Palestinian Music and Song: Book Review

palestinian-music-and-songPalestinian Music and Song: Expression and Resistance since 1900. Edited by Moslih Kanaaneh, Stig-Magnus Thorsén, Heather Bursheh, and David A. McDonald. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013. Pp. 215, with bibliography and index. $95.91 (hardcover), $40.92 (paperback). ISBN: 9780253010988.

Palestinian Music and Song: Expression and Resistance since 1900 is a collection of eleven research essays by scholars and performers focused on the production of music and performance within Palestine. Some authors have published monographs expanding on the addressed topics, while other contributors, especially the interviewees, are uniquely represented in this work. The editors collaborated on a series of international meetings and symposia to draw together various perspectives on the dynamics of music and resistance, resulting in this highly interdisciplinary anthology.

Anthropologist Moslih Kanaaneh introduces the volume with a question: Do Palestinian musicians play music or politics? He challenges the idea that music is a universal system of signification and expression, and insists on the necessity of historical context to recognize distinguishing characteristics. In addition to commonly used geographical methods of categorization, Kanaaneh argues that Palestinian music is particularly unique due to the “intensity, severity, and distinctiveness of Palestinian history under successive occupations” (that is, from the 6th-century Persian empire to the present) that require additional consideration. In modern history, he identifies four distinct processes that have influenced the development of Palestinian music: Globalization, Islamization, Arabization, and Western Pacifization (pp. 3–7). These processes are examined throughout the essays, divided into three parts: Background, Identity, and Resistance.


Part one looks at musical developments in Palestine prior to the second Intifada. In “Palestinian song, European revelation, and mission,” Rachel Beckles Willson analyzes the ideology behind Dalman’s Palästinischer Diwan, and its legacy as one of the earliest European documentations of Palestinian song. The article is accompanied by images of primary source materials, as well as translated lyrics from the Diwan. Technicalities of musical documentation are analyzed, as well as a critical examination of Dalman’s funding and social influences. While this material is expanded on in Willson’s Orientalism and Music Mission, this essay provides an entry point which is both accessible and comprehensive to Palästinischer Diwan, a public domain work available on various digital platforms.

An interview by Heather Bursheh with Nader Jalal and Issa Boulos depicts the musical landscapes of festivals and radio in pre-1948 Palestine. In some ways, the Nakba increased the influence of Palestinian music, as scattered artists resumed their work in neighboring countries and often flourished. However, the repurposing of radio infrastructure from 1948 to 1967 has resulted in a lack of knowledge regarding the production of remaining artists. Boulos indicates that the continuing traditions were strong, and examines aspects of that legacy in his essay “Negotiating the elements: Palestinian freedom song lyrics of 1967 to 1987.” The essay identifies deliberate political choices made by four resistance musical groups and the implications of the surrounding political environment on their lyrics and style. Much of the music analyzed is not widely available; however, lyrics with translation are provided.


The effects of division between Palestinian populations is a fundamental theme in three essays discussing the phenomena of Palestinian hip-hop. Using ethnographic research, Randa Safieh interrogates the relationship of Palestinian and Palestinian-American hip-hop musicians with their audiences in the diaspora. Janne Louis Andersen takes an observer role in the 2009 HipHopKom competition, which brought together West Bank and Gazan hip-hop artists via satellite video uplink, and discusses the restrictions of both the Israeli and Hamas occupation on the event and artists presented.

In Silvia Aljaji’s “Performing self: between tradition and modernity in the West Bank,” Palestinians are portrayed as critical of hip-hop as a Western style that does not reflect indigenous heritage, as opposed to idealized styles of fellaheen, or agriculture, folklore. Aljaji explores the value of authenticity in political narrative and the burden of representation as observed in art performance and interviews at Ibdaa Cultural Center. Heather Bursheh’s interview with Reem Talhami, a Palestinian singer with Israeli citizenship, explores the struggles of contemporary artistic production under occupation, including the complexity of funding and collaboration across boundaries.


The final four essays tend toward theoretical analysis of the influence of Palestinian artistry within Palestinian power structures. Sections of David A. McDonald’s 2013 book My voice is my weapon appear throughout these essays. McDonald’s contribution to the anthology argues that expressive culture played an active role in directing grassroots movements in the first Palestinian Intifada. His analysis points at the use of folkloric imagery, specifically children’s games, to establish tactics and inspire nationalist solidarity.

Carin Berg and Michael Schulz’s collaborated essay presents an insightful examination of Hamas’s reactions and creation of music as a tool of control and resistance in Gaza. Personal interviews with Hamas leaders demonstrate their unique struggles to form policy as both an Islamist and democratically elected authority, and also their recognition of the role of music in political action. The authors examine the use of censorship and suppression, and include translated lyrics of music sponsored by Hamas.

The last two essays implement theories of resistance from philosophers to further understand the interactions of music and political events over time. Stig-Magnus Thorsén revisits the universality debate in the process of situating various artists in relation to their community and political struggles. Yara El-Ghadban and Kiven Strohm take an epistemological approach in their study of academic conversations related to Palestinian expression over time.

The book includes contributor biographies and an index, and is also available electronically on various platforms. As an anthology, it is unique in scope and theme, and would be a valuable addition for Musicology, History, and Postcolonial studies.

Anna Robinson
Washington University in St. Louis