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- Category: Artist Profile
This begins the story of “Sodfa” (Coincidence), the third track in Ramzi’s debut internationally released album Reflections of Palestine. Now in his thirties, the West Bank’s “stone thrower” is a globally recognized violinist, educator and peace activist. The album, comprised of his own original compositions and arrangements, plays almost like an autobiographical soundtrack, a musical narration of the turbulent and often competing emotions that have marked each chapter of his life’s story- melancholy, bitterness, pain, reflection, nostalgia, hope. Though Ramzi himself primarily plays violin, his weaves his story into a soundscape tapestry with gentle melodies he plays off the Bouzouk (a traditional Palestinian long-necked lute related to the better-known Greek Bouzouki and Turkish Saz), accompanied by Mohammed Al Qutati on accordion, Ziad Benyoussef on oud, Mohamed Najen on clarinet and Tareq Rantissi and Bachir Rouimi on percussion.
Upbeat, lively, punctuated with snappy percussion and pulsing accordion and reminiscent of rhythms and tonalities from the Balkans, “Sodfa” underscores excitement with nervous energy, a reflection of the turning point Ramzi describes as a “coincidence,” when he discovered music as a more potent weapon than any stone he could hurl at a sniper or a tank. “The tense mood that is created mirrors the fragility of coincidence,” World Music Network Production Coordinator Rachel Jackson writes in the album’s sleeve notes. “With just one step in another direction, Ramzi’s life could have played out entirely differently.”
Differently because by the time he picked up viola in his late teens, Ramzi already held a reputation as a seasoned street fighter. His early story is not an uncommon one: born in a refugee camp, sold newspapers as a child to help support the family, slept in a small room with his grandfather. Together, they passed the time by listening to classical Arabic music, a likely foreshadowing to Ramzi’s relatively nascent and already accomplished career. He begins the album with “Rahil” (Exile), a tribute to his grandfather, who was forced into compulsory exile in the Ramallah refugee camp Al-Amari in 1948. As the track’s slow accordion drone builds to a tense, apprehensive dance, its tempo and dynamic changes reflect the turbulent emotional polars that define the lives of those in exile: deep melancholy and doubt, perforated with the dance theme’s perseverance and buoyancy. “Sans Addresse” (Without an Address) follows, a cavatina that contrasts optimistic percussion with a more brooding and hesitant oud.
Like the supposed coincidence that marked Ramzi’s musical and political life, “Sodfa” itself is a turning point in the album, and though the disparity that narrated the first two tracks remains throughout, the third track introduces us to a more matured, confident Ramzi, marking the shift between a little boy who threw stones because he had nothing else to grab, to the grown man who teaches music so that children can learn to meet violence with cultural revival. He studied violin at the National Conservatory of Angers in France, then played for Israeli conductor Daniel Barenboim’s West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, both part of a period of his life he reflects on in the album’s eighth track “Bordeaux” (named after the region in Southern France). With its British folk balad-esque opening that eventually finds its way into a jubilee reminiscent of a Greek dance, the track, like so many others, undermines the overall joyful mood with an otherwise mournful oud, reminding us that exile is just as much of a haunted experience as it is a lived one, no matter how hard the displaced try to move on. Ramzi himself describes “the double-edged tone of this work as an exploration of the sentiment that you can’t experience happiness without experiencing pain.”
The inspiration Ramzi draws from the innocence and curiousity of children couldn’t be more evident in the album’s sixth track “Tahrir” (Freedom) and closing track “Gitans En Orient” (Gypsies of the Orient). In 2002, he opened Al Kamandjati (Arabic for “the violinist”), a music school system funded by the US Consulate General and European charities that currently teaches both European and Arabic classical music to 500 children living in refugee camps in Palestine and Lebanon. “We must give our children the opportunity to think beyond soldiers and tanks,” the school’s mission states. “They must think creatively, not about the occupation and destruction of their country, but about rebuilding their civilization… He who works for the advancement of culture is also working against war.”
“Tahrir,” which falls just past the album’s halfway point, is a breath of fresh air after the melancholy that underpinned so many of its preceding tracks, starting bubbly before turning tense. Ramzi named the song after his cousin, basing it off of an improvised tune he played for her when he noticed her looking curiously at his instrument. The young girl, now a violin student, represents yet another success story borne out of his passion for sharing music with children. It makes absolute sense that he chose to end Reflections of Palestine with “Gitans En Orient,” a lively romp with a heavily ornamented melody reminiscent of gypsy music’s Middle East roots. The song, he explains, is inspired by his young cousins and niece when he saw them all dancing one day and he absent-mindedly began to accompany them musically. Whereas “Rahil” used tempo changes to express emotional turbulence, in “Gitans en Orient,” the same tactic is used, this time to capture the kinetic animation of children’s movements with melodic “break-neck speed” acceleration that closes in a “shrill sense of excitement.”
“Ramzi’s successful international career, talent and music remind us of Palestine being more than a country in dismay,” Rachel Jackson comments in Reflections of Palestine’s sleeve notes, “it is a place of rich culture, creativity and beauty.” Aside from his intricate layers of instrumentation that simultaneously compliments while it undermines, Ramzi’s greatest strength in this album is that it provides us a Palestinian soundscape far more emotionally complex and artistically confident than what we so often see conveniently portrayed in mainstream media. Not only re-introducing himself to the world as the “stone thrower” boy matured, he is also reviving the refugee narrative as one not steeped in self-victimization, but in hesitant optimism, where hope continues to persevere over doubt. Like his school, this album marks a cultural renewal: one where physical clashes can be met with harmonic dissonances, drone strikes can be overpowered by melodic murmur and violence can be resisted by replacing stones with strings.By Safa Samiezade’-Yazd, Aslan Media Arts, Culture and Music Editor