| | By Lee Hildebrand
George Bisharat, aka Big Harp George, is decked out in a handsomely tailored gray suit with a pink handkerchief protruding from the outer breast pocket. His shirt is pink, his tie pink and yellow, and his smooth leather and suede Italian shoes two tones of rusty pink. It's as if he's about to step on stage to blow harmonica and sing at Biscuits and Blues, where he's in the process of lining up a gig to promote Chromaticism, his new debut CD.
The 59-year-old Piedmont resident is instead standing in front of a class of 16 students at the University of California's Hastings College of Law in San Francisco, lecturing on bifurcation and other fine points of criminal law concerning which of a defendant's past bad acts can be included or excluded from a jury trial. He then overseas a mock trial to demonstrate the Wednesday morning lesson and allow the students to ask questions of visiting defense and prosecution attorneys.
"I bet you didn't know 'turpitudeness' is a word. It may not be," he jokes after using it in the lecture.
At another point during the two-hour class, Bisharat explains the presence of a reporter taking notes in the front row for a story on their teacher's blues CD, due out the following Tuesday. The students appear surprised to learn that he's a musician, let alone a recording artist. One asks if they can have free copies. He offers a discount instead.
The Palestinian-American professor has been at Hastings for the past 24 years and before that was a deputy public defender for the city and county of San Francisco for four. He's been playing harmonica even longer, however, ever since he was 15, after his older brother saw the Butterfield Blues Band at a "love-in" in Los Angeles and brought home a copy of the band's East-West album. A high school friend later introduced him to the music of Sonny Boy Williamson II, an early favorite whose song "Crazy 'Bout You Baby" Bisharat reprises on the CD. And while attending the American University of Beirut in 1973 and '74, he was a member of Bliss Street Blues, a band that included Otis Grand, a Lebanese guitarist now prominent in England, and Jordanian drummer Raja Kawar, who flew in from his current home in Paris to record Chromaticism at Norwegian guitarist Kid Andersen's Greaseland Studio in San Jose. Also contributing to the February sessions were such top-flight Northern California bluesmen as guitarists Little Charlie Baty and Rusty Zinn and keyboardist-producer Chris Burns.
Bisharat's "Big Harp George" billing as a musician and the title of the CD both refer to his use of chromatic harmonica, an instrument larger and more difficult to play than the smaller and more limiting diatonic model used by most blues blowers. Through practice, sitting in with bands around the Bay Area, and studying with renowned harmonica educator Dave Barrett in San Jose, Bisharat developed a remarkable command of the chromatic harmonica that draws on the earlier innovations of George Smith, William Clarke, and Paul deLay. Bisharat plays chromatic in the seldom-used second position on four tracks of the CD, frequently using octaves to get a thick horn-like tone. He uses third position on two songs and first position on two others, in addition to playing diatonic harp on another.
Bisharat got the idea of playing in multiple positions from deLay, to whom he dedicated the plaintive "Left So Soon," one of six original Bisharat songs on the 11-track disc. "The reason I love Paul deLay so much is because he clearly had a different idea of what harmonica playing was all about," Bisharat says of the late musician over lunch in his Hastings office. "His whole approach to music was so original and so creative. I don't claim to have his genius by any stretch, but I didn't record my own stuff until I felt like I had something new and different to say."
Since its Sept. 2 release, Chromaticism has picked up play on more than 60 radio stations around the country and two in Europe. Bisharat is putting together a band to play occasional gigs in the Bay Area, but his sights are mainly set on landing engagements on the festival circuit in the United States and Europe for the summer of 2015, when he's on vacation from his day job.
Being a full-time musician is not in Bisharat's plans, considering his many other activities. In addition to teaching, he is a passionate advocate for the rights of the Palestinian people and has written numerous op-eds on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since 2001 for the San Francisco Chronicle, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and other publications. In 1991, University of Texas Press published his book Palestinian Lawyers and Israel Rule: Law and Disorder in the West Bank. He also contributes articles to law journals and to Fly Fisherman magazine. He's been fishing since even before he took up harmonica and in recent years has fished in Russia, New Zealand, Venezuela, and Bolivia and closer to home in the Sierras and the Sacramento and San Joaquin river deltas.
Bisharat was born in Topeka, Kan., to a Palestinian father and an Irish-American mother. His father had been an eye surgeon in the Gaza Strip before immigrating to the United States in 1946 and switching to psychiatry at the Menninger Foundation. While growing in Southern California, Bisharat heard his extended family speaking Arabic and ate Arabic food that his grandmother had taught his mother to cook. "That's all we ate," he says of himself and his five siblings.
"My dad's preference, especially before 1967, was that we assimilate into American society and have a good life here," he says. "He left Palestine. For him, that was a world of pain. I think he didn't want particularly to remember it, and he didn't want us involved in it. He wanted to give us a chance at a normal American life."
Bisharat didn't become fully aware of the plight of the Palestinian people until the so-called Six-Day War of 1967, during which Israel seized control of the Gaza Strip from Egypt and the West Bank and East Jerusalem from Jordan. Bisharat's father began speaking out in public. He planned on a career in law as a way of fighting injustice and eventually graduated cum laude from Harvard Law School.
"I wanted to effect social change," he explains. "There were a number of lawyers, from Charles Garry and William Kunstler and others like that, who it appeared to me were at the forefront of the anti-war movement and civil rights movement. I thought what a great way to make a living, fighting for a more just and a more moral and a more peaceful society."
Bisharat, who has a daughter, 23, and a son, 19, with his English-born Iranian wife, Jaleh, is an advocate of a one-state solution to the decades-old conflict between Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories.
Israel, he says, "would have to recognize that the long-term prospects of the Jewish community currently living in Israel-Palestine are better in a state in which equal rights prevail than one in which they have ethnic privilege that's enshrined in law. Obviously, for some people that will be a hard sell, and some people will never be sold on that. That was true in South Africa. There were white South Africans who couldn't abide by the notion of sharing power with black Africans.
"Zionism had its function and purpose, but at this point it's leading in the direction of extreme ethnic chauvinism and nationalism and also a very violent, militaristic state. That's just antithetical to Jewish values. There are people who are questioning, and I think those rational, fair-minded people will ultimately prevail. It'll take time.
"People there are not going to live in peace and genuine security until the real issues of injustice are addressed and resolved," he adds. "The Palestinians are not going away. Look at what happened over this past summer. There was a military confrontation. Roughly 2,200 people were killed, the vast majority of them Palestinian, the vast majority of those Palestinians civilians. Every time there is a confrontation like this, the Palestinian movement comes back, more inventive, more, you might say, lethal, more capable, and more desperate.
"Yes, I defend the rights of the Palestinian people, but beyond that, I defend what I think of as justice and fairness for all people. That includes Israeli Jews. I'm a partisan for justice and fairness and for equal rights."
As for his attraction to the blues, the professor says, "For me, blues music is joyous music. I know it's born out of suffering, but blues to me is about the affirmation of life against adversity. It's, in a way, the voice of oppressed people, the voice of poor people, the voice of underrepresented people. It's kinda saying, 'I'm here, I'm not going away, and I'm gonna celebrate and have a good time.' That's what I find appealing about blues."
Lee Hildebrand, a longtime Oakland resident now living in Tracy, has been writing about music, particularly blues, soul, and gospel music in the East Bay, since 1968.
Margaretta K. Mitchell is a nationally known artist and professional photographer, author, and educator based in the East Bay. MargarettaMitchell.com
Musical man: Bisharat blows a chromatic harmonica—one big harp. Photos by Margaretta K. Mitchell.