The editor here at Americana UK runs a very democratic ship and the poor staff writers never know from one week to the next what will be sent their way for review. So, it was with some surprise and no little trepidation that a request to review Ben Fisher’s Folk/Americana album ‘Does the Land Remember Me?’ dropped into the in-box. Why the trepidation? Well, it’s not every day that you get asked to review what is described by Fisher’s PR company as “an entire concept album” focused on the subject of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict! Don’t let that put you off though. Seattle based Fisher, who has a degree in Arabic and Middle Eastern Studies, has crafted a simply brilliant and hugely moving piece of work.
Fisher should certainly know what he’s talking about. After graduating from the University of Washington, he upped sticks and moved to Jerusalem where he found work as a bartender as well as reporting and travelling for the Jerusalem Post. However, this isn’t an album focused on his personal experiences borne of three years living in the no man’s land between the Arab East and the predominantly Jewish West of that conflicted city.
This is instead a bleak but honest portrait of the Israeli and Palestinian people, who have been locked in a cycle of violence for the better part of the last century. “One of the biggest issues is that people are no longer interested in what happens there,” Fisher says. “It’s gone on for so long, the peace process is so gridlocked and there have been so many people killed. The world has become numb to it.”
Fisher started to conceive the album during a trip to Tokyo in 2014 and the opening track ‘The Shell Lottery’ became the catalyst. This is in essence a musical history lesson charting the founding of Tel Aviv in 1909, where dozens of Jewish families were allocated, via a lottery system, parcels of land that were delineated using red and white painted seashells. It’s also incredibly ironic that Meir Dizengoff, the town’s first mayor, envisioned a peaceful co-existence with their Arab neighbours.
One of the many standout tracks is the hugely moving ‘1948’, a haunting duet with Noah Gundersen that features Fisher singing from the perspective of a Jewish child and Gundersen from the perspective of an Arab child at the outset of the Arab-Israeli War of 1948, known by Israelis as the War of Independence and in Palestinian society as the Nakba (catastrophe). Backed by a simple fingerpicked guitar and at times almost whispered vocals, Fisher and Gunderson may just have captured in one simple song the entire tragedy and the ultimate futility of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.
There is no escaping the overtly political nature of many of the tracks on the album and despite his own Jewish background he is unequivocally direct when he talks about the challenges he faced in writing ‘Abraham’, the shortest track on the album. “This was the hardest song for me to write because I disagree so wholeheartedly with their mindset and political agenda,” says Fisher about writing from the perspective of a Jewish settler in the West Bank. “I wanted to portray this person in a sympathetic, human light,” he continues. “I tried to paint the narrative of the settler movement, which started as an arguably innocent thing, and evolved into something sinister, ugly, dangerous and evil.”
His PR company states that ‘Does the Land Remember Me?’ is a “career-making record, timely and crucial”. They are not wrong. This is a politically charged album that may well alienate those with a differing worldview to Fisher’s, but it’s an immensely inspired piece of work that examines the Israeli/Palestinian conflict through multiple lenses. This is an album that truly matters.