Society / Palestine
Amal Murkus: the rising Palestinian star
Heba Fayssal Zoabi - 17/09/2008
She toured the continents and performed with international artists, with a mission to convey with her tender voice a global human concern. Austrian television described her as, “the owner of the finest voice in the twentieth century”.
She released and produced three albums: ‘Amal’, followed by ‘Shawk’, and ‘Na’na Ya Na’na’- which translates into: 'Hope', 'Lust', and 'Mint oh Mint'.
Every week, she presents a popular cultural and artistic program called ‘Rafe’ al-Sitar’ - 'Lifting the Curtain', broadcasting from Nazareth, on radio Al-Shams .
In mid-May 2008, Amal Murkus performed in Vienna, Austria during the opening of the fine art exhibition ‘Asswat Moutamazijah’ - 'Mixed Sounds', and she was a member of its accounting and supervising staff. It welcomed hundreds of Austrians visitors, among them the Minister of External Affairs. Marwan Ebado, a Palestinian artist residing in Austria also attended, as well as a great Arab immigrant audience, and a large group of painters and musicians. The event was followed by a Charity dinner organized in the honor of Amal and some other Austrian artists. She will hold a special concert in October, in a great Viennese jazz hall.
By invitation from the International Palestinian Institute, she will give a concert in the Jordanian capital Amman, in a huge art show on June 13th, where she is expected to perform a selection of national songs. The performance is called 'Layali Kan’aniya' - 'Canaan nights'. Among the participants will be the illustrious painter Tamam al Ak’hal-Shamout, as well as the poet and renowned media figure Zahi Wehbe, who is donating the proceeds from ticket sales to support Palestinian research and projects.
As for now, Amal is preparing for a trip with her musicians to Germany, where they will perform the concert ‘Shawk’- 'Lust', alongside the German Symphonic Orchestra, within the traditional Ethnic Music Festival.
Amal's upbringing and family circle, important secrets to her success
About her family and her intimate childhood Amal recounts, “I grew up in a warm and kind family who believed in the struggle and also the necessity of giving for the sake of social change and evolution, which gave us the reputation of being untraditional. Feminism and internationalism characterized our family, for we were six sisters with activist communist parents.
“My father was an elementary school teacher in various Palestinian villages including Dhaliat el Kermel, Barta’a, Deir el Assad, al Bu’na, and Araba. That was before and after al Nakba . But in the fifties he was sacked, tagged and imprisoned by the Israeli Authorities during the times of communist persecution. In '67, he was sentenced to travel restrictions, which made it impossible for him to visit occupied Palestinian areas, which was difficult for him being a writer and a political thinker. After these events, in the late seventies, he was elected president of the local parliament of Kfar Yasseef, representing the list of the Democratic Front for Peace and Equality. He spent twenty years serving his town.
“As for my mother, who took over the governance of the house while my father was away, she was a keen campaigner in support of the struggle in occupied territories, and active within the Democratic Women’s Movement, the Movement of Women in Black, and the Gathering of Women for Peace. She also took part in conferences on women, war, and peace.
“My parents committed their lives to the strugglers and the needy, with much love and devotion. Our house remains a source of inspiration, a warm sanctuary and a gathering point.
“My youth with children my age can be described as peculiar and special, full of mischievousness, but also a time of calm and contemplation. We grew up in a tough but beautiful rural neighbourhood - how I miss that environment and long for it to return as it was! That is where I played and dreamt.
“There, where our house still stands nowadays, I experienced joy and sorrow with my precious sisters, in the field near our simple wooden house, ‘Lelbreks’- as we used to call it. I ran among wheat fields during the summertime and waited impatiently for the seasons and all that they bring! I used to love loitering in our field and land which we cultivated with my father. The greenery in all the trees and vegetables continues to flourish. In spite of the changes, modern modifications, and destruction of the rural surroundings - which used to reflect the harmony that exists between every man and his land - my children and nephews still wander there.
“I distributed al-Ittihad newspaper and folded it myself when it was a weekly journal. Workers Day, Women’s National Day, and the Day of the Land were the most important events in our house. I absorbed the internationalist culture in literature and youth magazines that was spread by the communist party’s propaganda, which my dad used to help edit. In addition to my native Palestinian and Arab cultural background, I was also exposed to national and international influences.
“I started singing from a very young age - at three years old – and used to spend long joyful times with my siblings, gathered around the record-player, listening to albums by Fairuz, Afaf Radi, and Dureid Lahham. We also played Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake and Mikis Theodorakis’ Zorba.
“Finnish television made a documentary about Palestinians who remained in their country, in which I featured, sitting on my mother's lap during their interview with my dad, singing ‘Sa Nantassir Yawman’ - 'One Day We Will Succeed' – by Baez. I used to sing it at weddings, in universities, on national occasions and during demonstrations.
“In 1988, I was personally invited by Joan Baez, the original American singer of that song, to perform it with her in an concert about war and occupation in Tel Aviv! She even asked me to teach her an Arabic song, and I chose ‘Khuduni ila Byssan’- 'Take me to Byssan'. That day, she offered me a silver bracelet, and we stayed in touch for a long time.”
The same year as her concert with Baez, Amal performed with Mercedes Sossa, an international artist with a renowned velvety voice. She was the Argentinian pop singer, with Red Indian roots, and a cultural and national symbol in Latin America. She has released over twenty albums and had a long artistic record, spanning over almost fifty years. Her artistic development expresses unorthodox national opinions for which she was imprisoned. Mercedes, after having read in international newspapers about Amal 'the young Palestinian singer', invited her personally to participate in another evening in Tel Aviv, during al-Intifada . So Amal sang ‘Li Beirut’ – 'For Beirut' with her, in Spanish style, and ‘La Ahad Ya’lam’- 'Nobody Knows', a song about the intifada , composed and written by Nizar Zreik.
‘Amal’ and ‘Shawk’
She produced and released her first album called ‘Amal’, in 1998, and it received an international release in 2000. That album reflected her artistic identity which she had developed after a long singing career, that began at an early age.
In 2004, she released ‘Shawk’, in which she collaborated with the musician Nasseem Dkur, on new songs in both dialect and classical Arabic. The lyrics were by the poets Tawfik Ziad, Fadwa Tukan, Mahmud Darweesh, Ahmed Fouad Najm, Marzuk Halabi, and Nizar Zreik. The music in this album was transcribed for a symphony orchestra.
‘Na’na Ya Na’na’
‘Na’na Ya Na’na’ was out in 2007. This album includes songs written and composed by the Palestinian people, performed with Amal’s sensitivity, filled with love for the land and the country.
The musician Nasseem Dkur re-composed a part of the traditional songs which expressed Palestinian daily life in all its details and rituals. Amal modernised tunes such as ‘Marshoosheh bil Otr’, ‘Al Rosana’, ‘Skaba’, and ‘Na’na Ya Na’na’, after which the album was named. In spite of being contemporary and joyful, the traditional feel of this album remains unaltered.
The suffering of women and Palestinian refugees occupies an important part of ‘Na’na Ya Na’na’, particularly the song called ‘al Sabr Ya Mubtali’- 'Patience oh Wretched', an ode about a female refugee from a Palestinian village, expressing her anguish with profound imagery. The music is based on improvisation and a dialogue between the Oud and Amal’s voice.
‘Yalla Lghayth’- 'Waiting for the Rescue', is another song, this time based on an ancient text about a ritual invoking rainfall. It is situated in a period of drought, during which the population lived in misery and the children of the village wandered, crying for help from God all mighty. The music is inspired from the Ayoub tune and when presented on stage, it is accompanied by a chorus of children. Throughout her work, Amal expresses great consideration for the child that, she believes, lies within each one of us.
About the specifics of that album, she recounts, “one should be quite a mature singer for this particular style of music; for, in spite of it being simple, it requires great precision in gliding between scales in soft and calm manner. Throughout each of my songs, I was trying to level with my grandmothers, in both eloquence and temperance, for they were experienced in their simple lifestyle, away from appearances.
“I was jealous of women in the neighbourhood who would participate in weddings and funerals, symbolising Palestinian women who raised children, cultivated land, and expressed their simplicity and spontaneity. That is what is stated in their singing. I envied the voice calling for prayer in mosques, and coveted the voice chanting in the church.
“I wanted to master and practice popular traditional singing which I inherited, but there aren’t any schools teaching it in Palestine. I spent a whole year looking for supporting material, spoke to all the women, and followed every piece of advice. A grounded tree with deep roots flourishes with green leaves, whereas ignoring one’s origins gives fake and artificial ones.
“I dedicate this album to my people, a symbol of love for a struggling, obstinate and resisting people!”
Amal's work as a broadcaster, performance in sign language
Theatre occupies a great part of her art. Amal studied acting in the Tsefi House Institute for theatrical art. Her work accords and harmonises with the dramatic arts. We see it in the attention she pays to stage setting and performance in her concerts.
She also took part in TV series for children, and in Ali Nassar’s movie ‘Darb el-Tebanat’- 'The Tebanat Way', in which she played an important role. She later won an award for the best female role in the Haifa’s Children's Theatre Festival in 2004, for her part in the play ‘Awdat Semsom’- 'Semsom’s Return'. In that play, she impressively performed using sign language along with hearing impaired actors, for a special audience.
Amal is a broadcaster of cultural programs on radio and television. She once presented a special episode hosting the poet Ahmed Darweesh, in Kermel, Haifa.
After the release of ‘Amal’ in 2000 which was marketed by EMI records, the Italian pop band Stadio invited her to record a duet called ‘In Heaven With You’. She sang along with them in Arabic. A video-clip was made for this song and it was recorded using the latest technology. It was a major hit worldwide.
During the same year, she contributed to the CD ‘Seven Times Seven’, composed by Oliver Chanti, and produced by Stava Music. This production house usually releases a yearly CD composed by Chanti. They normally base their releases on compositions about yoga and Sufi meditation. Chanti works with a Portuguese composer living in Germany ands record with many other artists from different countries. His work is dedicated to humanitarian concerns, including support for the poor and needy.
Amal participated in this CD, along with other Middle Eastern artists, in the two duets: ‘Nour el Ab’- 'Father’s Light', and ‘al Atfal kal Wurud’- 'Children are like Roses'. She wrote the lyrics for these songs with her husband, and Chanti composed the music. They were recorded in modern studios, using the latest technology.
Amal was hosted by the Italian-Palestinian band Radio Daraweesh, during the same year, to perform another duet with the renowned Palestinian singer Nabeel Salameh who lives in Italy. The song was called ‘Usfur Tal min el Shebbak’- 'A Bird Showed up by the Window'. It was redistributed as a dialogue of vocal improvisations, based on a tune by Radio Daraweesh, and was issued in a CD. Amal was also invited to participate in two concerts in Bari, Italy, after which she took part in an event organised by UNESCO.
She gave a few concerts during the festival ‘Listening to Voices of the World’ in Brazil, in 2005. Amal sang alongside the Brazilian artist Nani Kaimi, in a duet called ‘Ya ba La La’, in which she sang in Arabic, while Nani sang in Portuguese, and also accompanied her to a Brazilian song. This concert was played over ten times on TV, and seen by millions.
“During this tour, I got to meet many Palestinian immigrants from my village Kfar Yasseef, who moved to Brazil in the early '20's. I went through many meaningful experiences.”
Amal performed for the people of the world, her voice carried a global human concern
Amal performed in the ‘Whimmex’ festival for ethnic music, which took place in Ashbilia. She received a personal invitation for it, and her participation along with her band was fully sponsored. This was very unusual in this festival, where typically production houses and agents pay the organisers of the event in order to have their artists perform. Therefore, this festival is considered a huge meeting point for all the producers. Amal and her band gave the closing concert in Ashbilia.
During that festival, Amal participated in a conference concerning the situation of Palestinian artists, enduring control and suppression of their creative freedom. The festival was followed by many other international ones in which Amal and her band took part: ‘Cultures of the World’ in Ireland, ‘Listening to the Music of the World’ in Brazil, and the concert ‘Shawk’ in Liverpool, accompanied by the Philharmonic Royal Orchestra which includes one hundred musicians. She was also present for the opening of the Music and Film festival in Zanzibar, Africa.
Amal performed for an audience of fifty thousand listeners in the Vatican square on October 13th 2000, for the ‘Family Jubilee’. This event was seen on TV by millions all over the world.
In Madrid, in 2007, she performed in the opening ceremony of ‘Beit el Arab’- 'The House of Arabs', which is a centre for Arab and Islamic culture. She sang alongside the Tunisian artist Anwar Ibrahim, In the presence of Moratinos, the Spanish Minister of External Affairs, and many other Ambassadors. The one and a half thousand tickets for this show were sold out a week earlier, and it received great media coverage.
The representation of Palestinian artists in the seminar for liberty entitled ‘Nobody Knows Whose Turn it Will be Tomorrow’
In the 2002, Amal was asked to take part in the seminar held by the ‘Free Music’ organization, which takes place every four years in Copenhagen. ‘Free Music’ deals with surveillance imposed on musical works and the suppression of freedom in music and expression. She was accompanied by the artist Marcel Khalifeh. The latter was persecuted by the media for the song ‘Ana Youssef ya Abi’- 'I am Youssef oh Father'. Amal represented every Palestinian artist within the green line, who is forbidden from travelling, who doesn’t receive any relevant media assistance, nor enjoys freedom of expression.
The seminar was documented in a book entitled The Shot Singer, released with the CD that includes a collection of political songs, including ‘Nobody Knows Whose Turn it Will be Tomorrow’.
This song depicts the worries and dreams of children in refugee camps, which are written on its every wall. The English composer Robert White included it in his latest album ‘Chocolate’. The arrangement was altered, now using wind instruments and guitars. It was recorded as a orchestral piece. White invited Amal to perform this in a concert that was held in the Royal Festival Hall.
In addition to this successful concert, the song was later introduced by the Palestinian Progressive Youth in a play in London, directed by Sami Muwassi, and written by Razan el Karmi. It was performed by the famous rap singer Shadia Mansour. It tells the story of the way the youth of the Palestinian diaspora are introduced to the history of their people. It is about the new generation, born in the exile, ignorant of their own history.
Austrian television classifies Amal as one of the ten best voices in the twentieth century
Following her fifteen years of global exposure, Amal received an invitation in 2001, from the Austrian director Andre Heller, through her then German agent. She was selected for her voice as one of the most beautiful and unique voices of the twentieth century, from a list that included well known singers from around the world, such as: the famous opera singer Jessy Norman, the Austrian singer Kharis Alexo, the French Jazz singer Deedee Bridge Walter, and many others. They were all invited to appear in a ninety minute musical that was made in Austrian television studios, was called ‘Prima Donnas Fest’ - 'The Festival of the First Ladies'.
Heba Fayssal Zoabi
Translated by Chimène Eid
Translated by Chimène Eid