle better than guns.
Born into a Palestinian Christian family in December 1966, from an early age Banna began singing songs from Palestinian folk culture that had been passed down from one generation to the next, always by ear rather than being written down. She learned them from the musical elders of Nazareth and quickly mastered their songs, becoming something of a sensation in her hometown.
After studying at the Higher Conservatory of Music in Moscow, she began her career in the 1990s, performing music from Palestine’s forgotten past. She put melodies to ancient Palestinian texts, dug up old hymns from elders’ memories, and composed modern tunes inspired by the struggle of the Palestinian people. Her music was sober and serious— a hallmark of Banna’s career and image – and she was always more focused on delivering a patriotic message than making money or creating a mass fanbase like other Arab pop artists. She sang the works of prominent Palestinian poets such as Samih al-Qassem and the iconic Mahmud Darwish, and refused to make promotional videos.
Banna then went a step further, focusing on traditional Palestinian children’s lullabies that were on the verge of being completely forgotten. The older generation that remembered such lullabies was passing and no-one had recorded or compiled the tunes. Banna put them on paper and transformed them into immensely popular albums for children, the most famous of which was Qamar Abu Layla, released in 1995.
In total, she released 13 albums, before being incapacitated by illness, which forced her to stop singing, in 2016. She remained a strong advocate of humanitarian causes and was vocal in her support for the people of Syria.
During a musical career that spanned three solid decades, Banna toured Arab and world capitals, always performing in traditional, hand-embroidered Palestinian dress, or the checkered kuffiya which has become a symbol of the Palestinian Cause. Without much effort, she became a star throughout the Arab world, with fans in Amman, Beirut, Baghdad, and Damascus. Closest to her heart, however, were the young Palestinians – many of them languishing in Israeli jails – who adored her, finding inspiration in her music.
Thousands flocked to the Orthodox Church in Nazareth over the weekend, as Banna’s coffin – draped in a Palestinian flag – was carried shoulder-high. A statement of tribute was issued by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fateh Party, while his Cultural Minister Ehab Bsissio said: “I will not say that Rim Banna has left us but that this dear Palestinian sister chose to fly at dawn on this day, along with angels, in the skies of this country.”