As rain clouds loomed over Maplewood Mall in Germantown on Saturday, performers played Middle Eastern music into the night.
Rather than on the cobblestone-mall lawn, the Duo Recital, a partnership between West Oak Lane native Jerrell Jackson and friend Vena Johnson, performed and narrated a new art exhibit inside the recently opened Imperfect Gallery.
Jackson played double bass cello while Johnson swayed with her violin serenading the audience with Palestinian folk songs re-written for classical instruments.
The performance was an encore of the previous weekend’s gallery opening of Dana Scherer’s “Documenting Harmony: Images from the West Bank, Palestine” photography exhibit.
A long-time portrait photographer, Scherer was drawn to the occupied territory because her father was born in Ramallah, Palestine but moved to America as a young boy. She said meeting local artisans inspired her work.
“I thought it was really interesting that they found ways to sustain themselves when they were facing so many challenges,” she said of the high unemployment and violence between Palestine and Israel.
Scherer’s exhibit features finished works from local glassblowers, a soap-maker and even a shoemaker she met along the way to give her photos more texture.
Despite traveling afar, she said that Germantown was on her mind.
“I felt like [the local artisans sustaining themselves in a difficult environment] was a parallel to Germantown, about how we’ve been overlooked for a long time and how the artists are now kind of rising up,” she added.
Not a political event
Despite weighty societal underpinnings, Scherer said her work isn’t meant to be political. Rather, she views it an exploration into the impact of music on education.
“I just think that its important for people to explore and learn about that region on their own instead of just looking to the news to tell them what’s happening,” the Germantown resident added.
Scherer traveled to Palestine last winter with performers during the seventh annual Baroque Musical Festival hosted by the Al Kamndajati music school in Ramallah, Palestine.
Musicians from around the world gathered for 15 days of classical-music concerts in the region. Scherer documented their journey and later created a short video documentary.
Local musicians were there
Before that festival, Duo Recital volunteered at the Al Kamndajati music school. There, they worked with young musicians many of whom otherwise lived in refugee camps in Palestine.
“There were some language barriers,” said Johnson, explaining that much of her teaching process was non-verbal. “There was a lot of, ‘I play this and you play that’ because there was no English whatsoever.”
Music was the only language needed.
“I thought it was really easy to communicate with a student or another musician because there are just certain things that came naturally to instruments, especially with music notation, because it’s the same all over the world,” said Jackson.
“I was really surprised and impressed by the kids’ focus, on their studies and with music,” he continued. “It was a really impressive high level of focus and commitment to music regardless of their situation and their restraints in their environment.”
Art vs. conflict
For Estelle Stecheller, long-time neighbor of Maplewood Mall, being able to separate the political from the personal was significant.
“I think it’s really really important for Americans to see real Palestinians,” she said. “Seeing that they have kids, that they’re into music, that they have a music school that they are not ‘terrorists.'”
Stecheller, who volunteers with the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom’s Philadelphia chapter, said the exhibit — which runs through Aug. 11 — is a fresh look at an age-old conflict.
“This is a real antidote to that, to see what people are really like,” she noted. “It was wonderful to have the music and the photographs to give a different perspective.”