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Carrying the flag for Middle East fusion

White Flag performing in Lucerne. Ingo Hoehn

An appearance at the Montreux Jazz Festival is usually a special moment in the life of any band.

But when you are a group of musicians from Israel and the Palestinian territories who haven’t seen, let alone played with each other for five years then it takes on an even deeper significance.

White Flag, a mix of five Israelis and four Palestinians, are a “band in exile”. After forming in 1999 they played around 20 gigs in Israel before the outbreak of the second intifada the following year scattered members to the four winds.

A couple ended up in the United States, one came to Switzerland, while two others were trapped in the Gaza Strip.

But five years on, thanks to the dogged persistence of a Swiss television editor and the pulling of several diplomatic strings, the band have reunited in Switzerland.

“This is our first meeting in five years, since the start of the second intifada,” band member Zaher Abdu Aljawad told swissinfo.

“I never thought we would meet again – and when we did it was magical, like a dream.”

Band on the run

The band arrived in Lucerne at the beginning of May following an invitation from the city’s mayor Urs Studer, and this week they played two nights at Montreux. During their stay in Switzerland they have recorded their first CD, entitled: White Flag – a Band in Exile.

But the whole project, which has been financed by the city of Lucerne plus various Swiss and international foundations, has not been without its problems.

“It was really difficult getting them together for two reasons,” said Urban Frye, who works as an editor and producer in the music department at Swiss-German television.

“The first is that every time you mention the word ‘Palestinian’, people are immediately suspicious about giving a visa. In the end I rang the mayor of Lucerne, who is an old friend, and he came up with the idea of inviting the whole band which opened a lot of doors.

“The second is that two of the musicians come from the Gaza Strip and they were afraid of what might happen to their families once it got out that they were being paid to travel to Switzerland to play with Israeli musicians. I had to put pressure on the Swiss mission in Ramallah to contact the Palestinian minister for culture to get official approval.”

Middle East politics

The politics of the Middle East are never far away from the band. When swissinfo turned up in Montreux, percussionist Katja Cooper and vocalist Yasin Almallahi were discussing Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza, which is scheduled to take place next month.

There has even been talk that the band and their Middle East street-fusion sound could become a musical face for the peace process – an example of Israelis and Palestinians living and playing together side by side.

Switzerland, which helped to launch an unofficial peace accord for the Middle East known as the Geneva Initiative in December 2003, has been providing “logistical and organisational support” for the band.

But Ivo Sieber, a spokesman for the Swiss foreign ministry, insisted that it was up to Israeli and Palestinian partners to decide whether White Flag could play a role in promoting the accord.

While the band go to great pains to stress that they are first and foremost a group of artists who just want to play music, they are fully aware of the growing interest from outside parties.

“As long as we can play the music the way we want to play it and don’t have to shout politics, it would be nice to represent the Palestinians and the Israelis,” said Cooper, who now lives in San Francisco.

“We’re an example of what’s possible – that your nationality and ethnic background don’t matter. There are so many things that people have in common and it’s just getting distorted by politics and who owns what land. The world doesn’t have to be that complicated.”

Ultimate goal

The ultimate goal of the band is to be able to play together once again in Israel and if possible in the Palestinian territories.

Frye believes the main obstacle to this lies with the Israeli Defence Force, which would have to authorise the Israeli musicians to enter the occupied territories and the Palestinians to travel in the opposite direction.

Yasin, who left his newborn baby in Gaza to come to Switzerland, is undaunted. He subscribes to the view that “where there’s a will, there’s a way”.

“Peace has to come from both sides – Israeli and Palestinian – and there has to be will and understanding on both sides,” he said.

“If we succeed with our CD and our music and get a little more famous then it could become easier for us to travel around. There are people in the occupied territories and Israel who think what we’re doing is a good thing.

“We are just musicians and we should be able to play anywhere. We shouldn’t be in exile.”

swissinfo, Adam Beaumont in Montreux

Prior to arriving in Switzerland, the band’s last concert was in Jerusalem in September 2000.
White Flag are believed to be the only Israeli/Palestinian group in existence.
In Switzerland they have played a concert in Lucerne and two nights at the Montreux Jazz Festival.

The band recorded their first CD – White Flag: a Band in Exile – in Lucerne using old and new material.

They describe their music as Middle East fusion – a crossover of what all the band members have to offer, with lyrics in Arabic, Hebrew and English.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR