Festival brings Sufi bands from region and beyond to Palestine

This year's Al-Kamandjati festival has brought Sufi music to Palestinians despite some technical difficulties and entry permit denials for musicians.

al-monitor Sufi musicians perform at the Al-Kamandjati Music Festival, Khan Yunis, Gaza. Posted April 26, 2019. Photo by Facebook/alkamandjati.

May 12, 2019

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Around 65 artists from 15 countries have performed in Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip during the last month for the Al-Kamandjati Music Festival — an annual organization dedicated to spiritual and traditional music of the region.

This year’s edition, titled “The Journey of the Souls,” focuses on Sufi music, with bands from Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Kuwait, Tunisia, Turkey, Oman, Morocco, Tanzania, Iran, India, China, France, Spain and Palestine.

In a move to combine spirituality with Palestinian historical heritage, most of the events were organized at ancient sites, such as Hisham’s Palace and Nabi Musa in Jericho and the Barquq Castle in Khan Yunis in the Gaza Strip. The final performance is scheduled for May 15 with a huge concert of Sufi music in Gaza City at the Great Omari Mosque — a seventh-century building that takes its name from Caliph Omar. Heavily damaged in the 2000s, the mosque was rebuilt to become one of the major venues for Ramadan prayers in Gaza City.

This year’s edition, which started in mid-April, coincides with the designation of Jerusalem as a 2019 capital of Islamic culture by the Morocco-based Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. “The Al-Kamandjati Association’s festival has a rich and diverse program, which is in line with the Palestinian Ministry of Culture’s celebration of Jerusalem as capital of Islamic culture 2019,” the Ministry of Culture's representative in Ramallah, Jad al-Ghazzawi, told Al-Monitor.

The Al-Kamandjati Association was founded in 2002 by viola and bouzouq player Ramzi Aburedwan, who grew up in the al-Amari refugee camp in Ramallah and later immigrated to France. The association has offices in Palestine, France and Lebanon. It organizes concerts in the Middle East and Europe, courses for music students, summer music camps and music campuses.

Ghazzawi underlined that the festival also counteracts “the attempts of some religious groups” to distort the image of Sufi art and music by claiming Sufis are not Muslim. In a move to counter myths around Sufism, a four-day program of seminars and workshops on Sufi history and faith was held between April 8 and 12, prior to the opening concert of the festival in Jericho.

The festival aims to rekindle interest in Sufi music, which organizers and artists say is declining in the region. Abdel Majid Eriqat, the lead singer of the Gaza Sufi Ensemble, said sacred music concerts were not held on a grand scale as many organizers believed Palestinians are not that interested in listening to sacred and spiritual music and that young people prefer more contemporary music.

But he added that the high attendance at the festival’s concerts shows that the Palestinian audience does long for this type of music, at least on occasion. The music can help relieve the stress Palestinians are under, especially in such difficult psychological and economic times that Gaza in particular is experiencing, he said.

Eriqat told Al-Monitor, “This is the first time that our band … participates in the festival. We have performed in front of thousands of people in western and southern Gaza and we will hold other concerts throughout the month of Ramadan. We will also participate in other festivals."

Sufi music is celebrated in other festivals in the region, such as the Fes Festival of Sacred Music in Morocco and the International Festival of Carthage in Tunisia.

Daily hardships in Gaza, the Israeli blockades and difficulties in obtaining permits also took their toll on the festival. Iyad Staiti, the executive director of the Al-Kamandjati Association, told Al-Monitor that although this year’s festival created exceptional opportunities for fusion and exchange between different cultures and music genres from around the world, some of the participants simply could not come.

“Though the association invited some 120 artists from the region and beyond, only half could come,” Staiti said, adding that he thought this was due to Israeli authorities’ refusal to grant them permits. For example, Tunisian oud player Lotfi Bouchnak and his band were refused entry by Israel on April 16 and the organizing team had to cancel Bouchnak’s concerts, which were supposed to be held in Ramallah and Gaza, Staiti said.

The coordinator of the Al-Kamandjati festival in Gaza, Mohammed al-Loumani, told Al-Monitor that some of the concerts had to be rescheduled due to organizational and technical mishaps. Although the organizers wanted to conclude the festival by the end of April, two of the key concerts were rescheduled for May, extending the concerts into the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.

This year’s festival also included plays, photography exhibitions and musical workshops. There also were shows for children such as clown and acrobatic shows, puppet shows and hakawati, the traditional Arabic art of storytelling.

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