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The 'Arab Song' for 'Arab Spring'
By Sami Asmar
Composer Marcel Khalife in Al Faihaa Auditorium, Damascus, during the festival of "Damascus 2008 Capital of Arab Culture." The concert was a tribute to Mahmoud Darwish under the title "And We Love Life, If we find a way to it." Photo by Jamal Saidi
Fall of the Moon
By Marcel Khalife
Traditonal Crossroads Records, 2012
Marcel Khalife’s newly released CD, “Fall of the Moon,” and the corresponding world tour in memory of poet Mahmoud Darwish come at a historic time for the Arab people. Finally, the revolution for which Khalife had been metaphorically yearning through song for years has arrived, and the will of the people has a catchy newspaper headline: the “Arab Spring.” Lebanese singer/composer Marcel Khalife has been singing the poetry of the late Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish for decades. According to Khalife, this yearning started before the two men ever met — at a time when the young musician was frequently confined indoors due to the dangers of the Lebanese Civil War, one day happening to pick up a book of Darwish poems at somebody’s house. This reading moved him to compose music on top of which he could sing a few of the poems. The rest is history, as the lives of both men irreversibly changed thereafter. Khalife found the words to describe his feelings and Darwish’s work was given a fresh voice. They met many years later, struck up a friendship, and made joint appearances in many capitals, though they never collaborated directly -- Darwish wrote poetry, not song lyrics, and Khalife selected from that work freely without consulting the poet -- which allowed both to produce independent and high quality work. In the minds of their countless fans, however, the two “rebels” became an intertwined duo, as Darwish’s poems such as "Rita" and "Ummi" became staples of Khalife’s worldwide performances.
For a period of time, Khalife struggled to clear his name from a Lebanese state prosecutor’s accusations of blasphemy that sprung from his singing Darwish’s poem "Ana Yousef Ya Abi"(I Am Joseph, Father), which contained a line borrowed from the Qur’an. When Khalife gathered tremendous popular and political support for his case, the charges were dropped. Shortly after that, Darwish died of heart problems in a Houston hospital. Devastated by the passing of his friend, Khalife spent less time composing poetry and more time on instrumental and orchestral compositions. After a hiatus, he issued the double CD carrying the title of another Darwish poem to once again honor his friend’s memory. “Fall of the Moon” was also nod to the Arab revolutions. Although ruling systems have changed in many Arab countries, no change took place in the artists’ countries of origin. But with Palestinians more displaced and occupied than ever, and with Lebanese “stability” hanging from a thread above the cauldron of sectarian politics and the constant threat of invasion, the words of defiance nevertheless resonate heavily in their home countries.
Defianceaside, however, the listening experience of “Fall of the Moon” feels like a romantic journey through musical history. In addition to the familiar Darwish poetry sung by Khalife who accompanies himself on the oud, every other element artistically associated with Khalife is present: instrumental compositions with large orchestral accompaniment, instrumental improvisations, guest vocalists, a Palestinian mawwal (with a new instrumental introduction), a song for Damascus, and so on. He also returns to the familiar collaborations with his own family members, with contributions from his sons Rami and Bashar on the piano and on percussion respectively, along with the vocals of his wife, Yolla, as well as those of career companion Umaima, both of whom shine in touching solo performances. Rami’s modern improvisational style is tangibly energetic; barely sitting on the piano bench, he reaches inside the open grand piano to pluck the strings with his hands, typically to the surprise of concert audiences. For those with nostalgia for classic songs such as “Rita,” the track “Waltz for Rita’s Winter” plays its dreamy musical theme from a new perspective.
Surpassing the sum of its individual parts, this album solidifies the history of collaboration between Darwish and Khalife. It has been a winning formula for Marcel Khalife in the past and he is showing his appreciation, raising a glass to the genius of the late Mahmoud Darwish. As Khalife enters his sixth decade of life a musical legend with an increasingly uncommon style, he becomes the guardian of serious music in the Arab world where lesser quality music often dominates.