Q1. Penny, congratulations of winning the first AHMT Award for the Song of Social Justice. How did it feel?
Q2. Tell us about your winning song and what motivated you to write it.
A: The song Breaking the Silence is the result of a lot of research into the experiences of Israeli soldiers drafted and sent to occupy Palestine, in the West Bank and Gaza strip.
I first met an ex-Israeli soldier some years ago who worked for a group called ‘Combatants for Peace’, a Palestinian-Israeli organisation of ex-militants from both sides of the conflict who have, often through severe trauma, come to the conclusion that nonviolent methodology is the only way to bring a just peace to Palestine and to Israel. I was particularly struck by the wisdom of the Israeli ex-soldier, as he spoke about his own experiences as a soldier as well as his journey of coming to terms with some of the abusive things that he had done during this time in the army. But he focused mainly on the disparity of power within the conflict as a whole, and stressed that his own difficult experiences were miniscule when compared to the daily experience of the whole civilian population of Palestine, who cannot escape the occupation, who cannot return to a place of safety and who do not endure the horrors for one or two years, and then return to a relatively privileged life. His colleague and friend, who I met at the same time, was a Palestinian ex-soldier. We sat in the playground of a school in Anata refugee camp, where the ground floor windows had been boarded up because Israeli soldiers kept shooting into the classrooms, and where part of the separation barrier had been built (illegally) straight through the playground, cutting the football pitch in half. He pointed to the road, and told us about his six year old daughter, who was shot and killed by an Israeli soldier at point blank range, from an armored vehicle, as she ran across the street to buy sweets. These stories are so common to hear in Palestine, it’s impossible not to hear them and to do nothing.
The ex-Israeli soldier told us that although the two of them are like brothers now and have built strong bonds of trust between them, they will never be equals until the occupation because even though he is working against the occupation and with the Palestinians, his very nationality makes him complicit in the oppression of his friends nation. This resonates with me, because I grew up in England, and feel the burden of our colonial history. We are all complicit in the actions of our governments, Israeli citizens are complicit in the Occupation of Palestine, just as we are complicit in the invasion and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq, and I believe that we have a duty to speak out against this, to call our respective governments to account, and build bridges between ordinary people across these national boundaries. But I digress…
An Israeli group called ‘Breaking the Silence’ was founded some years ago by former soldiers who had just finished their conscription in the Israeli army. They work to collect testimonies of soldiers who have served in the occupied Palestinian territories, and they work to educate Israeli society about the realities of the occupation because there’s such a dominant governmental and media narrative of the ‘moral war’ and of ‘protection’. But the only thing that will protect Israelis is the same thing that will protect Palestinians; an end to the occupation of Palestine. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? But the only way we’ll get there is through telling stories from the ground, by challenging the dominant western media narrative and making heard the voices of people who are living inside this conflict. So I wove the words of these soldiers, and their reflective analysis, into a song to tell their stories to more people. All of the lyrics of this song are the actual words of Israeli soldiers, either from testimonies, interviews or conversations.
Q3. You are very active politically on a range of issues both in Britain and in Palestine. How does your music fit in with your activism?
A: Music is my activism. They are one and the same. But unfortunately music doesn’t happen without some administrative and organisational work, and neither does activism! Like most campaigners, I do a bit of everything; organising, demonstrating, letter writing, speaking, listening, and singing. Singing is an important part of my activism because it enables people to come together and do something constructive, to create something beautiful whilst naming that which is not. Music enables us to reflect on the world, to re-invigorate and refocus our work and commitment, it can help us to feel more part something more democratic, a place where all voices can be heard, can be shared without the shouting that can sometimes silence and disengage people. Music making is in itself political action, but it can support further action, as well as sparking greater analysis of the issues involved, bringing many questions and sometimes answers. It is a tool of journalism and of telling history, a way to tell and keep alive stories that might otherwise go unheard.
I am one of a group of songleaders who sing with Protest In Harmony, Edinburgh’s radical choir. We meet once a month for a rehearsal and then sing at demonstrations and other politically and socially engaged events. We are a big community of singers, people drop in and out, and come to the events that speak to their politics, and their world view. We hope that singing helps people to participate in their local and global communities.
I also help to run a monthly Radical music night in Edinburgh called Radical Voices. Anyone can come and sing a song, tell a poem, anything really, And we have a different theme each month, raising a little money for groups who need it. This month was Workers Memorial Day, and the money was raised for Families Against Corporate Killing and the Scottish Friends of Bhopal, who work to
This June and July, I will be touring a show about life in Palestine, which includes the song Breaking the Silence, amongst others, called Still Life: Tales from the West Bank. It was devised by myself and my colleague, Karen Chalk, to tell some of what we witnessed whilst we were working as international observers in Palestine and Israel. It is a mixture of song, story and pictures, is a free show, and donations will go to funding the continued presence of international observers in Palestine through EAPPI (www.eappi.co.uk). More information can be found on www.chalkstone.org.uk
This May I am going out to Palestine with San Ghanny choir (‘we shall sing’ in Arabic) for two weeks of cultural exchange, learning and solidarity. And when we return we will be able to use music to help us tell the story of things we see and people we meet in Palestine. Various things will be happening upon our return, so watch this space…
But music is multi-functional; when I worked with EAPPI in Palestine I used music mainly to cheer people up when the occupation was feeling particularly heavy, I sung lullabies to help babies and children sleep and to help relax adults as well. Music enables us to meet as people, regardless of language, of politics, of pre-judgement. And once we have sung together, maybe it is easier to listen to each other a little more. Just maybe.
My professional work is as a community musician and singing teacher, and this is really the same as my campaigning, using creativity to help people feel more able to use their voices in their own lives and the lives of those around them, and helping groups of people to learn to use their voices together. Everybody has the right to use their voice, and so many people are silenced by the structural and physical violence in their lives, but music is a great tool in freeing up this right to voice, and to help tell the stories of those who remain silenced. So you see, music is activism.
Q4. Do you have any tips for the many budding songwriters out there?
A: Write and sing. Don’t worry about what comes out, but write and sing anyway. Do it when no-one’s listening and just let words and sounds swill about. Sometimes it’s like sculpting, let yourself build up a big piece of raw material, like a big rock and then you can chip away at it until it becomes the right shape, has the right texture, the right taste. Everybody writes rubbish lyrics and awkward tunes as they’re going along, but it might be a rubbish lyric that gets you closer to the one you’re looking for, so sing it a while and see. Forget all that judgmental stuff that the world throws our way. If you’ve got something to say, let it be said. It might help someone to hear it. You never know.
Keep a notebook. Buy a dictaphone. Try different instruments, different rhythms, draw different boundaries for yourself, with lyrics and with music. And don’t be afraid of simplicity.
I could go on, but the main thing is to do it, and not to stop just because some of it’s crap – it’s all part of the process. And don’t listen too much to other people – it’s all subjective anyway, some people will like what you sing and how you sing it, and some people won’t. That’s just the way of it. But do it anyway.