With his latest work, Taqasim (Nagam Records/Connecting Cultures Records), Lebanese composer and ‘ud master Marcel Khalifé takes his dedication to poet Mahmoud Darwish to a deeper level. He uses solely, and without lyrics, the lower register of the ‘ud 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.”
Through the ‘ud, Khalifé brings Darwish’s world of the Palestinian people’s dispossession and exile 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.
Khalifé has often spoken out for peace and reconciliation, having risked his life performing in bombed out concert halls during Lebanon’s civil war. Israel seized Khalifé’s cassettes upon invading his country, Lebanon, in 1982.
This past 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.”
His 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.”
Khalifé’s previous work has stretched the world’s understanding of the ‘ud by crafting new contexts and ensembles for the instrument, often by setting the lyrical and complex poems of Mahmoud Darwish to music. Yet now, Khalifé has decided to set aside direct references to Darwish’s 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 ‘ud speak for itself, coupled with Peter Herbert’s elegant upright bass. The bass is the perfect companion for the ‘ud, Khalifé believes, as “Lower registers are what the ‘ud is reaching for, where the devilish subtleties lie, and where speech is limited. There, often lies the truth.”
This truth, the “moon beyond the peak of words,” 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 ‘ud, 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.”
“I was born like everyone is born…
I have a view of my own and an extra blade of grass.
I have a moon past the peak of words.” -Mahmoud Darwish