There is an outspoken Lebanese composer and master of the oud (an Arabic lute) living in exile in Paris. Many in the Arab world love him for his fierce dedication to protecting the core of Arab music while simultaneously pushing that essence in new, expressive directions. Others condemn his passionate defense of artistic expression and his innovative work. His name is Marcel Khalifé. On June 14th he will give a rare North American concert in Elizabeht, New Jersey, presented by the National Arab American Medical Association's New Jersey chapter. NAAMA is a secular, nonprofit organization. All proceeds will benefit the establishment of a diabetes treatment and research center in the West Bank.
Khalifé has often spoken out for peace and reconciliation, having risked his life performing in bombed-out concert halls during Lebanon’s civil war. Last August, Khalifé wrote to fellow UNESCO Artists for Peace in response to Israel’s bombing of Lebanon, “Nothing justifies our art other than to speak for those who cannot speak. This is the cause for which we dedicated our efforts, and the cause that endorsed our voices. We only wished to take it as far as we can, and vowed to release our work as songs of love for, and unity with, the victims of persecution everywhere.”
Khalifé is no stranger to persecution himself, in a world increasingly fraught with challenges to artistic freedom. This year in Bahrain, a collaborative work between Khalifé and Bahraini poet Qassim Haddad based on the passionate, classic Arab love story of Qais and Laila led to wide-spread controversy after its premiere at a festival sponsored by the Ministry of Information. When a radical fundamentalist member of the Bahraini parliament denounced the performance’s dance element as too sexual and offensive to Muslims, the Islamist faction in the parliament initiated an official investigation. Earlier this year, his work was banned from radio, TV, and performance in Tunisia, because Khalifé along with other prominent Arab intellectuals signed a petition protesting the curtailment of freedom of expression and violation of human rights in Tunisia.
Though an outspoken advocate of free expression, Khalifé’s core passion lies in transforming the Arab music tradition, picking up the thread spun by the great composers and musicians of the early 20th century, figures like Egyptian composer Sayyed Darweesh. Khalifé calls for a new approach, one that brings instrumental music to the forefront of a tradition that has often laid heavy emphasis on singers and songs: "We Arabs have no history of our music. In my judgment, we have linked music to singing, and it is time to write down the history of music, not just song."
With his latest compositions featured on Taqasim (Nagam Records/Connecting Cultures Records), Khalifé takes his dedication to this core to a deeper level, using solely the lower register of the oud and upright bass to communicate “those tremendous but obscure dimensions that are often ignored by the listeners’ ears – the task of expressing the profound consonance between the poet and the musician,” without lyrics. Through the oud, Khalifé brings the world of joy and dispossession to all, regardless of the listener’s background or familiarity with Arab music, inviting everyone to embrace its deep and subtle complexities and savor its nuances. Canadian and American audiences will have a chance to do just that as Khalifé and his ensemble—including pianist Rami Khalifé and Bachar Khalifé on percussion—tour North America this autumn.
Khalifé’s previous work has stretched the world’s understanding of the oud by crafting new contexts and ensembles for the instrument, often by setting the lyrical and complex poems of Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish and other Arab writers to music. Yet now, Khalifé has decided to set aside direct references to words and the song form. This homage to Darwish is “not a song because I want to manifest the subtle, the unspoken,” Khalifé explains. Instead, he has let the oud speak for itself, coupled with Peter Herbert’s elegant upright bass. The bass is the perfect companion for the oud, Khalifé believes, as “Lower registers are what the oud is reaching for, where the devilish subtleties lie, and where speech is limited. There, often lies the truth.”
This truth is a deeply personal one for Khalifé and many of Darwish’s numerous admirers in the Arab world. Even before Khalifé made Darwish’s acquaintance, he recalls, “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 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. They were all, at a personal level, mine.”
Khalifé’s profound engagement with Darwish, his work and his fate as a Palestinian has translated into decades of work based on Darwish poems. Taqasim, though an integral part of Khalifé’s quest for a new approach to the oud, is something of a departure from his previous Darwish-inspired pieces. The wordless improvisations of Taqasim aim to “re-create what the poetry of Darwish has created in me,” transforming the grammar and sense of words into rhythm and melody.
When asked how Western listeners should find Darwish’s spirit in Khalifé’s confident tones, Khalifé responds simply: “Deprogram yourselves and explore the universe with your innate minds.”