Today we speak to Reem Anbar and Louis Brehony, the couple who make up the Palestinian inspired duo, Gazelleband. They talk to us about their experiences of growing up from completely different backgrounds and how their love of Arab and Palestinian music and traditions brought them together.
We begin by speaking to Reem about her childhood and experiences of growing up as the first female Oud player from Gaza.
“I started playing when I was 8 years old, keyboard, at school but this was not my instrument, when I was 11 I became interested in the Oud. At first, I was told women were not allowed to play this instrument when I asked why, I was told it is only for men because it is too hard for women. I told my family I want to play this instrument and I wasn’t going to listen to what people say. They told me that no-one would marry women who play music. But I was stubborn.
It was hard to find anyone who would teach me, so I watched a lot of videos and went to a lot of gigs to see it being played. I eventually found a teacher but I found it quite limiting. I wanted to play straight away - 'tell me the notes and I'll play!' I learnt quickly.”
It wasn’t long before Reem started travelling and playing gigs across the world, whilst working with children for different charities. The Israeli blockade put severe limits on movement, while conservatives in Gaza would try to prevent women playing instruments. Reem didn’t let this hold her back.
“I told them I was going to be more stubborn; I wanted to teach girls and women to play instruments at home. I had been told that girls can't play music because the families and local leaders were strict. However, little by little, I began to teach women to play.”
The word spread.
Reem was quickly making a name for herself. The charities she was working for sent her all over Europe to play, teach children and give lectures on music and drama. These grand plans on travelling to places were all well and good until the question of how would she get there came up.
“It’s very hard to go to anywhere from Gaza. We don’t have airports, we don’t have anything. The blockade stopped me many times from leaving. The first time I travelled, I was 13 years old. I was alone and could only speak Arabic. I went to Barcelona and camped on the beach, this happened in over 30 countries throughout my life.”
In total, Reem lived through three major wars on Gaza. Throughout this, she continued to work for charities, helping families and children who had no where to live.
“After the war, I went to Belgium. I was 24. It took me four days to get to Belgium, it was very hard, the blockade made it almost impossible. I did lectures at universities all across Belgium, in lots of different cities.”
As much as Reem enjoyed traveling and sharing her passion. She faced prejudice from students who asked her questions about the war in Gaza. ‘How are you here? What was it like?’ Most shocking of all she was asked ‘ Are you even human? You aren’t human, you don’t even have freedom’.
Borders remained closed but Reem managed to leave in 2017. During a very difficult period for Reem, taking 6 months and 7 days she planned to leave for London. At which point borders started to close. Upon a turn of government it became easier to travel out of Gaza to Egypt but this was still a very difficult time for Reem. She ended up coming to England and did a lot of moving around Liverpool, Leeds and Manchester. Once she was in Manchester she made the decision to claim refugee status.
“The British government had lots of questions for me. I told them it is dangerous for me to live in Gaza, with constant wars and being told that women can't perform music publicly. The politicians told me I must wear a hijab, which I didn't like. I left for many reasons."
Meanwhile Louis Brehony was studying in London, taking a different route towards music discovery. After graduating with a music degree and a masters in composition, he began to conduct research on Gazan musicians for his PhD in Palestinian music. Not before long, he was introduced to the talents of Reem Anbar. Before meeting Reem, Louis had never tried to play Arabic instruments out of respect for the traditions and culture but of course Reem is not one to follow such regulated restrictions. She encouraged Louis to pick up an instrument.
“When I was younger I was involved in guitar based bands around Manchester, the music we played would make most people put their fingers in their ears. On the other side I was interested in culture, politics and history of the middle east. I saw that as more of an interest, something I wanted to research. I started listening to Palestinian musicians, but it never crossed my mind to reproduce it, I didn't think it was my job. To be honest, Reem encouraged me to get involved. I haven’t left my other influences behind but without that push I probably wouldn't have taken this path.”
As an already accomplished guitar player, who prides himself in having played ‘freaky alternative music’ and an improv jazz fanatic, it did not take long for Louis to learn how to play the Buzuq, a long necked string instrument with adjustable frets. At first, the aim was to have Reem teach him over Skype however, to no surprise it wasn’t going to be that easy.
“I tried to get online lessons from Reem, but at that point Gaza only had around 4 hours of electricity a day due to the Zionist blockade. There were constantly power cuts so it was hard to do anything.”
This brings us to 2017. Reem has claimed refugee status and Louis is living in Manchester. It doesn’t take them long to meet up and pursue their passion of starting a band. They decided on the name Gazelle as it is the meaning of the name ‘Reem’. The music Gazelleband plays is influenced from a range of different traditions and they draw parallels between Palastinian music and Irish folk music, of which is drawn from Louis’ heritage. Louis tells us more.
“It’s interesting because Reem plays what I would probably call high-brow Arabic music. Centred around the scene in Cairo, in the middle of the 21st century, all the famous Egyptian singers performed this orchestral style of Arab music based on classical poetry. These’s also the tradition of folkloric music based on Palastian wedding music and national songs for example. So theres this kind of mix, Arabic and Irish music both stem from similar musical roots of grand story telling. It’s two genres which form part of our repetoire.”
After speaking about their back stories, they graced us with a small extract of some of their songs. Louis continued to explain the history of these two beautiful instruments. The Buzuq is possibly thousands of years old. It is believed to have been based on the ancient tanbur which dates back to 300BC. Also drawing influences from the Greek Bouzouki, the Buzuq is a more modern Middle Eastern instrument, traditionally known for being played to royalty. Louis’ Buzuq was handmade in Aleppo, a city which has faced a lot of destruction. Despite this, the instrument’s creator returned to the city to ensure these musical traditions are not lost.
Reem’s most recent Oud was also handmade in Syria, a country under many sanctions and currently facing a massive covid crisis yet people there are still committed to this beloved musical culture. Crafted from fine wenge wood, by well renowned Hussein Sabsavy, based in Damascus, Reem’s 14 stringed Oud is a short-necked, lute-type, pear-shaped stringed instrument, which dates back to before the 9th century.
Gazelleband are definitely a group who has broken barriers, exceeded expectations and brought cultures together over a mutual love of music. Drawing inspiration from Gaza to Egypt, Irish Folk to Jazz, Gazelleband have something for everyone. The couple are now happily married and living in Levenshulme, raising a future musician, their young son!
Listen to their music on Soundcloud soundcloud.com/gazelleband , their Facebook page www.facebook.com/gazellebandmusic/ and hopefully before long, live.