A review by Hugh Jaeger

Galilee Quartet

  • Mostafa Saad – violin 
  • Gandhi Saad – violin
  • Omar Saad – viola
  • Tibah Saad – ’cello

supported by PalMusic and Amos Trust

St Margaret’s parish church, Oxford, 6 June 2017

Music by Ludwig van Beethoven, Khalid M Ali, Mohammed Abdel Wahab, Mostafa Saad

Songs from the repertoire of Fairuz

There is a genteel atmosphere at venues just before a classical concert. It is organised and calm. The audience is genteel, unhurried, and discreetly expectant. Voices are clear, but restrained and low.

Outwardly, not everyone dresses up as his or her forebears did a few decades ago. But inwardly we still do. We are here for a refined branch of the performing arts. We are mentally preparing ourselves for something special.

Many performing arts events are organised years ahead, let alone months. This may be especially true of classical music. When a concert includes a violinist who at the age of 16 was already playing with Nigel Kennedy, one would expect the young prodigy to have a full concert diary and a waiting list for bookings.

A concert in genteel North Oxford on 6 June 2017 had all the trappings. The organisers were calm and in control. From the ticket desk to the little stall of concert merchandise and rather larger table with glasses of wine, juices, and mineral waters, everything was in place and running smoothly. The venue was a Gothic Revival parish church; the audience was rich with dons and arty types. The only missing elements were a thoughtful John Thaw clutching a concert programme and Colin Dexter in the background in a fleeting cameo rôle.

In fact, the Amos Trust and PalMusic charities had succeeded in organising the concert at only a few weeks’ notice. With the Trust’s support the Galilee Quartet, four talented young Palestinian musicians from northern Israel, had been booked to play one concert in London on Sunday 4 June at the prestigious St James’ parish church, Piccadilly. However, it happened that the quartet would be in England long enough to fit in another concert somewhere. Was there a venue that could give it space to perform at such short notice?

St Margaret’s parish church in North Oxford was a good choice. The Vicar, Canon Dr Andrew Bunch, has long supported justice and human rights for Palestinians. In recent years, St Margaret’s has hosted several events about Palestine, including several events in Oxford’s Palestine Unlocked festival in May 2016. St Margaret’s was not yet booked for that Tuesday evening. The concert was arranged, and social media quickly mobilised to sell enough tickets.

The Galilee Quartet and their music

The Galilee Quartet are three brothers and a sister from the same family, but they tell me they became a quartet by accident. As eldest brother Omar learnt viola and second brother Mostafa learnt violin, I wondered if sister Tibah and youngest brother Gandhi had felt any obligation or pressure to lean the ’cello and violin to complete a family quartet. All four insist this was not so. Each learnt the instruments they fancied, and that just happened to add up to a quartet.

Each sibling brings other talents to the concert. Mostafa, the prodigy who played with Nigel Kennedy, is now 19. He also plays the oud and composes music. Omar, now 21, plays various Arab and western drums. Tibah, now 18, sings. Gandhi, now 16, sings and composes.

At St Margaret’s their music sparkled. They started with just the first movement of Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 1, part of his Opus 18. My companion had heard different quartets play the piece, and insisted the Galilee’s rendition was the best. Yet the quartet had only recently learnt the piece, no-one had tutored them on it, and the four had simply taught themselves. The freshness of their approach was vindicated. When you learn all four movements, please return to Oxford and play it in Holywell Music Room!

For the remainder of the first half of the concert, the quartet played two pieces composed by Mostafa and one by Gandhi. Their compositions alternate and blend western and Arab musical elements, not compromising either but doing justice to both.

The second half of the concert mixed instrumental pieces with songs. Gandhi sang a song by the famous Egyptian singer Mohammed Abdel Wahab (1902–91). Tibah sang three songs from the repertoire of the famous Lebanese singer Fairuz (born 1935). Tibah has a lovely voice, although maybe slightly too young to do justice to Fairuz just yet. The next few years could make all the difference.

The four have played in Britain before, although not as the Galilee Quartet. They are all also members of the Palestine Youth Orchestra, which in July and August 2016 played a six-date tour of Scotland, England and Wales. The PYO has also produced the flutist and singer Nai Barghouti and the jazz clarinetist Mohamed Najem. It is quite a talent factory!

A Druze family in Israel

The Galilee Quartet wear their talents lightly. They are polite, fun, relaxed and approachable. They come from the Druze community: an ethnic and religious minority scattered across Lebanon, northern Israel and parts of Jordan and Syria. There are perhaps 130,000 Druze in Israel.

The Saad family has not had it all easy. Israel conscripts all Druze young men at the age of 18 to do 32 months’ national service. Israel has a non-military alternative to national service, the Sherut Leumi. But when Omar turned 18 and refused to join the army, Israel jailed him. Six times.

I may have been imagining it, but I thought I saw moments when Omar was a more reticent and reflective than his siblings. Perhaps it was just because he is the eldest, and at least informally feels responsible for his younger siblings. But I couldn’t help wondering whether serving six Israeli jail sentences hadn’t left its shadow too.

Mostafa in his turn also refused to be conscripted, but Israel didn’t jail him. Maybe its court system was afraid to jail a prodigy who had played in concert with Nigel Kennedy, or maybe it decided to try a different tactic anyway. Instead, Israel applied the old Soviet argument that if you dissent from the state, perhaps you are mentally ill. Therefore, we will try treating you as a mental patient instead.

At 16, Gandhi has yet to reach the age at which Israel will try to draft him. The courage of his elder brothers will be a hard act to follow. On the other hand, he will have their support and encouragement when the time comes.

At 18 Tibah is old enough to be drafted but did not mention to me whether she has received her call-up. However, she has enough challenges within her own community. She told me that Druze women are still expected to fulfill socially traditional roles, and becoming a professional musician did not fit old-fashioned expectations. However, she has the full support of her Mum, who a generation earlier had also broken with Druze tradition and to that extent prepared the way for her daughter.

Training for a musical future

All four members of the quartet trained at the Beit Almusica conservatory in Shefa-’Amr in northern Israel. Youngest brother Gandhi is now at a conservatoire in Haifa. Mostafa is now studying music in Pyatigorsk, a relatively obscure city in a Russian part of the Caucasus. And the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland (RCS) in Glasgow has offered places to Omar and Tibah to start studying this September.

The RCS offer is a great opportunity but also a challenge. The UK Home Office will not issue a student visa until an applicant can pay their college fees. That means Omar and Tibah have to raise £10,000 each! And the sooner the better, as the Home Office may take the time to process student visa applications.

On 3 July, Tibah launched a GoFundMe page online for herself and her brother Omar. In its first week, it raised £3,500. At that rate, Tibah might raise the required £20,000 in six weeks. In the second week, it added another £1,500, but at the end of the first fortnight, an anonymous gift of £5,000 helped increase the total to £10,000. Now at least one of the two siblings can apply to the UK Home Office for their student visa.

Processing visa applications takes a certain amount of time. There is still no certainty of raising the full £20,000 soon enough for both Omar and Tibah to apply to get their visas issued in time to start studying in September.

Aside from that one gift of £5,000, the other donations range from £5 to £500. The average is £100. If you can add any donation of any size, you could help to make all the difference.

If Tabaha’s fund-raising succeeds, everyone gains. She and Omar will get the training that their talents deserve. The RCS will get two delightful young Palestinian students. Doubtless, Mostafa and Gandhi will visit Britain when they can, so some British audiences will get a few more Galilee Quartet concerts. Back home in Israel, the Salads’ success will inspire other young musicians at Beit Almusica and elsewhere, and their talents will be reinvested in their community.

So please give a thought to what you can afford to give. Then please follow the link and invest in Omar, Tibah and their music. Thank you!

© Hugh Jaeger 2017


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