Marcel Khalife and sons go on US tour
New York - Standing ovations are normally reserved for the end of a concert but when Marcel, Rami and Bachar Khalife walked on stage at New York’s Town Hall, one of the country’s premier performance venues, the audience rose to its feet and gave a warm welcome with prolonged applause.
The humble family of musicians accepted the welcome and proceeded to prove that the opening ovation was well-deserved.
Kicking off a US tour, the Khalifes delivered an emotionally bracing performance, last December, that opened with a poem by Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, who once described Marcel Khalife as his “heart’s artistic twin”. Khalife backed his recitation of the poem with a softly plucked tune on his oud.
He returned to Darwish’s poetry various times in the 90-minute performance, at one point inviting a slightly hesitant crowd to join in on the haunting refrain of The Pigeons Fly.
Khalife is well-known in the Arab world for both his politics and his pioneering forays into jazz and Western harmony, which he uses to complement a sometimes barely perceptible Arabic rhythm snaking through many of his pieces.
His sons — Bachar, a percussionist who tapped cymbals, pounded a beat box and sometimes took to his drum kit, and Rami, a keyboardist who played piano and synthesiser — have clearly inherited their father’s talent and his penchant for experimentation.
At one point, Rami, a graduate of New York’s Juilliard School, rose from his seat and, with his fingers, plucked the strings of his piano. At other junctures, Rami’s synthesiser created an electronic frisson that was far from the traditions of Arabic music.
About one-third of the way through the concert, the emotional atmosphere in the theatre took a palpable turn as Marcel Khalife played one of his signature solos, Ummi (My Mother), with lyrics based on a Darwish poem. Beyond its mournful characterisation of love and longing, the song resonated strongly for the large number of Arab ex-pats in the theatre.
“Of course, it was especially powerful for the people in this audience,” remarked Rita, a young Lebanese immigrant who did not give her last name. “So many people are here alone, so far from their families, and everyone misses their mother and their home.”
Although Khalife has often said Ummi is not a metaphor for the Palestinian struggle but an homage to his love for his own mother, his embrace of Darwish’s powerful poetry of Palestinian exile and despair has often been a source of controversy and not just with Israel.
Khalife added lines from the Quran to Darwish’s lyrics for Ana Youssef, ya Abi, landing him in court in Tunisia where he was tried and acquitted of blasphemy after numerous Arab intellectuals and artists rallied to support him.
Khalife is one of the best-known Arab musicians outside of the Middle East, not only for his masterful oud playing but for his ability to bring musical traditions from around the world into his compositions.
Born in 1950, he began his career playing within the strict traditions of the oud and taught at the Beirut National Conservatory of Music in the early 1970s. He formed Al Mayadeen Ensemble with the intention of reviving the musical and chorale traditions of his hometown of Amchit. From there, his popularity grew as he often played in the bombed-out theatres of war-torn Beirut.
It was not until 2010, after Rami and Bachar had established themselves as major talents both on Lebanon’s contemporary music and art scene and internationally, that Marcel, Rami and Bachar Khalife made their debut as a trio at the Beirut Music and Arts Festival.
The trio’s fusion of oriental, electronic, classical and percussion music energised the Arabic music world and continues to capture the imaginations of audiences. The high-energy combination of the oud, piano and percussion, streaked with the squeals of electronic synthesisers and keyboards puts it on the level of the best in world music.
At least one audience member regarded the seamless blend of the various musical forms as a metaphor for Marcel Khalife’s status as a musician, an artist and a political figure. “He is many different things to many different people,” said Ibrahim Dulijan, a doctoral student from Saudi Arabia, “but above all, he is a unifier, musically and politically.”
Marcel, Rami and Bachar Khalife are touring the United States as part of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee’s Turaath programme, which aims to break down negative stereotypes of Arab Americans by educating Americans about the diverse cultures of the Arab world. Other stops on the tour include Washington, Boston, Dearborn, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Houston.