A decade after his death, late, great Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish lives on, transcending borders and cultures, and inspiring some exceptional artists and artistic collaborations.
On Friday, Le Trio Joubran – three Palestinian brothers, all remarkable oud virtuosos and artists – release their latest studio album, The Long March, a record that is heavy with Darwish's influence.
The brothers – particularly Samir, the eldest – were close friends of the poet and the only musicians he ever invited to perform with him during his poetry recitals. It is fitting that so much of The Long March – including its title and the album's artwork – incorporates Darwish's art and humanity. But rewind several years and it was a recording of Wait for Her by Le Trio Joubran, performed against a recording of Darwish reciting his poem Lessons from the Kamasutra that caught the attention of Roger Waters, bassist with Pink Floyd.
"I heard one evening, in the company of Palestinian friends, the original poem, with the Trio Joubran's music. It was very moving and I asked: 'What does it mean?' I looked up a translation and I thought it was beautiful," Waters says.
Thanks to that serendipitous moment, the creative output of Waters and the trio became intertwined. They ended up having dinner at Waters' New York home in late 2016. Adnan Joubran, the youngest of Le Trio, says that, while cooking, Waters asked if he could sing them something he was working on.
"He started singing and then we understood the words and linked it – he didn't tell us in advance what he was going to sing. The cycles of the melody reminded us of our track with Darwish. Once Roger finished, he asked: 'What do you think? Do you like it? Is it something Mahmoud would be proud of?'" Adnan recalls. They assured him it was, and half a year later, Waters' song Wait for Her featured as a single on his critically acclaimed 2017 album Is This the Life We Really Want?, with a beautiful video by Waters and Sean Evans.
Waters points out that the song was also inspired by a romantic engagement he had, but that the experience helped him to see love as something much more transcendent than romantic love.
“My song is about the love for a woman and a specific romantic attachment, and it’s also about an attachment to ‘Mistress Liberty’ in a broader sense: the idea of justice and peace and love, and the possibility we have to find in our human hearts an attachment to those most precious of all attachments.”
The creative triangle between Darwish, Waters and Le Trio Joubran continued following the dinner at Waters' home. Adnan asked if he would be open to singing on a track and left Waters a USB stick that they were working on for The Long March. Waters said he would have a listen. And he did.
The track is called Carry the Earth and opens with the sound of the sea – it evokes Gaza, and has sounds representing drones.
“It’s a dedication to the four boys murdered on the beach in Gaza in 2014,” Adnan says. The album’s press notes add that it “is dedicated to those who die for their land and carry the earth with their death, to all kids in this world who suffer from exile, from occupation, from poverty”.
They asked Waters if he would compose something for the middle of the song that was about a minute-and-a-half long.
“I went out one day to my studio in New York and listened to it and thought ‘What can I do?’ – and I started to write and record, and it was actually very quick,” Waters says.
“It’s a beautiful piece of music. They had told me it was about these kids playing soccer on the beach in Gaza, all from the Bakr family, and so I wrote a dozen or so words – boys, mothers’ boys’, fathers’ boys, your boys, but also in the end our boys too, our boys, all our boys – and that’s all it is.”
Waters asked Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig, of American indie-rock band Lucius, who are currently singing with him on tour, to do the backing vocals. The cultural collaboration is unique and powerful.
"I think we made something that, between the seven of us, including Mahmoud Darwish, is really moving. I think about those boys a lot," Waters says. "I think about many Palestinian children a lot."
Le Trio were honoured to feature Waters on the album and on the track. “He sings for those boys and for the whole world,” Adnan says. “It’s his humanity – he’s as any human should act. People like Roger are rare.”
Inspiration for a new track
The most recent collaboration was originally meant to be a track on the album that didn't feature Waters. US President Donald Trump recognising Jerusalem as the capital of Israel changed all of that.
Adnan recalls the day after Trump's announcement – which came on December 6 last year – when he received the first mix of their album.
"For me, the best way to listen to it is and to drive and play it loud in the car, to listen and to feel things," he says. "One of the things that hit me on one of the tracks was Mahmoud's poetry and his voice in Arabic – The 'Red Indian's' Penultimate Speech to the White Man – that hit me.
It was saying the words where we were right then, about what had happened the day before – this ‘white master’ declaring that Jerusalem belongs to some people.”
He immediately called Samir and told him that they needed to release it quickly to mark the historic parallels to which Darwish was alluding. Samir agreed and thought they would need someone sympathetic and with an international stature to make it effective – Waters was their leading choice.
He agreed and said he was scheduled to be in London for a few days, if they could make it to the British capital. They met that month, and over two sessions at Abbey Road Studios, Waters tweaked a translation of Darwish's poem "a bit and went in and ad libbed it over the music" that Le Trio had composed. The track is called Supremacy.
Adnan says that before seeing Waters, he had the idea for the accompanying video in his head – something "clean, artistic and simple", given Roger's limited schedule.
“‘I’ll play the recording and I want you to express with your eyes all of what you have just recorded’, and he said ‘OK’ and lowered his head and looked down,” Adnan says.
“The music started, and the voice started, and after a second, Roger at last lifted his head and started looking at the camera, and I was like” – Adnan gasps – “it just hit me in the heart, his expressions coupled with the words. He was living it, and making us live it even more, deeper than just the voice.
“Once he finished, I had tears running down my face, and he asked: ‘Was that OK?’ And I said: ‘Yes.’ He said: ‘Shall we do another take?’ And I said: ‘No.’”
The video and its message were covered by the music press around the world.
Looking back at the collaboration with Le Trio Joubran, using Darwish's work, did the experience worry Waters at all – adapting and adopting the work of such a cultural giant across several songs?
“If we’re talking about the work of people who love life and Mistress Liberty, then for us, from time to time, to dip into others’ masterpieces is a transgression that love can live with, if it is a transgression even. I have enormous respect and love for Darwish and his work, so I’m prepared to take the risk.
“I’ve done it all with enormous deference: to him in general, and to Arab and Palestinian culture. I have great respect and love and deference for all of it, so it’s not a worry for me.”
Le Trio Joubran believe that Darwish would count Waters as a “candle in the darkness”.
Le Trio Joubran’s new album The Long March is out on October 12