My People Are Rising

Composer / Arranger Notes:

Jointly commissioned by Elektra Women’s Choir, Canzona Women’s Ensemble, CA (Jill Anderson and Cricket Handler), and Peninsula Women’s Chorus, CA (Martín Benvenuto)

I first heard Mohja Kahf’s “My People Are Rising” on a 2016 BBC podcast entitled “Poetry from Syria,” and was so taken with it that I listened several times in order to write it down.
Looking up the author, I learned that she is a Syrian-American poet and novelist, born in Damascus, now a professor of comparative literature at the University of Arkansas. When I contacted her, I discovered that I had heard only a small portion of a much longer work called “My People Are Rising: An unfinished poem begun in Spring 2011 for an unfinished Revolution begun in March 2011.” This longer poem is full of the pain of forty-eight years of government oppression, but also hope. The Syrian uprising was originally based on the principles of non-violence, non-sectarianism, and no foreign military intervention; they are reflected in the poem. Alas, these principles have been completely submerged in the ever-increasing violence and chaos that is Syria today.

Having obtained permission to set the text, I looked for a group to commission and sing “My People Are Rising.” A mutual friend introduced me to Morna; I am delighted that she was interested enough organize a commissioning consortium, include the work in Elektra’s Celebrating Women Composers project, and program it on this Fire Flowers concert. The poem spoke to viscerally of the tragic events in Syria that it was impossible for me to imagine setting it with Western harmonies. And so began an exploration of Arabic music, with its quarter-tone scales, its lack of vertical choral structure, its abundantly ornamented hererophony. Since quarter-tones are not a part of our Western choral training, I opted to temper the scales a bit (resulting in a fair number of augmented seconds) and add a violin to the melodic mix for pitch support. The voices and violin are accompanied by a doumbek player, who is highly encouraged to improvise; the written notation is only there as a guide.

The research for this project was fun! I found quite a few youtube videos of Arabic music – my favorites were informal house concerts by Simon Shaheen’s group. (One example: ). And I took an Arabic drumming class to see how the rhythms might be written. No blinding insights into how to notate what is essentially an improvised tradition, but the class and videos helped me to understand better how this music is constructed, why it sounds the way it does, and how I might emulate that sound in service of the text.


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Poem by Mohja Kahf (1971-)

My people are rising; my people are rising,
with olive branches and song, they are waking;
the earth underneath their marching is shaking.
My people are rising! They are no longer crouching;
they are no longer stooping;
and they are not hungry for bread alone.

My people are rising; they are shaking off
what has bound them, and their bonds scatter like moths. …

My Sanameyn, my Jeezah, my Inkhel are rising, bless them;

My Banyas is rising and my Homs is rising; bless them.
My Duma is marching in the streets and my Latakia is marching; bless them. My Qamishlo,

My Idlib…my Hama is marching; bless them.

I see them mustering unarmed, Kurd and Assyrian and Arab and Ghajar, bless them. Christian and Alawite and Druze, bless them, Sunni and Shia and Ismailia, bless them; tribe and tent and house and clan, bless them.

My people are rising. A blessing on my people.
They stand before tanks unarmed and they fall under bullets while calling,
“The earth is big enough for all of us! Let us have a little of it too! The earth is big!” And as they bleed out on the cement in the street
where they played as children, their blood mixes with rain and runs off
into the big, big earth for which they longed.
And the young Horani said, as he lay dying that March day in Daraa City, in the pool of rain mixed with his blood,
“It’s worth it to have lived these last moments free.”

I hear his words, and his blood runs into the soil of my dark dark heart like the rain of this springtime in Syria.