Marcel Khalife and sons go on US tour

Sunday 15/01/2017
Marcel Khalife (C) with his sons Rami (L) and Bachar. (AP)

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.