Making peace through Jewish and Arab musical roots

Hisham and Friends’ Assi Givati and Ihab Nimer perform at Villa Melchett on the Galilee – Music bonds us and other people.While the notion of Jews and Arabs in Israel playing music together is relatively commonplace, Ariel Nishri’s Groupeace initiative …

Hisham and Friends’ Assi Givati and Ihab Nimer perform at Villa Melchett on the Galilee – Music bonds us and other people.While the notion of Jews and Arabs in Israel playing music together is relatively commonplace, Ariel Nishri’s Groupeace initiative has grander, more global designs.

“I’m looking to bring musicians from Israel and all Arab countries together to perform, both in the Middle East and all over the world,” Nishri told ISRAEL21c. “Music is the universal language, a bridge between cultures and people of different ethnic backgrounds. Musicians have no problems talking the same language.”

Thirty-nine-year-old Nishri’s peace-oriented artistic endeavors have some hereditary collateral. His mother, Drora Havkin, was a singer who grew up in the Old City of Jerusalem in the 1930s, enjoying harmonious neighborly relations with the Arab residents.

“She was always aware of the suffering caused by wars, without any political connotations,” says Nishri, adding that it did not stop her from helping to keep Israeli soldiers’ spirit up during wartime. “During the [1973] Yom Kippur War, my sisters and I didn’t see our mother for two months. She was busy singing for the troops over on the Egyptian side of the Suez Canal.”

Part of Nishri’s formative years were spent with his mother in Holland, although Havkin returned to Israel in 1984 leaving the 17-year-old Nishri to complete his high school education there before moving back to Israel to do his compulsory military service. It was around this time that Havkin began to take an interest in musical synergies with local Arab artists.

“When I was 17, and still living in Holland, my mother made a trip to Israel and fell in love with [the Galilee town of] Rosh Pina. She came back to Amsterdam and informed me I’d be finishing off my high school studies without her, and that she was going to live in Rosh Pina. There was no point in me doing my 12th grade in Israel, after five years in Holland. I didn’t mind. I had money and a car at my disposal. And I liked living in Amsterdam.”

Havkin soon teamed up with Arab Galileean duo percussionist Salem Darwish and violinist George Samaan, and they began performing all over the country. “I’ve looked into the matter and, as far as I can see, Drora, Salem and George were the first Jewish-Arab band to get the message across that we can all get along together, for instance, by playing music together.

“There was no political intent there. As far as they were concerned, if 300 people in an audience spent an hour or two listening to Arabs and Jews performing music together on the same stage, and they left with a pleasant experience, then the musicians had done their job. For Drora, Salem and George it was as simple as that. That’s what I’m looking to do with Groupeace.”

Sadly, Havkin died suddenly in 1995, and in March this year Nishri, his partner Yifat and sister Shiri arranged a tribute concert in her memory in Tel Aviv, which featured many top Jewish and Arab Israeli artists from the pop, rock and ethnic sectors including, naturally Darwish and Samaan.

“While we were working on the concert we began to realize that we were coming across more and more bands and musicians that Drora would have liked – bands like Hisham and Friends. It seemed like there was a lot more mileage to be had from Jews and Arabs, and people of all ethnic backgrounds, playing music and living together.”

Hisham and Friends was one of the acts that recently performed at the Melchett Villa on the banks of the Sea of Galilee, along with a whole host of Jewish and Arab bands.

The “Hisham” in question is a Jordanian oud player by the name of Hisham Abu-Me’iteg who, unfortunately, didn’t make it to Israel for the show, although the band’s lead guitarist Assi Givati – also a member of top Israeli world music act Shotei Hanevuah – insists there was nothing politically sinister behind it.

“It was just bureaucracy,” he says. “It was a great shame Hisham couldn’t make it but we’ve performed together all over Israel since then. We are just great friends, besides playing music together.”

Abu-Me’iteg and Givati met by chance in the Judean Desert near the oasis of Ein Gedi. “We immediately starting playing music together and everything was cool,” Givati recalls. “There were no barriers between us and no need to explain anything.”

For Givati, Hisham and Friends, which includes three Jews, a Muslim and a Christian Arab from Nazareth, encapsulates what Groupeace is all about. “Music bonds us and other people. It’s the generals and politicians that get in the way. I spent a month at Hisham’s home in Jordan and he’s stayed with me in Israel. The thing is, it’s not just about us becoming friends. It’s about showing that anyone can get along together, regardless of their ethnic, cultural or religious roots.”

The group’s Christian Nazarene violinist Ihab Nimer fully endorses Givati’s observations. “Music is just music,” says Nimer. “I come from a classical Arab music background but I don’t have a problem playing with musicians – Jewish, Muslim, Christian or whatever – who come from a different area of music.”

Meanwhile, Nishri is looking to take his Groupeace bandwagon on the road, and across the globe. He is currently negotiating a project with a leading songwriter, record producer and promoter from London with a view to recording female Israeli singers and their counterparts from different Arab countries.

“It’s a sort of ‘Singing for Peace’ concept,” says Nishri. “The idea is for a Jewish singer to invite an Arab singer to record a duet with her, and vice versa. The recordings will take place in London, Israel and the Arab countries in question. It will be a sort of cross-cultural compilation album. I hope that it will help to get the Groupeace message across. This is a Jewish-Arab-Christian-Muslim co-production. We’re all in this together, for everyone’s benefit.”

Naturally, there are some logistics, and some unavoidable politics, to be taken into account. “There are musicians we can’t possibly bring to Israel like, for example, Iranians. But they can perform together in other places around the world,” Nishri explains.

“My mother had no grand illusions about ending all wars or changing the world after a concert or two, but she, Salem and George, and others like them, tried to generate what they called: ‘peace within’. That’s all we need.”