Palestinian group Watar Band perform during a concert in Gaza City
Palestinian group Watar Band perform during a concert in Gaza City © Mohammed Abed - AFP
Palestinian group Watar Band perform during a concert in Gaza City
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Sarah Benhaida, AFP
Last updated: January 1, 1970

Gaza rockers and rappers struggle to carve out a space

Khamiss Abu Shaban's band would love to wow the kinds of crowds seen elsewhere, but in Hamas-run Gaza they struggle to find venues and instruments, let alone get permission to play.

Even so, that hasn't dispelled the enthusiasm for popular music in the Palestinian territory, where 70 percent of the population is under 30 years old.

"Gazans are fans of music. They flock to every concert," Abu Shaban, a 22-year-old bass player in Watar Band, says on the small stage of a sold-out 200-seat theatre.

It was only their third performance for the past year and a half.

Musicians and other entertainers have found it hard to make a name and living for themselves in the hardscrabble Palestinian territory's few venues.

That is the paradox of Gaza, a fact not lost on advertisers who seek to woo young breakdancers and devotees of parkour -- the urban sport combining running, acrobatics and gymnastics.

But the rewards are few for the rappers, other musicians, dancers and acrobats trying to carve out a niche for themselves.

If they want to rehearse, record or be filmed, they must do it in whatever space they can find, often in their own homes.

Without official authorisation and performance space, they cannot have grandiose dreams, they say.

There is also a lack of instruments and equipment, thanks to an Israeli blockade of the strip in place for nearly a decade.

The French Cultural Centre was one of the few places where young Gazans could get away briefly from Palestinian political divisions, repeated wars with Israel, poverty and chronic unemployment, but it has closed its doors.

In December 2014, it was hit by a bombing claimed by Salafist jihadists.

Gaza is a narrow strip of land into which 1.8 million Palestinians are jammed, wedged between Egypt, Israel and the Mediterranean Sea.

Starved of permanent performance spaces, dancers and musicians are using the Internet to display their talents.

- Singing and dancing through war -

Even at the height of the gruelling war of summer 2014, Watar Band and rapper Ayman Mghamess posted songs and videos shot in the ruins of bombed-out buildings because they believed people needed to hear music.

"In Gaza, it's life or death, it's the same," chants Mghamess, a Gaza rap pioneer.

"They can put up more checkpoints and barriers/I shall not weary, believe me/our dreams will survive/even if I myself die," he intones in a clip viewed tens of thousands of times online.

It was online that Mahmud Saradi, 21, dressed in sportswear and a green and blue baseball cap, was initiated into breakdance moves.

The dance style that spread among African-American youths in the 1970s and '80s is the best way to banish "despair, stress, everything we suffer" in Gaza, says Karim Azzam, 18.

Gazans are for the most part physically confined to their sliver of Palestinian territory.

An Israeli blockade imposed in 2006 severely restricts the movement of people and goods.

Egypt has largely kept its border with Gaza closed since 2013 and has destroyed Palestinian tunnels under the frontier used for smuggling.

Saradi and Azzam have given up hope of taking part in international competitions and even Palestinian national events are beyond reach as Israel rarely allows passage to Jerusalem or the occupied West Bank.

Young artists also face obstacles placed by their own conservative society, ruled for the past 10 years by Hamas.

"We wanted to open our own centre in Gaza City but three times the authorities refused to give us a permit," says Abderrahim Zrii, 22, who runs the makeshift training facilities of break-dancing crew B-Boy Funk.

"They said, 'You're dancers? Then this centre is not art, it's a nightclub.'"

- Dropped from the programme -

The crew made do with the house of the father of three members who all fled Gaza for the United States and Europe.

On a cloudy afternoon in the Nuseirat refugee camp, the improvised centre in an alleyway -- where dozens of youngsters learn moves -- is deep in shadow.

In the Gaza Strip, battered by three wars with Israel since 2008, electricity flows for just eight hours each day.

There is no lighting and music played from a laptop computer will last only as long as the battery holds out.

"The authorities are constantly asking us for official authorisations," says Mohamed al-Lumani, a 35-year-old IT engineer and guitarist with Watar Band.

"We know that we have to struggle for every concert we play. It's a tiring struggle but the audience's joy is our reward."

Bass player Abu Shaban says "artists in Gaza are in the worst possible position: prevented from movement by the blockade and with concerts so rare that they are forced to do something else in order to eat."

Rapper Mghamess believes the authorities are afraid of the crowds of young people attracted to performances.

"Whenever a rap performance is scheduled they cancel it," he says.

"They accuse us of performing music imported from the West and of wearing indecent dress," he adds, still amused at the reception given to his low-slung cargo pants.

In Gaza, he says, "nobody respects your freedom to think."

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