Got to be ROCK ’n’ ROLL music
Contributed by This Week In Palestine on 31.03.2007:
By Serop Ohannessian
The sixties were a time when hardly anything happened in Jerusalem. We slept with the chickens and got up with the dawn chorus. The last time there was any excitement here was when Pope Paul VI visited Jerusalem. We needed some action, and we needed it badly.
Of course, there was the local radio station. The Hashemite Broadcasting Service transmitted from a house behind the Ritz Hotel in Jerusalem. We all waited for the ‘At Your Request’ programme. We would post our requests and glue ourselves to the radio for days on end just to hear our names mentioned and rejoice in our two seconds of fame.
It was on this station that we heard Elvis Presley, Cliff Richard & the Shadows, and Chuck Berry, but there was nothing like the magic of that band from England that was causing such a sensation. Yes, they were four teenagers like us, a bit rebellious, and my goodness, they had long hair that almost covered their foreheads. They sang ‘She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah,’ and we were hooked. That was it. That’s when Peter, Jack, Mardo, and I got together. We had a dream. Yes, four teenagers from the Frères School in Jerusalem who could hardly tell the difference between a guitar and a tennis racket, but we were on a mission to be the first Rock ’n’ Roll band in Palestine. We didn’t even have long hair, but that could be arranged. Mardo had a crumbling drum kit, but maybe some electric guitars might help. We asked Frère Felix for help, and he came up with an ingenious idea. The school would help us import three Hofner electric guitars from England (land of the Beatles) by registering them as educational items in order to possibly avoid paying the taxes. It took us three seconds to agree, but it took him more than three months of negotiations with the customs officials in Aqaba before they were convinced that maybe musical instruments had something to do with education. Our mouths drooled at the sight of those colourful guitars. There they were in front of our very own bulging eyes. We’d only seen electric guitars in magazines and never thought they could be so heavy.
How do they work? Where do you plug those things in? Then there was the sudden revelation that we also needed amplifiers – and which customs official was going to be convinced that loud noise was educational? Forget it, Charlie. There must be something else out there!
There wasn’t a single music store in the country, no sheet music, wala shi’. At best, Khalaf Stores in the Old City had a small collection of records, but if we needed guitar strings, the nearest shop was somewhere in Beirut. So we made our famous school trip to the ‘Paris of the Middle East’. As we walked in to the music store for the very first time in our lives, I tripped over a saxophone and fell flat on my face. But we walked out with strings, cables, and picks and, of course, a copy of the latest Beatles LP.
We were deter-mined to get it right; so during every free moment, we worked on another Beatles or Rolling Stones song. Our records got badly scratched as we played each song hundreds of times. Jack was good with words, but none of us, for love or money, could understand a word that Mick Jagger sang. We thought he was so cool that we sang his songs as we heard them: total gibberish.
Mardo was happy playing his drums; Jack had never held a guitar in his life; Peter was already playing melodies from his Shadows LP, and I could just about manage to get the chords right to play ‘Twist and Shout’. But persistence paid off, and after months of practice, we could play and sing in harmony well enough to call ourselves a band.
It was time for that great challenge. We wanted to go on stage and rock till we dropped. The Schmidt Girls’ School auditorium was just the place. The nuns who ran the school had no idea what they were letting themselves in for and neither did we. We designed our first poster with the original (and intentionally incorrect!) spelling of the name of our new band, ‘The Flintstons’, printed in big letters on the antique printing press in the Greek Convent, and within hours, we pasted the posters all over the Old City and the walls of the newly fashionable Salaheddin Street.
Come the day, we were gripped with anticipation. Our specially tailored costumes were copies of the suits worn by the Dave Clark Five, which we had seen in a magazine, and our hairstyles were modelled on The Beatles.
The stage was set. We checked the sound system as best as we could. A few more hours, and it would all happen.
We waited impatiently behind the drawn curtains as the auditorium filled up with students, friends, teachers, frères, and nuns. The place was packed. We took our places behind the microphones. One last terrified look at each other, hearts pumping, a nod, and the curtains were pulled open in short, squeaky jerks.
The sound of the first Rock ’n’ Roll chord to be heard on a Jerusalem stage shook the place like a storm: ‘It’s been a hard day’s night …’, and the girls started screaming; everybody was clapping and dancing on their seats. We were rocking our socks off. The excitement was breathtaking, and we were in seventh heaven.
We and the audience must have all dreamed the same dream and heard and loved the same songs. The beaming smiles on their faces were amazing, and the nuns didn’t know what on earth was going on. At the end of the concert, we even signed autographs.
The next day, Frère Felix called us to his room. He had yet another ingenious idea. He advised us: ‘Don’t get too carried away with the girls’ screaming last night. Concentrate more on your studies, and can you please ease up on your Rock ’n’ Roll repertoire?’ None of that registered, of course, but thank goodness there were no suggestions that we play anything from ‘The Sound of Music’.
For at least a year, there were no other bands but ‘The Flintstons’ rocking and rolling and getting interviewed by the local press and radio in Jerusalem, Ramallah, and Bir Zeit College, which only had freshman and sophomore classes at the time.
Our world tour consisted of playing a few gigs in Amman. It was one country then, and we were young and free and totally oblivious to the disasters that the Israeli occupation would bring.
Crossing the Jordan River was a cinch. Often there would only be one Jordanian policeman peeling a Jericho orange who gave us a welcoming wave as we crossed the river. We loved playing in Amman. There was hardly a familiar face, and there was no need to panic if we didn’t get the words right; the deafening cheers from the audience took care of that.
Now it was ‘The Flintstons’ from Jerusalem who had become the four teenagers who were causing such a sensation and who would soon motivate many other teenagers to start to form rival rock bands. The days that must have been spent just choosing names … There were ‘The Yarneys’ from St. George School, ‘The Bats’ and ‘The Mosquitoes’ from the Armenian Quarter, ‘The Zorbas’ from the Greek Quarter (where else?), and ‘The Karaman Brothers’ from Ramallah. ‘The Believers’, from Amman, were a story-and-a-half. Their lead singer was our ‘personal’ photographer, who eventually formed his own band and, not many years later, became the personal photographer to King Hussein of Jordan. Just look where Rock ’n’ Roll can take you!
In the spring of 1967, we all took time off to prepare for the GCE examinations but hoped soon afterwards to get all the rock bands together to celebrate the first Rock Festival in Jerusalem. The exams were to be taken at the Schmidt Girls’ School. On Monday morning, 5 June 1967, and just minutes into our first exam, Mr. Sahhar, the supervisor, walked in and announced very gently that the war had started.
Our pens dropped. Everything froze. Yes, in that very same hall where ‘The Flintstons’ had started a sensation, our dreams were shattered.
What happened to those days? Could we ever experience those feelings again?
It took almost another forty years before six greying men who had shared the same dreams got together to meet in the same school where now there’s a hall named after Frère Felix. We came up with another ingenious idea and formed the new rock band, ‘Shibat’ (‘The Grey-Haired Ones’).
Hey! We still want to be rock stars … before we grow up!
Serop Ohannessian spent the last thirty years as director of Tako Paper Industries in Ramallah. He now travels between London and Palestine where he’s involved in the productions of the new band, ‘Shibat’, which plays rock concerts for charity. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This Week in Palestine