Palestinian Beat-Maker Muqata’a Speaks about the Palestinian Art Community, Music and Partying in Ramallah

Stephanie Berzon

Muqata’a. Photography by Nick Newsom.

I first learned about Muqata’a’s work from Drew McDowall, the modular legend formerly involved in musical groups Coil and Psychic TV, and whose present solo work sounds like a biological struggle for ethereal movement, or an out-of-body experience through a tunnel staked in nails. Some heads in the experimental music scene know McDowall as a godfather to the New York City community and to siblings abroad, always checking in to collaborate and support. He had just returned to the States from a tour in the Middle East when I asked him if he knew of any contemporary artists who are using their sound as a political weapon.

Muqata’a is a Palestinian beat-maker who hails from the West Bank school of hip-hop. Previously known as Boikutt in another life as a rapper, he founded the music collective Ramallah Underground (RU) in 2003 with friends Basel Abbas and Stormtrap. RU started as an internet platform for Arabic youth to voice their frustrations through music, but the project ultimately foiled into a band name for the trio and they became a touring voice of resistance. Some time after their breakup in 2009, Muqata’a emerged, slowly replacing his role as lyricist with a more dynamic approach to producing.

His work sounds to me like a tripedal glissade over three moving walkways, or stretchers, rotating at varied and perhaps irrational speeds. It’s instrumental, at times polyrhythmic and real glitchy. Just when you find yourself safely falling into a beat, he knocks you back, soberly, to the surface. He samples classical Arabic music and field recordings of occupied Palestine. The effect is theoretically frightening because it beckons the listener to remember why this sound is necessary for us to listen to. An archive suggests silent historical erosion. “Muqata’a” translates in English to “boycott.”

An hour before his soundcheck for a recent show we met at Public Records, a new venue in Brooklyn facing the Gowanus Canal. About to light up a cigarette, he asked me if we could smoke here. At the first catch of my hesitance, he answered “but we’re outside.” We continued to broach deeply conflicting topics that never have answers, but demand examination.

A couple of days ago you were performing in a desert in southern Jordan. What was that like? Well it was my first time there in Wadi Rum for Sarāb (a small-scale music festival). There was an amazing lineup of experimental musicians from the Arab world. It was amazing to see all of these new artists that I have heard of before and never seen live. It was very interesting, a very amazing lineup.

What did you do in your time off? It was a bit like a retreat for me honestly. I was hanging out, stargazing and just relaxing because it was quiet. A lot of the acts were electroacoustic-ambient stuff. It was really cool and calming unlike other festivals that I go to, which are really loud and heavy.

What is the current relationship between Jordan and the Palestinian artist community? We collaborate a lot. There are many great artists and event promoters that we have been working closely with. We invite each other to perform and also have multiple collaborative projects. When our land was stolen in 1948, the majority of Palestinian refugees went to Jordan, so it currently has the largest Palestinian community outside of Palestine. It is also the only way out for many Palestinians since we do not have an airport. Every area of Palestine has a different set of laws; for example, being a West Bank resident allows me to go to Jordan without a visa or permission, but I am not allowed to go to 1948 Palestine (Israel) where there are airports or to Gaza.

You are not allowed to go to these areas, but do you go to these areas? I have been to Gaza when it was allowed before the year 2000. I performed in Haifa a few months back but that was one of the only times I could ever go there.

How do you get permission? You have to apply to get an Israeli permit, which rarely happens, and then they decide whether you get it or not. We need permission to visit the cities we are originally from.

How do you leave the West Bank? Through Jordan is the only way, by land of course.

Does the community feel very insular and isolated? It definitely does. The West Bank is surrounded by a wall as well. Not only do we not have access to an airport or a sea, but it is also surrounded by a wall, so it is an open air prison.

What does that sound like from the inside? Does it reverberate the sounds from overhead? The wall affects the soundscape from both the “inside” and “outside,” as it separates the space into two different environments. The outside of the wall is what we consider the inside of Palestine. Mainly, the sounds I am interested in are the ones between the “inside” and “outside.” The sounds of the military posts and checkpoints. The sounds of metal detectors and revolving metal doors, and the sounds of soldiers shouting from behind bullet proof glass into distorted speakers. I usually record moments I happen to be in with a specific context.

Did any of those sounds surface in your last album? In the last album I didn’t use many field recordings, or I did but not in a traditional sense; more like someone screaming in a protest turned to a snare. I have hours of recordings from protests, but most of my recordings are from when I travel to Jordan at the Israeli border point, which is after the Palestinian border and before the Jordanian one. So it’s in the middle buffer zone that they created so they can control who enters and leaves and it’s the main border actually because they are the ones controlling us passing through. Most of my recordings are from that border point, and it changes over time.

What is the most important sound you have recorded? It’s a long recording of us waiting in line at that same checkpoint. We were given numbers to pass and there is a voice machine which calls the number to dictate which window we then have to go to. I had ignored this sound for so many years and that day I was just like “shit I need to record this, it says so much.” I just felt like I was in a factory of some sort. Also, that day the voice was glitching by itself so it would be like “ding dong, number fo-fo-four-forty-three-three-three window seven” and it would glitch into a high frequency sound and I recorded it. It felt like the speaker was going to break. These speakers and these sounds are weaponized and used against us. I record them, process them, and sample them to respond through my music as a form of trying to break that soundscape.

So for the sake of clarity, your field recorder is your political weapon? In a way, but not exactly. It’s a tool to sample their weapons. And with everything being weaponized around me, I am forced to respond with my music.

Where were you born and raised? I was born in Arizona, in Tucson. And then my family went to Nicosia, Cyprus where I was raised. After that I lived in Jordan for about 4-5 years, in Amman, and then to Ramallah, Palestine until today. I am based there now.

Tell me about the first time you played piano. My mother is not a professional musician, but she plays the accordion and is a vocalist as well and takes part in sessions with her friends and other musicians. She was always into music, and so was my father, as a listener. They have a big cassette collection, and a small vinyl collection as well. They were really into Taarab music which is a form of classical Arabic music mainly from Egypt, Lebanon and Iraq. They had a big collection so I was raised listening to that as well as American pop music, which was everywhere—it was fed to us as kids on TV and radio—from when I was a baby until I was 8 or so, when I started to listening to hip-hop and punk and I was like okay this makes a lot more sense to me. When I was seven, I started learning piano. I studied that for a few years until I eventually quit because I preferred to play with the kids in my neighborhood instead of going to piano class every few days. But I guess that was the beginning. I was really into music, but I just didn’t want to take classes and maybe that’s why I eventually went to electronic music where I taught myself with a computer.

Why did hip-hop make more sense to you? It was my older brother who started listening to hip hop, and got me into it. He got a few tapes from his friends—the first album being Dr. Dre’s “The Chronic.” Then we started listening to Redman and Wu Tang and it built up from there to Gang Starr and Jeru Tha Damaja, etc. A lot of hip hop from New York, but also of course Dr. Dre and Snoop Doggy Dogg.

And how did that make sense within your context? It didn’t, it just sounded good. Or actually, it was hardcore. It had this heaviness to it. From all of the stories I would hear from my parents and grandparents about our personal history, our collective history, our collective memory, I felt connected in many ways to the sound of someone responding to the injustices they face. Even though I barely understood what was being said in the lyrics, it was in your face, and it felt right.

And something to be angry about. There is so much to be angry about, what happened to us, and still is, was violent, to say the least. We were raised knowing that we may never be able to return to the land we were ethnically cleansed from. So it is only natural that I felt more connected to heavier sounds.

Your most recent album Inkanakuntu that was released under Muqata’a is a quite a bit of a formal departure from your rap project Boikutt and its involvement in Ramallah Underground. There aren’t any lyrics on your last album. What is the reason is for this decision? Boikutt was a translation of Muqata’a, so it was always Muqata’a, but I decided to stick with the original name. They are still the same project. I wanted to be less direct and I didn’t want to narrate my music. I wanted it to be more open for interpretation. Instrumental music is a bit more poetic to me and honestly is the form that I started with but rarely released. I began to write and record rap because I wanted to be direct and I felt like I had so much to say. It was during the incursion in 2002 in Ramallah when there were tanks everywhere, and we lived under curfew. We weren’t allowed to even look outside the window. There were proper tanks and soldiers throughout the city. We were on curfew for 22–23 days. We weren’t allowed to leave our homes and we didn’t have food the last 10 days. That’s when I decided to write and the first track I wrote translates to “moving is not allowed” because that’s exactly what we would hear when the Israeli army jeeps and tanks would circle around. They had megaphones and speakers that would repeat “you are under curfew, anyone that we see will be shot onsite.” So that was a part of the lyrics of the track, which is the first track I made, but at that point I still felt like I just wanted to make instrumental music. In a way I was forced to write lyrics and be more direct and in your face and that stuck with me for quite some time. And then we started Ramallah Underground and were placed in a straight up rap/hip-hop category. Eventually we tried to break out of that frame and resulted in us ending Ramallah Underground. We then started Tashweesh in 2010, which was mainly instrumental with a bit of lyrics with myself and Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme, who are installation artists. It is audio/visual, very sample-based, a bit noisy, very glitchy and fragmented. We use a lot of field recordings and archive material. It is less beat driven, more free.

Do you feel that lyrics in a way is preach? It can be preaching, but I am very careful not to preach. I’m asking questions to spark conversation and provoke questions about the things I see wrong in my community or in my surroundings, or sarcasm towards the situation that we live in. Sarcasm, but also provoking questions about these things and how we can bring about some form of change. It’s not about right or wrong.

Is this why you make music: to provoke change? It’s part of it.

What is the other part? It’s very personal as well. For me it’s therapeutic to make music. I don’t think I can survive a long time without making music. It’s part of my daily life since I was 12 and I’m 32 now so I can’t imagine not doing that. It’s not a reason, but it is therapeutic, it keeps me sane.

What samples are used in “Taqamus Muqawim” and “Thakira Jama’iya”? The sample in “Taqamus Muqawim” is from a political Lebanese play from the ‘70s made by the Rahbani family. This sample is saying “Hon Ma teeju,” which translates to “don’t come here.” The title of the track doesn’t translate to English perfectly, but it means the reincarnation of a resistance fighter. The intro of “Thakira Jamay’iya” is from a Kuwaiti drumming of about 40 people and they have this crazy syncopation that happens and the repetition of their loop could reach something like 64 beats. You know how like a lot of western music its 4-4. There it can reach 1-64 and that’s one loop. I was fascinated by that and how it sounds so I sampled it. “Thakira Jama’iya” means collective memory.

What kind of challenges do artists in the West Bank face currently? All over Palestine we are isolated from the rest of the Arab world and the whole world. It’s very difficult for us to travel. It’s always a problem. I have a US passport because I was born here, but it’s still difficult to travel because I also have a Palestinian passport. In Palestine, different cities are isolated from one another so it is hard to form a proper community even though Palestine is a small country. It’s difficult to have a scene in Ramallah because it’s such a small city with less than 70,000 people. It’s a small town. And then you have other cities around and they have their own scenes but they can’t become strong scenes or communities because they’re too small. The best thing to do would be to combine all of these little communities into one community, but then that is merely impossible because it’s hard to travel. It’s hard to go from one place to another. We can’t go to Jerusalem, Haifa, Gaza. That’s one of our biggest problems.

Are there any night clubs in the West Bank? There are a few clubs in Bethlehem. They aren’t exactly clubs in Ramallah. I mean some call them clubs, but they’re not proper venues. They’re bars that on the weekend we transform into clubs. It’s fine, but they’re very limited, only a few places in Ramallah. In pretty much every city there are only a few places, and then you have only one or two of those places that are interested in the stuff that we do, and then there’s only one place that can book you from now to three months out. It’s not easy in that sense.

How do you foresee the future of the community who supports experimental electronic music? It really depends on the political situation. We had some clubs in the late ‘90s in Ramallah and then they closed in the early 2000s because of the Second Intifada–the second uprising–and after the curfew I just told you about, everything closed in Ramallah. The majority of musicians, artists and filmmakers left Palestine. A lot of them went to Europe and the US. They moved out because the situation was unbearable and not everyone wanted to stay, and of course not everyone could leave, but in any case there was a pause on everything. Today, in some ways, it is returning to how it was in the late ‘90s. The community is growing. The electronic experimental music scene is growing. People who make hip hop are also coming to electronic and experimental performances. People who make more noise and experimental improv stuff are coming to trap events and people who produce techno and house are also coming to the hip hop events so it feels like one big community of music and art in general. We are not dividing the community since it is already divided geographically. We are not that many as well, but I feel it came together organically where people from all musical backgrounds are supporting each other and listening to each other.

Do you think that’s a form of resistance? We feel that we are endangered and being attacked all of the time so we all support each other and try to build our culture to progress and not be stuck in the past. I think this is a form of communication.

You’ve described your music as being a glitch in the system. What does that mean, exactly? It’s breaking the stagnant narrative, breaking the fixed soundscape.

Do you face any risk by being vocal about this being one of your work’s roles? Nothing has happened to me personally, but most of our events get shut down indirectly. We have a midnight curfew and that is only enforced on the events that are organized with a sense of community. More mainstream parties in Ramallah and in Palestine don’t get shutdown at 12. Wedding parties can stay until the next day in the morning. Anyone can go on for as long as they want but if you’re doing something that is not aligned with their ideas or is not commercial enough then you have a midnight curfew.

Who decides that? It’s not even on paper or anything. It just is. I think they see that we are a growing community and they don’t like us. They see that a lot of people who are active in the community come to our events. Every time we have an event there’s undercover Palestinian Intelligence agents. They say they are looking for drugs, and use that to monitor the events.

Is it obvious who they are? Usually yes. You can tell by how they’re reacting to the music, how they are communicating with other people, if they know anyone else or if they’re just randomly there.

Does anyone know your birth name? Yeah, a lot of people do.