Lebanese musician Marcel Khalife is a star in the world music scene. His inspired blend of traditional and modern sounds, and his anti-establishment stance have garnered comparisons with Bob Dylan. But as he reveals, there's more than meets the eye.
Starting out as a student of traditional Arabic music, Khalife went on to become a professor of the oud at the National Conservatory in Beirut. Artistic curiosity found him integrating Western styles and harmonies into his work. He was confined to his home during Lebanon's civil war in the late 1970s, and later fled to Paris, where his work quickly became known and internationally celebrated.
Over the course of his nearly four decade-long career, Khalife has sung about love, exile, freedom and longing (or, perhaps more accurately, longing for freedom). In 1999 he was given the Palestine Award for Music, and in 2005 he was named a UNESCO Artist For Peace. His career has not been without controversy; in the late 90s and early 2000s, he faced criminal prosecution for degrading Islam, by singing two lines from the Quran in his song "I am Joseph" (based on a poem), but was later found innocent. One of his defenders throughout the trials was poet and friend (and writer of the original poem) Mahmoud Darwish, whom Khalife has called his “heart’s artistic twin.” The two met in the early 1980s, and went on to form a long-lasting creative bond that gave rise to many popular anthems in the Arab world, including the deeply moving "Passport", a poem/song exploring issues of nationality, identity, and exile.
Khalife's latest album, Fall Of The Moon (Nagam Records), is a tribute to Darwish, who passed away in 2008. Symphonic in scope and sound, the double album includes contributions from Rami Khalife on piano and Bachar Khalife on percussion (Marcel's sons), longtime Khalife vocalist Oumaima Khalil, Roma clarinetist Ismail Lumanovski, and the Al Mayadine Ensemble and Kiev Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Vladimir Sirinko. As arts site Lucid Culture noted, the album "juxtaposes ornate western classical orchestration with stark Middle Eastern melodies, both songs and instrumentals" and concluded that "(f)or sheer majestic sweep and vision, there’s no other album released this year that can touch this." Filled with mournful ballads and sensuous, stirring rhythms, Fall Of The Moon is a captivating listen made all the more poignant by the Arab spring revolutions of 2011.
Though currently on tour through Central Canada, with European dates to follow in November, Marcel Khalife kindly offered his thoughts on revolution, poetry, along with the nature of creativity, and why everyone should read the work of Darwish.
How do you see Darwish being a poet for our times?
I have no doubt that Mahmoud Darwish would be very supportive of the Arab revolutions. The poetry of Darwish still speaks volumes to the aspirations of the Arab peoples for freedom, dignity, human rights for themselves, their country and future generations.
Where did the idea for blending music and poetry originate?
At the beginning, I never had the idea of putting contemporary Arab poetry to music and song. This was more dictated by circumstances and coincidences. I never thought of myself as a singer nor did I aspire to be one. I am first and foremost a composer and a musician. I realize myself in music more than in song. In 1976 during the Lebanese civil war, I was confined to my home in Amchit, Lebanon, because my leftist political views leanings were not to the liking of the dominant political party in my hometown. I was reading a new published poetry book by Darwish, when I wanted to try to put to music and song some of his poems that touched me deeply.
Eventually, living in my hometown, confined between four walls, became unbearable. I left Amchit and drove all the way to Paris carrying with me little of what I need in clothing, plus my oud (Arabic lute) and music notes. I arrived in Paris to a friend’s house who, when he listened to the songs that I have composed music to, took me to a now-defunct record label called “Songs of the World”. This was my first lyrical release based on Mahmoud Darwish’s poetry, titled Promises of the Storm. Never in my wildest dreams did I think that it will spread like wild fire throughout the Arab world, from the Middle East to North Africa.
Within a year I found myself with my ensemble performing in front of tens of thousands of people across the Arab world, in sold out Roman Amphitheaters and football (soccer) stadiums, and the rest is history.
What should audiences know and understand about your work and that of Darwish?
I am an avid and passionate reader of Arabic poetry in general, and contemporary Arabic poetry in particular. Throughout the long years of my artistic career I have put to music and song the poetry of several prominent contemporary Arab poets.
Even before we got to know each other personally, I felt as though Darwish’s poetry, with its divine assertiveness and prophetic cadences, had been revealed to me -and for me. I could nearly savor his “mother’s bread” that has become iconic to his readers. I could feel the eyes of his “Rita” as deeply as I could feel the pain that his “Joseph” suffered at the hands of his treacherous siblings, and I could identify with his passport, which I fancied carried my picture, just as personally as I could identify with his olive grove, his sand, and his sparrows. I felt that they were all, at a personal level, mine.
Driss Ben Malek
"Our respective oeuvres have grown to be reminiscent of each other, so that the name of each, instantly and without reflection, evokes the name of the other," says Marcel Khalife about his friend, poet Mahmoud Darwish. "How very appropriate, for all of my musical milestones that punctuate my career... are graced with the lyricism and poignancy that are uniquely Darwishian."
How do you so effectively blend serious themes and sensual melodies and rhythms in your work?
Music is the air that I breathe. It is an integral and essential part of my being and my humanity. It is the medium through which I express my feelings towards my surroundings and experiences. I am inspired by life in all its beauty, its myriad complexities and yet its simplicity. I am inspired by poetry, not only in terms of putting a poem that touches me to song, but also by expressing a poem in music without the lyrics. I find inspiration in literature and poetry, art, human experiences, people, nature and of course love in all it forms.
What is your opinion of the current Middle East protests? Do you see a role for artists?
I do not condone violence of any kind. However, one has to acknowledge that the popular grassroots Arab revolutions were not the perpetrators of violence. They were, for the most part, peaceful. It is the despots who have almost absolute monopoly over the instruments of power in all its manifestations, including violence -they are the ones who used it to violently suppress those just revolutions to maintain and perpetuate their authority and privileges.
It is irrational, illogical and unjust to equate the violence of the oppressed with that of the oppressor, whether it is the violence of those who are dispossessed in their home lands, or those dispossessed from the homeland, in the case of the Palestinian people. The violence perpetrated by the powers that be in both cases are flagrantly disproportional in the horror, sufferings and casualties inflicted upon innocent civilians. Any genuine man of peace should make that distinction, as Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu do.
Marcel Khalife calls his latest album "a tribute to (the) legacy, humanism and prophetic poetry" of Mahmoud Darwish.