Referring to the war in Vietnam, Joan Baez once said that if you don't fight against a rotten thing you become a part of it. It’s an attitude Brisbane-based singer-songwriter Phil Monsour lives by.
For more than a decade, he has made it his mission to fight the rotten thing at the heart of the Middle East: Israel’s genocidal dispossession of the Palestinians.
Like Baez, Monsour is a musician-activist who immerses his art in political solidarity. He sees music as an extension of his political being, and his political being as the crucible for his music.
No surprise then that his strongest work has coincided with his prominent role in the boycott, disinvestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign targetting Israel.
Monsour's songs are, at one level, deeply personal, but the first person is rarely the subject. In the true sense of the folk tradition, his music gives voice to the collective experience in particular the oppressed masses of the Middle East.
On Monsour’s previous two albums, The Empire’s New Clothes (2008) and Ghosts of Deir Yassin (2012), he sang of the experiences and aspirations of the Palestinian diaspora, the colossal barbarity of the oil-driven US empire and the narrowness and racism of life in Australia.
Taken together, these records constituted a solidarity project in their own right. They were an affirmation that art has a legitimate role as a mode of political commitment, working both emotionally and cognitively to provoke, educate, inspire and sustain people in struggle.
In Monsour’s latest recording, 100 Days, the project continues, but with a twist. Monsour's band of Jonathon Lloyd on drums, Ian Kimber on bass and Graham Jackson on guitar is joined on seven of the 12 songs by master oud player Mohamed Youssef. This fulfils Monsour’s long-held ambition to blend the music of his Lebanese heritage with his own rock roots.
Though some of the songs have been recorded before, Youssef’s oud contributions, woven exquisitely around and through Jackson’s guitar lines and Lloyd’s percussive rhythm, bring an entirely new atmosphere to the material.
Played in Arabic tonal scale, the oud resonates with its own history as a folk instrument. It evokes, at least to Western political ears, the long narrative of Arab loss, suffering, resilience and resistance. On this record, its melodies and cadences place Monsour’s contemporary references in their broadest historical context.
Thematically, Palestine is the core of the album. Some songs — “Next Year in Jerusalem”, “Left my Heart in Palestine,” “We Will Go Home” — directly address issues of Palestinian loss, exile and memory. Other tracks draw back to the wider frame of imperialist domination and pan-Arabic resistance.
“The Empire’s New Clothes” responds to the invasion of Iraq, while “Freedom’s at the Door” was written at the height of the Arab Spring, when a Middle East free of tyrants and US interference seemed possible.
The title track links the story of Palestinian refugees lost at sea and the treatment of asylum seekers in Australia.
Even “Sweet Hope”, a new track described by Monsour as “a bit of an attempt at a love song”, is conceived as a tribute to women in the struggle.
Even accounting for Youssef’s sublime oud playing, 100 Days is musically richer than its predecessors, as if the gentler acoustic arrangements have given the songs space to breathe.
From the tenderness of “Sweet Hope”, the slow-burning poignancy of “We Will go Home”, the acoustic rock of “Days Roll On” and the rollicking folk stylings of “The Haze” (featuring Dale Murray on mandolin and banjo), there is something here for everyone.
At the centre of it, though, is a songwriter and singer at the peak of his craft, producing great art in the cause of freedom.