Womad music festival

Singing in perfect harmony


Music is more than a career for Aaron Shneyer. In his eyes, it is a vehicle to unite communities and defeat conflict, something that he is passionate about. With that aim he created Heartbeat, not so much a band as a jazz-hip-hop crossover community comprising Israeli and Palestinian members coming together to promote peace and co-operation.

Festival-goers at Womad this weekend will experience Heartbeat's uplifting music, a blend of R&B, rock, reggae and folk. It has won high-profile fans: Neil Young and Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder are among its benefactors; US assistant Secretary of State Evan Ryan invited them to perform at the State Department.

Shneyer, Heartbeat's founder and executive director, grew up in Washington DC. "I had no family in Israel but we'd go there and I saw my parents working towards peaceful solutions in the Israeli and Palestinian communities, which was very powerful."

He also saw them facing flak for their views. "My father in particular was outspoken in supporting the rights of Palestinians. This was the 1980s and '90s, and many people called him a traitor. But, from him, I understood you can be very loving of your own community yet also critical of it, and also loving of your so-called 'enemy' -not that I'd ever consider anyone my enemy."

As a young musician, he was inspired by those who used music to encourage social change. "I, too, was yearning for a way to combine my passion for music and desire to help repair and ease the tensions in the world."

Heartbeat was born Shneyer went to Jerusalem at 23, and recruited 12 young Israeli and Palestinian musicians. "A lot of people had a hard time understanding how I could care about a Palestinian as much as I cared about a Jewish person. But there are good and bad people in every community, and I care most about those close to me."

In eight years, more than 100 musicians have gone through Heartbeat's programmes, in Jerusalem and Haifa. Members meet after school to make music and socialise.

"They go through a one-year, if not longer, programme of dialogue, learning about their lives and other participants', building empathy.

"They go out and perform and make music videos, and work as change agents." Following this, musicians can become Heartbeat ambassadors, on a local and international stage.

Heartbeat's music is exuberant, engaging, and often funny, with songs like Make Hummus Not War, and Bukra Fi Mishmish, translated as "Pigs Are Flying", featuring Palestinian rapper, Moody.

"The conflict plays a big role in everyone's lives in the Holy Land," says Shneyer. "Last autumn, when the stabbings were going on, one of our musicians had to run from the bus station to her house. Another is from a refugee camp that has seen intense violence between the people and the police; one or two have lost family and friends through the war, others have family members in prison.'

"For many, Heartbeat is life-transforming. It gives them a purpose. It's where they feel really free to be themselves. They become deeply critical thinkers, and so it becomes difficult for them to hate anyone blindly. One of our musicians said she still goes to the same places but now she has very different eyes.

"We've had a few instances in Israel where someone in the audience will shout something or interrupt our artists and get into an argument.

" But our musicians aren't there to argue, we want to build understanding and allies. We want to do it peacefully. We don't want to create more wars."

He tells the story of Dana, a young Israeli who was taught never to look a Palestinian man in the eye in the street, for fear he might harm her.

After joining Heartbeat she changed her opinion: "A few months of being in the group, she was no longer afraid to sit next to a Palestinian man on the bus and make eye contact, and would even greet him, thinking he might be her friend's father.'

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