PALESTINE, MUSIC AND CULTURAL RESISTANCE

October 10, 2010 – 3:57 am

The legendary British music icon Robert Wyatt is a big supporter of Palestine. Last week, he was in London to promote For The Ghosts Within, a new album featuring Wyatt, jazz saxophonist Gilad Atzmon and violinist Ros Stephen. At the same time, Atzmon and Wyatt also talked about Palestine, music, cultural resistance and about the importance of the coming Jazza Festival. By Gilad Atzmon.

For Robert Wyatt, music is where “people are introduced to each other”. “People were playing each other’s music long before they were mixing politically or socially” he says. Musicians can anticipate change. “In the deep south, white kids were listening to Black radio stations and Black kids listened to Country Music, long before these kids could share space or even meet”.

Music has this unique capacity to cross the divide, to bring people together, to introduce harmony and yet, for some reason, not many musicians are brave enough to jump into the deep water. Not many musicians celebrate their ability to bring change about.


Click on the graphic for Robert Wyatt and the Jazza Festival 2010.

In 2003 Robert invited me to the studio. He was recording Cuckooland at the time. He had in mind an instrumental version of Nizar Zreik’s tune, originally sung by the Palestinian singer, Amal Murkus. That day in the studio, I spent a good few frustrating hours with my clarinet trying to emulate Amal’s articulation, her sound, her personal take on micro-tonality, colour and dynamic.

A few months later, when Cuckooland came out, I realised that somehow, that afternoon in the studio, I had managed to dissolve some boundaries. Robert’s attempt to bond an ex-Israeli with a Palestinian composition was indeed a success. I have been collaborating with Robert since then. This year we made an album together.

Robert Wyatt is a legend, a British musical icon. Over the years, he has formed his own language, he has brought to life a new and original sound. He is an incredible craftsman who has influenced generations of musicians all over the world. His production techniques are totally unique; he starts from scratch and builds his music layer by layer sometimes employing the most basic techniques.

He manages to collate the bricks and mortar of lyricism, broken melodies, voice, drum snaps and wit into a lucid musical narrative that always sounds unlike anything else. His music is fresh and extraordinary, yet it is also simple and transparent. You somehow always see the light through Robert’s music and thoughts.

I have been very lucky to be around and witness the way he bends notes into songs, words into poems, ideology into responsibility, love into beauty and beauty into meaning. But far more importantly, I had a chance to exchange ideas with the man. Last week I had the precious opportunity to discuss music, Palestine, Israel, cultural resistance, politics, the left and compassion with him.

“For the musicians who support the long suffering people of Palestine, silence is simply not an option” he says. In spite of Robert’s popularity in Israel, Robert is not exactly shy of telling the world what he thinks of Israeli policies. For so many decades, “the people of Palestine have been subjected, not just to humiliation, but also to a sadistic relish that can only be designed to destroy them”. But the Israelis have failed, he continues, because the Palestinian people are resilient. “The colonised is always more resilient than the colonisers realise.”

It is no secret that support of the Palestinian cause is on the verge of tipping into a mass movement, the tide has clearly changed in recent years, and yet, in spite of his criticism of Israel, Robert manages to maintain his universally compassionate attitude. He wants to see change, he also believes that such a change is attainable. With his well known, kind ‘Santa Claus’ giggle, he asks the Israelis “what are you scared of? These Palestinians are only other people like you.”

Such a simple statement summarises Robert’s world view. On planet Wyatt almost everything is magically simple but at the same time profound and compassionate. “My politics is clear”, he says,  “I am an anti racist.”

“The idea” he continues, “that some people believe others to be inferior is plain silly.” We, he maintains “are different yet equal.” Such a seemingly simple statement re-locates the political debate within ethical and universal discourse. We should celebrate our differences, yet it is the notion of equality that should stop us from doing so at the expense of each other.

“The people of Palestine have been subjected, not just to humiliation, but also to a sadistic relish that can only be designed to destroy them,” says Robert Wyatt. But the Israelis have failed because the Palestinian people are resilient. “The colonised is always more resilient than the colonisers realise.”

Robert is a jazzman and it is hardly a surprise that a jazz musician offers such a profound yet elementary insight. Jazz takes great delight in our differences yet it also yearns for equality. In the 1960s, jazz artists located themselves at the forefront of the civil rights movement. It is a natural progression that jazz artists should continue to champion the struggle for a better world.

Robert believes in ‘people’s power’ as opposed to the politician. Our elected politicians fail to stand for clear justice, he says. “It is humiliating for us as citizens to have such morally cowardly governments.” And yet, “although politicians cannot initiate a serious change, they will respond to change once it happens amongst the people.” Palestine is a good example of this. We are currently witnessing a rapid expansion in the popular support of Palestinians and their rights.

It seems as if everybody out there has decided to collectively “come out of the closet,” Roberts suggests. This movement cannot be explained in political terms, for the political establishment has nothing to do with it. I think Robert is correct here. The emerging mainstream solidarity with Palestine should be seen as the outcome of a general craving for justice,  an outburst of collective ethical intuition.

I spoke to Robert about fear. I suggested to him that the ‘war against terror’ could also be grasped as a war against the terror within: a terror caused  by the fear we inflict upon ourselves. We are tormented by the idea that others may be as vicious as we are or could be.

Robert took this concept further and suggested that the types of fear he detects in our midst are largely the ‘threat of democracy’ and the ‘fear of the truth’. The threat of democracy can be understood as the sheer panic at being outnumbered. The fear of the truth is obviously fuelled by the tormenting thought that our lies risk exposure.

Such an insight certainly helps us to understand Israel and its relentless efforts against the indigenous people of Palestine. It also explains Israel’s reluctance to cooperate with different international fact-finding missions. But Israel is not alone. Threat of democracy and truth is also a spot-on diagnosis of the dilemmas plaguing British politics.

The UK obsession with immigration merely reflects the fear of being outnumbered. Furthermore, Britain’s continuous institutional failure to properly address the events and individuals that led us to the Iraq war is an indication of our intrinsic fear of truth.

I asked Robert about his roots. I wondered whether he was afraid to be ‘outnumbered’. “I am English, this is what I am, this is what comes out of my mouth. However, I am not in a stagnated pond of culture, I came out of the pond into the river, which is composed of hundreds of ponds and a lot of fresh water is coming in. This is the place to be, this is the only place for me.”

I understand exactly what Robert is referring to. My own journey has also been an expedition from a pond to the river and from there straight to the sea. However, unlike the salmon in Robert’s Maryan, I  have no plans to turn around. The sea is the only place for me.

It has been said before that artists, rather than politicians, are there to provide us with a vision of a better world. When I listened to Robert singing What A Wonderful World, I could easily touch the ‘blue for me and you’. I had to agree, it is indeed a wonderful world against all odds.


Click here to order For The Ghosts Within (Domino Records).


The Jazza Festival, organized in association with the Free Palestine Movement, will be held on October 12-13 at The Scala, Pentonville Road, London. Click here for more details.


Click here to download Gilad Atzmon live at Ronnie Scott’s 2010.

Note: Gilad Atzmon was born in Israel and served in the Israeli military. He lives in London, and is the author of two novels: A Guide to the Perplexed and the recently released My One and Only Love. Atzmon is also one of the most accomplished jazz saxophonists in Europe. Gilad Atzmon And The Orient House Ensemble have just released The Tide Has Changed. (Click here to order the album).Visit Gilad Atzmon at http://www.gilad.co.uk/.

  1. 7 Responses to “PALESTINE, MUSIC AND CULTURAL RESISTANCE”

  2. Israel is afraid of Hebron 1929.

    By Owen Goldin on Oct 17, 2010

  3. Though I have Robert Wyatt’s recordings with Soft Machine & Matching Mole(and some of his solo albums) in my collection, and Robert is certainly entitled to express his political views on the middle-east situation, for me, the thing that upsets me is Wyatt’s naively being an avowed communist(When Matching Mole’s second album “Little Red Record” featured a cover illustration showing the group holding Mao’s “Little Red Book”, they weren’t joking)

    As a South Floridian, I am constantly reminded by the large Cuban exile population, of how barbaric communist governments are. Fidel & Raul Castro crush domestic dissent with torture chambers,firing squads and a street-corner informant system. Fields of landmines are used to prevent their citizens from leaving the country. The Castro brothers’ revolution has only brought poverty, starvation & misery , yet, even faced with total failure, the Castro brothers have refused to permit any slight changes that might lead to a better standard of living(or more food on the table) for the Cuban people.

    By Phil Cohen on Oct 20, 2010

  4. “But the Israelis have failed because the Palestinian people are resilient”!?
    Really? Because I would imagine the Palestinian are still alive and kicking since the Israeli won’t take their tanks and fighter jets and the whole army and down and right flatten them all out, since that is not what the Israeli are all about, also, this claim is weird since you don’t say how the Israeli are the supplying the so called Palestine with most of their water, electricity, food, cash, and lets face it, also work, medical supplies (the amount they get from other countries is nothing compared to the amount they get from Israel it self), and the fact of the matter is that the Israeli government and the Israeli people are just looking to make peace.
    I don’t here you or any other Palestinian supporter say anything about the Hamas taking Iran’s line of reasoning that Israel and the Jewish people should be completely destroyed… Here are a group of people who openly call for the killing of a whole nation, in the name of their own violent interpretation of their religion, and partake in actual terrorist activities against the general public, being supported by two faced supporters (yes, Iran is great on human rights, what with stoning to death woman who were raped and cutting people hands off, and shooting their students while protesting…, and of course, Turkey, who are and were so good to the Kurds), and the problem really is people like you who actually believe the propaganda.
    So 10 points on music, but -20 points on actually getting the story right.
    The Palestinians could have had their own country, their own land, their own peace, if you would just learn to live in peace with other people… and I’m not talking about your average day to day Palestinian citizen, but as always, in all walks of life, the extremists and crazy, who, in this case, run their so called elected government, because you can’t really believe that the Hamas was freely elected, do you? they have groups of people with guns pulling people to vote, same as Iran… Good for you for buying into that democratic process.
    Some times I don’t understand why some people can’t, and never will, be able to get a story right, but just fall for what ever their own bought media tells them to believe.

    By Yuval on Oct 28, 2010

  5. We would certainly hope Israel by now could hold a better election than a Pinoche or a Castro run state. More progressive, visionary
    and proactive leadership though is needed.

    So there is also the hope that the popular Israeli sentiment would move far beyond indexing their moral high ground on something better than; Zionist claims, comparing themselves to either authoritarian and failed states, or the worst historical and contemporary mistakes and presumptions of Europe and N.America.

    As to the comment above pitting Wyatt as a Castro advocate, I see nothing in the above article suggesting that Wyatt is affiliated with any South American dictator, whether it be Pinoche or Castro. As well I don’t see what the connection with the politics of Florida and Cuba have to do with Palestine.

    That’s the point though as long as we deflect responsibility by saying things like well at least Israel is better than Iran, or 19th century colonialists on the loose in Africa — we simply are distracting from the
    issue of body count ratios and what by all accounts is a severe ongoing injustice that should be better examined.

    Are musician’s the ones to do this? I don’t know, but then again I’m uncertain the priests, rabbis and politicians will get us out of this mess.

    By Samuels on Nov 18, 2010

  6. Wyatt is typical anti-Semite - dumb dumb dumb - no idea of history or history just his bigoted parroting of the trendy left’s racist crap. He is a dumb racist bigot. For a man in a wheelchair, doesn’t he realize that within living memory, people who share his philosophy were putting the disabled in gas chambers in Europe. But like I said history is not his strong point.

    By Ricky on Nov 28, 2010

  7. So this is where it all leads — comparing anyone who questions Israel’s policy towards the Palestinians as Nazi gas-chamber advocates?

    So with this line of logic, in terms of constructive discussion we may as well compare anyone who is critical of the IRA or ETA as being sympathetic to the genocide of the American Indians, as well all know Europeans
    are without a fault on their own continent or elsewhere irregardless of what they do.

    Such crimes against humanity are also part of recent memory, as they continued into the late 19th century and in someways continue today in remote parts of the Americas. How far can we justify Native American militant movements on such a basis?

    Also how far can we justify militant black supremacist demands on the injustice of lynchings that took place well into the 20th century, which are also part of living social memory?

    With atomic power upping the ante, in the 21st century we need a better way to go about things. And there are other cards in the deck to be played.

    For one Israel’s historical experience of cosmopolitan humanity. As well we need more models of creating a sensible division/decoupling of sectarian fundamentalism from the structure of 21st century states. Is left or right to say Israel may need improvement in this area or is it simply level-headed, common sense and central?

    In all due respect Israel has made progress towards pluralism including citizens of Arab background living and working peacefully with Hebrews within Israels borders. And that’s what has to be developed further, rather than the Zionist thread that scream Auschwitz! every time the civility of their conduct or imperfection of their logic is questioned.

    If some Irish and English people can express brother and sisterhood, if most Castellians and Basques can make peace, if most Czechs, Poles and Germans can stop using religion and political ideologies for creating walls and tear down their bob-wire shotgun borders in order to take care of daily business — why can’t Israel come up with a better program?

    We need to get far before and past WWII rhetoric to get any common sense on these issues — as is clear in the reactions above that place Wyatt for simply expressing himself as a concerned citizen — as being both a Nazi and Commie.

    Because as history has told us — as long as the fundamentalists on either side of any border; mask their less than moral intentions with emotional references to history, or demand criticism of their actions be suspended because of a claim to some innate righteousness - all the while spinning minds and media with the same twisted reasoning they share with their “enemy” — there is little hope.

    By Samuels on Dec 2, 2010

  8. I love Robert’s music but his politics stink. Palestinians refuse to allow for the existence of the israeli state. If they could just allow for that, then peace would exist in our time. You never hear of Israeli suicide bombers. If they could do that and agree not to want to kill innocent people, things would be better. Call it a simplistic view. Sometimes that is what is needed in a complicated matter.
    Robert Wyatt won’t be swayed. He lives in a controlled world. Because of his disability and his fame, only people that think as he does are allowed into his world.
    At least his music is consistently wonderful.

    By Jennifer on Jan 9, 2011

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