Universiteit Leiden

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PhD project

The Palestinian Music-Making Experience in the West Bank, 1920s to 1959: Nationalism, Colonialism, and Identity

Before 1936, musical practices in Palestine relied heavily on colloquial poetry, especially in rural communities, which constituted most of the population. In this dissertation, Issa Boulos has examined historical records that revealed many differences and similarities between Palestinian communities as well as the kinds of music they made.

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During the first half of the twentieth century, Palestinian music evolved as a reflection of the social, cultural, and political evolution of Palestinians. Palestinians became an extension to the Arab Renaissance and immersed themselves in literature and music. Many artists from this period demonstrated outstanding musicianship including Rajab al-Akḥal, Thurayya Qaddūra, Ilyās ʿAwaḍ, Nūḥ Ibrāhīm and Nimir Nāṣir. 


The British established the Palestine Broadcasting Station (PBS) as three separate divisions: Arab, Jewish, and English. Such distinctions exposed older differences and divisions between Palestinian communities, mirroring the social hierarchy, and promoting the continuation of such attributes. Nonetheless, Palestinian music-making evolved exponentially resulting in the expansion of various folk tunes into shaʿbī songs, the creation of the Palestinian qaṣīda song genre, new compositions of instrumental music for traditional and Western music formations, the establishment of choirs and children music programing, and active engagement in composing in the styles of the dominant Egyptian genres of the time as well as muwashshaḥāt. 
Records show that Western music practices among Palestinians were already in motion since the mid-19th century but were limited to European and American Christian mission institutions, including schools. These practices were apolitical and focused on religious or educational topics, especially at mission schools. There are several profound impacts of the British Mandate on music-making in Palestine, those include

  1. the scaling of Western music practices from Anglican Christian religious settings to secular contexts;
  2. the apoliticization of songs;
  3. the systematic filtering and censorship of traditional lyrics that included sexual references (see Stephan, 1928 and Nuwayhiḍ, 1993);
  4. the establishment of modernization efforts of local musical practices as a notion of progress, and
  5. the emphasis on music pedagogy as a matter of cultural and political hierarchy.

In 1948, the vast majority of Palestinians were displaced, and musicians found themselves at the frontier of implementing new political and cultural visions in the countries of Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq. Therefore, the continuation of the musical narrative in the West Bank did not seem attainable. By the early 1950s, Palestinian musicians and intellectuals developed a vocabulary that reflected the topography, scenery, culture, dialects, and history of al-Mashriq, one that is independent of Egypt’s. Ṣabrī al-Sharīf, Ḥalīm al-Rūm, Jamīl al-ʿAṣ, and Rawḥī al-Khammāsh took advantage of their positions and launched a renaissance of music-making throughout al-Mashriq. Their input, intuition, experience, convictions helped to make the music scene in Lebanon, Iraq, and Jordan what they are today. 

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