Interview: Q&A with Samah Mustafa – The Therapeutic Power of Music (June 2021)

It was mid-April when we firstly approached Samah Mustafa to arrange an interview. The Arab Palestinian singer, multi-instrumentalist and music therapist released a new album, titled BALLOOR, only a few months earlier and we wanted to delve a bit into her sound on the edge between the Arabic folk tradition and electro-pop sonorities.

Back then, despite the ever-present tension and everyday struggles, war was still a distant nightmare for Palestinians living in Israel like her. But less than two weeks later, the situation in Jerusalem and the Occupied West Bank deteriorated and eventually collapsed on May 10, giving way to 11 days of war that caused 271 casualties, of which 254 were Palestinians.

Almost three months have passed since then and peace is still a remote dream for the people in the region. However, Samah kindly found some time for our questions with the hope that music can work as a therapeutic instrument…

We are sorry to set the interview in motion in this way, but it’s almost inevitable considering the current dire events. How much does the ongoing situation in Palestine influence your music?

It’s true that what is going on is extremely hard and stressful, but unfortunately violence and injustice are familiar to us as Palestinians.

The ongoing situation makes my music more valuable and has a stronger message of freedom and justice. It also makes me more aware of the importance of my music and I feel a big responsibility to keep my folklore and culture alive. I can’t deny that sometimes the sadness is controlling me in a way that I feel I’m not able to make music, I just keep watching the news, but later that push and the need of resistance and expressing through music and singing appears. 

As well as a singer, musician and composer, you are also a music educator and therapist. How much do you think music helps and can help the Palestinian people to deal with and endure their present conditions?

Music gathers people, makes the similarities between them so much more than the differences, and I could see that strongly in those days. Palestinians from the river to the sea, all over the world, share the same feelings, worries through music, they support and encourage each other by chanting, playing and creating music together. Music helps people express their feelings and to resist. We can see in Sheikh Jarrah how families are facing ethnic cleansing and forced eviction. They gather every evening singing songs from folklore and chanting. Through music they support each other and gain strength. And we can see this in every Palestinian village and city, the music is the strongest message of resistance and the safest space for people to express and share their feelings without fear.

Palestine is clearly not the “only” inspiration behind your creativity. What are the other driving forces in your music?

Nature and its harmony inspires me. Being a therapist makes me more connected to my feelings and to others’ feelings, this connection drives me to express more and more through music. I’m always passionate about the human voice and what is hidden behind it, in my journey I’m trying to explore new levels in my voice through meditation, movement, and also exploring spirituality through different cultures and traditions. I’m always amazed by the magic of the voice, those journeys inspire me the most. Besides that, I’ve got into the looping world, I bought a looper machine that inspires me and makes me explore and create new stuff every time.

Can you briefly retrace your music career for us? When did you first approach music in a “conscious” way and when did you understand that it could become something more than a passion in your life?

It was always my dream to become a singer. Since childhood, I’ve attended musical courses during all of my school life. I attended guitar class for 3 years, Oriental singing and Maqam theory as well. Since music has been the only subject I could do that felt alive and authentic, it wasn’t a hard choice for me after high school. I finished my B.A. in Performance Art/ Oriental Singing, and music education in the Academy of Music and Dance in Jerusalem. After that I finished my Masters in Music Therapy, then Vocal Psychotherapy and Depth Psychology. I performed classical Oriental music and folklore, beside projects and collaborations in Palestine, Europe and Africa. I got into the looping world, I released many singles, and my first official album was BALLOOR

You released your new LP in December. How would you introduce BALLOOR and how was it to work on and record a new album in these mad Covid-19 times?

I started working on BALLOOR in 2018, and planned to release it before December. But unfortunately Covid-19 had another plan. The positive thing about this Covid is that I had  time to work more on the music, but on the other hand, the challenging part was that the lockdown cut the flow of the process, and unfortunately, I haven’t had a release tour yet.

The album BALLOOR (which means Crystals) is music that combines ambient, tribal and folk music. My compositions and lyrics (apart from “Traditional”, which is an old Palestinian folk song rearranged by me, and “Banat Alarab” written by Fathiyya Khatib). The music is based on vocal loops, which is ambient and therapeutic and gave me an image of magic or crystals. 

The BALLOOR album is more like a “meeting point” between me as a therapist- who works with people in different generations and gets more in touch with their feelings- and me as a musician. I tried to express feelings that are personal but also general, and social difficulties that I’ve faced as a female in the Middle East who grew up in a conservative community. 

BALLOOR is an exploration of new levels and layers in my voice. It focuses on using the voice as an instrument that can also express feelings without lyrics, differently to the idea of the lead singer in Arabic/Oriental music. 

Many of the nine chapters in BALLOOR move from the Middle Eastern tradition to eventually embrace electronica and more pop and ambient-sounding sonorities. How do you amalgamate those different characters in your music?

I just don’t think about it, I let my soul be in the music. I remember when I was a kid I listened to Arabic and Western pop music, and to Um Kiulthoum, a diva in the Arabic classical music from the golden age at the same time, and felt the same excitement. I’m made up of different parts, I’m influenced by instrumental music, spirituality and folklore, those combinations together with my roots make my music. I think mixing between genres and different worlds make the music more special and unique.

Is there any main music or cultural inspiration behind BALLOOR? Were you listening to any specific music style/artist when writing the album?

Basically during making the album I used to meditate and explore my voice through experimental rituals with voice and body. Those kinds of journeys inspired me a lot. Beside that, my rich Palestinian folklore inspires me. Also types of music from different worlds are always alive in my home, my husband Akram Abdulfattah is also a musician, so I catch music from different styles all the time: African, Indian, Arabic, singing, instrumental and also modern and pop music. 

This might be a tricky question… Anyway, is there any song in the album that stands out or has a particular significance to you?

I could say that “A Calling From Inside” has a special place in my heart and soul. 

It was the last one I composed, although it was supposed to be the first one to be finished. It talks about the inner voice, the authentic one that lives in the depth of one soul. And the importance of being close to our souls through singing, dancing, and any other ritual that aims to explore ourselves, and in order to be close to our authenticity.

What music/musicians are you listening to at the moment?

Lately I’ve been listening to rap music, Dhafer Yousef, Eva Cassidy, Abdulhalim Hafez. Those are on top of my playlist.

In spite of everything, Palestinian music and the music scenes in Ramallah, East Jerusalem, Gaza and even Haifa are livelier than ever. More and more Palestinian artists are reaching beyond their country and Middle Eastern borders and, I’m thinking about hip-hop and electronic musicians in particular, are becoming well-known names abroad. What are your thoughts on Palestinian music and being a musician in Palestine nowadays?

That is right, the music scene in Palestine is becoming very rich and colourful. We have a lot of talents in art in general and in music in particular. In the past, when we talked about music, we mostly mentioned the classical singers. But today, there is a space for instrumental music that wasn’t there before, electronic and alternative music. Social media and the world being connected, gives an opportunity to get in touch with new cultures and different styles. A thing that makes the Palestinian scene very rich and gives a chance to the world to know more about our music and our talents. I feel happy and proud to see Palestinian artists aboard, we have rich folklore and a lot of art that deserve to be seen and heard. 

Nowadays in Palestine we have a dominant music and theatre life more than any time before, yet it’s still challenging when it’s about funding, and having opportunities, because of the political situation that affects our music and makes fewer opportunities. 

Is there any Palestinian musician/band you would like to suggest we listen to?

The Palestinian scene is really rich and colourful nowadays. You can find good music and musicians from different genres: instrumental, Arabic classical, folklore, hip-hop etc… I would suggest Nai Barghouti, Akram Abdulfattah, DAM, 47Soul and there are more and more of course.

What are your music plans for the future? 

I’m working on shooting a video clip for two songs from BALLOOR. I’m planning a tour directly after the pandemic. Besides that I’m working on new materials and will share more details soon. 

We usually close our interview and Q&As with a “sneaky” question. Which is… how would you introduce your music to someone who has never listened to it before?

BALLOOR is an ambient, dreamy, tribal and folk musical journey, it brings a story and a feeling with each song in a different way of musical expression and sound. It creates musical images with vocal loops, with words and without words. Accompanied by other instruments from different worlds.


Photo ©: Rami Haj