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For Israeli and Palestinian Musicians, a Song of Coexistence

By Stephen Kaufman | Staff Writer | 01 March 2013
Heartbeat performing in Jerusalem (Heartbeat)

Heartbeat's performances show what can happen when cultural influences blend, and when Israelis and Palestinians are free to collaborate.

Washington — As young Israeli and Palestinian musicians from the group Heartbeat perform, smiling as they combine the sounds of Jewish and Arab instruments, rhythms and chords, they sometimes shock their audiences into a vision of what peaceful coexistence could look like on a wider scale and the bright potential that it could bring for both their peoples.

The Jerusalem-based group, founded by 29-year-old Aaron Shneyer through a Fulbright-mtvU Fellowship, is touring the eastern United States in February and March, with performances at universities, places of worship and the State Department.

“I want to show the world that there is hope for peace,” said 17-year-old rapper Muhammad "Moody" Kablawi.

For Moody, music not only provides a common language for people coming from very different cultures, but it can also “be very strong and can do things that we only dream about.”

Moody can be seen performing on Heartbeat’s song “Bukra Fi Mishmish.” The song combines distinctly Western instruments like electric guitar and bass with an Arabic rhythm and suddenly switches into a driving klezmer beat with a recorder solo before transitioning into a laid-back reggae mode, complete with a rap sequence in Hebrew.

Such a wide range of cultural influences is typical of Heartbeat’s music, he said. “Each one of us comes to each project and puts his own culture, his reality and his opinion into it.” That way the song becomes “a common thing between us that belongs to all the members.”

Band member Guy Gefen, a 22-year-old from the town of Rehovot, near Tel Aviv, said the exposure to each other’s musical backgrounds is a big part of what Heartbeat is all about.

“We are learning what is our culture and what is the Middle Eastern culture, and what is our culture when we mix it to find a common culture,” he said.

The song’s title is a play on words designed to promote coexistence. The Arab saying “Bukra fil mishmish” literally translates to “Tomorrow there will be apricots” and means “Tomorrow never comes,” similar to the English expression “when pigs fly.”

The group slightly altered the saying to “Boukra fi mishmish,” which means “Pigs are flying,” Moody said. In other words, with the group’s easy relationships and collaborative work, “the impossible has become the possible.”

Heartbeat’s global ambassador and tour producer, Avi Salloway, said the group is touring in order help build support for cooperation and understanding in Israel and Palestine.

“The young artists of Heartbeat are a living reality of people working together to build important relationships through musical dialogues. We want to share this message and positive energy in America and grow our movement internationally,” he said.

Guy said Heartbeat also wants to change what most people think about the conflict in the Middle East. For most, “the news you get on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict … is through the TV, the media and through people with big agendas,” he said.

“Part of what we’re bringing … is to let people know there are lots and lots of good people who are working for peace … and we’re here to back those who want to be ambassadors of peace and for them to know that there are people who appreciate what they do,” he said.

“Everyone can be what we are and everyone can be the change they want to see in the world, like Gandhi said,” Guy added.

But group members are not naive about the cycle of violence and mistrust at home, even if their time together offers them a welcome refuge.

“We are living it. We are actually in a routine of peace, and it’s really easy to find ourselves in this bubble feeling that there really is peace and it’s beautiful, and together it is. But sometimes … [reality] intrudes and punches you in the face and reminds you that in your house you can do really beautiful stuff but sometimes the street is not ready for it at all,” Guy said.

Moody describes Heartbeat as his “second home,” where he can play music with his Israeli and Palestinian band mates for hours. But despite the friendships within the group and the positive symbol to outsiders of their cooperation, the song lyrics are clear in saying “everything is not ok,” he said.

At home, the group receives a broad mix of responses. Moody said there are “the selfish and the hopeless” who react negatively. Guy said sometimes their Israeli and Palestinian audiences are simply shocked, having “never seen something like this before.”

But along with the skeptical, Guy said many other Israelis and Palestinians are uplifted. “We … have a lot of people just being hopeful after seeing us, like feeling there is finally something to work with and something to believe in,” he said.

On February 21, at the start of their U.S. tour at the University of Vermont, “we had a great moment,” Moody said.

“There was a woman that stood up in the middle of the performance and told us she had been waiting for us to do what we are doing for something like 60 years,” he said.

Guy said the woman had lived in Israel when she was 16 and had been deeply touched by Heartbeat.

“That opened our eyes and gave us all a sense of what we’re really doing,” he said.

Moody agreed. “It was really heavy for us. Those kinds of things tell us to do more and more and to give more from what we are doing,” he said.

More information about the group and its music can be found on Heartbeat's Web page.

Two Heartbeat musicians practicing (Heartbeat)

For many Palestinians and Israelis, seeing the group offers hope, like "there is finally something to work with and something to believe in,” Guy said.