Disco and revolution
How a 1987 DIY recording became the soundtrack of an uprising
Dear reader, how is your heart? How are you holding? It’s been a heart-wrenching season, to witness footage of civilians, doctors and journalists in Gaza fighting for their lives as the Israeli army razes everything in sight with armaments provided by the U.S. In my mind, I’m building new rooms of memory to hold these despairing, mournful moments.
When I need to renourish my soul, I’ve been finding solace in a few things. One is a photo of Riad Awwad playing drums in his living room in 1987. Based in Jerusalem, Awwad was a Palestinian electrical engineer with a passion for music. Awwad built his own instruments and recorded his music at home.
Dec. 8, 1987, was a pivotal moment for Palestine. That day, an Israeli truck driver collided with a car, resulting in the death of four Palestinian workers. After decades of enduring Israeli occupation, which involved raids, curfews and deportations, Palestinians responded with the first major uprising against Israeli occupation. It consisted of protests, general strikes, boycotts and protest art. It would come to be known as The First Intifada.
Riad Awwad wanted to get involved. In a 2020 interview with The Guardian, his sister Hanan described those early days, saying, “He gathered us as a family in the living room ... and asked us to help him ‘sing the song of the intifada.’”
With his three sisters and a poet friend, Riad recorded 11 songs in his family’s living room. In this photo, Riad is behind the drum kit, caught in a trance while performing. A cigarette dangles from his mouth. When I look at the photo, I notice Riad is looking away from the camera. I want to believe he’s looking at distances we can’t see. I want to believe he’s envisioning a Free Palestine.
The week-long recording session resulted in a cassette simply titled, “Intifada.” On the tape, you can hear futuristic synth lines from the keyboard Riad built. There’s a jazzy-disco beat throughout as Riad and his family sing love letters to Palestine, celebrating Palestinian indigeneity and resilience. It’s disco and revolution all at once.
The other thing nourishing me is the richness of Riad’s lo-fi recordings. It’s pure analog, hardcore-DIY. For me, it surpasses what the best recording studios can offer. And there’s a tape hiss all throughout the songs – I love a good tape hiss. It offers a sense of intimacy. If you listen to “Intifada” while viewing that photo of Riad, it feels like you are in that living room. All the vocals have a reverb effect, creating an echo that only grows. When Riad sings, “I will fight/ to liberate the land and the people,” it reverberates with urgency into the present.
After recording, Riad retreated to his bedroom where he spent days duplicating thousands of copies of the album. He then distributed the tapes to shops around the Old City of Jerusalem. Some even made their way to the West Bank. Years later, his sister, Hanan, would reflect on this moment. In various interviews, Hanan recalls walking through the Old City and hearing the music in shops, homes and cafes. Riad’s music became a soundtrack for the revolution.
But the tapes soon caught the attention of Israeli authorities. The Israeli army confiscated any and all tapes and eventually arrested Riad. He was detained and tortured for months.
The detainment and torture left an impression on Riad. After his release, he continued making music but maintained a low-profile. By 1993, the Intifada ended with the Oslo Accords, an agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization. Riad would spend the rest of his years as a music teacher for children in the West Bank. Tragically, he died in a car accident in 2005. To this day, the majority of his “Intifada” cassettes remain in the Israeli military archives, along with other Palestinian resistance art.
But the thing about resistance art is it can never be fully repressed. All it takes for a rebirth is one or two stray tapes left behind, waiting to be found.
In 2020, a Palestinian filmmaker named Mo’min Swaitat came across thousands of tapes in a record shop in the West Bank. It’s largely due to Swaitat’s passion to preserve Palestinian art that the story and music of Riad Awwad lives on. Today, Riad’s home recordings live under the album title, “The Intifada 1987,” which is available on the usual streaming services.
The journey of Riad’s music into the present reminds me that resistance can be resurrected. Today, there’s a clustering darkness around us, but in his music I hear the possibility of a better world. In Riad’s joyfully defiant music, I see a Free Palestine waiting to be born.
– Kirbie Bennett