Khalife's "Magic Carpet," a Revolution in Arabic Music

By Abdel'ilah Balqaziz

"Magic Carpet," Marcel Khalife's latest release, is a suite of 12 instrumental pieces written for the Caracalla Dance Troupe's theater shows "Alisar the Queen of Carthage" and "Andalusia: The Lost Glory." It is the second album that Khalife published of his instrumental works for the Caracalla plays, his first being "Summer Night's Dream," which came out five years ago. The recent album appeared in the market on cassette and CD in the summer of 1998.

"Magic Carpet" scores high on the scale of modern music composition. Like an earthquake it shakes much of the still trivialities of Arabic musical expression, and uproots its aged and brackish foundations. It is a unique festival of the possible and the inconceivable, the familiar and the surprising, the original and the novel, all in succession. An instrumental roar, yet with a charming, quiet imagery, "Magic Carpet" comes as a new statement of revolution unrelentingly pursued in a time of nostalgia and resignation. This magic carpet rides a wind that clears the way for a soft and delicious listening, similar to previous texts by Khalife which crowned him a unique composer capable of prowling around the common taste with what's familiar and new. Despite his revolution, he leaves the soul without a scratch in its aesthetic inclinations.

Two Familiar Texts

Khalife opens his new album and ends it with two familiar texts. The first is the overture "Tribute to Baalbek," which was written and orchestrated 18years ago and published on cassette in his album "Farah" [Happiness]. He presented it againBthree years agoB in the oud duo "Jadal" (Khalife and Charbel Rouhana on two ouds, Ali al-Khatib on tambourine and Abboud Sa'di on Bass Guitar). The second piece is the finale which he previously published in "Summer Night's Dream," beautifully orchestrated for qanun and percussion, and later re-written for two ouds in the fourth movement of "Jadal." Now he presents the two pieces again in a show-orchestral style most suited for an overture and a finale.

Between these two are ten compositions which vary from calm to festive, not missing an organic unity nor a special Khalifian language. Quiet and romantic expressionism is most clear in "Diwan of the Harem," "Coronation in a Phoenician Shrine," and "Love Duet" as well as several parts of "Alisar's Escape." Epical expressionism, on the other hand, is best seen in the overture, in "Mare" and in "Alisar's Escape." Most worthy of mention is the creative contiguity of soft, frail romanticism and vociferous rage in the same text, as seen in "Mare" and "Alisar's Escape," via separate and successive movements in the former, and thoroughly intertwined sentences in the latter.

In this tense, yet soft, dialectic, Khalife opens himself to the grand resources of classical music, where he generates an aesthetic chemistry between Mozart's and Brahms' romanticism, between Beethoven's and Wagner's epicism, reaching a far limit in "Mare" but remaining undistanced from his Eastern origins. He takes this limit to a climax in "Alisar's Escape," where a fantasia is clearly heard and a creative exchange of tension and relaxation, of alertness and composure. The imagery takes you to the level of sensing the sounds of running horses and the turmoil of a fleeing party, all in an unrestrained musical prose full of surprises: those of clamorous moves from one image to the other, of chaos in order.

Writing without Restraint

The remaining compositions fall between unrestrained prose and traditional forms (e.g. al muwashah), with higher presence of the former. Khalife here remains faithful to his style in breaking the traditional both in his opening clause and in his constant rebellion against themaqam stem. The unrestrained prose manifests in "Reconquista" more than in any other piece, although it contains lines from an old muwashah added vigor toward a dance theme. The traditional muwashah, however, is noticeable in "Diwan of the Harem," "Coronation in a Phoenician Shrine" and "Diwan of Andalusia." The other three pieces are varied. In "Diwan of Decadence," Khalife displays his unique abilities in turning tarab to orchestral music, combining the aesthetics of Oriental expression and the robustness of structured orchestral music. In "Departure From Granada," he lets go of feelings of melancholy and loss, told by the nay, the Arabic flute. Finally, the dabka form is set aside for exclusive use in "Horsemen," as it is best suited for telling about knighthood.

On Contemporary Arabic Music

Listening to Khalife always brings a strong feeling of this artist's ability to transform creatively a musical language that accumulates its own conditions of development. What is more important is that Khalife the composer is harmonious with Khalife the orchestratorBin fact orchestration alone almost sums all of his revolt. Yes, he is, like any musicologist, very knowledgeable in producing high music with regard to instrumental orchestration. His orchestration, however, is not only an external, formalistic ritual. It is composition in itself. Perhaps, this great artist's strength lies in his ability to destroy the wall separating percussion from melody. Thus, he convinces you that percussion is the master of musical text, and its flavor, as in "Alisar's Escape" and "Diwan of Decadence." At the same time, he convinces you that a musical clause can dispense of percussion as a means of expression, as in "Love Duet," percussionless with violins and cellos. In the end, Marcel Khalife proves in "Magic Carpet" his distinguished position in contemporary Arabic music after the late Assi Rahbani.

ABDEL'ILAH BALQAZIZ is a Morrocan author, academic, and frequent contributor on Arab arts and culture to various Arabic-language publications. The Arabic version of this article appeared in the Lebanese daily As Safir.

Translated from the Arabic by Manal Swairjo

This article appeared in Al Jadid magazine, Vol. 4, No. 25 (Fall 1998).

Copyright © 1998 by Al Jadid


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