A Night At the Empire
A Night to Remember at the Hackney Empire
WHAT a great evening it was. Cindie Corrie, whose daughter Rachel was killed by an Israeli bulldozer while trying to stop them demolishing a family's home, spoke with qiet dignity and pride in her daughter, welcoming us all.
We heard "The Singer of Wind and Rain", performed first time in the UK, five Palestinian lyrics set by Lebanon-born Gregory Youtz. Sung beautifully by mixed choir, it movingly conveyed the theme of people tenaciously resisting uprooting, of their trees or themseves, from their land.
Compere Steve Marks remarked on the irony of Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks advising Palestinians to "turn their backs on the past". Steve went on to talk about the people at Bil'in, whose non-violent resistance to the annexation fence, joined by sympathising Israelis, was met with rubber bullets and tear gas; and - here we heartily applauded his point - ignored in Western news coverage.
(Steve had stood in for Harold Pinter, who was ill, but I think the 'stand-in' more than adequately filled the big-name's place, improvising effortlessly but intelligently between acts, and striking a warm rapport with his audience).
The Tsivi Sharrett Ensemble was brilliant. Led by multi-talented Israeli Tsivi Sharrett on piano, the multi-national team delivered Yemenite, Israeli and Palestinian melodies in its jazz fusion, as promised, but even a musical ignoramus like me also detected touches of Bach and Latin style, all finely blended, with virtuoso performances on cello and tabla.
Then came the Al-Hurriyya Palestinian Dabka Dance Group's exuberant performance, traditional yes, but leaping to fill the stage with a vitality that had us all clapping and footstomping and wanting to take part, not that I could match their energy. Dancers and audience fed each others excitement and enjoyment.
The group has members from Palestine, Iraq, Lebanon and the UK, and yes, that was Ireland's Ciaomhe Butterly's unmistakable six foot at the end of the line. I didn't know, and would never have guessed, if I wasn't told afterwards, that Ciaomhe, who has been in Iraq and Palestine, was wounded in the thigh by an Israeli bullet only a few years ago. It happened in Jenin, as she tried to lead some Palestinian children to safety.
Dedication like this shone through the evening. In the final piece de resistance, (an apt description I didn't think up consciously), soprano Deborah Fink, backed by the choir and the clear tones of the London Percussion Ensemble, sang Philip Munger's Cantata, The SkiesAre Weeping, for Rachel Corrie.
The birds have flown away
With rain-sodden flowers in hand
I wait for you, Rachel.
(from poem by Thushara Wijeratna)
Varying her place and voice, Deborah sang from the boast of an IDF Caterpillar bulldozer driver interviewed by Yediot Ahronot:
I would erase anyone with the D-9,
and I have demolished plenty.
I wanted to destroy everything.
And from Rachel's last letter home:
Then the bulldozers come and take out
people's vegetable farms and gardens.
This happens every day.
I think that I should at least mention that
I am also discovering a degree of strength
and of basic ability for humans to remain human
in the direst circumstances.
(see http://weepingskies.blogspot.com/ for lyrics)
As we applauded at the end, I was not just clapping for the beautiful music and Debbie's singing, but for the vision and determination that she had put into making this concert happen. The bouquet she received and the on-stage embrace with the composer, were more than just well-earned.
Some of us know Debbie as a light-hearted humourist, never appearing to take herself too seriously, not even when recording her experiences on a trip to Occupied Palestine:
"More olive picking. I enjoyed climbing the trees - something I never did as a child! This was followed by a musical evening with a wonderful Palestinian ensemble. I ended up belly dancing in front of the group!"
(This visit earned her a two hour interrogation at Ben Gurion airport, though comic Ivor Dembina has merited four-hours. Maybe this could be a new competitive star-rating system?)
Debbie's comic performance at a garden party fundraiser this Summer in Willesden, with Ariel Sharon's version of My Way (words by Deborah Maccoby) but highlighted by her impersonation of a certain right-wing lady columnist (known to her as 'Mad Mel") is still talked about.
But behind the laughter, Debbie is serious about peace, and justice, and people, and what she can do as a musical professional. At times she had seemed to be working like a one-woman band as co-ordinator for this event, leafletting concert crowds at the Albert Hall, and people at political meetings, writing and phoning to celebs and sponsors, as well as enlisting musicians.
Friends had told her the idea was too ambitious. Enemies, like the right-wing Zionist settlers who had already featured Deborah on their online hate-list, imagined they could stop the show happening. (Tom Munger had to cancel a premiere in Anchorage, Alaska because of hate mail and threats to perfomers).
Last night there were some of them outside, a pathetic bunch of placard-waving Zionists claiming to remember "all the Rachels" killed by terror (though the concert was dedicated to all those who have died during the Occupation).
Their claims to be for peace were belied by their accompanying thugs, like the one with the "Hebron Forever" tee shirt, who threatened and tried to intimidate some passers-by as well as concert-goers. Even the tolerant London police soon decided to shove them all behind a barrier away from the theatre entrance.
"Peacemakers preach peace not hate" said one placard carried by a woman who, misled perhaps by the Zionist organisers' hype, plainly had little idea what the evening was about or what kind of people she was meant to be protesting at. Maybe she can try converting the lumpen she was with, or send her message to the right-wing Zionist hate sites.
"The dogs bark, but the caravan marches on". Thanks to all who made this night at the opera a great night to remember.