Palestinian singer and poet Rim Banna transformed pain into art

The artist and activist passed away on Saturday - Saeed Saeed looks back over her life, and discovers that her swansong is still to come

Palestinian singer Rim Banna performs during a concert in Damascus on January 8, 2009. Banna insisted during her concert to perform songs representing various aspects of the Palestinian life, including happiness, war, love and resistance. / AFP PHOTO / LOUAI BESHARA
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The much-loved Palestinian singer Rim Banna died on Saturday at the age of 51. She passed away in her home city of Nazareth after succumbing to breast cancer, a disease with which she was diagnosed a decade ago.

When she first revealed her illness back in 2009, Banna took two years out from her career in order to better focus on her treatment. She took on a series of one-off performances across the region when her health allowed for it – including an acclaimed debut in Beirut in 2012 – but officially retired from live performances in 2016.

Born in Nazareth, Banna followed her mother's footsteps by engaging in poetry and song-writing. She received her formal music education in Moscow's Higher School Conservatory, where she also met her Ukrainian guitarist husband Leonid Aleseyenko, whom she divorced in 2010 after nine years of marriage.

Upon her return to Palestine in the early 90’s she began her path of preserving Palestinian cultural heritage through song.

She performed long-lost children's songs, traditionally sung as lullabies by generations of Palestinian families. The success of the live performances resulted in Banna heading to the studio and recording two children's albums, 1995's New Moon and the following year's Mukaghat, which continues to be a staple of Palestinian households' both at home and abroad.

'Showed me the depth of the Palestinian people’s fight'

The acclaim of those albums reached the ears of Norwegian producer Erik Hillestad, who invited her to join in the 2003 group album, Lullabies from the Axis of Evil, which is a collection of traditional family songs sung by women from Iraq, Iran, North Korea (the nations that made up former US president George W Bush's 'Axis of Evil'); and to which Syria, Libya and Cuba were later added.

The international attention gained from the project allowed Banna to release her landmark 2005 album The Mirrors of My Soul, which was also produced by Hillestad. The album features Banna's own songs – with lyrics ranging from Palestinian resistance to more abstract vignettes of life under Israeli occupation – and a sound that straddles between western folk-pop and the mountainous melodies of traditional Palestinian music.

Writing on his Facebook page, Hillestad described his first meeting with Banna 15 years ago as both life- and career-changing. He also credited her for bringing the Palestinian plight to the attention of the greater Norwegian society.

“On the moment of our first recording of lullabies, you made such a strong impression that I was brought to tears, and I have told this to many people. This tells something about your quality as an artist, a very strong energy and strength that have inspired millions of people through the years,” he said.

“Through your songs, your voice and all of your entity, you have showed me the depth of the Palestinian people’s fight. This has changed me and shaped my attitude and my strong determination to do whatever I can to support the Palestinian cause. Through your records and your concerts, you have motivated so many Norwegians to take a stand for Palestine.”

Banna’s growing international acclaim did not come at the price of her influence on the regional music scene: she was widely loved and regarded among her peers for her collaborative spirit.

Her generous nature helped influence the later work of Lebanese independent singer-songwriter Tania Saleh. It was Banna who introduced her to Hillestad, who would later sign her to his Oslo-based experimental music label KKV. The label released her electro-tinged album Intersection last year.

Speaking to The National on Sunday morning, a heartbroken Saleh said she viewed Banna as a kindred spirit. In addition to both being independent artists, the duo are one of a small number of female music acts that wrote and performed their own songs.

"In the music industry it is very hard to find real friends," Saleh said.

"We spoke about the music industry, about life, love, loss, men, our children and our battle that we fight in this world of independent music. I feel that Arabic music lost a great icon. Because she was symbol of resistance through her art and music. And she was so strong and so stubborn that you just didn’t know which way she was going to go.”

One final album still to come 

Banna was working on a new album with Hillestad at the time of her death, and Saleh has confirmed that it will be completed and released posthumously, with the songs serving as a testament to her resilient spirit.

“Her last artistic statement is a genius new album where she turns her medical files into [backing] sounds while she recites her poetry. She has turned the painful experience with her malady into beautiful art.”

Speaking after her death, Hillestad explained how inspirational the new release will be: “we are now about to finish your new album, and it is a visionary, energetic and poetic manifest of resistance that I know will motivate a lot of people in the world to keep on with the fight for justice and against occupation. Your fight and your poems and the way you perform them will be an inspiration for new generations of Palestinians and people from many countries in the world.”

But we don’t have to wait for the new collection to be inspired by Banna’s courage under the pain and stress of terminal illness. She continuously documented her health struggles through poetry, both whimsical and strikingly direct, and even in her final days she exhibited a prevailing sense of optimism, not in hope of survival, but about life itself.

“Her last posts on social media while at the hospital were full of humour and light-heartedness as she challenged cancer with beauty,” Saleh recalls.

“One post was – and I am translating this to you from Arabic - is "Life is beautiful, death is like history … just a fake tale."

A family and artistic community in mourning

Family members took to social media last week to call for prayers after Banna was taken to hospital, and they announced her death on Saturday morning.

"Rim Banna's family, including her mother Zouhaira, her brother Firas, and her children Baylasan, Ursalem and Qamran, as well as her friends … convey the deeply saddening news of the departure of their daughter and Palestine's renowned singer Rim Banna," posted her brother Firas on Facebook.

The sad news reverberated around the Palestinian cultural community. Banna’s mother, Palestinian poet and actress Zuhaira Sabbagh, led the tributes on social media to an artist whose work was at the nexus of music and literature: “She left us her smile that lit up her beautiful face.”

رحلت غزالتي البيضاء خلعت عنها ثوب السقام ورحلت لكنها تركت لنا ابتسامتها تضيء وجهها الجميل تبدد حلكة الفراق

Posted by Zuhaira Sabbagh on Friday, March 23, 2018

Esteemed poet and Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature recipient Mourid Barghouti tweeted: “I am sad, angry and bereft. Goodbye Rim.”

TV host and poet Zahi Wehbe hailed Banna as the "song of Palestine in the heart of those in resistance”.

Banna was buried on Sunday in The Greek Orthodox Church in Nazareth. She is survived by her three children.


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