More than songs for the dispossessed

Phil Monsour is a singer/songwriter based in Brisbane. His songs reflect a passionate commitment to the struggles of ordinary people. But Monsour does more than just sing about the world. As part of a broader political engagement, he deploys his music as an organising tool.

His recent recordings and performances have been built around the theme of the Middle East, particularly Palestine.

"Over the last five years", he told Green Left Weekly, "we've done a series of concerts and fundraisers that have put that issue front and centre in terms of song selection, the images that accompany the show and the people who organise the nights."

He says that these concerts "try to focus a bit more on the overall story and on the continuing disposition and the imperialist interventions in the Middle East.

"I cannot think of a historical example where so many millions of people have been hung out and abandoned by the world community so aggressively. Even to this day we are talking about 1.5 million people in Gaza who have nothing. They have a small piece of real estate that has been pummelled and destroyed. They have no facilities, no services, very little food. Children are starting to die from malnutrition.

"When you link that to events like the Iraq war and to other military interventions in the Middle East, you can also link that to events in Australia like the riots that occurred in 2005 in Cronulla and that wave of racism that grew up around people of Middle Eastern descent in Australia.

You can link that to Australia's refugee policy which in effect is largely played out against people from the Middle East who were up until recently many of the people in detention who were running from various conflicts."

Monsour said that a number of songs on his latest CD, The Empire's New Clothes, grew out of his response to the 34-day bombing and destruction of Lebanon in 2006.

This relates to his story "as someone who grew up as an Arab Australian of Lebanese background and knows what it was like to be in a household where there's a war on — in what my parents called the old country — where their brothers and sisters still lived.

"The experience of having this strong connection to one of these 'conflict zones' and having to function normally in mainstream society as well and trying to give people around you an understanding of how we see those events is quite different from how they are told what is happening.

"A lot of those songs are saying: those stories you see on the nightly news are very human stories about people we love and care about."

Monsour says that the events he has organised have "raised some significant funds for Union Aid Abroad. We've branched out and done similar shows in Sydney and Melbourne. What's been interesting about these events is that they give an avenue to people who aren't going to turn up to rallies to hear people speak who they haven't heard before.

"But it is also a music event. Over the last few years in Brisbane, the group of people I started organising with have built strong connections with people in the Palestinian and the Arab communities in Brisbane.

"That's why those events are significant and provide a model for how people can work with communities and with issues like this in other places as well. That's why I'm keen to export it to other places.

"The way we've packaged and organised these events has led to a diverse mix of people in the room talking and eating together, engaging in the process."

Monsour says an important component of these events is a Middle Eastern meal and involving people in organising that meal. "That's the mix essentially: food and culture, politics and the music."

Monsour says that when he performed the song "We Will Go Home" at the last concert he did, he realised that there were people in the room who had been dispossessed of their homes in Palestine so he invited them up on stage to sing the refrain.

He says it was a moving moment for everyone when those who had been exiled — and some had been exiled in 1948 — deepened the experience for others with their presence.

"This is about linking music to the organising", he said, "and the participation in the political struggle. That's something that has always impressed me. I don't know if I've done it successfully but I have done it and at different times forged a significant link between music that is about something, events that are about something and engaging as a participant in the struggle."

[Phil Monsour's latest CD, The Empire's New Clothes can be bought from www.philmonsour.com. He will be performing on the National Palestine Solidarity Tour with David Rovics. Shows are planned for Canberra, Adelaide, Brisbane, Newcastle, Wollongong and Lismore.]