Music comes to the rescue of thought: On Jumana Manna’s Palestine music documentary

In A Magical Substance Flows into Me (2015), artist and filmmaker Jumana Manna unpretentiously reincarnates German-Jewish ethnomusicologist Robert Lachmann’s “The Oriental Music Broadcasts” radio show, which aired on PBS from 1936-1937. Manna uses Lachmann’s program to disrupt the theoretical framework supporting the Israeli occupation of Palestine: Her sound journey subtly and artfully points at the richness of its history removed from the modern Israeli narrative. But the film, which is showing at Zawya’s Cairo Cinema Days this week, also does a lot more than that, and it’s a pleasure to watch.

The film opens with a black screen and a recorder crackling. We are introduced to the ghost of Lachmann through part of his first lecture, on November 18, 1936: “In no other country, perhaps, the need for a sound understanding of [Eastern music] and the opportunity of studying it answer each other so well as they do in Palestine. For the European, here, it is of vital interest to know the mind of his Oriental neighbor; well, music and singing, as being the most spontaneous outcome of it, will be his surest guide provided he listens to it with sympathy instead of disdain.”

Lechmann largely failed, of course, but Manna uses the remains of his project to probe why that was the case. Through a musicological method — in a refreshing change from the traditional biopic format music documentaries often take — she illustrates how music permeates the quotidian of self, culture and politics, both addressing and looking beyond rhetoric of binaries and borders. Music comes to the rescue of thought, deconstructing the language of othering that is so often deployed when discussing the people of Palestine, be they Muslim, Jewish or Christian.

Structured similarly to Lachmann’s broadcasts, the film is shot in homes, tents and offices in the West Bank, in Jerusalem, and inside Israel. In Lachmann’s show, each episode featured a lecture on an Oriental musical tradition and performances by local musicians, from the songs of Kurdish, Yeminite and Moroccan Jews and Coptic chants and hymns to Bedouin poetry accompanied by the rababa, the cantillations of the Samaritans and Arabic wedding music. Manna takes these recordings to contemporary Palestinian and Mizrahi musicians; we watch them listen and react, and often then get to listen to their contemporary version of the same musical genre. The fact that Manna, like Lachmann, fluidly interviews both Arabs and Jews without a fuss or labeling challenges the recent colonial idea that they are distinct categories.

At the beginning, Manna reads Lachmann’s words about the need to preserve the “pure and unspoiled genuine local music,” or risk it transform into a “hybrid production that is neither Western nor Easter, becoming shallow like ditchwater.” In a fascinating interview with curator Katie Guggenheim about the film, Manna explains that this idea and a counterargument by Palestinian oud player Wasif Jawhariyyeh (1897-1972) became central to the film. Jawhariyyeh argued that the only way to preserve traditional music was to write it down, but Lachmann was against Arabic music adopting Western styles of notation. He believed Arabic music was “too emotional” and that its essence would be lost. For Manna, the debate about whether notation could become a tool for preservation is emblematic of the dilemma of modernity, and “the bifurcated relationship of Palestine to the West.” Despite using his program as a framework, Manna’s film subtly acknowledges Lachmann’s inadvertent orientalism, for ultimately his views were formed by “that of the position of European schools of thought at that time, which thought of the East as something that should remain unspoiled by the West.”

This “dilemma of modernity” — the need to preserve oral traditions while also allowing the space for new musical genres to form — manifests in Lachmman’s ghost through the narration of the film, in the iPhone Manna uses to play his music recordings to her interlocutors, and in how the film generally uses the present to inform the past.

At one point we meet an elderly Samaritan couple in their home in Nablus, on Mount Gerizim. The husband, the high priest of the ancient Samaritan community, who is dressed in formal robes and tells us solemnly about the history of Samaritan liturgical music, calls over his wife (who is in and out of the frame doing household chores) to hear a recording of her father, who was high priest when Lachmann was recording. The wife doesn’t want to hear it: “But I don’t know him,” she says, and later: “I wish I could only dream of him.” Her husband explains that her father died when she was young, leaving her mother with several small children. This scene points to cultural inheritance, collective memory and how music can aid in the archeology and sustainability of marginalized groups in Palestine, but also — somewhat humorously — to gendered household dynamics.

Manna’s own Palestinian heritage is referenced largely through her parents, who are the only reoccurring characters (aside from herself), and also provide comic relief. At their home in East Jerusalem, her historian father recounts historical incidents ranging from the Zionist massacres of Palestinians from Elyabun to Majd al-Krum between October and November 1948, to a letter exchange between Theodor Herzl, the father of political Zionism, and Yusuf Dia’ al-Khalidi, the mayor of Jerusalem in 1899, intercut with shots of her mother doing yoga. There’s something highly endearing about the intimate, everyday way in which these stories are shared.

The motif of trash underscores this. At one point we overhear the filmmaker’s mother asking her father, “Did you take out the compost?” At another point the Samaritan wife complains that the garbage can was taken away before she could fill it. Both these interjections happen as major political insight is being shared, reminding us that life goes on, and the trash must always be taken out.

Paying homage to another visionary anthropologist, the name of the film is a reference to Michael Taussig’s book, What Is the Color of the Sacred? In a chapter called “A Beautiful Blue Substance Flows Inside of Me” he talks about Jean-Paul Sartre’s and William Burroughs’ encounters with yage, a Colombian hallucinogen. Manna’s title suggests that music operates similarly to color in both temporal and vibratory quality, pointing at the ability of sound and color to enter into our bodies and psyche. Sound is at the core of the film, through both music and the ambient noise of the clinks, clanks and sizzling in kitchens.

The film makes use of stunning cinematography by Daniel Kedem, and the sound recording by Antoine Brochu powerfully express the resonance of the instruments and singers — the intimate, live performances the film captures could easily serve as a standalone soundtrack for a music journey through Palestine. At just 67 minutes, the film’s lack of geographical, temporal and political context may confuse viewers looking for a more detailed and explicit delivery of information regarding modern Palestinian history. But I found its fluidity of space and time to be a radical disruption to omnipresent narratives of borders and othering: To define the Palestinian people through Zionist and British Mandate borders, no matter how critically, is in a way to support those borders. Manna shows cultures that blend together music, dance, politics and domesticity, often all mixed into single scenes.

“Music can be a place to transcend identities and affiliations, geographies and temporalities,” Manna tells Guggenheim. “But it can also be used, and has historically been used to strengthen the feelings of collective identity that are based on exclusion of ‘the other’ based on what doesn’t figure into the collective identity. I’m interested in this double bind or double-potentiality of music. I think music can both hide and reveal politics at the same time, almost like a masquerade.” At another point in her interview, she says: “If memory is a symbolic representation of the past, embedded in a set of practices and affiliations, I think that musical memory is the most libidinal form of it. It’s something that is deeply engrained in your body… It’s something that you, at least in part, inherit.”

A Magical Substance Flows into Me screens as part of Cairo Cinema Days on Thursday May 11, 4 pm, at Zawya, downtown Cairo, and on Sunday May 14, 6.30 pm, at Amir Cinema, Alexandria.
Maha ElNabawi 

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