Incorporating polyrhythmic beats, bilingual lyrics and multi-ethnic identities, Heartbeat, an ensemble of young musicians from Israel and Palestine, gave an energetic concert of original music Thursday night in the Glenn and Darcy Weiner Social Hall at Brown-RISD Hillel. The event was hosted by Hillel and co-sponsored by the Program in Judaic Studies, the Center for Middle East Studies and Common Ground: Students for Justice and Equality in Palestine and Israel.
The visit to campus is just one stop on a national tour that includes performances along the East Coast from Boston to Washington, according to Heartbeat's website. The group musically engages audiences in America, encouraging them to reflect on the conflict back home.
The ensemble of Heartbeat members that performed at Hillel is representative of a community of more than 100 Israeli and Palestinian musicians, said Aaron Shneyer, founder and executive director of Heartbeat. "Our intention is to establish ensembles and chapters in each of the major cities of Israel and Palestine," he added.
"You see us here, and we're having so much fun (together)," said Tamer Omari, a Palestinian who serves as the group's co-program director. "Back home, this is not what it looks like."
The visit came just over a month after the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra's residency in January, which engaged Arab and Israeli musicians in performances of Beethoven symphonies, The Herald previously reported.
Thursday's concert was put together by organizers with varied political views.
"Common Ground really doesn't place itself anywhere on the spectrum," said Perri Gould '14, Common Ground member and co-organizer of the event. "We really are just working to bring different voices all across the spectrum to campus, so that other people can be exposed to different ideas."
The departmental sponsorship from Middle East studies and Judaic studies appealed to the organizers' "coexistence thread," said Sara Miller, Israel engagement fellow at Hillel. "Hillel has a number of Israel groups under its umbrella, and each group approaches (the conflict) a little bit differently," she added.
"My job is to get people to have a connection to Israel that's separate from the politics," said Charlotte Bilski '16, Israel programming committee chair at Hillel and a BlogDailyHerald writer. "Heartbeat seemed like a perfect group to bring to campus because they're all about coexistence and breaking stereotypes and creating a dialogue through music, which is so Brown and so empowering," she said.
The ensemble features three guitars, a violin, percussion elements and a traditional Arabic stringed instrument called an oud — creating a sound that evokes Arcade Fire via Tel Aviv. Blending Moroccan wedding songs with electric guitar solos and vocal improvisation passages, their music is an attempt at "interweaving traditional and modern Eastern and Western music," according to the program.
"We don't have a genre," said violinist Siwar Mansour, though she cited reggae and jazz music as influences. "It's people bringing ideas, and we develop them."
The program — more of a friendly jam session than a formal performance — was well-suited to its intimate setting in the packed hall. Audience members were encouraged to ask questions, sing, dance and clap out rhythms, to varying degrees of success. Band members shared personal histories in between musical numbers.
"I went to an all-Jewish high school to break some stereotypes," Mansour said. "I'm a girl, I have hair, I have a mouth, I have a nose, I'm not a monster and I'm Palestinian."
Their families and communities have responded to their work with mixed reactions, band members said.
"I said, 'Grandma, I'm flying to Germany to make an album with Palestinians,' and she was like, 'What? What is going on with my grandson?'" said Guy Gefen, an Israeli who sings and plays guitar for the group.
The musical highlight of the evening was vocalist Dana Herz, an Israeli from Jaffa who studies music in Tel Aviv. Despite guitar-heavy arrangements and some spirited drumming, her sweet, bright soprano danced above the fray, agile and in control.
Choruses in Hebrew and English were punctuated by animated rapping in Arabic from Mohammed 'Moody' Kablawi. Maintaining seamless rhythmic fluency over compound meters — in some cases 10/4 and 7/8 time — his performance impressed the audience.
Their lyrics are aware of the sociopolitical reality, but not pedantic. "Bukra Fi Mishmish," which translates to "When Pigs Fly," read as a subtle but deliberate way of reimagining the impossible in Israeli-Palestinian relations.
The evening provided evidence for a generation of young Israelis and Palestinians who are frustrated with a racially fragmented and politically dysfunctional state but hopeful for a future of mutual cooperation and tolerance.
"We do have hope," Omari said. "That's why we're here."