Editor’s Note: Our apologies to writer Kate Casa for inadvertently omitting this story from the March 30 issue of The Commons.
PUTNEY—In 2016, as thousands fled the horrors of the civil war raging in Syria, a young Palestinian musician decided to use his art to remind the world of our common humanity. Today, as Ukrainians flee a brutal Russian assault and Afghans seek refuge around the world, his message seems more relevant than ever.
Bright colors on a dark canvas, a suite of four movements, stemming from the Palestinian heritage of Naseem Alatrash and his desire to “say something with my music”.
On Sunday, April 3, he brings his message to Putney’s Next Stage as part of Berklee World Strings. The group was founded in 2010 by Eugene Friesen, a Vermont resident and Grammy-winning cellist, who will lead.
Bright Colors “is anti-war and anti-violence,” Alatrash said. “My goal is to show the strength it takes to survive, to succeed and to stay strong…how music is such a great source of culture and identity and how we carry it with us. Even when we lose our earth, our music stays with us.
Born and raised in the Palestinian village of Beit Sahour near Bethlehem, Alatrash was captivated by the Byzantine chants he heard in church as a child and the classical Arabic music his father constantly played in the car.
At the age of 11, after hearing a live violin performance for the first time, Alatrash became determined to learn the instrument, but the only violin teacher in the area was European and had just left Palestine.
There was, however, a Palestinian cello teacher. It was fate.
“When I first heard the cello, I liked it even more than the violin; six months later, I had joined the Palestine Youth Orchestra and was touring with them in Jordan,” he recalls.
Alatrash enrolled at the Edward Said National Conservatory of Music in Palestine, named after the brilliant Palestinian intellectual who was also an accomplished pianist. After graduating, Alatrash received a full scholarship to Berklee College of Music in Boston. He completed his bachelor’s degree in cello at Berklee and his master’s degree at the Global Jazz Institute in Berklee.
Alatrash’s compositions and performances fuse contemporary, jazz and classical styles heavily influenced by the musical heritage Palestinians took with them across the Middle East when they dispersed as refugees.
“Music speaks to the soul, to the heart. Living under oppression pushes people to create. This could be another reason why Palestine has been this source of creativity and beauty,” he said.
At only 30 years old, he has already performed in venues such as the Kennedy Center, Lincoln Center, the Royal Opera House Muscat in Oman and the Royal Albert Hall. He is a cello professor at Berklee and Tufts universities, where he also directs the Arab Music Ensemble.
The bright moments
Bright colors consists of four parts: the first, “Riwaya” (“History”), honors life in Palestine – the olive harvest, the markets and the harmony of sounds of mosque and church.
The second movement, “Ramadan” (“Ashes”), is intense, strong and fast, evoking war. The third, “Lifta” (“Lift”), is a mournful and deeply moving musical representation of a Palestinian village emptied of its inhabitants.
The fourth, “Risala” (“Message”), incorporates folkloric elements suggesting the refugees’ longing for their homes, and it culminates in a celebration of the hope of a new home in a new country.
“Sometimes it feels like the world is such an unjust place where certain groups of people – from Ukraine, Yemen, Palestine, many places – live under oppression and their voices go unheard. C It’s the dark web,” Alatrash said. “But then you see the other side — the shining moments when people come together and look at their common humanity.”
“In Vermont today, people are welcoming refugees into their homes and communities,” he said, referring to the resettlement of Afghan refugees and others currently underway here.
“It’s the bright side, the bright color,” Alatrash said. “Once we put aside all those things that separate us, what brings us together is our common humanity.”