BERLIN (AP) — When Eden Cami closes her eyes and begins to sing ancient tunes in Arabic and Hebrew, Jewish-Israeli bassist Or Rozenfeld plays double bass and Syrian band member Wassim Mukdad creates sparkling sounds on his oud at 12 strings, they take their audience on a musical journey through the Middle East.
However, the three musicians all live far from there, in Germany. Back in their native region, they would likely be unable to perform together due to longstanding hostilities between their governments and societies.
“It took us 3,500 kilometers to be able to meet, even if it’s like a two-hour drive,” says Mukdad, 37, referring to the theoretical distance between their homes in neighboring Syria and Israel – because in reality, people cannot legally cross from Syria to Israel or vice versa.
“Borders in the Middle East are places to separate people,” Mukdad added.
Mukdad arrived in Berlin in 2016, a refugee who says he was tortured during Syria’s civil war. Cami, 35, Arab and from the Druze minority in northern Israel, came to the German capital in search of freedom and tranquility.
Rozenfeld, the grandson of Holocaust survivors, came looking for an affordable, cosmopolitan town where he wouldn’t have to take a second job to earn a living as a musician. Borys Slowikowski, the drummer who joined the band more recently, is a Polish immigrant.
Cami launched his group, the Kayan Project, in 2017.
Kayan, the Arabic word for existence, is also the theme of their music and conviviality. By creating and performing songs, they continually learn how much they have in common and how close the roots of their cultures and languages are despite all the hatred they grew up with.
“As musicians, we’re all very similar,” says Rozenfeld, 32. “I wouldn’t even call us a mixed group, because ‘mixed’ is only a concept if you put ethnicity first, but we put our music first.”
Cami, who grew up speaking Arabic and Hebrew, says it was natural for her to use both languages for her songs.
“I definitely dream in them and sing in them, think in them and feel in them,” she told The Associated Press earlier this week in Berlin, where the band were performing aboard a boat moored on the River Havel.
“I find it’s a very interesting way to experience an identity that is complex, that is not just one thing,” she added. “And I feel very happy to express that in art.”
In the Middle East, Syrians are still waging a civil war, Israeli Jews and Palestinians have been fighting for their land for decades, and relations between neighboring countries are clouded by past wars. In Berlin, artists can celebrate what unites them instead of lamenting their divisions.
“The idea is that we can do culture together, even if we don’t share 100% of political opinions, origins,” said Mukdad, an atheist with Muslim parents. “We can start communicating with each other. We can start a dialogue.
On Sunday evening, Cami, wearing a dark green dress and gray heeled boots, opened the show with a Hebrew song called “Ahavat Nerai” or “First love”, followed by an Arabic song called “Ghesh” or “Cheat.”
Most of the songs the band played were well-known Israeli or Arabic tunes; some they wrote themselves.
“Language, literature, religion, culture, music, food, climate, geography – we all bring these memories and images with us,” Mukdad said. “And then to set it to music, it will be like a garden full of flowers of many colors.”
“Dancing for No One”, which was written by Rozenfeld, is the title track of their debut album. It came out in April. The lyrics – the only song in English – are both melancholic and hopeful.
“As I walk to a place I yearn to be, I hear the river flowing towards the sea, I feel the waves coming back to me… My thoughts are clear, the heartbeats are slow. The stones mark a path into the unknown,” Cami sang as Mukdad hid his face behind curly black hair as he played the oud. Rozenfeld, whose shaven head was covered in a flat skullcap, moved in rhythm while playing the double bass.
“They’re all fantastic musicians,” said Jonas Berndt, a Swedish musician living in Berlin, who had come to see the band.
The group had been invited to play during the opening week of the “Jewish Theater Boat MS Goldberg” – another unique Berlin creation.
The idea of presenting on a boat works of art related to Jewish culture – theatre, music, literature – was imagined a few years ago by a group of artists called “Discover Jewish Europe”. Due to the pandemic and financial difficulties, the show boat only opened last week.
The boat, which was once used to transport gravel on German rivers, will be moored on the Havel all summer, then will move to the Spree River in downtown Berlin in the fall, and in the future will circumnavigate Germany on various waterways.
Max Doehlemann, one of the creators of the Jewish Theater Boat and a musician himself, explained the mission of the place.
“It’s about dialogue, intercultural dialogue, the fight against anti-Semitism and racism,” he said. “We just hope that with our diverse program, we can represent much of what constitutes Jewish existence in all its facets.”
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