The rana choir of Jaffa
People who sing in choirs speak of the joy they experience in creating harmony. So powerful is this experience that a research study in Sweden has found that choir singers not only harmonize their voices, they also synchronize their heartbeats. As the members sing in unison, their pulses begin to speed up and slow down at the same rate.
The Rana Choir of Jaffa has created yet another kind of harmony: a harmony of women of very different ages, religions and backgrounds who have developed, by singing together, close friendships and a degree of mutual understanding. The choir’s experience has shown that co-existence, mutual respect and empathy, even in a country where these things are rare, are indeed possible.
“We are a family,” says choir member Alia Hattab simply.
The germ of the idea of a multi-racial choir was born when Mika Danny, a composer and voice teacher, came to live in Jaffa.
“I realized that the move to Jaffa was a great opportunity to do something meaningful,” said Mika. “Although both Arabs and Jews live in Jaffa, there isn’t really much interaction. Since I’m a musician, I know how powerful music is and I thought it would be a good idea to create a women’s choir which could bring people together and initiate dialogue. This would be my way of contributing.”
In 2008, she began to look for a home for the choir and found one at the local Arab-Jewish Community Center, which was willing to host the project. Mika then began to search for singers by placing advertisements and by going personally to community centers and schools to recruit members. It wasn’t easy, since many Arab women are reluctant to leave their families in the evening just for themselves. As a result, Mika admits that standards, in the beginning, were not very high: “I was not looking for professional singers but I did find some who are natural singers. We only asked that they sing in key and have reasonable voices.”
Twenty singers – ten Arabs and ten Jews – were chosen after auditions. Soon, women started asking to join and today there is a waiting list. Why only twenty? “I think intimacy is important in an ensemble and twenty is a good number.”
The first song they learned was from Africa, because Mika was walking on eggs, not wanting to offend either Arab or Jew. But now, some are in Hebrew, some in Arabic and English, some in a combination and some in other languages. The choir now has a large repertoire of about 40 songs, and the version of “Had Gadya” that speaks of change has become their signature song.
What makes the choir’s repertoire unique in Israel is that it focuses on text as well as music. Classical bel canto is not their forte; instead, they focus on songs that people can identify with – lullabies, love songs, songs about women’s experiences, often set to folk melodies.
For eight years, the choir performed under the auspices of the Community Center under the name Shirana Choir (a fusion of the Hebrew word for song – shir – and the Arabic word for song - rana.) In 2016, Mika and the choir, together with musical director Idan Toledano and Varda Kalmar, who works on publicity, decided that it was time for the choir to become independent. It is now known as the Rana Choir.
“It was a huge step,” says Mika. “We now have to concentrate on administration, marketing and PR as well as the musical and social aspects, but we are happy with the decision because it gives us more freedom. We perform more now at festivals and events, such as a Tel Aviv graduation ceremony and at a Women’s Festival in Holon, and we are also scheduled to play 10 concerts with the Israel Andalusian Orchestra around the country.”
The choir was the recipient of the International Hrant Dink Award for 2016 as an organization which fosters intercultural dialogue and works for a world free of discrimination, racism and violence.
Choir members are very different. Their ages range from 34 to over 70; some are married and some are single; some are professionals and some are not well-educated. Some of the Arab women are Muslim and some are Christian.
Arab-Jewish relations are complicated in Israel, and when there was a stabbing in Jaffa last year, Mika worried about its effect on the choir members.
“We had a performance the next day and everyone came. We didn’t feel like singing, but we didn’t need to say a word. We all felt the same. We don’t all share the same opinions and we went through a long and intense process until we recognized that no one wants to be killed, and the only way is to live together.
“Most Jews don’t really know Arabs personally and vice versa. Real personal relationships are rare. That is how fear and prejudice grow. Many of us have changed our views of the other. They were suspicious in the beginning. One woman lost her father in the Yom Kippur war. Now she is proud to be in the group.”
In spite of local tensions, the women have become fast friends, celebrating each others’ weddings and birthdays. Some even go away together on holidays.
For Rakefet Lapid, the idea of joining an Arab-Jewish choir seemed a waste of time initially. “When Mika called and asked me to join, I thought - oh, it’s another one of those projects where they eat hummus and nothing happens. I hung up. Luckily for me, another friend told me the choir was amazing. So I came. It works because the choir actually does something together and not just talks about it, and through that, everything happens. You get to know people that way, particularly if you’re all doing something you love. That comes through in the singing.”
Another choir member, Alia Hattab is a ninth generation Jaffa resident and former teacher who heard about the choir from a local social worker. “I love to sing; all of Jaffa knows my songs from the Koran. My daughters love to sing too. I was hesitant at first, but now we are all a big family called Rana. I enjoy this choir so much that I would never agree to go anywhere else on Tuesday, which is rehearsal night. When I come, I bring food for everyone.”
Pauline Odeh is also a teacher at a French Christian school in Jaffa. “At the beginning, I found it frightening to meet new people and to be guided by experts in singing, but now this is my second family. We are all friends – beyond friends.”
Mika struggles to raise funds and arrange performances, but she knows that if the choir is to continue, that has to be done. “We need to perform; it is our oxygen. We also need donors and volunteers to help with grant applications and fundraising.” But the struggle, she believes, is worth it.
“We have learned to listen and respect each other. We are not going to change reality, but we are making a very small difference. People tell us, ‘you make it seem possible.’ After all these years this still moves me.”
Rana Choir: 054 234 4555. Information about the Rana choir is available on Youtube, Facebook and Pinterest.
See also: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dWSZmH6oP7s
Here and everywhere else in the world – "There'd be no war today if mothers all would say: I didn't raise my boy to be a soldier!" A renewed version of our song, the lyrics of which are based on a song that was written during World War 1 in the USA.
Mothers of the world, unite!
Based on "I didn't raise my boy to be a soldier" by Alfred Bryan & Al Piantadosi.
Music & Arrangement: Mika Danny, Hebrew version: Eli Bijaoui, Arabic translation: Sheerin Daniel, Musical Producion: Idan Toledano, Direction & Editing: Raphael Bellaiche, Cinematography: Phillipe Bellaiche & Adi Mozes