Western media representations of the inhabitants of Palestine tend to divide them neatly into two groups, Jews and Arabs, with the occasional vague reference to Christians of unknown origin and denomination. As is usual with such things, the reality is much more complex, with many different groups occupying and overlapping in a highly contested geopolitical and cultural space. Jumana Manna’s film A magical substance flows into me (2015), currently showing at Chisenhale Gallery in London, introduces us to some of these groups through an exploration of their music. Having researched the work of German-Jewish ethnomusicologist Robert Lachmann and the pioneering series of broadcasts of Palestinian music he made in the 1930s, Manna sets out to find the communities featured in the broadcasts and re-record their music. The performances she captures are interspersed in the film with footage of Manna’s parents in their home in Jerusalem, where they give us glimpses into their own lives and culture.
Kurdish, Moroccan, and Yemenite Jews, Samaritans, members of urban and rural Palestinian communities, Bedouins and Coptic Christians all feature in Manna’s ‘compilation album’, and her observations of the people behind the music as they tell stories, listen to Lachmann’s broadcast of their music on Manna’s mobile phone, or discuss the playing techniques of a particular instrument or the changing fortunes of a given genre are as acute as they are respectful and open-minded. Contained within the gallery, arranged on and around a seating platform used for viewing the 70-minute film, are a number of medium-sized, abstract but vaguely corporeal sculptures, the yellowish-white plaster of which mirrors the landscapes and architectures seen in the film. They look like ruined fragments of an ancient civilisation.
I learned a lot about the rich diversity of modern Palestine from A magical substance, though the troubled histories and continuing political impasse of the region are never far away from the work’s surface. The reduction of multifacetedness into simple oppositional binaries plays into the hands of the hawkish among the more powerful of Palestine’s many cultural streams. Several of the communities and cultures featured in the film are on the edge of disappearing into the annals of history, giving an urgency to their music that does nothing to diminish its power, vitality, and energy. The last musical performance of the film is by a successful Palestinian wedding band comprised of performers from a single family, the patriarch of which, arriving unsuspecting to find filming in progress, surveys the situation for a moment before breaking into a smile and starting to dance. Music is an index of suffering, I thought, and also of joy.
Jumanna Manna’s A magical substance flows into me runs until 13 December at Chisenhale Gallery, London.