The Bethlehem band that made party rock a personal anthem

Apo and the Apostles love nothing more than to get their fans up on the dance floor

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

The rhythm of “Baji Wenek” starts off slowly, a gentle strumming of ukulele strings gradually rising to the insistent strum of drums and bass guitar followed by the blast of trumpet, a call to anyone with a hankering to get up and dance.

“It’s our party song,” said Apo Sahagian, the lead singer of Apo and the Apostles, the creators of “Baji Wenek.” “When we sing it, the crowd goes wild.”

With lyrics in Arabic and the vocals sung — in the recorded version — by guest singer Mai Mourad, it’s become the five-member band’s anthem to parties, freedom and life.

That’s what motivates this band of Bethlehem-based musicians plus one lead singer — Sahagian — who hails from the Armenian Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City.

The chorus and music for “Baji Wenek,” probably their most popular song to date, was written by Sahagian, with help from Mourad on the rest of the verses. Arabic isn’t his first language; that would be Armenian, followed by very fluent English.

And like most of Apo and the Apostles’ all original tunes, the song is about the vagaries of relationships. With a catchy cadence.

Apo Sahagian, the Apo of Apo and the Apostles, is the lead singer of the band and also works on his own musical projects in Armenian and English (Courtesy Apo and the Apostles)
Apo Sahagian, the Apo of Apo and the Apostles, is the lead singer of the band and also works on his own musical projects in Armenian and English (Courtesy Apo and the Apostles)

“Lyrically, none of the songs have a happy ending,” said Sahagian, “especially the English ones,” which he tends to write. He called the band’s songs “lighthearted melodies of grieving words.”

They aren’t grief-ridden treatises about politics or the security situation. These twenty-something guys tend to sing about “bygone beloveds,” said Sahagian, who is 25, so it’s not the typical froth of pop songs. That’s true of the five songs on their EP (extended play recording) “Got No Eden,” the nine recordings on their full album “Back to Sababa,” and the five tunes on the upcoming EP, “Under the Zeitun Tree.”

But despite the forlorn ballads of these male musicians, they like to party.

“The people at our gigs are fun people,” said trumpeter Firas Harb, “people who go out clubbing and are open-minded enough to go to bars. We don’t like auditoriums; our music is party music, that’s our mood.”

A different kind of Bethlehem (and Old City) band

It’s a scene that may not jibe with the typical expectations of Bethlehem culture.

When Apo and the Apostles gather in a Bethlehem garage to rehearse and write, they think about their crowd, whether their fans can belt out the lyrics to a particular song, and if it’s energetic enough to get the crowd going.

“We’re trying to come up with a genre we call party rock,” said Sahagian. “Maybe it’s not the right music for a Tuesday night, but if you want to go out and drink and have a good night, we’re gonna show you a fun time.”

That’s the theme that shows up in many Apo and the Apostles songs, such as “Fil Zaman,” about young, reckless love. The video for that tune was filmed at the separation wall that runs alongside Bethlehem, a site that was chosen for the wall’s colors and graffiti, rather than any particular political statement, said Sahagian.

It’s not a simplistic response for the band, given that most of its members live near the separation wall around Bethlehem and struggle daily with the realities of life in Palestinian cities.

Sahagian, who is Armenian, lives in Jerusalem and has an Israeli identification card, doesn’t have the same issues. But while he would love nothing more than to perform in Jerusalem’s Yellow Submarine, a snug music club in Talpiot, Jerusalem that is a short,15-minute drive from Bethlehem, he is aware of the political sensitivities of some Palestinians regarding the venue, which is Israeli.

“I wish that I could play one day without any of this political black cloud,” he said.

That’s the reality of being a Bethlehem-Jerusalem rock band. The musicians themselves — Sahagian (vocals, guitars, piano), trumpet player Firas Harb, drummer Pierre Taweel, bass guitarist Amir Handal, guitarist Karim Morcos and bass guitarist Joel Thorpe (who played with the band until 2015) — say they are absolutely apolitical, at least when it comes to making music. (Only Sahagian and Harb were available to be interviewed for this article.)

“It’s easier to play Amman or Europe than in Israel,” joked Harb, 29, who works as an accountant and financial consultant when he isn’t blowing his horn.

It’s also easier to perform in the mostly Arab East Jerusalem or in Ramallah, the nearby Palestinian city where they have a solid fan base, often drawing several hundred to a show.

“This part of it isn’t a pleasure,” said Harb.

When Sahagian was last in town, the band tried to perform in Jerusalem, but fans from Bethlehem were afraid to try and get to Jerusalem.

“And yeah, we sometimes can’t play for Israelis because the political situation has associated it with a sense of disenfranchisement for our Arab audience. And that’s a problem,” said Harb. “You wish you had movement and freedom.”

Firas Harb, a trumpet-playing accountant, lives in Bethlehem but wishes for easier access to a larger audience (Courtesy Apo and the Apostles)
Firas Harb, a trumpet-playing accountant, lives in Bethlehem but wishes for easier access to a larger audience (Courtesy Apo and the Apostles)

But, said Harb, it’s hard to know what people are thinking.

“So if we play a gig in Tel Aviv, this sense of disenfranchisement for some might result in an article misrepresenting our band, which can lead to losing a portion of an audience we can’t afford to lose. Or maybe it won’t, but we’ll never know and it’s a risk,” he said.

When they’ve performed in places like Majdal Shams, a Druze village far up in the Golan Heights, they had to wait until they had permits as well, said Harb.

“You wish that you had this movement, this freedom,” he said. “You’re a musician, it shouldn’t be an obstacle.”

Still, being part of the Palestinian music scene has made them all more aware of those particular political sensitivities.

A musical youth

The Palestinian music scene is small and intimate, having lasted through decades of security and political strife. Sahagian was first exposed to it in his teens.

It was 2003, and he was 13 when he heard his first hard rock song on a music video. It was enough, he said, to make him quit Britney Spears.

Sahagian, like many Armenians, had grown up around folk music, the ballads of his Armenian heritage and of the church. But he began taking private guitar lessons with an Israeli in West Jerusalem, and he credits those acoustic guitar lessons with taking him further in his own musical explorations, leading him toward composing as well.

“She threw the guitar at me, and when I learned the G chord, I picked it up and played it for 24 hours straight,” he said.

He already knew how to play the piano — “like every good Armenian” — and by 2008, he was playing guitar at the back of the stage for a number of local rock rap groups and on his own, as well.

In 2013, Sahagian and other members of the band met through friends, and decided to form a band just two weeks before their first gig, at the Oktoberfest in Taybeh, a small Palestinian village known for its microbrewery of the same name.

“The crowd was really blown away,” said Sahagian. “We’re not musically tight at all, we’re just fun, with songs that are easy to catch on to. We’re half drunk, and interacting with the crowd so it’s really one on one and that’s what sets our shows apart.”

“We know each other’s vibe, what’s going to come next, from the drummer, from the trumpeter,” he said.

Stalin in the studio

Among the band members, Sahagian is “the Stalin,” he likes to say, in his role as the leader of this loosely affiliated musical group. During the months he’s away in Budapest, the other musicians play with other bands, and tell him that they miss their Stalin.

It’s a mellow kind of dictatorship, said Harb, who describes the band’s musical process as highly cooperative.

“When we start jamming, Apo or Karim or whoever or me, comes with a melody and if everybody likes it, we start jamming it,” said Harb, who also plays the flute, bagpipes and oud. “We put lyrics on top of it, change the drums, the beat, the bass guitar lines. And we go from there. Sometimes in one jam, we get two songs.”

“Sometimes when we jam, we just put shitty lyrics just to sing it,” he said.

But they work quickly, probably because they don’t get that much time to work together. Once the rhythm and music is set, they head to the studio to add the lyrics.

“That just works for us,” said Harb. “Sometimes it’s difficult to write lyrics. Sometimes, hallas (enough), you’re just not in the mood. Then we get to the studio, grab a bottle of wine and just start drinking with our producer and work on any idea, any small idea.”

Their method, however, seems to be working. Harb said he’s amazed when he meets fans, and finds that they’re not just younger, twenty-somethings who heard them at some bar.

“’Baji Weneck’ was a hit, and everyone listens to it,” he said. “I”ll meet a 40-year-old lady and she stops me and says, ‘Can I take a picture of you? My kids love your song.’ Or another friend asked if he and his niece could come in during soundchecks before a gig in Ramallah.”

When they first met, said Harb, there was only one band in Bethlehem. Now there are more, and he credits the modest success of Apo and the Apostles as enough of an incentive to encourage other musicians to start their own bands.

“They were guys from our audience,” he said. “They’re good musicians developing their own music, playing covers. There’s a nice thing going on, and what brings you pleasure is that you’re a part of it, and you’re the reason these people had the courage to go out there.”

We bring Sababa to Paris #apoandtheapostles #sababa #eurotour

Posted by Apo & the Apostles on Saturday, June 13, 2015

For now, Apo and the Apostles wants to expand its repertoire and audience, and hopes to get to Europe again, having played in Paris and Amsterdam last summer.

“There’s gonna be mass consumption of us one day,” said Sahagian. “This is the place for us.”

In Israel? The Palestinian Authority? Hard to tell. So he backtracked.

“No one’s saying this band is going to last,” he said. “From day one, we’ve been joking that tomorrow is the end and we may not make it to the next practice in the Bethlehem garage.”

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