RAMALLAH, West Bank — Death has not stopped Rim Banna, known as Palestine’s "Voice of Revolution,” from singing her songs of resistance in a posthumous album that was released last month, just as thousands of Palestinians marked the 70th anniversary of the Nakba with "Great Return March" protests.
Norwegian production company Kirkelig Kulturverksted (KKV) released "Sawt al-Moukawama” (“Voice of Resistance”) a month after Banna, a singer and activist known for her modern interpretation of traditional Palestinian songs, died of breast cancer March 24 at the age of 51. The album, which uses new technology to recreate and boost Banna’s fading voice, consists of 15 songs — 14 written by her and one by Lebanese poet Zahi Wehbe.
Work on the album began after damage to Banna's vocal cords caused her voice to change a few years ago. In January, in one of her last statements to the press, Banna said she wanted her album to be “daring and special” rather than dark and sad. “It is a creative act of resistance facing all forms of injustice and occupation,” she was quoted as saying by the Jana news portal.
Banna, born and raised in the city of Nazareth, was often called “White Gazelle,” a nickname her mother, poet Zuhaira Sabbagh, gave her. Sabbagh announced her daughter’s death on her Facebook page: “My White Gazelle is gone. But her smile still lights up her beautiful face to make the anguish of separation a bit bearable.”
Banna's career as a singer and composer had been very much influenced by and interlinked with her mother. She grew up with songs of patriotism and rebellion at home, listening to Fairouz, Marcel Khalife, Ziad Rahbani and Sheikh Imam. When Banna was 12, her mother was asked to supervise a musical performance of Fairouz’s “Mayce al-Rim” at the Nazareth Baptist School where she was a student. Sabbagh chose her own daughter to sing.
Sabbagh told Al-Monitor, “In that play Rim’s voice was heard for the first time and caught people’s attention. She then joined 'Umm Saad,' a musical troupe that was starting out. I would accompany her for their rehearsals.”
But once the troupe gained some success, the members said they no longer wanted to work with Banna, telling her the public had grown “tired of her voice,” according to Sabbagh. Affected by her daughter’s sadness, Sabbagh insisted that she continue her musical training and encouraged her participation in a folkloric festival in Nazareth, in which she achieved great success.
Banna, who studied in Russia between 1985 and 1991, released 13 albums throughout her career, some of which contained children's songs. While studying in Russia with artist and composer Vladimer Karobka, she produced two albums of her live recorded concerts: "Jafra" in 1985 and “Doumouaki Ya Oummi” (“Your Tears, O Mother”) in 1986.
Her next album, “Helem” ("Dream"), released in 1993, marked a different level of cooperation with her mother. “The song ‘Helem’ was the first of my poems that Rim composed without asking me. It was a surprise. Our cooperation continued until her last album,” Sabbagh said.
She added, “Rim’s main concern has always been Palestine, which is the equivalent of resisting occupation and oppression. She also sang about love because we cannot maintain our resistance without it.”
Love of the motherland, as well as the concept of motherhood, was often a theme in Banna’s songs. “Ya Leil Ma Atwalak Mashini Haffi” (“O Long Night, Let Me Walk Barefoot”), whose lyrics were written by the singer, depicted the pain of a displaced Palestinian mother. The song became symbolic for Banna’s artistic identity.
“Rim was able to turn popular ballads and traditional themes into modern music. She added colloquialisms to her songs, such as in 'Ras al-Jabal' ('Top of the Mountain'),” Sabbagh said.
When Banna learned that she was losing her voice, she started writing short texts expressing her pain and posting them on Facebook. Norwegian KKV producer Erik Hillestad used those texts for the posthumous album in order to recreate Banna’s voice via "data vocalization.”
Sabbagh said her daughter's last album is the first of its kind internationally for Hillestad, KKV and Tunisian sound engineer SC Mocha from the Checkpoint 303 electronic music group. Since Banna could no longer sing, the producer mixed data from Banna’s medical records (X-rays and PET scans) and turned them into sounds. He then mixed them with poems that Banna had recited, in her own words, with “just one vocal cord left.” This process, called “data vocalization,” consists of turning images into sounds, either by directly vocalizing photo pixels into audio spectra or by turning photos into two-dimensional midi files.
Sabbagh added, “Rim would always tell me that her head was filled with music she could not let out. She rapped with youngsters, sang with a Western band and always found more energy to sing. She sang in standard and colloquial Arabic, Sufi and classical tunes.”
Suhail Khoury, general director of the Edward Said National Conservatory of Music at Birzeit University, told Al-Monitor that Banna stood out among Arab and Palestinian artists. “She had her own way of composing and performing music [which combined her own experience with what she had learned through global music]," he said. “Rim’s voice does not resemble traditional Arab voices. It is powerful and strange in a way that touches the listener, even if he does not understand Arabic. Her songs had a national and humanitarian character, such as the song 'Sarah' that she sang for the child named Sarah who was killed by an Israeli sniper and buried with her eyes blindfolded.”