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The Little-Known History of Palestine's First Rock Band

In the 60s, Al-Bara'em became Palestine's first band to perform original songs in Arabic. Now, a band member's son hopes to preserve their legacy.

by Leila Ettachfini
Jan 29 2020, 8:07pm

Sama'an Ashrawi is a music writer from Houston who hosts a music podcast called "The Nostalgia Mixtape," which is why it was weird that his dad didn't tell him about the band he started with his siblings in the 60s until a few years ago. "I got really mad at my uncles and my dad because this is now my tenth year working in music and they knew this," he said, recalling when he first learned of Al-Bara'em, or "The Blooms" in Arabic. The second shock came later.

"The first time that they mentioned [the band], it was very understated," said Sama'an. "They said something like ‘Oh, you know, we had a little band back in the day. It was fun.'" But when Sama'an's uncle, Al-Bara'em member Emile Ashrawi, sent an old photo he'd found of the band to the family in an email, Sama'an got the impression that Al-Bara'em might have been more than a garage band.

"I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, this looks legitimate! There's a stage and amplifiers," he said. What he didn't know was that he was looking at the first rock 'n' roll band in Palestine to produce and perform original music in Arabic. As Emile uncovered and shared more photos of Al-Bara'em, Sama'an decided to research—and more importantly preserve—this part of not only his family's history, but Palestine's.

There was only one place to get all the information he needed: Palestine. After tracking down enough funding to make the trip happen, Sama’an set off to Ramallah, Palestine in April 2019 to retrace Al-Bara’em’s history.

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Al-Bara'em perform a Fairuz cover during a concert on December 27, 1973 at the Jerusalem YMCA. Left to right: David Saadeh, Ibrahim Ashrawi, Emile Ashrawi, Samira Ashrawi, Alexandra Ashrawi, George Kirmiz, Samir Ashrawi. Courtesy of Emile Ashrawi.

The Ashrawi family is originally from Nazareth, but after the Nakba, or Palestinian exodus, of 1948, they fled to Jerusalem. It was there that Sama'an's father, Ibrahim Ashrawi, was born in a church basement where the family took refuge. Despite turmoil at home, Palestine was not immune to Beatlemania by the time the 60s rolled around. But Palestinian Beatles fans knew that they couldn't expect their favorite band to announce Palestine tour dates any time soon, so they settled for the next best thing: cover bands.

The first of their kind was The Flintstons, an Armenian Palestinian band that covered the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Others, like The Yarneys and The Mosquitoes, who were also English cover bands, formed soon after, and Al-Bara'em was among them. The band consisted of the Ashrawi siblings: Alexandra (vocals), Emile (drums, vocals), Ibrahim (lead vocals), Samir (lead guitar, vocals), and Samira (vocals), in addition to a rotating lineup of friends.

In the beginning, like the other bands of their ilk, Al-Bara'em only covered English songs. That is, until sisters Samira and Alexandra Ashrawi had the idea of transforming traditional Fairuz songs into rock. Given that the Lebanese balladist was (and remains) among the most beloved singers in the Arab world, their covers were an instant hit. "People have respect for this traditional music, but some of her songs are really sad and slow," explained Sama'an. "They were like, ‘Let's make a new song that you can dance to.'"

Since Fairuz is a woman, the band decided that Samira and Alexandra would sing vocals on Al-Bara'em's covers of her songs, making them the first rock band in Palestine to feature women on stage. "They got lucky that their parents were really supportive and progressive," said Sama'an.

Following the success of their Fairuz covers, the band began composing and performing original rock music in Arabic, becoming the first Palestinian band to do so. While Sama'an's uncles, Al-Bara'em's songwriters Samir and Emile, disagree on the timeline, they both say that war pushed them towards making music in Arabic. While Samir believes it was the Six-Day War of 1967 and Emile believes it was Black September in 1970 that inspired the band to create Arabic songs, Sama'an says that either way the shift symbolized a collective pride in Palestinian identity as Israel moved to erase it.

"They saw people killed, dead bodies—all of that emotion had to come out somehow," said Sama'an.

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Sold out audience at an Al-Bara'em concert at the Jerusalem YMCA on December 27, 1973.

Back in Ramallah in April 2019, Emile took Sama'an throughout Palestine to some of the venues that Al-Bara'em once sold out. Together they saw about a dozen concert halls and theaters. To get to them, Emile was forced to go through numerous Israeli checkpoints that didn't exist when Al-Bara'em was traveling Palestine to perform.

"I couldn't believe that most of these venues had survived the destruction that Palestine has seen," said Sama'an. One of the places Emile showed him was Terra Sancta, a 900-seat theater inside a Christian private school in Bethlehem. The size of the venue again shocked Sama'an who was only beginning to understand Al-Bara'em's significance.

Later, inside his uncle's basement, Sama'an made another discovery as he was digging through some old newspapers and records: a letter from the UN asking Al-Bara'em to come play at their Jerusalem headquarters. He also found newspaper clippings and photos of Al-Bara'em's performances, including some from a show at the Jerusalem YMCA.

Over time, many Palestinian historical records, including those regarding music, have been destroyed in the violence of occupation. There are no official institutions dedicated to archiving Palestinian music, making the documents Emile has been able to save all the more rare. These finds, in addition to Sama’an’s visit to Terra Sancta, convinced him that this history—the one tucked into his uncle's basement and recalled coyly in family emails—was too significant not to share.

Al-Bara'em was active until 1976. As the grip of the Israeli occupation intensified and some Ashrawi siblings sought safety and security for themselves and their families outside of Palestine, maintaining the band proved too difficult.

Since his research trip to Palestine in 2019, with the permission of Al-Bara'em, Sama'an has decided to devote the next few years to learning and telling Al-Bara'em's story, which includes releasing their music officially and creating a documentary on his aunts', uncles', and father's journey towards Palestinian rock 'n' roll fame.

He's begun with the release of a song called "Tareeq," out today, coincidentally coinciding with the Trump administration's announcement of a plan to advance the annexation of Palestine. "With its lyrics about the sadness of the loss of native land to the Israeli government and military," said Sama'an, "I feel like ["Tareeq"] sadly hasn't lost an ounce of relevancy."

For as long as I have .... For as long as I have
A sad tale with the water springs
A story where I'd lost my home (country)
And in perishing I have a brother lost
And a sky that wakes up not
Do not ask me who I am.

(Lyrics from "Tareeq," inspired by poet Jibreel Al-Sheikh, translated by Samir Ashrawi)

This article originally appeared on VICE US.

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