Last year, 2017, was the centennial anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, the public statement of support issued by the British government at the height of WWI promising Palestine to members of the Jewish diaspora. The Zionist movement, which was established in Europe in the late 19th century, served as the vehicle that brought this infamous declaration bearing the name of the Scottish-English Lord Balfour – a former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom – to fruition. And so, Palestine as a mandate under the British Empire would eventually become the site of one of the most contested national projects in history.
The response to the centennial anniversary throughout the last year has inspired activists, artists and a number of political and non-profit organisations and agencies to fight for Palestine with conferences, publications and a myriad of artistic projects infused with political commitment. It is within this context, perhaps, that music lovers should understand 47 Soul’s latest Album, Balfron Promise, which was released on the 2 February this year. The album is the band’s second project after their highly praised premiere EP, Shamstep, was released three years ago.
At first glance Balfron Promise looks eerily familiar, hinting at the political content that will undoubtedly be embedded in each of the album’s eight tracks. This holds especially true when looking at the album’s Arabic title Wa’ad Balfron, which differs from the Arabic translation of the Balfour Declaration by a couple of letters. Wa’ad Balfour literally translates as Balfour Promise rather than declaration.
Balfron, a Scottish village 16 miles north of Glasgow, is a metaphor that could perhaps serve as the band’s attempt to reclaim their combined Jordanian-Palestinian heritage and its fate, the very one that was dictated by the Scottish Lord Balfour’s declaration. Thus, if Balfron Promise was intended as an extended pun or a form of reclamation history by the band’s brilliant diasporic members, then the tracks in the album itself each function as a fight song. At minimum, they are a form of political commentary on the less than desirable crises facing Bilad Al-Sham (The Levant). After all, it was their love for the motherland that brought the band’s four members together.
Balfron Promise resembles its predecessor Shamstep in its revival of the Levantine wedding’s traditional mijwiz/yarghoul sounds by taking the dabkeh that pumps through the soul of the region and electrifying it. The band prides itself on its innovation of the electro-dabkeh sub-genre within Arabic music and rightly so, they give their listeners a mix of the traditional, familial, Levantine celebration and elevate it with a rock and roll-esque vibe. The resulting sound is at once both familiar and foreign.
Among the tracks on the album is Machina, which provides allegorical allusions to exile and return, forced migration, and the political apparatus responsible for much of suffering in Greater Syria. Similar messages hint through the lyrics of Mo Light, Marked Safe and Moved Around. While each of the tracks is potently political, Locked Up Shop is the most surprising in its reinterpretation of a traditional Palestinian wedding song Ihlig ya Halaq (Shave, oh Barber), the song that functions as the rite of passage for every young Palestinian man on the eve of his wedding. The elegiac-style rendition is sung primarily in English and infuses war and hopes for peace, blending the wedding procession with its counterpart in Palestinian culture; a funeral during wartime.
The members of 47 Soul, El Far3i, Walaa Sbeit, El Jehaz and Z the People, are themselves members of the Palestinian diaspora spread across the Palestinian Territories, the Gallilee, Amman, Jordan and the US. The four members have alleviated the pangs of exile by virtue of their very existence as a united group and with their album, Balfron Promise, have provided a metaphoric return to a Levantine 1947 in 2018.