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The remarkable rise of the Amwaj Children’s Choir of Palestine

Middle East
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The ten-year-old — we’ll call her Bisan — got off the choir bus at France’s Dieppe coast and ran over the sandy beach toward the gray North Atlantic. After wading excitedly, but cautiously, into the chilly waves, she turned around and ran back to the bus to grab her sweater. Newly confident, Bisan raced back to the water and plunged in, only to discover that sweaters do not keep you warm in the ocean.

Bisan grew up in the Palestinian city of Hebron, perhaps an hour’s drive from her country’s gorgeous Mediterranean beaches. But she had never seen the ocean until reaching France, which, in turn, she could not get to except by way of Jordan. Like everything else in her young life, her ability to reach her own country’s beaches was dictated by a foreign government in Tel Aviv in which her parents have no vote and over which international law has no power.

Imagine Parisians blocked by a neighboring country from going to the English Channel or Mediterranean coast… The world would not (and decades past did not) tolerate foreign occupation in France; in Palestine, we support it and pay for it. Bisan was luckier than most of her peers — she got to experience the ocean because she had joined a children’s choir created by a musician from France, Dr. Mathilde Vittu.

The Amwaj Choir (in blue) performs at the celebrated Philharmonie de Paris, June, 2018. Click here for video.

One must be careful not to be misunderstood when writing about non-Palestinians “bringing” music to Palestine, lest it sound as though Palestinians need outsiders to do this for them. But equally, it would be patronizing to treat Palestinians as some static Orientalist construct who cannot decide for themselves when they welcome other influences into their own cultural inheritance — especially as seven decades of dispossession and suppression have done much to suffocate the collaborative and absorptive streams of cultural life that are natural and that we take for granted for ourselves.

Mathilde Vittu coaching the Amwaj Choir.

Vittu comes from the highest tradition of European ‘classical’ music. She is a professor of music analysis at the Conservatoire de Paris, as well as an expert in voice training, a conductor, and violist. With such elite credentials it might seem unexpected that in September 2013, on sabbatical from her Paris teaching commitments, Vittu accepted a teaching position at the Ramallah branch of Palestine’s Edward Said National Conservatory of Music.

Over the course of the following year, she served the Conservatory far beyond her actual obligations, formed a strong bond with Palestine, acquired a fine viola by the Palestinian luthier Aref Sayed, and began a serious study of the Arabic language. Her expertise in voice training and choral music, her love for children, her love of Palestine, and her desire to contribute to a better future in the best way she is able, all coalesced into a single vision: She would create a children’s choir — which in turn meant creating a children’s choir school. Her vision was of a choir singing far and wide, the effects radiating out, and of children eventually teaching other children, like ripples — and so its name became obvious: Amwaj, Arabic for ‘waves’.

True to its name, Amwaj is conceived not as a single school, but as a network. In addition to choral singing, Amwaj offers voice training, foreign languages, music theory, conducting, introduction to piano, percussion, and theatre.

Word of the project was spread in Bethlehem by the Ghirass Cultural Center, and in Hebron by the Association d’Échanges Culturels Hébron France. Initially, there were no auditions, and no requirements other than that the children attend all lessons and rehearsals that they are able to. A monthly tuition of ten shekels (approximately $2.70) was charged, though this was essentially symbolic: no one is turned away should the fee present a hardship, and food is provided that far exceeds the cost.

In August, 2015, the Amwaj Choir held its first summer camp, hosted by Association d’Échanges Culturels Hébron-France, which has run intercultural programs for children and adults for nearly 20 years. The children sang in Arabic as well as in French, English, German, Italian, Armenian, and Welsh; small workshops explored body percussion, vocal technique, jazz singing, theatre, vocal games., and introduction to music notation.

(Video above: The song Hal Asmar Ellon, from a performance at the Bethlehem Convention Palace in January, 2017. The Amwaj Choir (blue shirts) is accompanied by a professional ensemble of 30 musicians from Palestine and abroad, and joined by children of St Joseph School, École des frères, and Sounds of Palestine. The violinist Amandine Beyer is among the ensemble (pink ornament in hair and purple keffiyeh around the waist).

September brought regular courses in Hebron, and the following month in Bethlehem’s Ghirass Cultural Center, whose other programs include fine arts, dance, music, library activities, adult literacy, and teacher training.

As news of the school spread, applicants soon outnumbered available places, and auditions are now held to fill vacancies — though the informal, non-intimidating nature of the selection process barely merits the word ‘audition’. Sixty voices is considered the Choir’s ideal size, split evenly between Hebron and Bethlehem.

The nascent Choir was invited to participate in October’s El Atlal Festival in Jericho, but heightened tension in the West Bank led to the festival’s cancellation. Two months later, in December 2015 — a mere three months after the Choir’s inauguration — the Hebron and Bethlehem branches performed a joint concert in the Chapel of Bethlehem University as part of the Christmas Nights festival organized by the Edward Said National Conservatory of Music. Bethlehem Strings, a baroque ensemble comprised of professionals and the more advanced Palestinian music students, accompanied the Amwaj Choir in a series of Christmas carols in several languages and songs from the Palestinian tradition. As described on the Choir’s website, “the experience of sharing the stage with professional musicians allowed the children to understand the setting of a public performance.”

Mathilde Vittu conducting members of the Amwaj Choir, accompanied by some of Palestine’s professional musicians, in Saint-Anne’s Church, Jerusalem.

If all this seemed perfectly natural to those involved, some on the outside wondered whether there might have been any negative reaction from the predominantly Muslim families to the concert’s Christian context. There was none. Hebron is predominantly Muslim, but even in Bethlehem, which is largely Christian, most of the children who apply are Muslim.

The summer of 2016 brought the Choir’s first chance to share the stage with a professional choir when the Choir of London came to Hebron. More opportunity for the children to work alongside professionals followed in December, when the Oslo Philharmonic Choir came to Palestine (rehearsal video). This culminated in a concert  at Bethlehem’s Nativity Church (Saint Catherine’s), in which the children joined the Oslo choir in five songs spanning German, English, Norwegian, and Arabic. January 2017 brought another concert with the Bethlehem Strings, now at the Bethlehem Convention Palace and joined by the extraordinary Baroque violinist Amandine Beyer.

Amwaj Choir in performance with the Oslo Philharmonic Choir in Saint Catherine’s Church by the traditional site of Christ’s birth.

The French Children’s Choir, Les Petits chanteurs de Lyon, visited Palestine in the spring and summer of 2017 and joined forces with Amwaj (video). In July, Amwaj performed with the Ramallah Orchestra, a symphony orchestra under the Palestinian conservatory Al Kamandjati. The Israeli journalist Amira Hass attended, chatted with a few of the Amwaj children, and wrote about it. “We met,” she wrote, “in the most unexpected place: the desert. A procession of camels was marching towards the sunset.”

Hass described the desperation that led a Palestinian youth to attack the West Bank settlement of Halamish, which caused the cancellation of the ensemble’s scheduled concert in Jerusalem. The attack, she wrote, was in line with the Israeli “plan” of pushing Palestinians past the breaking point: it’s “part of the logic of control. You escalate, you incite, you detain more young people, you scare more children to create more reasons for preventive activities and oppression, and to maintain the apparatus.”

But any nurturing of Palestinian achievement and self-worth, such as Amwaj, is powerful defiance, powerful resistance, of a sort that Israel is powerless to exploit. It will try to stymie such defiance, but, ultimately, cannot control it.

Les Petits Chanteurs de Lyon returned to Palestine in the spring of 2018, partly in preparation for the summer and the Amwaj Choir’s most impressive accomplishment to date: its first international residency and concert series. This included a six-day residency at the Philharmonie de Paris; a concert at the Institut du Monde Arabe with the DEMOS children’s orchestra; a concert at the church Notre-Dame des Vertus at Aubervilliers with the Children’s choir of the Orchestre de Paris; a concert at the Philharmonie de Paris with the DEMOS children’s orchestra; a concert in Lille, Le Grand Sud, with the child singers of Finoreille; a residency in Lyon with Les Petits Chanteurs de Lyon; and a concert at the Cathedral of Vaise with Les Petits Chanteurs de Lyon.

Nothing happens easily under military occupation, and no child born into such injustice is free of its scars. And so it was inevitable that the Amwaj Choir would become not just a choir, not just a social network for its members, but a powerful safety net and antidote. Knowing life only under military repression, many children harbor repressed anger, not just from the visible dehumanization imposed by Israeli control, but from the unseen pressure it exerts on home life and on their parents. Mathilde and her small staff have not infrequently found themselves acting as adviser, as consoler, as friend, and as social worker. As but one example, a boy — we’ll call him Khalil — attended all rehearsals, but never sang a note. He always took his place in the choir, and never made a sound. But since he fulfilled the sole requirement of attending the rehearsals, his right to remain in the Choir was not questioned. Even when he wanted to join the Choir’s tour to France, he was not excluded. Yet no one could have anticipated that in France, with his first breaths free of apartheid, suddenly, he began to sing, and his outlook changed.

Dr. Vittu and the Choir’s General Director, Michele Cantoni, have maintained a consistently high level of staff and visiting teachers, despite Israeli deterrents to Palestinian achievement. To begin with, all teachers from abroad must accept the endless specter of losing Israeli “permission” to be in Palestine. Lucie Tronche is one who was not deterred.

Lucie Tronche instructing the Amwaj musicians.

I had the pleasure of meeting Tronche soon after she first arrived in Palestine, and met up with her again a year later.  Tronche had been teaching in several conservatoires in France, when (as she described it to me) she “discovered Palestine, its cultural and musical richness, and I decided to move there in order to work within the continuity of a musical and artistic project.” She became involved full-time with the Amwaj Choir as coach, conductor, and theory teacher. A year later, “that human and artistic experience has proven to be well beyond my expectations.”

Given its newness and the challenges imposed by foreign repression, what the Amwaj Choir has accomplished is nothing short of extraordinary. But there is still a long way to go before it is a world-class children’s choir. While Vittu is constantly challenging the choir to improve, she is careful not to over-extend the children, and to train them with a solid technique free of shortcuts.

In a decade, she predicts, the Amwaj Choir will be ready for the world.

Author’s note: I met Mathilde Vittu in 2013 at Palestine’s National Conservatory of Music, where she and I were both teaching. Although we taught at different branches — she in Ramallah, I in Jerusalem — we got to know each other through music projects, string quartets, and beer.

Acknowledgements: The choir is supported by Instruments of Peace – Geneva, Fondazione Giovanni Paolo II, Institut Français de Jérusalem, and many individual donors through its support page. It maintains partnerships with several arts organizations, and has enlisted the collaboration of a long roster of professional and advanced student musicians.

Amwaj Choir, web site.
Interviews with choir members.
Youtube Channel
Support the Amwaj Choir
• Amira Hass, Music, Children’s Choirs and Camels in the Desert, Haaretz, Aug 1, 2017

 

Jerusalem, 1940: A glimpse of Palestinian musical life before the Nakba. [Library of Congress, G. Eric and Edith Matson Photograph Collection; LC-M33-11118. Reproduced in Suárez, State of Terror, p61.]

Tom Suarez
About Tom Suarez

Tom Suarez is the author, most recently, of State of Terror, how terrorism created modern Israel.

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14 Responses

  1. Marnie
    Marnie
    October 14, 2018, 12:30 pm

    The oud, the orchestra and the voices are hauntingly beautiful.

  2. msmoore
    msmoore
    October 14, 2018, 1:39 pm

    Wonderful story, thank you. Echo Marnie above. Love Ms Vittu’s shoes.

  3. Kay24
    Kay24
    October 14, 2018, 2:06 pm

    There is so much talent among the Palestinian people, if only they had the freedom to strive, work hard, and achieve all that their heart’s desire, without the pain and suffering, they have to endure because of those who occupy them, deny them their basic rights, and treat them inhumanely. Hope these wonderful kids will get the help they badly need, to succeed in the world. Damn their occupier.

  4. Mayhem
    Mayhem
    October 14, 2018, 8:31 pm

    “But any nurturing of Palestinian achievement and self-worth, such as Amwaj, is powerful defiance, powerful resistance, of a sort that Israel is powerless to exploit. It will try to stymie such defiance, but, ultimately, cannot control it.”
    This is typical politically-inspired nonsense. To suggest that Israel wants to prevent Palestinian artistic self-expression is pandering to the ideologues who can only see the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in black and white terms.
    For too long the main products of Palestinian society reaching the Western media have been suicide bombers, terrorists and rock throwers. It’s about time the Palestinians put aside their victimhood and perpetuation of a grievance-based society and started to actually do the kind of things that other civilised societies do.
    Cannot argue that alleged oppression by Israel is the stumbling block. Look how the Jews produced amazing art in Theresienstadt during the Holocaust.

    • eljay
      eljay
      October 15, 2018, 7:56 am

      || Mayhem: … For too long the main products of Palestinian society reaching the Western media have been suicide bombers, terrorists and rock throwers. … ||

      I agree with you that Zionists have done an exceptionally good job of controlling the message.

      || … It’s about time the Palestinians put aside their victimhood and perpetuation of a grievance-based society and started to actually do the kind of things that other civilised societies do. … ||

      Yeah, those abused bitches chained in the rapist’s basement need to stop whining about their victimhood and perpetuating their grievance-based existence and start acting like proper ladies.

      • RoHa
        RoHa
        October 15, 2018, 7:09 pm

        Now, now, Eljay. You know perfectly well that victimhood is copyrighted, and you can’t claim victimhood without permission.

        And you know who holds the copyright.

    • Misterioso
      Misterioso
      October 15, 2018, 11:05 am

      @Mayhem

      You are one sick puppy.

      “Cannot argue that alleged oppression by Israel is the stumbling block.”

      Au contraire:

      Setting aside the ongoing monstrous crimes against humanity that the entity known as “Israel” commits against Palestinians in the occupied Gaza strip, I quote eminent Jewish Israeli journalist, Bradley Burston, who aptly sums up the horrors Israel inflicts on Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and occupied East Jerusalem:

      “Occupation is Slavery”
      EXCERPT:
      “In the name of occupation, generation after generation of Palestinians have been treated as property. They can be moved at will, shackled at will, tortured at will, have their families separated at will. They can be denied the right to vote, to own property, to meet or speak to family and friends. They can be hounded or even shot dead by their masters, who claim their position by biblical right, and also use them to build and work on the plantations the toilers cannot themselves ever hope to own. The masters dehumanize them, call them by the names of beasts.” (Haaretz, Feb. 26/13)

      Wake up Mayhem. In the long run, you and your racist, fascistic ilk are going to lose. More and more people around the world, especially vitally important youth, including Jews, are realizing what evil monsters you are. As has been well documented, Jewish immigration to the entity known as “Israel’ is in rapid decline and emigration is soaring while the Palestinian population continues to increase.

      The extent of your stupidity never ceases to amaze me. The writing is on the wall. As the old “bought and paid for” by “Israel” American politicians die off, they will gradually be replaced by young ones who are increasingly aware of Israel’s monstrous crimes committed for over 70 years against Palestine’s indigenous Arab inhabitants and the all important fact that “Israel” is undeniably an ever increasingly heavy millstone around America’s neck, its major geopolitical liability. It’s only a matter of time.

      • gamal
        gamal
        October 15, 2018, 11:37 am

        ” It’s only a matter of time”

        yes that’s all time, resolve and patience, time to move to rasta country, where there is love your heart will always……..rasta country

        https://youtu.be/DtmsWRB80KI

    • Mooser
      Mooser
      October 15, 2018, 2:32 pm

      “Cannot argue that alleged oppression by Israel is the stumbling block. Look how the Jews produced amazing art in Theresienstadt during the Holocaust.”

      Holy shit! Never seen the Holocaust used quite that way before.

      • eljay
        eljay
        October 15, 2018, 5:14 pm

        || Mooser: “Cannot argue that alleged oppression by Israel is the stumbling block. Look how the Jews produced amazing art in Theresienstadt during the Holocaust.”

        Holy shit! Never seen the Holocaust used quite that way before. ||

        I wonder if all Zionists are as classy as Mayhem…

  5. annie
    annie
    October 14, 2018, 10:03 pm

    wonderful story, wonderful accomplishment. i was especially moved by Khalil singing. i liked the other video linked to in the article also. thank you Tom.

  6. Peacefan
    Peacefan
    October 14, 2018, 11:06 pm

    to Mayhem- Oh please! Did you actually read Amira Hass on the link provided ? https://www.haaretz.com/opinion/.premium-music-childrens-choirs-and-camels-in-the-desert-1.5437329

  7. Tom Suarez
    Tom Suarez
    October 15, 2018, 6:00 am

    Hello Mayhem,
    Your comment about Palestinian “victimhood” is ironic, given that Zionism, and Israel, only exist through the exploitation of victimhood. Israel has empowered its seven decades of ethnic cleansing and oppression through the faux victimhood. Israel has made a cult out of victimhood.
    This victimhood requires the dehumanization of the Palestinians (as your comment so concisely does). And in order to dehumanize the Palestinians, yes, Israel must thwart Palestinian achievement through fake “defence”. Israel’s great fear is for the world to see Palestinians as equal human beings. (For the barest glimpse of this, see https://mondoweiss.net/2015/08/israel-vs-the-violin)
    As for your invocation of the Holocaust (“the Jews produced amazing art in Theresienstadt during the Holocaust”), no, people are not required to produce art meeting your approval in order to earn their liberation (your apparent ignorance of Palestinian prisoner art is beside the point).
    As for Palestinian “suicide bombers, terrorists and rock throwers”, it is the Israeli state that is the winnings of an eight-year reign of terror during which the Palestinians maintained uncanny restraint; and by winning statehood, it has managed to sell its seventy years of continuing terrorism, against people denied any form of self-defence, as “defence”.
    The ultimate problem with your standpoint is this: If the Palestinians are to blame for their own problems, then why not call their bluff? Let’s make everyone in Israel-Palestine equals under a secular, democratic government. Then they’ll have no more excuses. Surely you won’t object to that?

  8. Citizen
    Citizen
    October 15, 2018, 9:36 am

    Inspiring. Thanks, Tom Suarez !

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