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'We can use the power and beauty of music against colonial forces,' says Palestinian-Japanese soprano

Mariam Tamari at the Cairo Opera House 25th Anniversary Gala [Sherif Sonbol]
Mariam Tamari at the Cairo Opera House 25th Anniversary Gala [Sherif Sonbol]

When asked what has been the most exciting international appearance, Palestinian-Japanese soprano, Mariam Tamari, quipped that there was nothing like performing with her fellow Palestinian musicians.

"We work with the unspoken understanding that music is our intifada, and that urgency, that longing, our shared visions of liberation course through the music. We're family," she said.

With several notable achievements to her name, Mariam, who was raised in Tokyo, believes in using her talent in producing high-note melodies to shed light on the trials and tribulations of Palestinians suffering under the occupation of Israel.

The art is, after all, in her genes.

Her late father is the artist. Vladimir Tamari, her mother Kyoko is a costume designer and her two Tetas were a designer and calligraphy artist.

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"My father constantly played Bach and Mozart at his atelier at home, and I naturally began singing and composing at the age of two," she said. "As a child in Palestine, my mother's lullabies soothed us through experiences of military violence. I believe this played an important role, too."

During the crossing from Jordan at the age of three, she witnessed her father being arrested by Israeli soldiers. She watched as the soldiers aggressively blind-folded and handcuffed him with machine guns pointed at his head, threatening the children to stay silent or they would shoot their father. Instantly, Mariam's mother hushed them with songs of lullabies.

"The violence of apartheid is omnipresent, but Palestine is also where I feel most fully myself. There, community is everything," she explained. "We look out for each other with enveloping warmth, generosity and love. Singing is spontaneous and interwoven with our daily lives there, whether rolling warak dawali in the kitchen or boosting morale at checkpoints."

A graduate of Bryn Mawr College, US, Mariam majored in music and philosophy. She made her lead opera debut as Adina in L'Elisir d' Amore at the Nissay Theatre in Tokyo. She has also recently performed as the title role in Madame Butterfly.

Respected around the world, she has performed for the Emperor and Empress of Japan and the King and Queen of Jordan. She has been described as having "special flair for French melodies" and hailed for her "lucid musicality" and "virtuosity".

"It's an art that takes concentrated dedication and passion more than anything," said Mariam. "The willingness to practise in painstaking detail, for hours daily, for decades and decades and the humility and curiosity of being a lifelong student of music."

Currently based in Paris, Mariam is composing some new songs to Palestinian texts, which she is recording with musicians in Palestine.

Emphasising the importance of drawing attention to the Palestinian struggle, the soprano explained how the social space of music is an effective site for socio-political and cultural resistance.

Cultural resistance has been associated with Palestinian music and songs since the forcible expulsion of Palestinians from their villages in 1948.

"We do what we can with what we've got," said Mariam. "We're most effective in our own spheres of experience and influence. I'm convinced we must communicate with courage and from the heart for our messages to be deeply heard and felt and, to this end, there is no better language for me than music."

"There may also be something to be said about the raw human voice trained to reach thousands without amplification. What has moved me deeply is that people from all over the world – South Africa, Hawaii, Vietnam, to name a few – have written to share their stories. People who know what it's like to suffer under colonialism have said they've learned more about Palestine and feel that their struggles, too, are represented in my music. This keeps me going."

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While following in her aunt, Tania Tamari Nasir's footsteps in musical activism and representing the poetic and political voices of Palestinians by singing Palestinian texts, Mariam also sings the works of Japanese composers.

"My aunt, Tania, is the pioneering soprano to sing classical art songs in Arabic, working closely with Palestinian poets such as Mahmoud Darwish and Jabra Ibrahim Jabra," said Mariam.

"Although Western classical music has often been used by and associated with the European aristocracy and white supremacy, Tania has always shown me we can use the power and beauty of the music against colonial forces, to raise our voices and celebrate our own cultures," she added.

Tania Tamari Nasir is a classical singer, writer and literary translator, with several publications on Palestinian embroidery and cultural heritage. She performed the first concert in 1993 after the opening of Darat Al Funun, one of the first non-profit art galleries and residencies in the region, along with pianist and composer, Agnes Bashir, and performer, Rania Qamhawi, celebrating the poems of Palestinian writer, Jabra Ibrahim Jabra.

She believes there is nothing novel about fusing the two cultures, as Japan and Palestine are both parts of Asia and she focuses on their myriad similarities. "Both are incredibly warm, graciously welcoming, deeply artistic cultures. We can bypass the West and work together," she said.

Palestinian's culture and heritage is the best weapon against the Occupation - Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

Palestinian's culture and heritage is the best weapon against the Occupation – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

For many Palestinian composers and singers, the Palestinian crisis has continued to figure in their work as a symbol of the struggle to establish political sovereignty and, in addition, the commitment to creating modern forms of Palestinian Arab culture that are free from Western influence.

According to Mariam, western classical music maintains a deep-rooted racism and discrimination problem and, therefore, she collaborates on politically-informed projects with other musicians of marginalised identities to speak out against such issues."

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"At a time when it's normal in the theatre world for a Black woman to play Hamlet, the major opera houses still produce shows featuring blackface and yellowface, as often seen in Othello, Aida or Madam Butterfly. This must stop," she stated.

Music transcends time, space and social gaps, making it the ideal tool for political change.

Through music, the Palestinians continue to express hope for future generations by means of artistic resistance.

Mariam concluded, "I'm very rooted in the fact that, whether I'm singing to an audience of five or five thousand, at a refugee camp, in front of royalty or at an audition, what's going on is nothing other than communication between the most human parts of myself and the most human parts of you. The intimacy of that connection gives me strength."

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Asia & AmericasInterviewsJapanMiddle EastPalestine
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