Art in the press

Profile: Marcel Khalife's Lebanese musical traditions

Weekend Edition - Saturday (NPR); 10/23/2004; SCOTT SIMON


Fans of world music know Lebanese musician Marcel Khalife as the Bob Dylan of the Middle East. That's because Mr. Khalife is considered a cultural icon in that region, known for revamping traditional music. He's a singer and a virtuoso on the oud, the Arabic version of the lute. Marcel Khalife is now touring the United States. NPR's Neda Ulaby has this report.

(Soundbite of music; fans singing in foreign language)

NEDA ULABY reporting:

When Marcel Khalife performs, his fans sing along. They know every word by heart. Tens of thousands of people all singing together is not at all uncommon for Khalife's concerts in the Middle East. His fans feel a personal connection to how he marries two vital traditions in the Arab world, classical music and poetry.

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ULABY: This song exhorts people who feel drained of pride to walk with dignity, their backs straight, their heads held high, and to carry an olive branch even when in mortal peril. But Marcel Khalife's latest CD is instrumentals only. It's called "Caress."

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Mr. MARCEL KHALIFE (Musician): (Through Translator) Everything in life is caressing. You can caress each other, you can caress life. You can even feel that it is a little bit erotic if you want. Why not?

ULABY: Marcel Khalife has always been a little provocative. He helped transform the way people think about the oud. The round-bellied, short-necked lute wasn't originally a solo instrument. It was used in ensembles or to accompany a human voice. Sami Asmar is an expert in Arabic music. He says Marcel Khalife elevated the oud's stature through his compositions and masterful playing.

Mr. SAMI ASMAR (Arabic Music Expert): Now people listen to the oud for the sake of listening to the oud.

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ULABY: Marcel Khalife combines the most ancient Arabic musical traditions with Western influences and instruments like piano and upright bass. He composes film scores, music for dance, and he's a conductor, too. But Khalife, who was born in 1950, didn't come from a musical background.

Mr. M. KHALIFE: (Through Translator) I was born long ago in a sea village called Amchit. It's surrounded by nature which extends from the sea all the way to the high mountains, and I was always surrounded by voices of fishermen, farmers, shepherds.

ULABY: And for him, Khalife says, those voices resonate still.

Mr. M. KHALIFE: (Through Translator) 'Cause in my music you will find these voices of the sea, the voices of the intense sun.

ULABY: Marcel Khalife's family are Maronite Christians. He says his first compositions brought together church hymns and Muslim recitations. Seamless cultural blending is part of what makes Khalife so innovative. That spirit of transcending boundaries still guides his work.

Mr. M. KHALIFE: (Through Translator) It's based on openness, openness to the West, openness to the East and the basic thought is that the other is not an enemy but the other is a human being that you should get to know.

ULABY: During the Lebanese civil war two decades ago, Khalife and his audiences braved sniper bullets and missile blasts to hold public concerts. When he wasn't on stage, he cloistered himself in his village where it was relatively safe. But there wasn't much to do.

Mr. M. KHALIFE: (Through Translator) I only had few books of poetry and these were the books of Mahmoud Darwish.

ULABY: Darwish is a well-known deeply political Palestinian poet. Like Khalife he's secular and wildly popular in the Arab world. Marcel Khalife starting setting his words to music, but one song led to terrible trouble. The poem used a line from the Koran and Khalife found himself in court.

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ULABY: Sami Asmar.

Mr. ASMAR: He was accused by an overzealous prosecutor in Lebanon of offending Islam by putting to music a phrase from the Koran.

ULABY: Khalife sang the song and the offending phrase at a press conference shortly before the trial in 1999. The phrase quotes from the story of Joseph and Isaac that also appears in the Bible.

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ULABY: The trial was a sensation in the Arab world and covered internationally. Over a thousand Arab intellectuals signed a statement supporting Marcel Khalife, and hundreds of supporters demonstrated on his behalf in Beirut.

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ULABY: The case was dropped. Although the trial raised Khalife's profile in the West, Sami Asmar says the artist did not enjoy his newfound notoriety.

Mr. ASMAR: He was hurt. He was deeply hurt and you can feel that he was probably depressed. I noticed that after the incident he moved away from singing and closer to instrumental compositions.

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Mr. ASMAR: Perhaps instrumental music is less controversial.

ULABY: While Khalife says he does not go out of his way to seek controversy, he's not shy about expressing his views. He's soft-spoken but firmly critical of US policy in the Middle East.

Mr. M. KHALIFE: (Through Translator) An occupier cannot force a peace on the occupied. To have peace one must have respect for human relations. One must have justice in human relations and one must spend a lot of time understanding each other and trusting each other.

ULABY: Marcel Khalife draws huge crowds of Arab Americans in the US cities where he performs. But he hopes his music will appeal to people outside the expected communities.

Mr. M. KHALIFE: (Through Translator) I never liked the ghetto. I never liked the people who live alone without interacting with other people.

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ULABY: This piece from Khalife's latest CD is called "Passport." The pianist is Marcel Khalife's son.

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ULABY: Rami Khalife just turned 23. He graduated from the Julliard School of Music in New York. He says his father encouraged him to immerse himself in Western classical music.

Mr. RAMI KHALIFE: We speak a different language, but the root is the same. The essence is exactly the same. The feelings are the same.

ULABY: Rami Khalife and his brother, a percussionist, are on tour now with their dad. Music is a guiding force for all three of them.

Mr. M. KHALIFE: (Through Translator) Let us be clear that music alone cannot do a lot. It is just a part of life which add happiness and a bit of comfort. It is intangible and follows the human spirit.

ULABY: Marcel Khalife likes to remind his listeners that he draws from a tradition of cross-pollination between Arabic and Western music that he traces to the Middle Ages. His goal, he says, is to go forward and backward in time and strive to carry that curiosity in humanity into the future. Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

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SIMON: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

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