Musical ties: a cultural exchange with Palestinian refugees
By Hiral Dutia
For most college professors, summer entails a mixture of conducting research, preparing new curriculum or teaching summer classes. For Worcester Polytechnic Institute professor Douglas Weeks, summer means a 10-day trip to Palestine in June.
Weeks and other visiting instructors teach Western classical music to students at the Al Kamandjâti Association, while local instructors share their knowledge of Palestinian music with the students.
The Al Kamandjâti Association (translating to “the violinist” in Arabic) was instituted in 2002 by Palestinian musician Ramzi Abu Redwan, a violinist himself. Recognizing a need for reinstalling a sense of culture and education in a state torn apart by violence, Abu Redwan set up the association to provide musical instruction to disadvantaged children.
The association initially drew students from the Al Amari refugee camp in Ramallah (“height of God” in Arabic), six miles north of Jerusalem in the Central West Bank, but grew to accept students from other places throughout the region.
Today, Abu Redwan remains the director of Al Kamandjâti. The association’s goal is to “show that music education can replace the daily violence suffered by children.”
The association’s efforts in Palestine include music schools, workshops, festivals and summer camps. Their activities are not limited solely to Palestine, however. They have initiated programs in refugee camps in Lebanon and conduct activities in France in support of their ongoing work in Palestine.
The workshop Weeks is teaching will run 14 full days and nights, culminating in a number of solo and ensemble performances both by the students and the instructors. Workshops are held in Ramallah, but students travel to the association for this learning opportunity from all over Palestine, including from Jerusalem and the city of Hebron, situated 19 miles south of Jerusalem in the Southern West Bank.
Weeks, a returning instructor, has fond memories of last year’s trip.
“The program provides a positive outlook for students in a troubled area,” he says.
The association functions as an extra-curricular activity for students. Instead of being sponsored by a school, however, it is funded by the American consulate in Jerusalem, Al Kamandjâti offices in France and Lebanon, a multitude of other associations and local and international donations. The program starts students off sometimes as young as 8, although students in their early 20s also go there to participate.
Although Weeks will be in Ramallah from June 20 to 30 this year, he will not be the only visiting instructor. Though various contacts and friends, the program has evolved to unite music teachers from across the United States and Europe.
Weeks first learned of this opportunity when he was contacted by Peter Solsky, a local musician known in the Worcester music scene. Solsky has been involved with the association for years, so when they needed a brass specialist to work with their ensemble groups, Solsky recommended Weeks, who is a trombonist and assistant professor of music at WPI.
In addition to the workshops the association provides, more than 100 musicians and singers are currently at the Al Kamandjâti Association for a festival, Fête de la Musique (“music festival” in French). They will perform in a variety of ensembles, including a jazz band, a children’s choir, an oriental ensemble, several orchestras, chamber music and a percussions band. All of these groups will benefit from educational and guest conducting. The Fête de la Musique this year showcases a theme of “Visit Palestine.”
Aside from guest conductors, the program offers plenty of local instructors so that students can learn about their own heritage and music.
“Palestinian music is linear, unlike Western music, which is chordal,” Weeks says. “I find [the difference in their music] fascinating.”
Weeks is bringing over a variety of materials to share with his students in order to encompass all levels from beginner to intermediate to advanced. He will be focusing his workshops on Western classical and jazz music. Some of the music Weeks intends to teach is brass quartets by Johann Pezel, in addition to music by George Gershwin and Leonard Bernstein. One piece already set in the students’ repertoire is Beethoven’s 2nd symphony. Weeks will be bringing solo trombone pieces to perform as part of the faculty performances in the evenings.
Programs such as these are often the stepping stone for students to realize their career dreams. Some of his students expressed an interest in travelling abroad to further their musical careers, Weeks recalls. “One of my most talented students wants to come to the United States to study music.”
This is Weeks’ second visit. He made his first trip to Palestine last year. He says he is that he is a little more prepared this time because he knows where he’s going. Additionally, he is trying to learn a little more about the culture and the language. One of Weeks’ preparations this time around was to receive help from a WPI graduate student to “pick up a few polite words” to be able to better communicate with locals and navigate the city.
Last year, Weeks traveled with students to participate in a program in Jerusalem. Even though Ramallah is no more than 15 or 20 minutes away from Jerusalem, for most, it was the first time they had ever been in the city.
“Working with students [is the best part],” Weeks says. “Teenagers there do the same thing that teenagers do here. They have Facebook accounts, they have cellphones – they just don’t have a place to learn. They’re eager and appreciative of the opportunity to learn because they have been denied it before.”
Aside from the music, his favorite memory from the previous year is of the times spent watching the soccer world cup. As many of those present traveled to Palestine from the US, Germany, England, France, and Italy, everyone was cheering on different teams.
“I would highly recommend [getting involved in such a program] to young people right out of college. There’s a huge misunderstanding between the Muslim world and the Western world and programs like this help people understand one another through music. There is a difference between liking Americans and liking American policies. And they understand that,” Weeks says.
The Al Kamandjâti Association is in need of full-time teachers in Palestine. For fresh college graduates, an experience like this can be a significant way to contribute to alleviating tensions currently present between the two worlds.