I was one of many stunned members of the audience who recently attended a concert, organized by the British Council, by Palestinian singer Reem Kelani at the Syrian Opera House in Damascus. This was not only because we witnessed a style of singing which is so against the current trend, but also because of the richness and multifarious talents in view in one personality.
Born in Britain to Palestinian parents and raised in Kuwait, Reem Kelani attended a traditional wedding in a village outside Nazareth in her childhood. After some hesitation about her musical direction, this experience proved to be a changing point which eventually led her to hold firm to her innate musical feelings. It was obviously a seminal moment which strengthened her resolve about which way she should go. Through learning these traditional rituals, Kelani felt proud at belonging to an identity which is often shrouded with the ambiguity of dispersion in the Diaspora. She naturally assimilated the first experiences upon which she would later build new musical forms.
Kelani assuredly knows the value of preserving and documenting traditions, and not just relying on them being passed down orally. At the same time, she makes sure that the politics do not take over her musical message. According to her, “music should be able to exist in its own right”. Kelani, who studied piano as a child and was fascinated by Jazz from an early age, managed to take in all the details of the Palestinian wedding and to present them in a different arrangement. Who would have imagined that our own folk songs could be conveyed by a Jazz rhythm section comprising saxophones, drums and piano?
In concert, Kelani performed songs such as ‘As Nazarene Women Crossed the Meadow’, an old traditional song about Palestinian women from Nazareth bidding their men farewell as they crossed the pasture of Marj Ibn ‘Aamer. She also sang ‘Il-Hamdillah’ which Palestinians sing when they build homes, and she arranged it in a zikr fashion as in sacred remembrance sessions. Kelani also brought forth the poetry of Palestinian poets such as Rashid Husain, who was burnt alive alone in his room in New York, Tawfiq Zayyad and Mahmoud Darwish. For the latter, she sang his poem ‘Mawwaal’, where the chorus line is taken from the traditional verse: “O Mother! I can stand a dagger’s thrust… But not the rule of a coward”.
I must admit that whilst I am quite keen on traditional Palestinian music, what I found here was more than just mere singing. I saw the amazing presence of this singer, her towering stance and appearance on stage, her interaction with the band and with the audience. It all reflected Kelani’s many talents: aside from singing and composing, Kelani is a freelance broadcaster and a passionate folk dancer. And nor did she conceal her acting abilities during this performance.
To be honest, throughout the concert I could not stop thinking about Kelani’s emancipated posture on stage and of her amazing versatility and resourcefulness, and most importantly, what I can call the universal presentation of the Palestinian soul. Such universality can also be found in the excellent works of other Palestinians such as Elia Suleiman [Divine Intervention], Hany Abu-Assad [Paradise Now], Nizar Zu’bi and the Joubran family; it is nothing like the scary narrow image we otherwise have of internecine strife.
Kelani’s experiment could be described as a “civilised and artistic response”, an expression which the Palestinian actor Muhammad Bakri normally uses when he describes the Palestinian creative and artistic riposte to Israeli brutality.
But Kelani’s experiment gives us another example of co-existence, as opposed to fusion, coming as it does out of Britain. Such co-existence encompasses the experience of immigrants and shapes their creative input, thus combining to produce works of universal appeal. So it was natural that this co-existence in Kelani’s work should be manifested in working with musicians who are mostly non-Arab. As well as being accompanied in Damascus by British musicians such as Oli Hayhurst (double bass), Patrick Illingworth (drums) and Zoe Rahman (piano), Kelani also involved Syrian musicians Amir Qara Jouli (violin), Basel Rajoub (saxophones) and Simon Mreach (percussion).
The concert in Damascus by Reem Kelani was billed as ‘Palestinian Songs from the Motherland and the Diaspora’, but it was not overtly populist in any way. The audience may have included only specialist musicians and dedicated fans. Kelani nonetheless commanded great influence and authority over the audience, and they joined in with her and interacted well with the band. If the absence of those Palestinians in the crowd who are accustomed only to listening to their ‘own songs’ was not a matter of bad publicity, then it is a sign worthy of reflection.
Rashid Issa, Damascus-based Palestinian art critic and writer.
As-Safir, Lebanon / Syria, 3 February 2007
Translated from Arabic © The Miktab Ltd, 2007