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Palestinian Talent, US Experience Launch Ghaneeha

Palestinian Talent And American Experience Launch Ghaneeha

Ghaneeha singing contest draws Palestinians from around the West Bank

By M. Scott Bortot Staff Writer

Washington - A partnership that brought together Palestinian talent and American experience has literally given West Bank youth something to sing about.

The Ghaneeha competition, held in July, was the first-ever televised Palestinian talent-search show. Initiated by the Jerusalem-based Sabreen Association for Artistic Development and supported by the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem, Ghaneeha was broadcast locally and internationally by the Palestinian Broadcasting Corporation.

"We thought that it would be a good idea to get the kids more excited about music if they could get on TV and win prizes," said Norah Shaqur, public relations director at Sabreen. "It is all part of motivating the kids."

Ghaneeha's 10 finalists performed in Ramallah on July 3 before a panel of judges and 800 spectators. Noor Freitakh, a 16-year-old from Nablus,won the competition with a stirring rendition of a song by Syrian-Egyptian singer Asmahan, "My Sweetheart Come Back to Me."

"What I loved the most about this competition is that I was actually able to do the thing I love to do most in life, which is singing," Freitakh said. "My voice is better, I am a better person and my self-confidence is much higher now."

The competition featured 70 children ages 12-18 from all over the West Bank. Over a four-month period, the youth participated in workshops to improve their skills in the hopes of reaching the final competition.

Cynthia Harvey, cultural affairs officer at the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem, said Ghaneeha is one of the largest cultural programs ever undertaken through the consulate.

"We came up with this project as a way for young Palestinians to engage in an activity that would inspire creativity, promote self-esteem, and encourage nonviolent means of self-expression," Harvey said. "In the end, all of the participants in Ghaneeha were winners. They inspired other Palestinians to dream big and strive to reach their full potential."=

The project was coordinated with the Palestinian Authority's Ministry of Education, the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) and the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem.

Most of Ghaneeha's funding was provided by the consulate, which also sponsored American trainers from the Washington-based modern dance ensemble CityDance to work with the singers.

Said Murad, director-general of Sabreen, said international partnerships such as the one with CityDance play an integral role in many of the organization's programs.

"In Ghaneeha, we have established a strong connection with CityDance. Their vocal and movement specialists, along with Sabreen trainers, succeeded in training the students and helping us achieve the goals set for the program," Murad said.

Performers with CityDance coached the finalists the week before the Ramallah show. Paul Emerson, director and cofounder of CityDance, was impressed by the young Palestinians.

"These kids didn't have a lot of formal training, but you want to talk about some people who can sing - they were incredible!" Emerson said. "Just to watch a group of young people who just weren't sure what they could do and how they could do it, and literally using the clich=E9 'to find their own voices,' was really something."

CityDance's Amikaeyla Gaston, who is also executive director of the U.S-based International Cultural Arts and Healing Sciences Institute, helped the youth improve and preserve their voices. As a vocalist and a voice teacher, this is her specialty.

"A lot of children were singing from their throat and getting really raw and raspy voices because they were pushing so hard without amplification and without proper breath control," Gaston said. "[I was] trying to really guide them on techniques to use to save their voices so in the long run they can always sing beautifully."

Voice control is only part of the training process. Another aspect is how a singer holds the body, which can be just as crucial as training the vocal cords. Christopher K. Morgan, rehearsal director and choreographer-in-residence at CityDance, helped the young singers master their poise.

Morgan works the "physical modalities" of the body to maximize performance.

"It was really about just getting them to have ownership over their performance and to fully embrace self-confidence as they sing their song," Morgan said. "It wasn't a lot of dance movement - it was mostly just working on their stage presence."

How the young people took to new ideas presented by foreigners impressed the American trainers.

"The kids were so open and ready for information and assimilated ideas really quickly," Morgan said. "I think that is the benefit of youth."

Freitakh benefitted from working with Morgan and Gaston.

"They helped us a lot in improving our breathing skills and our presence on stage. We can now own the stage when we sing," she said. "They made us see and discover new, beautiful things and talents that we never knew we had in us."

"The improvement in the posture and position of the kids onstage was obvious and remarkable," Shaqur said of the effect of the American trainers on the young people. "Not only did they gain confidence but also they learned to loosen up and relax onstage and offstage."

Ghaneeha is not Sabreen's first program for Palestinians. In fact, this program is the latest chapter in a two-decade history of helping young Palestinians to find expression through music.

The Americans praised Sabreen's efforts in the Palestinian Territories. And Emerson is looking forward to continuing the relationship between CityDance and Sabreen.

"They are a really good choice for a partner over there. ... We are going to be doing stuff with them in the future," Emerson said. "I am a huge fan of theirs and a huge fan of the project."

Apparently, the Americans may get another chance to work with Palestinian youth. Since the competition, aspiring contestants are reaching out to Sabreen via phone, e-mail and the organization's Facebook page.

"The very positive feedback that we have gotten from people has inspired us to do Ghaneeha again next year," Shaqur said.

ENDS

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