Lebanon seems to be the forgotten country of the Middle East. The only time anybody pays it any attention is when the country is invaded by Israel, or its Syrian masters decide to eliminate politicians who aren't toeing the line anymore. It's been more then twenty years since the horrors of the civil war that left Beirut, "Paris of the Middle East", in ruins ran out of momentum and the Syrians clamped down with their version of peace.
It's always been a mystery that for all the Pan Arab nationalism in the region, and the tears shed over the fate of the displaced people of Palestine, that only Jordan and Lebanon opened their borders to admit refugees. For Lebanon the camps have been the cause of internal and external strive, yet they have persisted in providing shelter when others even withdrew their support from the Palestine leadership.
But the even bigger mystery is the fact that fundamentalism has never been able to take root with the local population as a whole. Perhaps it is because that Lebanon was so cosmopolitan, home to international arts and cultural exhibitions; there was no attraction to be found in the austere lifestyle demanded by the mullahs and minds that have been opened to the world's potential aren't easily closed.
But this doesn't prevent the people of Lebanon from still being passionate about the need for justice in the Middle East. In fact, the intellectual, artistic, and academic communities of that country have provided some of the most articulate spokespeople to espouse the cause of the Palestinian refugees. Unfortunately, this brings them into conflict with those who would use the refugees as cannon fodder in order to achieve their aims, with the result that a great many have sought refugee in other countries.
Marcel Khalife was named UNESCO's Artist For Peace in June 2005 which only furthered the divide between himself and those who would use indiscriminate violence. Khalife is a composer for and player of the beautiful Arabian version of the Lute, the Oud. For the last thirty years his music has stood as a beacon of hope in an area of the world where that is in short supply. His compositions have championed all that could be considered the potential for nobility in the human spirit; speaking against violence no matter who the perpetrator and insisting that problems can be solved if people take the time to talk with each other in real and meaningful ways.
In his most recent CD Taqasim released on Connecting Cultures Records he takes a more abstract approach, but is still creating music meant to inspire the listener to strive towards the higher ideals of human interrelations. The word "Taqasim" is translated as improvisation and in the case of this CD it refers to Khalife's source of inspiration; the poetry of Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish. They have been long time collaborators, with Khalife having set many of his words to music. On this occasion, what he has done is attempt to communicate to his audience more then just the content of a poem, but the relationship between the poet and the musician.
"In Taqasim, I will try to reproduce, only as music can, the esthetical, spiritual, emotional, and intellectual resonance of Darwish's poetry...I will encode his poetry in a system of rhythm, melody, and harmony. To the listener's sensitivity, I shall entrust the task of decoding"...Marcel Khalif Notes: Taqasim
Now that might sound like some sort of pretentious, intellectual, and artistic twaddle, but if you stop to think you realize all he is doing is describing the goal of every musician; indeed every artist. So when you listen to the three movements that compose Taqasim you're not being asked to do anything more then what you would normally do when listening to music; does it move it you, make you think, did you enjoy listening to it, and how well was it performed.
Khalife of course is playing his Oud on these recordings and is accompanied by Peter Herbert on acoustic double bass, and Bachar Khalife, who I assume is his son, on percussion. It doesn't take more then a couple seconds of listening to realize that all three men are masters of their instruments and Khaife senior and Herbert are able to create a spiritual relationship to their music via their instruments.
In solos, both the Oud and the bass are transcendent in their starkness, and beautiful in their subtlety. Outside of a few jazz musicians, I've never heard an acoustic bass played with as much soul and heart as Herbert is able to solicit from his instrument. Whether bowing or plucking he not only provides a suitable companion for the Oud, but establishes his own vital role in the proceedings as well.
The percussionist in a trio like this sometimes becomes forgotten, as his role is far less obvious. They are in the unenviable position of knowing that on most occasions if a percussionist is noticed in performances it is because they have made a mistake. Not only does Bachar Khalife not make mistakes he is also noticeable for all the right reasons. His ability to bridge gaps and be the glue that holds the trio together is really quite wonderful. When the two leads are encouraged to engage in flights of fancy, you need someone to stay on the ground when they take off and it's to his credit that he manages that brilliantly, while still being more of a contributor then a metronome.
The Oud is still an instrument that I'm not overly familiar with, but I doubt there are many performers who can match Marcel Khalife's virtuosity. Like any truly gifted player of instruments in the extended family that includes everything from ukuleles to sitars, his hands are not welded to one place on the instrument. Notes stream out from all places on the fret board, from the achingly high-pitched notes played at the base of the neck that sing of anxiety and tension, to the top where the deeper sounds of melancholy reside.
When the two instruments join forces they create music that is every bit as compelling and beautiful as any I've heard from a full orchestra. They are like two voices that sing in harmony with the oud being a tenor who can also sing alto, and the bass rising up the scale to add in a baritone on occasion. It's a musical experience unlike any I've ever heard, and it created an indelible impression of passion and commitment imprinted on my mind.
I'm not conversant with the poetry of Mahmoud Darwish, in fact I had never even heard of him until I picked up this disc. But if this music is an indication of the power of his poetry and his emotional commitment to what he believes in, I will now make an effort to seek out his work in order to learn more about the man who could inspire such beautiful music.
It's one of the saddest and bitterest indictments of the situation in the Middle East, and those on all sides of the fence, that the individuals like Marcel Khalife, who have the cleanest vision of what the potential of the area could be, are forced into exile by those who would prefer the maintenance of the status quo that guarantees the survival of their personal fiefdoms. Until that mentality is abandoned and people are encouraged to let music like Marcel Khalife's guide their lives instead, nothing is going to change.
(Originally posted November 2007)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.