"Everything begins and ends with silence. Before the first note there is nothing, it's like point zero. After the last note there is silence too. In between, we play; in between there is life," says Marcel Khalife in his characteristically calm disposition.
Prior to his two concerts in Egypt this week, Ahram Online joins Khalife, the internationally renowned Lebanese singer-songwriter and oud player, in the lobby of a Cairo hotel where he takes us on a journey through his career and creative life.
His story begins in 1950, in the Lebanese coastal town of Amchit (Amsheet), where Khalife was born to the sound of the wind, birds, sea, fishermen, church bells, and silence, components that triggered his emotions which were yet to be translated into the most captivating creative expressions.
"Once I went to a desert, I spent two nights there. I heard perfect silence that filled my senses with beauty. Silence is an important stimulus: it's like a platform for preparation to create music," Khalife explains.
"I yearn for my mother's bread"
But as the mind of the young musician continued to respond to the sounds surrounding him, it was his mother that recognised her son's musical gift and encouraged its development.
"My mother initiated me, she planted the seed of who I am today," Khalife says in a voice that softens as he paints a picture of his mother.
As a child he would explore sounds, tapping rhythms on boxes, pots and pans. Watching her son's fingers and noticing his creative sensitivity, Khalife's mother insisted that his father buy him a musical instrument.
"I remember the day when my father brought home a new oud. I did not choose any particular instrument; oud was the one that my parents could afford. Frankly, when my younger brother started playing violin, there was a time that I thought I'd prefer that. Nevertheless, while experimenting with the oud, not knowing any technique or musical notation, I started developing a bond with the instrument."
It did not take young Khalife long to organise his first home performance. "Again, my mother thought I should take music a step further. She made sure I had a music teacher, and a few years on she even insisted that I enrol at the National Conservatory of Music in Beirut," Khalife says, recalling the journey he and his mother took to reach the music school located 40 kilometres from Amchit.
By putting her son in the hands of the renowned oud player and teacher Farid Ghosn, the mother's earthly story ends only to continue through the many artistic realisations Khalife was yet to reach. "Her passing away was a great shock and affected me deeply. Though she didn’t live to see what I achieved in my life, she had already sensed all that would come in the following decades."
"Between Rita and my eyes there is a rifle"
Having graduated in 1971, the rebel soul of Khalife began surfacing in his home village.
"I was young and wanted to change the world. But then the Lebanese Civil War came and due to my ideas on life and humanity, I was stuck in my village. A Christian singing in Lebanon for the Palestinian cause; this was not the best combination."
In 1976, he formed Al-Mayadeen ensemble, performing songs he had written. Composing music nurtured by the Arabic traditions, enriched with Western harmonies, Khalife sang poetry by renowned Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, referencing nationalism and revolution. Al-Mayadeen gave birth to compositions such as Ommi (My Mother), Rita w'al-Bundaqeya (Rita and the Rifle) and Jawaz al-Safar (Passport), to Darwish's poetry.
Khalife reveals that his long friendship with Darwish began in a completely unplanned manner. "Poetry came by chance. I was going through the books and I found those poems and tried to compose music to the words. The process took me through many levels of creative discovery so I carried on."
Unable to continue life in war-torn Lebanon, Khalife moved to Paris where he connected with some friends and tried to record his music. He recalls that his first compositions in the studio recording were his iconic songs such as Ommi, Rita, Wuood min al-Asifa (Promises from the Storm).
Joining love with nationalism, expressing anguish in the face of injustice, Khalife touches on human emotions. Basing his songs on Darwish's poetry, Al-Mayadeen delivered music which, due to its content, geographical and temporal positioning, became political.
"I was simply making music, whether in Lebanon or France. I was expressing what I believed in, not expecting that the songs would move so many people." Beauty of the words and music touched the souls of Arabic listeners, and equally captivated audiences across the world. This period in Khalife's life saw the release of several albums that established him regionally and internationally: Promises of the Storm (1976), Rain Songs (1977), Where From, Do I Enter the Homeland? (1978), followed by twenty more albums until today.
It was a few years after a significant success that Khalife finally met Mahmoud Darwish in Beirut. "At this stage I still thought that since his poetry was published, it was a public material. Fortunately Darwish did not mind that I continued taking his poems. Our meeting soon led to a long friendship."
Yet, despite singing songs infused with revolutionary yearnings, Khalife does not consider himself a political activist. "At heart, I am a musician, not a politician. I contribute to the bigger cause with music." Throughout his career, Khalife performed at many fund raising concerts, of which proceeds were directed to hospitals, cultural centres and many other institutions in need.
He sees politics as a "horrible thing" and hopes that "politicians are sent to an island where they can rule themselves and let the people live." He goes on to state that a politician should be a poet. "Not that he has to write poetry, but he needs to have those deep humane ideas so as to infuse them into the people and nation."
Khalife's songs bought him fame, but also trouble with religious authorities. Twice in the 1990s and in 2003, Muslim clerics in Lebanon accused him of insulting religious values and blasphemy, and took him to court for including a two-line verse from the Quran in a song. "Music and songs are stronger than people who try to attack them," he comments on the incident.
Khalife's music and refusal to remain silent about injustice has garnered him over 20 prestigious international awards, countless honours and recognitions. Among the most prestigious of the past decade are: the National Palestine Medal (2011), UNESCO Artist For Peace, France (2005), Freemuse Ambassador, Denmark (2007), Cultural and Artistic Recognition Award by the Tunisian Ministry of Culture (2012).
As we speak in the hotel lobby, news reaches him that his composition 'Caress' has been added to the music curriculum of baccalaureate students across French schools.
Since the turbulent years of the 1970s, and despite several clashes with Lebanese clerics, and censorship imposed on his songs by Tunisia's state-controlled radio and TV stations, Khalife's name and music has never bent under the assaults. On the contrary, his music has taken him on tours across the world, and he is admired by audiences in the Arab World and equally respected and recognised by many music followers in Europe, the United States, Canada, South America, Australia, and others countries where he has performed in the most prestigious halls.
Today, apart from the many songs, Khalife has numerous instrumental compositions to his name: The Symphony of Return, the Rababa Concerto, Sharq, Suite for Oud and Orchestra, Mouda'aba (Caress), Diwan Al-Oud, Jadal Oud duo, Oud Quartet, and many others. His works have been performed by many internationally acclaimed orchestras, including the San Francisco Chamber Orchestra, the Orchestra of the city of Tunis, the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, the Royal Oman Symphony Orchestra. Khalife also composes music for film, and many dance performances by prominent troupes such as Caracalla Dance Theatre, Sarab Ensemble, Rimah.
Naturally, in many compositions, oud remains the main protagonist, an instrument whose colours and artistic possibilities were redrawn and expanded by Khalife. While incessantly exploring the oud's new creative layers, Khalife also gave the instrument an unprecedented international status.
The composer speaks in many musical languages and creates a captivating blend between traditional Arabic heritage and Western music riches. Some of his compositions may have a very personal character, yet they still remains open to all influences. Khalife goes beyond boundaries, be it musical or geographical. At the same time, he works with diverse material with an equal skill, writing music to words (poetry), film or performing arts (dance).
"When I write [music] for poetry, words guide me; they take me to another side. Images, like film and dance, provide different kinds of triggers," he explains, adding that today he enjoys writing instrumental music more than anything else.
"It is simply music that moves me. When composing I feel I am in front of a white sheet of paper on which I create images. When composing for film or dance, there are many visual images already provided." He explains that as a composer, the visual image becomes an additional challenge to a creative musical image that he forms in his mind. "Instrumental music is just music; it's the art that captures the composer's soul in its entirety."
Marcel, Rami & Bachar Khalife
With over four decades of artistic wealth, Khalife explores music and his creative soul incessantly, reaching beyond all artistic frontiers. One of his newest projects is a familial artistic collaboration that goes under the name of Marcel, Rami & Bachar Khalife. It is with his two sons, Bachar and Rami, both also independently recognised musicians, that Marcel Khalife will perform in Cairo (24 October) and in Alexandria (25 October).
Moving between acoustic, traditional and electronic music, the trio is an artistic amalgam of Marcel Khalife's musical legacy and modern sounds, with Rami performing on piano and electronic synthesizers, accompanied by Bachar on percussion.
Khalife adds that the trio is an artistic exchange between the musicians. "Our cooperation is in large part based on recalling memories," he says, calling the trio's collaboration a "love story."
Many of the songs are those that nurtured Rami and Bachar when they were children, since they were constantly present in Khalife's household. Now, together with their father they revisit them, giving the compositions new artistic definition. However, the collaboration also includes new songs.
"At times it is not easy to work together. We do not have one leader. We are three leaders," Khalife smiles. "It can be challenging for three independent artistic characters – who do not pass things easily – to find common ground. But it is also a pleasurable journey, during which we all learn how to listen to one another, and what is important is that we always make it in the end."
Khalife reveals that his concerts this week will feature rising Egyptian singer and composer Mohamed Mohsen.
Friday 24 October at 8pm
Al-Azhar Park, Salah Salem road, Cairo
Saturday 25 October at 8pm
Great Hall, Bibliotheca Alexandrina, Chatby, Alexandria