The Gaza Strips
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I’m ageing; I’m becoming the old fart I never wished to be. I am succumbing to nostalgia and its lethal evil twin, bitterness. I listen to the radio – or, recently, more often a 30-second grab of a song on iTunes – and I think that popular music just can’t cut it anymore, that it all speaks in the same safe, sanitised, über-technocratic voice. Even death metal screams in that voice, even self-righteous strip-it-back-to-basics singer–songwriters croon in that voice. So-called independents sell Coca-Cola and mp3 players to the masses, the elder statesmen and women of Rock Inc. rub shoulders with presidents and prime ministers, while baby-whore rappers or muscle mary MCs dripping with bling extracted by near-slave-condition labour talk down to us about keeping it real. I’ve grown old, disillusioned and cynical. I am Kurtz at the end of the river in this musical odyssey. I can’t bear to listen to any of it. Exterminate the brutes! Kill them all!
In this desert of scorched dreams, hopes and expectations, last summer the radio squealed back to life. For the first time in what seemed an age there were twitches, signs of life, in that spent body. Talk to anyone who has ever felt a true love for music and they will know this state of euphoria: that nerdish fan obsession so all-consuming that it has a distinctive odour – the scent of greasy hair, of armpit sweat; the fetid stink of weeks old urine or semen on unwashed jeans, where nothing matters as much as chasing the melody or tune or beat or rhythm, and certainly not something as banal as body hygiene. We are doomed, desperate junkies, all chasing that first high when we got intoxicated by the mysterious, inscrutable equation in which sound plus energy plus sex equals something largely indefinable: rock ’n’ roll. These long lean years it has felt like the supply has drained away. It has been starvation; we have been fed bad shit by the most debased corporate pimps. I’d been waking up every morning promising myself that I was ready to give it up, that I was through with music. That I had to go clean.
And then, out of the blue, my bloodstream was filled with the purest, most intoxicating paradise. That’s when I first heard the Gaza Strips.
It says something of these four young men and one woman that their eponymous debut album announces itself with the left-right-left knockout punches of those first three singles. I was scoring cocaine from a toothless middle-aged peasant woman in Guatemala City when I heard ‘The Future As Told By’. We both looked up as the radio shifted from cheap mariachi music to the insistent reading from the Koran that opens the track. Then there was the sonic moment that made both her and I forget the deal. Over the words of the Prophet, the whining Anglo-Celtic snarl of Mr Johnny Rotten blasted through the dusty Central American street. A thundering roll of electronic beats, pumping faster than a heart racing on pure uncut speed, and the urgent rap in broken English begins, detailing the mundane realities of being an adolescent: getting up in the morning, staring down the long tunnel of unemployment and wondering how to organise some dope. Except, for the rest of the world, these realities are anything but mundane because here is the voice of a young man in Gaza. Getting up is trying to avoid the older brother “who slaps my head / ‘Get out of the fucking bed’”, the brother who will “pray over me with the lash / if he finds me with the hash”. It’s failing to make it across a checkpoint as “that border guard Israeli faggot / cops a feel of my thick plump Arab maggot”. It’s listening to your uncles argue about Hamas while they score for you from “our United Nations trust fund”.
The verses are a call and response between the heavily accented raps of MC Yusef and the quicksilver attack of SuperRaf SuperMan, born in a refugee camp in Jordan, educated at the American University of Beirut. Then it returns, that chorus pinched from the Sex Pistols, “No Future, No Future for you, No future for me”, spewed out with an agitated, gleeful abandon. Now, though, it isn’t just a shout across the Atlantic but a chorus taken up and screamed out in furious passion by kids from Lahore to London, Bangkok to Bangalore. That was what the Guatemalan woman and I instinctively understood as the song ripped through the square: this explosion of bile, this youthful fury and impatience, this mashup of punk, techno and rai was the sound of the globalised crumbling, choking, suffocating poisoned future. And how does it end? What is that faint whisper of the wireless, of the scratchy twentieth century that can just be discerned under the fading beats at the collapse of the song? It’s ‘The Internationale’. Impotent against the noise that has preceded it. Superseded. This is the new anthem.
If ‘The Future As Told By’ is the rallying cry, the manifesto, the call to arms, then ‘Jerusalem’ is the invitation to party. A morphine-slow reggaeton beat, the bass turned up so heavy that the speakers crunch as the sound storms through the wires, it appears to be the simplest of songs, celebrating taking drugs and staying up all night. The version on the album is the “Glass Candy remix”, slyly grafting a jittery sample of Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Second Hand News’ onto the body of the track, supplying the necessary heat to force your stoned comatose body off the sofa and onto the dance floor. It is a track that innocently seems to coo: Hey, nothing to worry about, this is just a track for lovers, nothing to get hung about, strawberry fields forever. But the worm is in the title. Last summer you couldn’t go anywhere in Israel without hearing the call to be “Up Up Up all night”, to be “High High High all night”. When you have a group of Palestinians wanting to take over Jerusalem for a party, you’ve thrown a bomb.
‘Colder’, the next single, is the track that moves you to tears, indicating that the Gaza Strips have it in them to be great songwriters. ‘Colder’ begins with another sample, a snatch of Natalie Portman’s voice from the movie Closer, an apt thievery as the song partakes of the melancholy sense of loss that permeates the film (and Patrick Marber’s original play). This time it isn’t the boys in lead vocal but base guitarist
Leila Delilah. She is not one of the world’s greatest bass players. Not yet. But she’s only 19, and in a sense it doesn’t matter what her future holds because she’s already given us an image that can’t be erased. There, on the back-cover sleeve of the vinyl edition, is a digital snapshot of the band on stage; at the forefront, her scarfed head lowered as she focuses intently on her guitar, Delilah is wearing a long-sleeved Stooges T-shirt. The contradiction and subversion contained in her stage name – first name, one of Palestine’s most notorious terrorists, surname, the Bible’s greatest temptress – is embodied by this woman in everything she does.
Delilah has told the press that her idol is Fairouz. Her voice is certainly not comparable, but you can legitimately give yourself over to the fantasy that the great Lebanese chanteuse’s spirit is there on this record. In ‘Colder’, a woman is singing about the approach of winter and, as everything becomes colder, she and her friends are drinking their apple and cinnamon tea, watching the Christian boys across the road, with their tight jeans and firm butts. But watching Christian boys is not much fun when you – her love, her desire, the one who broke her heart – aren’t here. “Everything is much colder now / Now you are not here.” And then it comes in, Delilah’s bass, the drums and vocals from Afro-German songstress Joy Denalane, which form the soulful haunting chorus:
Set Me Free, baby,
What you doing to me, baby,
Oh can’t you see, baby,
I just wanna be free, baby.
It’s a love song, nothing more than that; and, as ‘just a love song’, ‘Colder’ breaks your heart. But this is also a Palestinian band singing from one of the most wretched corners of the oppressed world, and what burns you up is hearing its resonance, back to soul and further, to gospel, to slave songs, and all the way to the Israelite slave laments of the Psalms. The awful ironies and tragedies that bedevil Palestinian history are expressed in the four minutes and 23 seconds of this song. When the chorus soars, its words repeating and repeating, there are no diva histrionics; Denalane keeps herself restrained. This is because the song deserves it. This is a song that makes you believe you are young again, that makes you naively, foolishly, desperately hope that something called art can change the world.
If, aside from these three singles, the rest of The Gaza Strips was crap, it would still be the most essential album out there. I didn’t dare hope the band could top any of the above moments. And there is nothing that really betters ‘Colder’, but there are two more tracks on the album that justify all our impossible dreams. ‘Kerosene’, just under three minutes, makes sense of Delilah’s Stooges T-shirt. A power-pop attack of amphetamine guitars and drums, it’s all about being so much in love with someone it burns you up. MC Yusef barks out the lyrics on just the right side of atonal and the other band members screech out the chorus in a punkish snarl, which reminds you again that these are kids wanting to make some noise, while the guitars jangle and buzz with a distortion and clamour pilfered from the Jesus and Mary Chain.
The Gaza Strips’ immersion in joy and ecstasy and pleasure and abandonment is a pagan delight that spits in the face of the cruel monotheistic God that has so blighted their homeland. ‘Kerosene’ delights in a corruption and decadence and deviant spirit that celebrates the Golden Calf not the Ten Commandments, Ah-Lat not Al-Lah, the Jesus who fucked off with Mary Magdalene not the Christ who died and was resurrected on the cross. ‘Kerosene’ makes you want to shout and dance and go mad for all those sinning buggers condemned to Hell by an unforgiving God.
If only, of course, it was so easy.
The bind that the Gaza Strips ultimately find themselves in is revealed in the final track, ‘Traditional’. It is the song that comes closest to rivalling ‘Colder’ for both sonic resonance and emotive power. And, like ‘Colder’, it is an elegy. A simple piano melody loops three times before the sample kicks in, an old Broadway tune that should seem a million miles away both from Palestine and this century. It is the proud stentorian baritone of Israeli actor–singer Topol, as employed in the Hollywood soundtrack to Fiddler on the Roof. He is bellowing the chorus to the song ‘Tradition’, which in the original musical was a defiant affirmation of Eastern European Jewish identity against the racist and ultimately genocidal intent of the pogroms. There is audacity in a group of young Palestinian musicians laying claim to this song. There is further chutzpah, if you like, in the pulsating chintzy early-’80s synthesiser beat propelling the song forward, as well as in the use of the oud, and in that acid house piano repeating over and over again the simple melody introduced at the very beginning. The Gaza Strips feel free to pinch from everyone and everywhere, indeed that may be their birthright. Leila Delilah again takes lead vocal for ‘Traditional’ but her lyrics cut against the vivid but sentimental meaning of the original Broadway song. She is singing about a young woman staring a bleak future in the face – a marriage she doesn’t want, a homeland that doesn’t seem likely to ever exist. When Topol re-emerges in the chorus, it cannot help but seem now a taunt, a sneer. It is tradition that’s binding women into helplessness; the tradition Topol represents is binding a people into submission. As the final chorus begins to fade, the oud, the piano, the guitars fall away, and all that remains is a venomous synthetic drum pattern and one echo of Topol. Over the top of this Delilah begins to scat, free form, as if suddenly discovering jazz. “If I were a rich man, yeah, yeah, if I were— If I were a rich man, yeah— If I were, rich, just a rich man …”
If you make one of the great albums on your debut, how do you follow it? Johnny Rotten’s snarl introduces The Gaza Strips; it is a threat reminding the band that the Sex Pistols shook a portion of the globe but never managed a decent follow-up to Never Mind the Bollocks. The burden of expectation on the Gaza Strips is now huge, and not merely because their influence possibly extends to an even greater part of the world than the Sex Pistols’ ever did. Something musical has emerged from the kicked at, stomped on, starved belly of the third world – not something to take with a pinch of irony and cool detachment, not exotica, not something derivative, but something of genuine excitement and danger.
In this sense, whatever their future, the Gaza Strips have left their mark. The next album, when it comes, might be shit, might be over-produced, might be commercially compromised. One hopes, of course, that it rocks, that it too sends shivers down our spines and a rush through our veins. One hopes.
Who’d want to be the Gaza Strips? The mullahs in Iran are raging against them, Al Qaeda has announced them apostates (which might make the Christian members of the band raise bemused eyebrows), Hamas has called them a “deleterious influence”, Israel’s Likud Party declares their songs pro-terrorist and the United States of America continues to deny them a visa to perform (although ‘Colder’ is up for an MTV award for Song of the Year). In Vanity Fair Christopher Hitchens has written that the Gaza Strips are a victory for secularism but he “fails to find poetry in their rantings”. Laura Ingraham has written an essay in the New Statesman in which she pillories the Gaza Strips for representing a fifth column of new anti-Semitism. But, as the old men and women of the first world ponder “where the fuck did they come from?”, the Gaza Strips have emerged – in a million discos, nightclubs, dancehalls, squares, parks, piazzas, plazas, alleys and calles – as the sound of this young world.
In a blog by the influential Israeli peace activist White Dove Black Dove, the band was taken to task for not participating more actively in the peace movement. In a cocky response to the blog, which I suspect says more about their youth and their immersion in the mythology of rock ’n’ roll than it does about their politics, the Gaza Strips collectively signed a statement in which they declared: “Whatever the solution is, whether it is one state or two states, what we don’t want to do is live in a nation where the theocracy rules, whether that theocracy is Jewish or Muslim. We think that the best thing for both Israel and Palestine would be for only the atheists to be allowed seats at the negotiating table.” They then made the point that their activism, their contribution to a new Israel and a new Palestine was going to be made through their forthcoming record. Over a thousand return hits on the blog railed against them for being satisfied with what one blogger termed the “tired spent argument of art for art’s sake”.
I believe this album reveals the limitations and bankruptcy of all the endless rounds of negotiations and state-sanctioned talks. There is no future in any of
that. What the old men and women don’t understand, and this includes the old men and women of their own generation, is that the Gaza Strips are right to turn their backs on all that past. They don’t need any of it. The Gaza Strips are the peace process.
Christos Tsiolkas is the author of five novels, including The Slap and Barracuda, and the short-story collection Merciless Gods.