Palestinian-global festival and music platform Exist reached London this month at Cafe OTO, the latest triumph of adventurous programming and acrobatic work across borders and international challenges. Exist has always been abound reaching beyond boundaries, organizers say. This year, they have some poignant messages about what music can do to reach beyond the boundary between life and death. And they’ve shared some crucial thoughts and music with us as they reflect on that mission.

Exist was born in Palestine, with its first edition in Ramallah, but it has embarked on an international tour since then, with editions in Amman, Beirut, Athens, Oslo, and on Refuge Worldwide radio in Berlin. This year, though, took on special meaning after the sudden and unexpected passing of founder Odai Masri, aka ODDZ.

Odai was heavily involved in planning this year’s edition; it wasn’t only a memorial but an embodiment of a huge amount of his work. And Odai’s project has in just a few years been extraordinary in building stronger links between artists and curators from Palestine with those elsewhere in the world.

Exist ran September 8-10 at Cafe Oto in London, with a huge lineup. In order of appearance:

Marina Eichberg
Sami El-Enany
Ali Hamdan
Drew McDowall
Lee Adams aka Choronzon
Dahc Dermur VIII
Dirar Kalash
Marleen Boschen/Charles Pryor
Zahra Malkani

I spoke with organizers/curators Kujo (modularmind) and Dina Amro (artist name: Bint Mbareh) via email and phone, respectively.

Peter: I have to first ask about Odai. His presence will be inescapable for you all as friends and extended family; how do you hope that impact will be seen by larger audiences?

Kujo: Exist is first a feeling. In recent years, Exist became a touring concept. The vision has developed over time and in our most recent efforts we wanted to bring in our own way of interfacing with artists, audience members, venues and such. We like to manifest that philosophy of being open and not necessarily fitting the “alternative mold” that you see around. We will still push through the idea that Odai’s core vision and energy persist through our existence. The very essence of Exist is Odai’s fire – that’s that feeling. To me, it is undeniable that what is being brought forth and the way in which it is presented will be felt by our audience members. Odai always described Exist as a family and this is on what our foundation was built on.

And Dina, apart from Odai being involved in planning right up to his passing, you got to see him just recently, too, yes?

Dina: We didn’t sleep for a single moment. We just sat up all night, chatting, shit, gossiping, being entirely in love as friends. I had this manky FujiFilm instant camera with me and I snapped a shot of him making me a cheese sandwich in the kitchen of his grandmother’s house. And he had this massive smile on. I was very very lucky to have spent this much time with him, exactly before he passed.

There’s more going on in the venue than just the concert itself, right? How do you weave research and activism into the event?

Kujo: For Exist, activism is a loaded word. Our conditions are omnipresent in everything that we do. Each of the artists we present and have ever presented as part of our events are humans that have a statement to make in their own ways. Our curation process is a complex one and we seek artists that are multi-layered in their own practices, it is never two-dimensional.

Pictured: Exist in Athens.

To put it another way – is there a call to action, or action that can come out of events like this?

Kujo: Since Exist became a nomadic festival that expresses itself around various nations, it became part of the process to learn more about the intricacies and limitations that each state applies in terms of having a Palestinian festival. We made our edition in Berlin last year where we were under threat of being attacked by anti-Palestinian groups. This in and of itself reveals the reality of the Palestinian condition on a global scale.

In a more direct sense, you see the work we do like the compilation No Comply in support of Gaza’s skatepark through which we hope to put attention and support to as well as inspire others to do the same. [See our story on this from May, which Odai contributed to.]

What is some of the thinking behind the programming and the artists you’ve included?

Dina: Part of what I love so much – part of the reason I think it’s so necessary to continue doing exist – is the precarity. What I want to do is specifically harbor artists who, until a little while before, I’m not sure if they’ll get their visas. We’ve had one visa rejection this year, which is a record, really – it’s really exceptional. We had one visa rejection, one person who refused to apply for the visa in the first place – he’s five times displaced from Palestine, Syria, Palestine via Syria via Beirut via Amman. And then we have one person who passed away before we could even apply. All of this plays into what I think Exist is, because I don’t know if I’m interested in, for the majority, curating artists whose future is known for me, whose sound is safe because they are safe. You know? Or if I’m interested in curating a particular lineup that doesn’t take exactly this kind of risk – this institutional, infrastructural type of risk. And we pay the price happily for this. This precarity is one of the most beautiful things about us. 

Can you talk about any of the music you’re presenting?

Dina: It’s worth mentioning Zahra Malkani’s work – because Odai, I was just talking to him about it and it seemed to spark something in him that was really special. How I feel about it is that it’s one of the most brilliant things I’ve encountered in a while. She’s currently a resident in the south of the Netherlands. intuition-led research piece on dissident ecological bodies of knowledge and practices in southern Pakistan in the face of flooding and state violence. It is a sound-led, research-based piece aided with pamphlets that Zahra designed herself, filled with untranslatable recitations from Sufi and other decentralized worship practices in the region that relate to the River Indus and the Indian Ocean specifically.

This is especially important in the context of the state leaving local groups isolated in their relief work, including during the Pakistani floods of 2020. So this music has been playing a massive role in my understanding of Pakistani minorities and their way of dealing with economic and very material climate-based catastrophes.

[Ed.: Here’s one example of Zahra’s work; hope we can follow up more soon:]

Samandari Ehsaasat / Oceanic Feelings #3 [2021] by Zahra Malkani brings together found audio and music, interviews and live field recordings that span languages, dialects and musical/mystical traditions across southern Pakistan. This geography, marked by state brutality and militarism, environmental devastation and extractivism, is loud in its “ecstatic grief,” where sacral states journey alongside the coast’s multiple adversities and raucous belongings. Here, the ocean, the river, the boatman and the boat are all recurrent motifs – as obstacles, as vessels, as companions, as bridges, as guides.

Samandari Ehsaasat / Oceanic Feelings #3 was originally commissioned for A Thousand Channels, an audio series by Syma Tariq produced with the festival Colomboscope 2022.

It’s important to have not only adventurous and underexposed artists but – also, you have a lot of really significant international allies, right? What has their role been?

Dina: This is the first time we’ve ever sold out anything. I mean, of course, I understand that it’s because of Nicolas Jaar, but to have some institutional support from somewhere like Cafe Oto? I really don’t think that’s easy to secure for a festival as overtly, like radically Palestinian, anywhere in the world. I’m really proud that they’ve wanted this collaboration, and that applies to a lot of the media organizations that we’ve been in touch with here.

Kujo: This is a foundational aspect of Exist. We don’t care for status, and any established artist you see on our roster is on it because we are humans first and we connect on that level. This is what will make you (or not make you) a part of the Exist family. We sometimes exchange with career musicians (if you know what I mean) and we often find that we are not aligned. So regardless of your status, our stars need to align first on a personal level.

We do have an understanding that artists with a larger audience are under larger scrutiny when speaking truth about Palestine so we greatly appreciate their stance and support.

What was the significance for you of doing this in London?

Dina: We were thinking of London – originally this came from the fact that I wanted Odai to come. And I could sponsor his visa.

It meant that I could open my home, work with institutions that I really respect here. London had a massive significance in a way and felt like the natural stepping stone for a lot of us who had been working on Exist since day one. 

So I was like, okay, we can celebrate this here – bring all the respect we have for this musical tradition, jungle UKG, industrial, we can bring it all back to London. And it felt like this space in terms of Palestine where you have to be less aware of hostility.

Let’s talk a bit about your music. Kujo, for sure, you know I already love your project – What have you been working on most recently musically? What will you play for the festival?

Kujo: Thank you, Peter; I am humbled, I have had a major transition in my life earlier this year which has somewhat prevented me from creating music in a practical sense. However, I have been processing and introspecting feelings that I need to channel, so in preparation for this live show after taking a break since spring, I have been versing myself in new ways –  pretty complex emotions of love, loss, grief..

Having said that, for this edition of Exist I am presenting a crossroads – that is the meeting point between what Odai loved the most in my music and what speaks my current condition. There will be be some music from a never-released album I dedicated to the children of Palestine and some other more creations that I have done after Odai’s departure.

Exist at Refuge Worldwide, Berlin.

It’s great to see you and Renata, of course, from Beirut. What’s your sense of how the Lebanese scene is evolving and able to interact with the Palestinian scene, even with shared spaces difficult because of the border and occupation? Is it safe to say that there is now greater shared musical space and solidarity for Lebanese and Palestinian artists and across the region than in the recent past?

In the past decade, I have witnessed progress in that regard. We have materialized this expansion in different ways, be it through my label Modular Mind Records, our festival Exist or Renata’s Frequent Defect event series. There have been steps taken in order to build these bridges but we face a great amount of resistance on various levels such as social and systematic. 

Last year’s Exist edition at Frequent Defect in Beirut was a massive statement but not an easy one to make since we have a very intertwined and complex history. The generation that has not partaken in the war is now old enough to make their own, and this is part of the shift we are seeing in terms of shared musical relations and solidarity. If you think about it, Exist itself is a manifestation of this; as a festival born in Ramallah, Palestine nurtured by Odai Masri and the fact that I co-direct this festival as a Christian-born Lebanese from Beirut…this is kind of unprecedented. 

Our countries’ recent history broke all ties and bridges so our very existence (I know I say this a lot) resists this distorted history.

Crossing those borders seems so essential to Exist, and to what Odai talked about, right?

Dina: This festival crosses so many more borders than we actually admit. We say these borders that are invented between countries – but this is not even scratching the surface of what we’re actually doing. I think just bringing to light what exactly these borders are that we’re talking about is really special. 

How many of us are really like digging so deep into our archives and really hurting ourselves in the process, to bring to light this border between who’s alive and who’s dead, and how do we keep the dead with us. And I made this piece of work, from research to mourning practices in Palestine, to the music of mourning, basically. And I’m so inspired to see so many artists inventing on the spot live sets and talks and digging really deeply into their memories to think about this particular border. To confront themselves with this immense pain. And I love to think of this as a border that’s really mutable, that’s super permeable – that can be really kind to us if we spend some time with it. But we have to spend that time. And I think that music in particular is so confident in crossing this border.

We could talk about the fact that music is inherently future facing because by the time it reaches you, even if you’re in the same room, it’s already left – already time has passed. Which comes first, sound or visual? Sound is slower.

Right, sound is slower – but then that means it has wound up further in the future, because it took longer in this passage…

Dina: Yeah, further in the future. And maybe it’s a really simplistic stretch here – but we’re all going to die. And I think if we think of the echoes of our sounds in the future… it’s really an echo, it’s really a resonance. That’s really what resonates from what Odai sent the other day that he is listening to now. It’s really what crosses over that border, sonically and musically – because already that sound is in the future, by virtue of him having reached out sonically.

There’s something really profound in that particular kind of message. We are all at this moment trying our hardest to cross that border – to be more malleable with who is dead and who is not and how we reach over to the dead.

Thanks to Kujo for the music recommendations. Going to finish out with one more from ODDZ. Definitely there can be a lot more music from everyone mentioned in this story on this site.

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