Laudatory: Erik Hillestad

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Erik Hillasted’s laudatory speech at the ceremony on occasion of awarding the 15th Ibn Rushd Prize on 15 of November 2013 to Rim Banna, Museum of Islamic Art, Pergamon Museum, Berlin.

Laudatory speech to Rim Banna at her receiving of the Ibn Rushd Award 2013 by Erik Hillestad, music producer and lyricist, Norway

My meeting with Rim

I met Rim Banna 11 years ago. In 2002, I was travelling in Palestine. The world was apparently about to reach a new level in antagonism between the East and the West, seriously increased by unwise leaders like George W. Bush. He labeled some nations as parts of an “Axis of Evil”, and I was deeply provoked by his words. I decided to do the opposite of what he suggested. I did not want to fear any of the probable members of that noble club of evil. I wanted to visit them one by one in order to collect lullabies. My aim was to make the project “Lullabies from the Axis of Evil”.
It was just before Christmas, and I drove up the hills surrounding the town of Nazareth together with the director of the National Conservatory of Music in Palestine, Mr. Suhail Khoury, my friend since 1992. He had told me that if I was looking for songs for children, Rim Banna would be the best choice. I had never heard of Rim before, and I had no expectations.

It became a very decisive moment for me. I was sitting in Rim’s bedroom, the only quiet place in her family’s small apartment, and she started to sing “Ya lel ma atwalak”, a storytelling lullaby, reflecting the fate of the Palestinian people.
I did not at all expect the power of beauty, sorrows and longing, which surrounded me the very moment Rim started to sing. Tears came to my eyes, and understood what a wonderful voice for her people Rim was. I would like you to listen to the actual bedroom recording now, which back in Norway later on was supported and decorated by Norwegian musicians and singers, picking up the recording I had made in Nazareth, framing Rim’s song with their tones.

Play the song “Ya lel ma atwalak” (A Palestinian lullaby)

Her records, her concerts

Already one year after our meeting, Rim and I were working on two projects together. One was a Christmas record with a Norwegian choir, the other was Rim’s first internationally released solo album “Mirrors of my Soul”, with Rim’s own melodies to poems, many of which were written by her mother Zuhaira Sabbagh. This was the beginning of a long-lasting cooperation, through which Rim was able to establish a new platform for communicating with the Arab world and showing the beauty and strength of her voice and her songs. Reaching out to the Arab world from occupied Palestine was not easy. From Norway, it was at least somehow possible, and Rim’s songs were distributed by EMI Arabia based in Dubai and through an important distributor in the US. She released three more solo albums after that, and she took part in other collaborations with artists from several parts of the world. Her last album, called “Revelation of Ecstacy and Rebellion”, presents classical Arab Sufi poetry in a totally new musical expression, together with the internationally famous Norwegian jazz pianist Bugge Wesseltoft and other musicians from Tunis, Palestine and Norway.

Through conventional distribution and through Internet sites like YouTube and social media, she has managed to spread her music to all the world, and today she receives fan mails and messages from friends and admirers in a large number of countries in both hemispheres.
Her role as a strong voice representing the Palestinian people

In the West, we have a long tradition of double standards. We want to embrace victimized “worthily needing” ones. But we also want to dominate the world and scrupulously care for our own interests. This leads us to giving charity to the poor victims through our many NGOs, and at the same time we do our best to conduct policies that undermine many countries’ way to freedom, democracy and prosperity.
The provoking thing with Rim in this perspective is that she does not at all confirm the role of a victim. The beauty and the strength of her voice force us to understand that the Palestinian people is full of pride and power with a deep heritage and identity. Rim is because of this, such an important spokesperson for her people.
Here is one example from her latest CD:
Play the song “The Absent one” (a poem by Rashed Hussein)

Her fearless fight against Israeli occupation

Through her entire career Rim has talked firmly about the Israeli occupation of her homeland. She has done many fearless moves in order to defy the frames and limitations that the State of Israel has tried to force upon the Palestinians.
She has a deep love of her audience in many countries, but particularly of the people who live under the burden of occupation on the West Bank, in Gaza, and in refugee camps in the neighboring countries. Many times she has made forbidden visits to the refugee camps on the West Bank in order to sing for the children, and she has given several concerts under very difficult circumstances, even at the risk of being arrested, hurt or harassed by the Israeli soldiers. She has never been able to visit Gaza. But she managed to arrange a concert for an audience of 500 people there, by using a TV transmission from her home. The audience could watch her on a big screen in a venue in Gaza city, and Rim could see the audience live on a screen at her home. She and the audience could even shout: “We can break the siege”, together simultaneously.

Her relations with the Arab world

Through her songs and her records, but also through many concerts and festivals, Rim has become an established icon of music in the Arab world and elsewhere. She understood very early on the revolutionary spirit that was growing in the Arab countries, and which broke out into massive open demonstrations at the beginning of 2011. She went to Tunisia and Egypt to give spontaneous concerts in the streets and the squares, and thus show her support. For people in Lebanon she performed through Skype, and she expressed very clearly her support of the rebellions at the beginning of the uprising in Syria, and for this, she was heavily attacked by supporters of the Syrian regime. And sometimes without more than her own unaccompanied voice as her tool of communication, she sang to thousands in the squares in Tunis and Cairo.

For me personally, it has been amazing to experience how doors have been opened for me in countries like Lebanon, Egypt, Syria and Tunis, just by telling people that I am the producer of records by Rim Banna. It is a clear and obvious fact that she is well respected and appreciated as one of the most important freedom fighters of the Palestinian people and of the Arab world as a whole. Her integrity and the determination of her political cause appear impressively consistent and trustable to everyone. This year she was interrogated for three hours by the Israeli police, because of her participation in a humanitarian convoy, which went into Syria from the Turkish border. It is characteristic for Rim that when the Israelis told her that any visits to Syria would result in sanctions or punishments, she replied that the only one who will decide if she will go to Syria is herself, and nobody else.

Her concerns about and work for the Palestinian cultural heritage

Rim Banna has both the knowledge and the heart that is needed to be able to take care of the heritage of the Palestinian culture. She has told me several times about plans and ideas in this respect. Just a couple of months ago we both went to the small town of Ikrit near the Lebanese border and recorded old voices from demolished villages, voices who carry the old tradition of storytelling through music. Both the tradition itself and the sorrowful stories of being exiled from old properties need to be remembered.

Her work for children

As I said, my first meeting with Rim was because she was known for her work for children. 7 years later we released her children’s songs in a new CD that the World Council of Churches bought in large numbers in order to take to the refugee camps, so the children could keep learning Palestinian songs with a content showing that in spite of the occupation and all the conflicts, there is still something we could call “a Palestinian normality”. Children all over the world need to sing about games, animals, dolls, the smells and the moods of a backyard under an olive tree, and to play with words. The children’s songs Rim wrote and released are not at all political, but to sing them is still a political act showing the strength and dignity of the Palestinian people.

Quality, revolution, craziness and alternative thinking

Rim has a strong sense of quality in all that she is doing. And one of the qualities she appreciates the most is the one of true communication between the artist and her audience. She is always concerned about the well-being of her listeners. She wants every concert to be a happy and sacred moment for them.
Rim has a truly revolutionary character. She is patient in her determination, but impatient in her demands for changes that can bring people more freedom and human rights. And she is crazy enough to never let the chances of trying something new in her art pass her by. When I met her on an occasion two years ago, she said to me, “Erik, I want to do something different, something crazy.” The result became her new album from which we heard one track, “A Revelation of Ecstasy and Rebellion”. Here she found a new musical approach to the true revolutionary spirit that somehow is kept within classical Arab poetry.
Rim is a woman of alternative thoughts. She never buys stereotyped concepts. She believes in the wisdoms beyond the officially accepted ones. Even in her kitchen. She cooks the most wonderful vegetarian dishes. It is always a great joy to sit at her table and eat her wonderful, but to me very different food.

Her fight against her illness

Rim has also another struggle to fight than the political one. She has always been open about her cancer, which attacked her body three years ago. The strength Rim has shown during these years of pain is really remarkable. Against all odds, she has managed to defeat the enemy that had attacked her. I never forget how she motivated herself by seeing her illness as a metaphor for occupation, and how the whole situation made her even more determined in her fight for freedom through her art and her acts of solidarity. Not one single time has she let her illness stop her from giving concerts and travel to the hotspots of the Arab revolution. In October 2011 she even went on a hunger strike in the middle of chemotherapy to express her support of the detainees in Israeli prisons. We were many people around Rim who were worried about her health, but only the mothers of the detainees could finally convince her to stop the strike.

Rim, I want to congratulate you on the award you are receiving today. I know it will inspire you to further steps on your important path as a freedom fighter through your music and all of your artistic activity.

Erik Hillestad

Erik Hillestad

Erik Hillestad, record producer, born 12.12.1951 in Oslo, is the leader of Kirkelig Kulturverksted (KKV Records), a music producer of recordings, initiator of cultural and musical projects and processes, and an author of a number of great song texts. Hillestad has received several awards for his work. He was the first producer in Norway to receive the Norwegian Grammy Award (1982). In the year 2000 KKV established a new concert venue in Oslo: Kulturkirken Jakob (“The Culture Church of St. Jakob”), the first church in Norway to become a permanent stage for experiments within performing and visual arts. Erik has over the last years concentrated his work as a record producer on the possibilities of music being a tool in working for peace, dialogue and human rights. Most obviously this has been visualized through projects like “Make me a channel of your peace” (2001), “Lullabies from the Axis of Evil” (2004), “Songs across Walls of Separation” (2008) and “A time to cry” (2010). He has through the last ten years produced a number of records with Middle East artists, among them Mahsa Vahdat from Iran and Rim Banna from Palestine. Hillestad has received the Norwegian Free Word award of honor for his works.

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