A Magnum Opus from Marcel Khalife
Often considered a Lebanese counterpart to Bob Dylan, oud virtuoso and bandleader Marcel Khalife has been a freedom fighter for decades, even before founding the Al Mayadine Ensemble in 1976. Jailed and exiled for championing peace and human rights in the Middle East, his stance has never wavered. Today, his work continues to inspire fellow activists as the Arab Spring spreads around the world. For decades, he maintained a close friendship with the late, great Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, turning many Darwish poems into songs that would become anthems throughout the levantine world and beyond. It would not be an overstatement to compare Khalife to another artist, legendary Egyptian composer Mohammed Abdel Wahab, who also blended sounds from around the globe with classical Arabic song. Even by Khalife’s eclectic standards, his latest album Fall of the Moon, with the Al Mayadine Ensemble and Kiev Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vladimir Sirinko, is a titanic achievement. A lavish double-disc set streaming in its entirety at Khalife’s Bandcamp site, it juxtaposes ornate western classical orchestration with stark Middle Eastern melodies, both songs and instrumentals. Khalife and guest chanteuse Oumaima Khalil sing in Arabic; the cd booklet supplies English translations. Lyrical themes are alluded to via imagery far more often than they’re stated outright: it’s typical of Darwish’s poetry that what isn’t said that often resonates most powerfully. This is one of the most gripping and powerful albums in recent memory.
The title cut, a lavish, balletesque orchestral piece, could be Morricone, or a Rachmaninoff symphonic dance with Middle Eastern tonalities. The most vividly affecting of all the songs is Mohammad, a plaintive portrait of a child in a battle zone, sung a-cappella by Khalil. Themes of exile and longing for home run deep here, unsurprising considering that Darwish was Palestinian. The concluding song, The Damascene Collar of the Dove, pictures a fugitive back in Damascus, knowing that absolutely nothing will ever be the same again. Like many of the songs here, it’s a diptych, a vintage-style levantine melody that begins with an unnamed qanun player taking the lead and follows an increasingly haunting series of variations on a brooding theme that rests uneasily between traditional motifs and an angst-driven western sensibility: in that sense, the music perfectly matches the lyric. That occurs again and again not only throughout the album, but throughout the collaboration between Khalife and Darwish, brothers in arms in so many respects.
The rest of the album is more elusive, and allusive. The opening track, The Pigeons Fly begins with elegantly pensive piano by Rami Khalife, son of Marcel. Even when he solos, Marcel Khalife’s oud playing here, and throughout the album, is precise and biting but also understated, as are his vocals: his music has always been about intention rather than ostentation. What’s essentially a deftly orchestrated, acoustic levantine pop song speeds up and takes on a distantly imploring edge, following Darwish’s surreal imagery: “We are ours when a shadow enters its shadow in marble, and when I hang myself it is myself I resemble on a neck that embraces only clouds.” A refugee’s tale, And We Love Life sets a dark vamp to funky syncopation that grows more insistent as the melody weaves between the oud, the bass (played either by longtime Khalife collaborator Peter Herbert or Mark Helias – the liner notes don’t say who) and Khalife’s percussionist son Bachar. It’s a chilling piece of music: “We find a place to settle, plant some fast-growing crops and harvest the dead.”
The Stranger’s Bed, a sonata of sorts, features intricately wary interplay between Bachar Khalife’s piano and Fabio Presgrave’s cello. Oh My Proud Wound, a habibi ballad for a lost land, has Ismail Lumanovski’s clarinet reaching the highs usually carried by a ney flute in this kind of music, with a characteristically soaring, terse solo as it reaches a distantly anguished swell. Houriyeh’s Instructions – a rather nostalgic litany of advice from mom – evokes the classic Ya Rayyeh, from an otherworldly intro to its lush guy/girl harmonies. Of all the diptychs here, Now, In Exile is the most eclectic, with a suspenseful but punchy opening bass solo with Led Zep echoes, then a dancing theme that first goes carefree but soon brings in the clouds. From Darwish’s final work, In the Presence of Absence, it’s an elegy for an old lion of the revolution who can see the end coming.
A Song on My Mind, with Anthony Millet’s accordion playing sleek lines in the midst of all the strings, has the cinematic sweep of a classic Abdel Wahab number, juxtaposing bloody wartime imagery with the memory of when the locals were the only ones who fenced off the olive groves. Two other tracks, Remember and The Poem of the Land (an “over my dead body” theme) set trickly rhythmic Middle Eastern themes to swirling art-rock arrangments not unlike the Moody Blues at their peak. The most memorable of all the melodies here might be Palestinian Mawwal, whose warily circling string intro grows into a gingerly crescendoing Middle Eastern orchestrated dance interrupted by gunshot percussion.
There’s also an Andalusian-flavored dual-guitar instrumental played with precision and fire by Mahmoud Tourkmani; a couple of magnificently orchestrated, acoustic habibi pop tunes; and a lavishly orchestrated waltz with echoes of Beethoven, Celtic music and also a theme from Marcel Khalife’s austerely intense Taqasim album from 2008. For sheer majestic sweep and vision, there’s no other album released this year that can touch this.