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.
At their sold-out performance Friday night at Lincoln Center Out of Doors, the New York Arabic Orchestra reaffirmed their place as one of this era’s most vital New York ensembles. Leader Bassam Saba had played several of the pieces on the program with a small five-piece group a week earlier in Brooklyn. Fleshed out with full string section, ouds, flutes, bass and percussion, the songs took on a lush, epic sweep that was nothing short of transcendent. Saba toured with his countryman Marcel Khalife for two decades: the two composers share a broad, pan-levantine eclecticism and an ability to deliver an emotionally charged wallop. This show did that, but it also played up all kinds of subtleties and unexpected, entertaining flourishes. With the orchestra behind him, multi-instrumentalist Saba could play an entire song on a single one instead of shifting from oud, to flute, to saz and back again like he did at Prospect Park the previous week, giving him the chance to take his time and expand on his often plaintive, poignant themes.
Characteristically, the bill included several Saba compositions as well as vintage Middle Eastern material. Wonderful Land, the title track from his excellent new album, opened with Saba playing a hypnotic solo taqsim (improvisation) on the rustic, clanky Turkish saz lute. Then the orchestra took it aloft on a magic carpet of strings, with a stately call-and-response between the saz and the ensemble, and a graceful solo for the percussion section. Diverse, debonair Lebanese-American singer Naji Youssef joined the group along with a choir for a vocal tune, the baritone crooner’s elegant microtonal inflections contrasting with joyously romping flutes. Then it was back to the instrumentals with two increasingly tricky, polyrhythmic variations on Lebanese folk themes, Saba’s flute front and center. Midway through, a spontaneous clapalong emerged in the crowd.
There were three more vocal numbers (a couple by paradigm-shifting Lebanese songwriters the Rahbani Brothers), one lushly swaying, a couple of them more lighthearted. While in most Middle Eastern dance-pop, the orchestras have been replaced by synthesizers and drum machines, it was heartwarming to hear the roots of those melodies as they were originally written to be played. Saba’s Nirvana, a lavishly memorable suite, featured an arrangement that cleverly shifted voicings among orchestra members, with a biting oud solo against pillowy strings. They closed with a classic Egyptian piece, packed with trick endings, a bracing solo from the first violinist and an even more intense one from Saba, once again on flute. As before, the crowd became an auxiliary percussion section as the piece wound out, and they didn’t miss a beat, all the way through to its playful, cold ending.
The New York Arabic Orchestra are the New York Alliance Française’s artists-in-residence for 2011, with a gala fundraiser coming up in November with Marcel Khalife. The ensemble’s next performance is on September 11 at 7 PM at Merkin Concert Hall, as part of Musicians for Harmony’s 10th Anniversary Concert for Peace.
This is an album about defiance, and hope. The Listen to the Banned compilation has been out for over a year in Europe and now it’s America’s turn to catch on, and we hope it will. The unifying concept here is that all these songs were written and performed by musicians who courageously stood up to fascists and racists and paid the price – sometimes with their livelihoods, some were tortured and others forced into exile. So far none of these artists has paid with his or her life. They may fight racism, religious extremism and African dictators, but their common enemy is stupidity. The common ground between them speaks for itself: it’s hard to imagine a more multicultural, or more universal album than this one. And this isn’t just a collection of polemics: from the viewpoint of a western listener who probably won’t be fluent in Pashtun, Arabic, Turkish or Persian, it’s a fascinatingly eclectic mix of good songs, whose defiance translates powerfully in the voices of the singers.
Born in the US to renowned Zimbabwean musicians, Chiwoniso Maraire – formerly of popular 90s Zimbabwean band Andy Brown & the Storm offers the only English-language cut here, Rebel Woman, a tribute to freedom fighters that blends traditional thumb-piano sounds with Tracy Chapman-style folk-pop. Singing in French, iconic Ivoirien roots reggae star Tiken Jah Fakoly delivers his excoriating signature song Quitte le Pouvoir (Resign from Power), complete with rapidfire Bone Thugs style rap interlude. Renowned oud player/singer Kamilya Jubran – former frontwoman of the courageous Palestinian new-music group Sabreen - is represented by an insistent, hypnotic electroacoustic number. The most musically powerful number here is by another extraordinary oudist, Marcel Khalife, driven into exile in Paris after being forced to stand trial for blasphemy in his native Lebanon. It’s a plaintively lyrical suite which illustrates legendary Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish’s Oh My Father, I Am Yusif, a metaphorically loaded parable of a village outcast.
Another great song here is Cameroonian singer Lapiro De Mbanga’s snidely funny, articulate Constitution Constipee, calling for Cameroonian tyrant Paul Biya and his gerontocracy to step down. Currently serving out a three-year sentence there for recording this, all he wants is a free election. The rest of the album attests to how engaging and entertaining music with a purpose can be. The late Uighur songwriter Kurush Sultan’s lush, orchestrated ballad Atlan Dok, a blend of Middle Eastern and Asian tonalities, builds to a richly orchestrated peak out of a foreboding intro. Palestinian chanteuse Amal Murkus offers a stunningly gentle, captivating version of a lullaby, performed mostly a-cappella. Iranian singer Mahsa Vahdat, who refuses to submit to the tradition of performing only for other women, contributes the aptly titled Mystery, a gorgeous tone poem with vocalese, oud and ney flute.
Sudanese songwriter Abazar Hamid’s Salam Darfur – whose attempts to reform pro-Janjaweed women who sing racist anthems have sadly met with little success – offers an aptly titled, jypnotically peaceful anthem. Aziza Brahim, who hails from Western Sahara, sings a gripping, pounding, percussive number with biting minor-key acoustic guitar and sax in tribute to her people, many of them murdered and displaced by the Moroccan invasion of their land. Another Iviorien, Fadal Dey contributes Non au Racisme, a simple, catchy and musically witty roots reggae song. Turkish songwriter Ferhat Tunc’s contribution is a slinky, jangly, trip hop-tinged song; there’s also rhythmically tricky, crescendoing Middle Eastern pop from Afghan singer Farhard Darya and Pakistani Haroon Bacha. Many of the artists here have been featured at Freemuse, the valuable and important site devoted to musicians from around the world whose work has been censored or banned.
Every day our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Friday’s album is #795:
Marcel Khalife – Taqasim
One of the world’s great oud players and composers, Marcel Khalife has been called the Lebanese Bob Dylan. As the leader of the Al-Mayadeen Ensemble in the 70s, he achieved extraordinary popularity for his politically-charged, anthemic, classically-tinged songwriting, often using lyrics by the great Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish. Together with his human rights efforts on the part of the Palestinians, Khalife came under fire from the anti-Palestinian wing in Israel and was eventually driven into exile in Paris. This 2008 album, a hauntingly terse instrumental triptych, pays homage to Darwish. Backed only by bass and drums, Khalife builds a tense, shadowy atmosphere, brooding and often downright tormented; mournful resignation gives way to a stately dance that eventually goes deeper into darkness, with a barely restrained desperation. Only a small portion of Khalife’s extensive catalog has been released outside of the Arab world; this is one of the best. Likewise, torrents are hard to come by. It’s still available from Khalife’s site.