Yazz Ahmed. Picture: WAEL ABU JABAL
Yazz Ahmed. Picture: WAEL ABU JABAL

There was one evening that made sense between the Mediterranean sea and river Jordan in 2018.  It involved a young, not too tall and not too extravagant trumpet player in a port warehouse converted into a hip bar, next to an active railway. The banner in the entrance called this spiritual rite “MahraJazz, Haifa alternative jazz festival”.

MahraJazz holds the title of “the first Palestinian Jazz Festival in Haifa”. It is arguably the first Palestinian jazz festival ever. There is no coincidence that it is born in Haifa, a city that is plugged to the resources of the Israeli economy, yet allows diverse cultural fabric, in which Arab heritage and pride flourish despite the stubborn occupation.

The moment Yazz Ahmed blew her horn, the high kicked in. Softly yet firmly, her compositions shook the surreal reality around, guiding all the pieces to fall into place, massaging the soul, telling compelling stories, in a language free from baggage.

It was only natural that jazz be spoken, in a land failed by language, to a point that it can’t agree on its name, on its life. With the right sound, light and a most comfortable armchair to sink in while soaking it all in, her performance functioned as a thorough therapy session — merging the personal and the political, the emotional and the rational, the past and the future. As if they were ever really separated.

This talented 35-year-old Bahraini-British musician was the closing act of the two-weekend festival. As she was blowing her last note, a happy bunch gathered at the right corner of the stage. Young, beautiful, stylish — the team behind the festival were hugging each other like gold medallists hug their coaches. When the ecstatic audience rose on their feet to thank the band, they started coming up to the stage, eight men and women in their twenties, maybe early thirties. It was their finish line — the sixth and last day of their handmade jazz festival.

MahraJazz was launched in Haifa in August 2017, with satellite events in Ramallah and Bethlehem, featuring musicians from Belgium, Turkey, the US and Ireland. The second edition took place in September 2018 in Haifa and Jerusalem, hosting six international bands, including British Wildflower trio starring the phenomenal saxophonist Idris Rahman, Japanese pianist Makiko Hirabayashi with her Danish trio, and Palestinian pianist Faraj Suleiman. Now the work and the countdown towards the 2019 edition begins.

The initiative was conceived in a conversation between two part-time musicians in their mid-20s: drummer Jameel Matar, and pianist Nizar Matar (not related). “We thought it will be a nice idea if we could introduce jazz to people here,” says Jameel .

He discovered jazz almost by accident, when researching rock beats online. “The first time I heard a jazz drummer I couldn’t understand what he was doing, but I knew I liked it a lot. There was so much freedom, he was talking through the instrument. I felt that I would love to be able to play even a bit like him.”

He doesn’t recall who the drummer was, but the inspiration stuck.

He later travelled to study jazz in Ireland and Japan. “Jazz is not a genre — it’s an experience, a language, a way of talking your ideas” says Jameel. “If we talk of the similarities between the Palestinian and the black people in US, one of the different things was how the African-Americans approached their problems, how they used music and art to express themselves. If we could learn from it — we start dealing with our problems to express our feelings through this music”.

“I see jazz as looking for freedom,” says Nizar. “This is the jazz way: expression and freedom. Culturally speaking, I can relate to the black community. When they struggled with the whitewash, they tried to strengthen themselves as an isolated group, free themselves and then go out and start to talk with the world.”

“Jazz is resistance,” says Suzanne Matar, Jameel’s sister. She is a 33-year-old cook and researcher. Suzanne attended every one of the MahraJazz concerts in 2017 , and 2018 she joined the team as a coordinator.

“The history of jazz is something that you can’t ignore in the context of here. It’s a soul music, a music that comes to show something. You listen and you absorb things that are beyond words.”

On its way to becoming  an international festival, MahraJazz had to first lean on a supportive network. They describe the Palestinian cultural centre in Haifa as a tight community of creatives; a big village. “We feed and support each other. We work together to make things happen.”

MahraJazz stands out also in its economy: it is created by a team of devoted volunteers with no solid budget and no commercial sponsors.

In their branding and in the conversation, they emphasise MahraJazz being independent, as an important ingredient of the festival DNA. “We only accept support from bodies that have identity and depth. You can’t take money from bodies that don’t acknowledge you,” says Suzanne. “It’s a nonprofit festival.”

“It’s an open-source festival, everyone tries to help and take part. We had three photographers volunteering to capture the moments,” Nizar says.

The compilation of the line-up was the easiest part. “We were just firing emails, and got responses from about 80% of the bands who we wrote to. This year we had Jakob Bro from Denmark, who is a great artist. It is important for us to bring female musicians.” Looking ahead towards 2019, Jameel adds that “We want to bring African music. We think about the culture that the musicians are coming from.”

As MahraJazz grows, they plan to strengthen the educational element of the festival. For them, the free workshops with the guest musicians are more important than the performances.

“In the next few years we see it becoming more of an educational festival, not just entertainment. Like a summer-school. We aim for younger-age musicians, or kids, trying to bring musicians to teach them music in a different way. We also want to reach more places, not just Jerusalem or Tel Aviv or Ramallah, but also villages,” says Jameel.