Music, Palestine, (no)borders

Muqata'a on the Reality of Sound and Fiction of Borders

An interview with a Palestinian musician

Covers of albums by Muqata'a: حيوان ناطق – Hayawan Nateq (2013) and لا لِسَانَ لَه – La Lisana Lah (2017)

The Palestinian artist and producer Muqata’a spoke with music curator and DJ Nikita Rasskazov about his musical roots, how sound is shaped by political context, and how it can counter physical and mental occupation. The co-founder of Ramallah Underground music collective, now based between Berlin and Palestine, shares his vision and the methods behind his latest release, Kamil Manqus كَامِل مَنْقوص, and speaks to the ever-shifting nature of borders for Palestinians.

Nikita Rasskazov:Congratulations on your latest release! Just before the pandemic, you moved to Berlin in order to make touring easier than it was operating out of Palestine. Is it the first time you’ve moved abroad and how has your feeling of home been transformed?

Muqata'a:It’s not the first time I moved out of Palestine. First, I lived for ten years in Cyprus and later I studied music in the US, though I didn’t complete my studies and left after a year and a half. And to be honest I feel like I’m not home anywhere— even when living in Ramallah I am considered a refugee internally in Palestine. I always feel I’m not belonging to a specific place.

And since I’ve been in Berlin it was so difficult to move around the city, to meet and open new doors. So in a way I still haven’t moved to Berlin—I am in the same network as before, which I love, but one of the reasons I came here was also to meet new artists.

NR:If we are to talk about isolation—you mentioned that you started music making during forced isolation in the early 2000’s, how did it happen?  

M:I had already tried to make music before it but in 2002 we were put under a long curfew—no Palestinian was allowed to leave the house. It was a traumatic experience—there were tanks outside, people being shot, our neighbors being arrested, everything was just outside the window. It is when I was forced to be at home and I needed something to get out. Now when I look back at it, I see that I had this urgency to get out, create something to express how I feel. It was around that time I made the first track without any equipment to record, just a microphone in my headphones for the voice. Some time after we started a group, Ramallah Underground, which was vocal and responding in a real, direct manner to the situation. So it was my medicine and a way to heal. And that stayed with me—I always have that need to make music. If I don’t do it for a few days I start to feel there is something wrong with me.

NR:Considering this, it seems natural that your sound carries this distinct industrial character with disrupted rhythms and textures. But why did you adapt hip-hop oriented production in the first place? Was it popular in Palestine in the early 2000’s?

M:Back in the 1990’s the only way for us to listen to new music was through people that were traveling and coming back to Palestine—like friends who brought over cassettes and later CDs. My older brother was really into hip-hop and punk so I would listen to what he listened to. I felt hip hop really spoke to me even without understanding the lyrics. Through its aggressive style and protest sound it felt somewhat real. So when I first started making music it was the sound I tried to recreate. Though I don’t hold on to it purposely, it’s still a natural beginning for me when I start a track.

Muqata'a's first solo work after Ramallah Underground

NR:Throughout your career, developing an artistic community seems to have been a vital process—do you find it harder to maintain that when the community is spread across the globe?

M:I am actually based between Berlin and Ramallah—many of my friends and gear are still there, so it is mostly because of COVID that I spend so much time here in Berlin. But my plan is to continue living between places, living in Palestine for most of my life. We are very divided there geographically because of the apartheid wall and check-points. Palestinians from different cities are not allowed to travel from place to place. So we developed ways to collaborate online without being present long before it became so common. It is normalized for lots of Palestinians artists.

NR:Does this affect your sense of the idea of “borders,” since for Palestinians they have been historically compromised?

M:Honestly, for me and a lot of Palestinians the very idea of it is obstructed, completely temporary. We never had any clear borders, it was always fluid and the memory for the whole place is impossible. You see how the city is now, but ten years later it will be completely different. A lot of it was taken away or there is a new Israeli settlement on the side. It is a play on your idea of your personal and public spaces which are always being shifted. For me it is difficult to make any kind of connection with a place I’m in. And, being a person who doesn’t believe in borders, it feels like you are actually fighting, resisting, and calling for your sovereignty because that’s the equivalent of having your own borders which were taken away.

NR:How does the situation in Palestine differ from the situation in Russia where artists are persuaded often in an indirect way through relatives to leave the country or are being forced out?

M:The Palestinian government do not have that power over people—they are quite weak, but getting stronger through trainings with the US army and other external forces. But they are not really focusing on artists—we have Israeli authorities and it’s them who arrest artists, journalists, and other people who fight for change.

NR:How do you see the relationship between verbal and non-verbal political expression in your music?

M:I wouldn’t say the instrumental part is less political than the verbal, but it is more open to interpretation. I try to present some ideas and keep my identity through the sounds I encounter, like recordings of check-points from the Palestinian borders and military vehicles. They are all very weaponized—it is like a war of sounds and they are all directed at us. For example, the Israeli army uses their F-16 jets to make a kind of sonic boom when the planes travel faster than the speed of sound for a few seconds and create the sound of an explosion. That’s part of their psychological warfare, using sound against us. It creates fear, tension, a traumatic experience even when there is no need for that. For me it is a very big necessity to respond, either by sampling it and processing it or by finding other ways, like track names, especially on the new album.

The title track from Muqata'a's latest album, Kamil Manqusامِل مَنْقوص

NR:You‘ve said that the first track from the album, “Quboor Mamila”, refers to an important place in Jerusalem—what is the story behind it?

M:It is about the Mamilla Cemetery, which is an ancient graveyard where the people who fought for Salah ad-DinSalah ad-DinA 12th century Muslim ruler who led the military campaign against the Crusader states in the Levant. are buried. It means a lot to the history of the city, but Israel completely destroyed the graves and built both a shopping mall and, ironically, a Museum of Tolerance. The album is centered around communication with ancestors. Another example is the track “Simya” which is something between a ritual and forgotten science like alchemy.

It used numbers and letters to communicate with the immaterial, that which was beyond the physical world. But some described it negatively as a way to reach immortality, to gain more knowledge than the average person knows through being in touch with the spirits. Simya was seen as magic and eventually banned by the Muslim caliphate. I feel that music works a lot in the same way.

Muqata'a. كَامِل مَنْقوص – Kamil Manqus (2021)

NR:And what is the situation with local 20th century music—are there attempts to preserve it today?

M:My friend and I started an archive eight years ago and stopped doing it these past two years. We were digitizing and archiving a lot of the vinyl we could find and made a weekly blog, because it felt urgent—this music was being erased. Also there is a really interesting group of people in Ramallah called Nawa who specifically try to preserve old Palestinian music and art—sheet music, old recordings, by bringing modern musicians to perform and re-record those pieces. But the important thing is that being Palestinian also means you are a part of the whole region which includes Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Egypt, and Yemen. You cannot be isolated, it is not a specific culture of Palestine, it is all connected and feels like one big scene.

NR:With you becoming more visible, do you feel pressure and responsibility to represent contemporary Palestinian music?

M:It’s something that I often think about. I don’t feel like I represent everyone or even myself. I just do what I feel is right. When someone writes about me I feel that I’m put in that position. My goal is not to represent, but to be in communication with everyone, to ask questions, to spark a discussion. To provoke them to think about things in new ways and to stay focused on things that really matter, not to get lost in this new world we live in behind screens—this is what I believe in and work towards. But it’s difficult to keep things constant and continuous which is representative of my reality and life in Palestine where nothing is consistent, unclear, interrupted. You move one way and there is a checkpoint, you try to make music, electricity gets cut off. Something is always breaking the continuity of my reality which I represent through sound.

Musician and beat-maker living between Berlin and Ramallah, Palestine. His photo on our contributors page was taken by Raouf Haj Yihya.
Nikita Rasskazov
Curator of music programs at the V–A–C foundation and artistic program at Mutabor, clarinetist, and occasional DJ whose interests are focused on issues of the political in music, phenomenology of sound, and non-professional and community-based music practices.