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INTERVIEW: Palestinian musician Reem Kelani on her latest project, ‘Live at the Tabernacle’

The album’s official launch concert took place on 12 October at the Tabernacle in London

Nourhan Tewfik , Sunday 16 Oct 2016
Reem Kelani
Reem Kelani's 2012 concert at the Tabernacle was recorded live and released as a double CD titled Reem Kelani: Live at the Tabernacle last March (Photo: Courtesy of Christopher Scholey)
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“I was sitting in Ain Al-Hilweh refugee camp and this lovely refugee woman said, in Arabic, “What’s your name, praise be to the prophet?” And I said, “My name is Reem.” And she said, “Ah, I’ve got a song for you,” and I said, “Okay mother, let’s hear it.” And she said,

“Oh gazelle of all gazelles
I cried over our parting
And I’ll continue to cry over our parting
I’ve taken a vow of silence
I’ve forbidden myself from dancing the dabke
I dyed my clothes dark, and I’ve gone into mourning”

And I said, “Nice. When do you sing these songs, mother?” And she said, “We’re Palestinian. At weddings, of course. So this is a messed-up, beautiful, crazy Palestinian wedding song.”

Thus the London-based Palestinian musician Reem Kelani recalled as she spoke of an encounter that first introduced her to the song Ah! Ya Reem Al-Ghuzlaan (Sprinting Gazelle) before proceeding to perform it at her 2012 concert at the Tabernacle, London. The song was collated from Palestinian musical turath (heritage) and rearranged by Kelani herself.

Accompanying Kelani on stage that night was a jazz rhythm section comprising musicians Bruno Heinen on piano, Ryan Trebilcock on double bass, Antonio Fusco on drums, percussion and bindir, as well as a guest appearance by Palestinian musician Tamer Abu Ghazaleh.

The concert was recorded live and released as a double CD titled 'Reem Kelani: Live at the Tabernacle' last March.   

The songs Kelani performed that night spanned some of her musical projects to date, from her decades-old project compiling and revisiting songs from Palestinian turath, to her long-term project on the iconic Egyptian composer Sayyid Darwish. This in addition to a Tunisian track featured on her collaboration album with the Anti-Capitalist Roadshow, as well as the title music Kelani composed for French filmmaker Axel Salvatori-Sinz’s 2012 award-winning documentary film Les Chebabs de Yarmouk (The Shebabs of Yarmouk).

The double CD is also complemented by an album booklet in which Kelani contextualises the songs performed that night, providing detailed historical and musicological notes, lyrics and their English translations, as well as a glossary of musical and cultural terms.

The album’s official launch concert took place on 12 October at the Tabernacle, London.

Ahram Online recently spoke to Kelani about her new project. 

The Palestinian collective and Kelani’s relationship with Arabic music

Of the decision to record the live album, Kelani says it was first and foremost inspired by her commitment to the Palestinian collective, as well as encouraged by her ardent fans.

This concept of a collective is perhaps best manifested by a magical moment that unfolded during Kelani’s concert at the Tabernacle. An audience member, who later turned out to be a respected Turkish ethnomusicologist and violinist, interrupted Kelani during her performance and was invited by Kelani to join her on stage. Kelani also spotted a Kurdish audience member whom she knew and invited her on stage to sing along with the Turkish violinist.

“In most of my concerts there’s always a magical moment from the audience that underlines this concept of a collective. That night, it felt as if we were in a Palestinian village celebrating life,” Kelani told Ahram Online.  

The album comprises five songs from the Palestinian turath. Kelani compiled some of these during visits made to the Levant over the years and recovered others from different literary texts. 

Reem Kelani
Reem Kelani performs at the Tabernacle, London in 2012. Accompanying Kelani on stage that night was a jazz rhythm section comprising musicians Bruno Heinen on piano, Ryan Trebilcock on double bass, Antonio Fusco on drums, percussion and bindir, as well as a guest appearance by Palestinian musician Tamer Abu Ghazaleh (Photo: Courtesy of Christopher Scholey)

“Although I was born in England, I spent my formative years in Kuwait then returned to the UK 27 years ago. At that time I was a biologist until I experienced a very seminal moment that changed the course of my life,” Kelani explains.

The ethnography department of the British Museum was working on an exhibition of Palestinian costumes, and Kelani was encouraged to join as a music workshop leader. Between 1990-92, she delivered music workshops at the department, which brought her more into contact with her Palestinian heritage.  

“And so in the 90s, I traveled to Palestine, Lebanon, Syria and amid the Diaspora to meet with Palestinian women and actively sit and record them. I’d listen to one song, transcribe it, go through all the different renditions of the same song, then make one version out of these different renditions.”

“I consider it a personal quest that will never leave me until the day I die,” Kelani adds.

But Kelani’s infatuation with the folk music of the Levant and Arabic music as a whole was an earlier occurrence, dating back to the early 70s. Kelani, who was only eight at the time, was attending a village wedding in Nazareth when another seminal moment unraveled.  

“I remember how the bride had to change into at least seven dresses. I remember the women who smelled of a blend of mastic and spices. They sang and danced, and were joined by old men who danced old dabke. And I thought to myself, 'Ah, this is Arabic music then,'” she reminisces.

“It felt so prehistoric yet so present. Every time I sat with any of the Palestinian women as part of my project, it felt as if I was reenacting and recreating that moment.”

Celebrating Palestinian musical heritage

Of the Palestinian songs included in the CD, there is Sprinting Gazelle, whose lyrics open this article. The song was initially included in Kelani’s debut album Sprinting Gazelle: Palestinian Songs from the Motherland and the Diaspora (2006).

That day in Ain Al-Hilweh refugee camp, Kelani notated the women’s steps as they danced to the song and “incorporated this rhythmic pattern in my own reinterpretation of the song.”

Another song is Hawwilouna (Let us in!), a traditional Palestinian song usually performed at weddings. Kelani recorded the song during encounters with Palestinian refugee women who originally came from the village of Sha’ab near Acre.

The CD also includes Tahlileh Jaliliyyeh (Galilean Lullaby) whose lyrics Kelani found in a book on Palestinian popular literature by Nazarene poet Tawfiq Zayyad.  

In another live rendition, Kelani juxtaposes two songs — Ya Raayhin el-Nabi and Bahallil Lak — in one medley. Both songs belong to the furaaqqiyyat (Songs of Parting) genre “where the protagonist sings about loved ones from whom they’ve been separated,” Kelani writes in the album booklet. 

“Ya Raayhin El-Nabi was sung in past times when they wanted to bid farewell to those going to hajj (pilgrimage),” Kelani explains. She learnt this song from In’aam Al-Khadra, who was a refugee twice in her life. Al-Khadra originally come from Safad and is now residing in Syria.

Kelani mingled Ya Raayhin El-Nabi with Bahallil Lak, a song performed in celebration of the baby’s teething. The festivity includes the preparation of the Palestinian s’nouniyyeh (teething) dessert, “made of wheat .. sugar, spices, candied pulses and nuts,” Kelani writes.

“There is a narrative that I wanted to bring to the songs by juxtaposing them, namely that after 1948, all Palestinian songs, including those that were performed in different social celebrations, became part of Palestinian cultural resistance [against the Israeli occupation].”

Reem Kelani
At her 2012 concert at the Tabernacle, Kelani performed five songs from Palestinian turath. She compiled some of these during visits made to the Levant over the years and recovered others from different literary texts (Photo: Courtesy of Christopher Scholey)

The same juxtaposition also characterises Il-Hamdillah (Giving Praise) performed during house building and at weddings. The song is juxtaposed with the Imhaaha chant, which was “sung mainly by women to herald songs, festivities and social announcements,” Kelani writes.   

Kelani’s revisiting of Palestinian turath is first and foremost a celebration of Palestinian sumoud (steadfastness) in the face of a decades-old settler-colonial state. It is also is an avid celebration of Palestine, its people, music and culture, and an inspiring act of preservation of Palestinian collective memory.

Paying homage to Egypt’s Sayyid Darwish

Live at the Tabernacle also features three songs from Kelani’s ongoing project on Sayyid Darwish, in which she revisits the iconic composer’s repertoire, boldly experimenting with his songs, and treating them to jazz arrangements.

Kelani’s project on Sayyid Darwish is “exactly a quest like my quest for Palestinian traditional songs and the reason behind it is twofold. First, it is a revisiting of Darwish’s repertoire, which remains with us to this day.”

“The project also pays homage to many elements that were personified in the music of Darwish, among them the era of Al-Nahdha [renaissance in Arabic music] during which he lived and produced his music.”

In the CD, Kelani revisits two songs from Darwish’s repertoire: Lahn El-Shayyaalin/Shidd El-Hizaam (The Porters’ Anthem) and Lahn El-Fuqahaa’/Shaykh Quffaa’a (The Preachers’ Anthem), both penned by the iconic Egyptian-Turkish lyricist Badi’ Khayri and set to music by Darwish.

“In Lahn El-Fuqahaa’, Darwish employed two different maqams (melodic modes), ajam and sabaa, to depict the struggle between West and East. I put the song into context in my own way by making an arrangement that depicts how this conflict was experienced by Arabs who lived at the time,” Kelani asserts.

Kelani retranslated this struggle by interweaving a Western musical style, evocative of the infantry jazz bands during World War II, into the song.  

Her reinterpretation is also vivid in how she performs the multilingual references of the song, and especially the closing line, “very good”. The same audacious reinterpretation is true of Kelani’s approach to Lahn El-Shayyaalin, in which Kelani pays proper homage to Darwish, himself the father of experimentation in Arabic music.

The third song, 1932, is a composition by Kelani. The song’s title refers to the year in which the Cairo Congress of Arabic Music assembled at the Institute of Oriental Music in Cairo.

The conference reportedly featured “points of disagreement about the practice and theory of Arabic music” including a “controversy [that] ... arose over the consideration of Sayyid Darwish’s work by the congress,” Kelani writes in the album booklet.

“While six of his compositions were included, some researchers are of the opinion that Darwish was not fairly credited by comparison to his contemporaries,” Kelani writes.

“There was a blackout on his music in general. I wanted to give him his due, and therefore named the composition after the year of the conference,” she explains.  

“I also composed the song for the oud and piano specifically because there were serious discussions in the congress on whether piano should be used in Arabic music or not,” she adds.   

In her concerts, Kelani accompanies this composition with performance poetry. That night, 22 November 2012, Israel was carrying out an assault on Gaza and so Kelani chose a poem titled Ka’s al-Khall (The Vinegar Cup), penned by Gaza-born poet Mu’in Bseiso.

Reem Kelani
Reem Kelani recording women singing in Cairo's Tahrir Square on 1 February 2011 (Photo: Chris Somes-Charlton)

From the Tunisian Revolution to Yarmouk Palestinian Refugee Camp

The CD also includes Kelani’s rendition of Babour Zammar (The Ship Sounded its Horn). The song was penned by the Tunisian colloquial poet El-Mouldi Zleilah and set to music by Tunisian composer El-Hédi Guella in the 1970s as a tribute to the student revolution in France.

The song is also known as The Migration Anthem, because its lyrics tug at the fears that underpin the journey taken by North Africans overseas in search of better lives.

Babour Zammar “returned to the Tunisian people’s consciousness when their own revolution erupted in December 2010,” Kelani writes.

It was late Tunisian poet Mohamed Saghir Ouled Ahmed who introduced Kelani to the song during her 2012 trip to Tunisia. Later that year, Kelani introduced her rearrangement of the song in her collaboration album with the Anti-Capitalist Roadshow.

From Tunisia, we move on to Syria, and specifically the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in Damascus whose poignant story is also reflected in Kelani’s album.

The story began in 2012 when French filmmaker Axel Salvatori-Sinz. who was working on his documentary Les Chebabs de Yarmouk, wrote to Kelani that “he’d heard about me from the youth at the camp and that they wanted me to compose the film’s title music.”

Kelani got in touch with her Glasgow-based friend, Palestinian poet Iyad Hayatleh, and asked him to write the lyrics for the song.

The result was Huna Al-Yarmouk (This is Yarmouk), whose opening lyrics proclaim, in Arabic: “This is Yarmouk!/O moon/Your light will wipe the darkness of the siege/On your white doorsteps/The children’s smiles will vanquish/The pains of my demise/And the martyrs’ blood/Will breathe life into me.”

“In the Tabernacle concert, and because I like to showcase whatever I’m working on whenever I perform live, I decided to perform the song,” Kelani explains.

A staunch believer in socio-musicology and the inseparability of music and society, Kelani is also an educationalist and activist, having delivered hundreds of workshops and master classes with refugee camps and UK-based community choirs, solidarity groups, school children and universities over the years. That Kelani was able to crowdfund her Live at the Tabernacle album is itself a manifestation of the incredible grassroots support lent to her devoted vocation.

Among the many heartwarming stories that unfolded during the album’s crowdfunding campaign is that of a young girl who contributed one British pound to the project. She wrote to Kelani saying that she had only met Kelani once when she went to her school and taught her class songs from Bethlehem.

This anecdote is but one of many that suggest how, in her inspiring musical project and the philosophy that underpins it, Kelani hails as a humanist par excellence. It is Kelani's rich and varied repertoire that leaves one hoping to see her perform in Egypt soon.

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