Al-raseef means “the sidewalk” in Arabic. A seven-piece brass band currently based in Genoa, Italy, chose that name to honor its origin in the streets of Ramallah, Palestine.
Al Raseef recently performed in Rabat, Morocco, for the Visa for Music festival, and Inside Arabia sat down with its saxophonist, Tamer Nasser. Nasser, who speaks fluent English, Arabic, and Italian, also acts as the band’s press agent. Al Raseef is entirely independent and self-managed.
Between all the band members, seven languages are spoken; they can communicate in English, several Arabic dialects, Italian, Spanish, French, German, and Turkish. This multilingualism not only helps them tour the world, it also highlights the most important characteristics of the members of Al Raseef: their worldly openness and their passion for communication. Wherever in the world, they bring their music, they always “reach for community,” while trying to learn, educate, and inspire.
Al Raseef loosely describes its sound as “Arab brass,” though it resists labels. While speaking with Inside Arabia, Nasser variously described the band’s music as a “groovy funk sound with an oriental touch,” “a strange package,” and a “continuum.” The music is always developing as the band members travel and hear more of the sounds of the world. At its heart, it “documents a Mediterranean sound,” borrowing musical flavors from the traditional folk music of North Africa, Palestine, Syria, Lebanon, Armenia, the Balkans, and Italy.
The lineup consists of tuba, trombone, trumpet, saxophone, clarinet, guitar, and drums. Wind instrumentalists, particularly brass, are rare in Palestine; “The tuba player is probably the only tuba player in Palestine, maybe in Jordan too,” Nasser said. The Arab world does not have a strong brass culture, preferring strings, percussion, and voice in its classical music.
Meeting in the Street
Nasser and his wind-playing peers got together as a “fun summer project” in 2011, originally to play Balkan brass music. In their hands, the sound took on a new character. They took that sound to the street in Ramallah for their first concert. It was informal and fun, and it opened up a whole new world.
Palestinians are not used to street musicians as Europeans are, Nasser said. “The concept of busking [performing in public for money] started in Europe . . . in the 1600s, 1400s. In Palestine and the Arab world in general, it’s not very common.”
When Al Raseef first started playing in Ramallah, people were timid, unsure what was happening or how to interact with it. “The moment you break that barrier, they just start to enjoy it,” Nasser said. “People’s reactions were really beautiful . . . . It was very moving for us.” Even the police were “very nice.”
After a few years building up Al Raseef in Ramallah, Nasser and three other members moved to Italy, to study at the Genoa music conservatory. They teamed up with an Italian drummer and trumpetist and a guitarist from the Syrian Golan Heights, which is also occupied by Israel.
These days, Al Raseef has largely moved from the sidewalk to the concert hall, but still sometimes plays on the streets of Genoa. Although moving inside has allowed them to “prove [them]selves on and off the street,” and earned them more performance opportunities, Nasser lamented that it has disconnected them from the communities that they want to reach.
In the coming year, Al Raseef plans to tour Palestine, not to play in venues, but “in the streets of every city possible,” Nasser said. Al Raseef sees reaching community as a responsibility. In Palestine, their duty is to free people’s spirits, bring them together, and inspire a passion for music. Street performances can offer a precious space to breathe deeply and have fun for people often deprived of the opportunity to do so.
Nasser said that the band’s performances in the streets of Jerusalem in 2018 were “some of the most emotional concerts we’ve ever had. The tension you feel in Jerusalem . . . . The people in Jerusalem are very oppressed. They rarely find the means to have fun or enjoy their time. Being under occupation is never easy, anyway. Playing in the street broke another barrier.”
Doing it For the Kids
The show Al Raseef played for children at a festival in a Jerusalem park was particularly instructive. Unlike the adults, who just appreciated the music from far away, the children were immediately engaged and let themselves loose.
The director of the festival told Nasser that adults “should learn from kids. They don’t have that barrier. They don’t wonder, they just do, they just enjoy it.” Nasser agreed. “Personally, I think my best gigs were in elementary schools, kindergartens, and in that park,” he said.
Inspired by the youth, Al Raseef is focusing its forthcoming Palestine tour on education, teaching workshops in schools, to “explain our instruments and make kids love them.” Most young Palestinian instrumentalists hope to play with the Palestinian Youth Orchestra (PYO), which largely plays advanced, Western classical music. Like Al Raseef, the PYO tries to “reach the community with music, to convince people that music is also a way.”
The orchestra performs annual concerts and offers Palestinian youth a rare opportunity to travel internationally, on tour in Europe and the Middle East. “They get a different perspective, [beyond the] occupation, checkpoints, and brutal activities of the Israeli army,” Nasser told Inside Arabia.
Most Al Raseef members started in the PYO, so they see their work as parallel. And with their “funky, zestful” brass sound (“It’s not shy”), and six-foot-six-inch, dancing tuba player, Al Raseef is better equipped than sitting classical musicians to inspire a love of music, Nasser added.
Al Raseef also sees its youth connection as resistance to the cultural conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. Israel has claimed much of Palestinian cuisine, dress, and even music as its own, Nasser said. The moment Palestinians truly lose a grip on their cultural identity, he added, “we’re done for.”
Nasser and his bandmates are working on a project to find and document instrumental music written by Palestinians prior to 1948, and arrange it in an Al Raseef style. They are trying to build “a bridge between our heritage and pass it to the youth, in a modern way, in our way.” They want to bring Palestine’s pre-1948 heritage back to life.
Putting Palestine on the Map
Outside of Palestine, they see their musical responsibility as political, but in a different way. That responsibility is less to comment on the Israel-Palestine conflict, than to “put Palestine on the map.” Too often, people outside Palestine see it only as a land of conflict, always under headlines of war. They struggle to perceive Palestinians as a capable, complex, modern people. Their humanity is more often than not crowded out by an abstraction, a generalization.
When Nasser was teaching a workshop in the U.S., students were shocked to learn that there was internet in Palestine. Other times, in Italy, people were surprised to find out that there are even Palestinian musicians at all. “Yeah, there are. We also replaced the camels with cars recently,” Nasser joked.
Some people, he added, “with a bit of ignorance, call us an Israeli group and we correct them. No, actually, we’re Palestinians. We’re from the other side of the wall. They love our music all the same.”
Beyond the Wall
“When you go outside [Palestine],” Nasser said, “you see that, oh, I can breathe again, I can have some life.” Musicians have the benefit of being invited abroad by venues or festivals, boosting their chances of getting visas. “Being a musician makes it easier,” Nasser said, even as “being a Palestinian musician makes it a bit more difficult. With our passports, it’s really hard to travel.” One band member was denied a visa to play at a festival in the U.K.
A political swing to the right in the U.K. and other countries has blocked cultural warriors like Al Raseef from sharing art and humanity across borders (one major U.K. festival had to cancel half of its program last year due to visa problems). “If you want to close yourselves in . . . you’ll kill the cultural scene in one of the most important places in the world,” Nasser said.
“Westerners, Europeans — they take [the right of movement] for granted. Ah, tomorrow I’m going to have lunch in Nice. That is two countries, I’m not even talking about just cities,” Nasser added.
“If I want to go from Ramallah to Jerusalem, I have to pass four checkpoints. I have to go through brutal inspections of my car, of myself. Sometimes, at zero degrees in the winter, they once asked me to take off my clothes. All of it. I was just in my boxers. They just do it to humiliate you. No reason. I had my saxophone bag in my trunk, nothing else.”
Listening to Nasser talk, it is easy to feel his frustration at this unjust reality and, at the same time, bear witness to his profound desire to lift his people beyond it, in body and spirit.
The Wall that Divides
For all the openness Al Raseef embodies, Nasser told Inside Arabia that, personally, he could not play music with an Israeli musician.
Argentinian conductor and staunch anti-Zionist Daniel Barenboim leads the Spain-based West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, which brings together musicians from both Israel and Palestine, as well as other Middle Eastern countries. Nasser respects Barenboim’s project as an attempt to “create a bridge, which is what music is all about.” At the same time, he says it “doesn’t make sense.” He sees the bridge as ephemeral and the equity it offers as hollow.
“I don’t have privileges, I don’t have the institutions to advance,” Nasser said. But the Israeli musician who would be playing next to him “has everything. I can’t be equal to him.” Unequal privilege in itself wouldn’t deter collaboration. What Nasser objects to is that “he got his privileges on account of mine.”
Whatever equity seems to exist in the orchestra ends when the musicians return home, Nasser explained. “Palestinians go back to Palestine and Israelis go back to Israel. There, they separate you again.” An Israeli friend might join the Israeli army’s orchestra and perform for Israel’s Independence Day, which is the same day Palestinians remember the Nakba, or “Catastrophe,” that expelled Palestinians from their land in 1948. “He’ll be playing his national anthem and you’ll be playing yours for the exact same reason.”
Worse, a returning young Israeli musician will be required to join the army. “He’ll stop me at the checkpoint,” Nasser said. “He might shoot me. Even if we are friends, because he’ll be ordered to.”
While the current reality Nasser sees is dark, he has hope. He hopes his counterparts on the other side of the wall, musical or otherwise, who profess pacifism and equality can back up their words by defying the state they live under. “They can refuse to go to the Israeli army. They may go to jail. Many Israelis have, but they are very few. It’s a very slow process but if that effect keeps growing, we might have a solution in the future.”
Equity, Nasser said, will be when Palestinians have their full rights, when “there are no more checkpoints or apartheid walls, no separation, no religious-based discrimination, no radicalism. I don’t mind what they call it, as long as it’s living in peace.”
For now, Nasser and Al Raseef are growing in Genoa, and are “very happy” with what they’re doing. He told Inside Arabia that the band is a journey that he has not yet finished, and may not ever. But when the time comes, he is “going back to Palestine, back to Ramallah. One day I will have to. I can find a way to help my society. It’s a cultural responsibility to create the next generation of saxophone players with an Al Raseef mentality . . . . It’s a social responsibility to the community that gave birth to me as a musician, that helped me be who I am.”