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How this Palestinian music festival is breaking down cultural barriers


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: The Palestinian West Bank is usually discussed around the world in regard to Middle East peace talks, but for the past few years, the organizers of a music festival there have been trying to encourage people to open their minds and ears to what Palestinian artists have to offer.

John Yang gives us a first hand look.

It's part of our ongoing series on arts and culture, Canvas.

John Yang: In a city surrounded by barriers, this music festival is breaking down walls.

Rami Younis: We are connecting Palestine to the rest of the world using music. That's exactly what we do. If you want to describe PMX in one sentence, that's what we do.

John Yang: Rami Younis is the co-founder the 3-year-old Palestine Music Expo, or PMX, held in the Palestinian West Bank. It's as much about sharing stages as it is about shattering stereotypes.

Rami Younis: This is us trying to tell the world that Palestine isn't just Gaza, occupation, soldiers, checkpoints and all that. Palestine is also music. Palestine is also cinema. Palestine is also other stuff. And people don't see that. And you know what? We're not victims in here. We're not victimizing ourselves.

John Yang: The Israeli network of fences, walls and checkpoints, which Israel says keeps it safe, restricts the flow not only of people, but also of culture.

The rap group Ettijah is made of four young women who grew up in a refugee camp in Bethlehem.

Diala Shaheen says they're challenging the status quo of Israeli control of the West Bank.

Diala Shaheen (through translator): I mean, we suffer through the occupation at the end of the day. We decided to rap because it is a peaceful way to cope. We like rap because it is a way to express ourselves, and to express ourselves and everything that has happened to us as freedom young women. As refugees, we experience occupation every day.

John Yang: The group recently released a music video for their song "Balah Hdood," Arabic for "Without Walls."

Diala Shaheen (through translator):We experience, challenges especially because of the checkpoints, when we try to leave Palestine. These checkpoints make us feel like we are not living with freedom. We don't have the freedom where we can leave from the airport from Palestine to other countries.

John Yang: Their lyrics take cues from civil rights movements around the world.

Sophie Alayasa (through translator): It's not the same problems that we experience, but rap did begin with the African-American community, and they used it as a way to express and to share with people.

Diala Shaheen (through translator): The racism they face.

Sophie Alayasa (through translator): Right, and we're doing the same thing through rap. We're expressing our problems and everything we face.

John Yang: PMX was Ettijah's biggest gig to date. About 700 people were there, including some supportive Israelis. The group hopes to build on their warm reception.

The festival brings international music industry insiders to the West Bank to expose them to Palestinian artists. Larry LeBlanc is a longtime music journalist.

Larry LeBlanc: The music they're making here is extremely exportable. It's commercial. It would work in a number of different formats. A good artist is a good artist.

Rami Younis: When we bring the delegates from the worldwide music industry, real heavyweights, we also ask them to have workshops with us, and we learn from their -- from the good stuff they have done and from the mistakes they have done. We're not trying to copy the rest of the world. We're building our own thing, based on their experience.

John Yang: Festival organizers take the visiting music industry insiders around the West Bank to show them what Palestinians' daily lives are like behind Israel's separation barrier.

LeBlanc has been going on those tours and attending the festival since the first PMX.

Larry LeBlanc: One of the big problems in the Middle East, period, or that musicians that are Palestinian-based are either based in Israel proper or one of the other areas, is, of course, getting out of the country and playing.

John Yang: Palestinians from the Gaza Strip can't cross Israel to the West Bank without an Israeli permit.

These Gaza musicians couldn't get permits. So while their bandmates played PMX, they surprised them on Skype.

PMX and the delegates who meet here have helped bring Palestinian artists to the international stage. Organizers say at least seven of the featured bands have performed in international festivals, like the all-female band Kallemi.

Kallemi features two Israel-born Palestinian women and two Swiss women of Palestinian descent. They first worked together in Ramallah as a kind of musical exchange program, but vocalist Maysa Daw said, after their first collaboration, the band stuck.

Maysa Daw: It was actually supposed to be a one-time show, but we fell in love, and we decided to keep going.


John Yang: Vocalist Jasmin Albash says the women of Kallemi are not just sharing their music with the world; they're sharing a more complete representation of what this isolated land and its people have to offer.

Jasmin Albash: The beautiful thing is, we are not coming here and go back and say, yes, you know, it's so hard and everything is horrible. I go back and say, it was amazing. I met these amazing ladies. We had the best time ever, and it was just beautiful. So I bring back beauty, and it brings good beauty to me.

That's the magic that I experience.

John Yang: In years to come, PMX hopes to share that magic with even more music lovers around the world.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm John Yang in Ramallah.

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