“I am always keen that my songs speak for the human being,” renowned Lebanese singer Oumeima El-Khalil tells me as we sit for an interview ahead of her concert in downtown Cairo’s Greek Campus on Saturday, part of this year's Hayy Festival.
This time around, Khalil is accompanied on the piano by Hani Siblini, a prominent Lebanese musician and composer and El-Khalil's husband. Together, the duo will play some of Khalil’s chef d’oeuvres and also a number of new songs, played for the first time for an Egyptian audience.
Khalil is a humanist par excellence. The moment you meet her you are struck with the realisation of the unity between her musical journey and herself. Khalil is what she sings; she is the appropriated Palestine, the sectarian-stricken Lebanon, she is the Middle East torn between mantras of hope and grief. In her musical project, this harmony between the personal and the professional are encouraged and welcomed. A woman steeped in passion, Khalil speaks about her music with an unceasing smile. Hers is a panacea for the soul.
Experimentation in music
Born in the Lebanese village of Al-Fakiha in the Bekaa Valley, Khalil began her career at the age of 12. In 1979, she formed a duo with her tutor and mentor, Lebanese oud master and musician Marcel Khalife, joining Khalife's first band Al-Mayadeen as a soloist, and bringing us some of the two artists’ masterpieces, including Nami Ya Seghira, Asfour Tal Min Al-Shubbak, Takabar Takabar, Bolees Al-Eshara, Ahmed Al-Arabi, Shawarae Beirut, and Al-Kamangat, among others.
Of her relationship with Khalife, Khalil says, “it is a life-long experience. I learnt from it and grew up with it. It enriched my character and molded my personality. It gave me so much; and I gave it so much too.”
Launching her solo career in 1994 with the album Khalini Ghannilak (Let Me Sing For You), which was comprised of songs with lyrics by renowned Arab poets, Khalil says she disliked being confined to one genre, favouring a different, more experimental approach.
In the following years, Khalil experimented with different musical genres, beginning with adaptations of Arabic poetry, to songs like Asfour where her heartwarming voice soothed the soul, to other more modern musical treatments.
“I wanted to allow my voice to say other things too. To avoid being peaceful at all times. I wanted it to scream, to embark on other means of expression and to take risks,” she says.
This interest in experimentation is, Khalil says, fuelled by the need to “challenge my vocal capabilities—and with it fight finding comfort in and thus abiding by one musical genre.”
Between Arab grievances and Arabic poetry
One underlying theme of Khalil’s varied repertoire and particularly of some of her recent musical project is the exploration of the Arab world and its many grievances. In Zaman (2013), Khalil presents a collection of songs that tell the reality of our Middle East today and what continues to unfold within its confines.
“A ‘sawt’ (voice) present in this reality delivers a message that focuses on the human being —and his alienation in the midst of these futile wars,” she says.
This Arabness is also brilliantly present in another work of much grandeur: Mattar (2014)-a 35-minute symphonic poem composed by Lebanese composer Abdallah Al-Masri and adapted from Iraqi poet Badr Shaker Al-Sayyab’s most famous poem Onshoudat Al-Mattar.
In Mattar, Khalil – the project’s soprano voice-- was accompanied by the State Symphony Capilla of Russia under the baton of Valeri Polyanski, and with the participation of pianist Rami Khalife.
“We tried to explain the poem, which is a discourse about human tragedy, using music. Mattar hurls a question, which is as old as the human civilization itself, at the world. Why are we stricken with abandonment, wars, hardheartedness, cruelty and so little love?”
A poetry aficionado, Khalil's love for the written word has been an underpinning characteristic of her repertoire throughout her 30-year-old career.
“I’ve found great appeal in this amalgam of poetry and music ever since I was a student in secondary school and we were studying prosody and Arabic rhetoric. Eventually you discover the richness of this Arabic language, and especially poetry, with how it shies away from direct treatments of a subject but rather resorts to subtleness, through the creation of images, and unrealistic creativity.”
“The written word and especially poetry beautifies life, revivifies it, and gives it some of an essence at times when it is shrivels and decays. Poetry is beautiful—and what’s even more beautiful is singing it into life,” she adds.
'Is that what our life wants for us – to eat our daily bread?'
“One moment! Is that what our life wants for us – to eat our daily bread? And serve a state that does not serve the native before the ever-growing hybrid?” sings Khalil in one of her recent songs, Khotbet Al-Ahad (Sunday Sermon).
Khalil’s interest in addressing the Arab torment peaks in this 8-minute long work, for which she collaborated with Palestinian poet Marwan Makhoul and Palestinian composer Morad Khoury.
The title is a play on the Islamic Friday sermon (khutba) and Christian mass (quddas) and the song discusses one of the contemporary problems that characterises the Arab-Israeli conflict – namely how Israel takes advantage of Palestinian minorities targeted by Arab terrorists and recruits them to join the Israeli army.
Khalil’s voice and Makhoul’s poetry come together in the following video directed by Sari Bisharat and Anan Ksym.
“In the East, terrorist monsters snap the flesh of the minorities when the Zionist, with perfect timing, offers the minorities rifles to be aimed, basically, at their own selves,” the video begins.
“What Khotbet Al-Ahad says is that people should not be separated across religious lines especially as religion was founded to bring people together,” Khalil explains.
“It does not only speak about minorities and their sufferings inside Palestine and also across the Arab region, but also addresses the human being in general. “
For Khalil—this project opened the door to collaborations with Makhoul and Khoury-both Palestinians living inside Israel whom “we’ve isolated throughout the years.”
“They are always blamed for their choice to remain on their land—and in a way we—with this mindset—have punished them just like Israel has done and continues to do on a daily basis with its discrimination and oppression.”
Collaborations as a hallmark of Khalil’s repertoire
Musical collaborations constitute much importance in Khalil’s music career. This is especially apparent in Wajd—a collection of nine poems—in which Khalil comes together with Syrian saxophonist Bassel Rejoub and pianist Hani Siblini—both of whom were composers on the album and also performing musicians on stage.
Away from the studio, the trio performed Wajd on Beirut’s Mono stage in Beirut—where it was recorded in the hope it could soon be released as an album.
“For the first time since I started my music career, I was on stage performing a musical project the audience hears for the first time.”
The chosen texts include poems by Syrian poet Hani Nadim, Germanos Germanos, Raif Khoury, Wagih Al Baroudi and Nizzar Al Hindi.
The album also includes ‘Wajd’-the album’s title- a poem by Marwan Makhoul.
“Wajd—is the name of Marwan’s only son-and I also dedicate it to my son—whom I sing to for the first time--and children everywhere.”
But whether it is this trio, or other collaborations Oumeima has embarked on, she says this interest in working with others finds its roots in her early duo with Marcel Khalife in Al-Mayadeen band.
“It was there that I learnt work must always be the product of teamwork. And from there, I was eager to embark on collaborations with artists and musicians other than Khalife—provided our thoughts intersect on a human and musical level.”
Of these collaborations, Khalil has formed an especially successful duo with musician Hani Siblini-whose musical compositions gave Khalil’s songs a new tinge apparent in songs like Shab Wa Sabiyya-Ayyam, Darrat Al Qahwa and Elt Bekteblak.
Khalil also finds joy in working with young and budding musicians.
“I like to be close to them—to their vibrant energy. I feel that I can keep pace with it and will discover a new way of expression with my voice that I might have not yet explored.”
The Arab Street and the notion of ‘Iltizam’
Whether it is the brilliant employment of Arabic poetry, beautiful experimentations with music, and audacious collaborations with different musicians, Khalil’s musical projects share a theme: utter authenticity. It is an authenticity facilitated and made possible by Khalil’s closeness to the Arab street-which she has always allowed—happily so- to dictate the musical choices that together compose her repertoire.
From demanding the right to know the fates of about 17,000 Lebanese who disappeared during Lebanon’s Civil War (1975-1990), to protesting for the Lebanese woman’s rights, to defying borders by working with Palestinians inside Israel; amongst other multiple forms of activism, Khalil is known for her avid engagement in civil society. Her musical philosophy and society’s grievances are interweaved; something which has deservedly gained her the title of a Fanana Multazima (multazim is a term coined to an artist whose repertoire speaks back and to the people and their sufferings).
“I am not immune to any of the problems that plague our society. At the end of the day—I’m a human being. And these problems speak to me. And so responding to invitations to participate in events by civil society organisations in Lebanon becomes a normal action,” she says.
Khalil’s upcoming projects include working on a musical album by Marcel Khalife titled Sawt, in addition to new musical additions to the album Wajd.
Since her musical journey began in Lebanon’s northern El Bekaa more than three decades ago, up until the moment we sit in this Cairene hotel, Khalil says she has come face to face with a sole reality—humans are seeking refuge in hope, but their aspiration is constantly being interrupted by despotism.
“I’ve discovered that people resemble each other; that they are the same wherever they are; that they are the only losers in the midst of all these unfolding wars.”
“Their aspiration to live within the poetics of nature and civilization is constantly being interrupted by political regimes,” she concludes.
Saturday, 11 July at 9:30pm
The Greek Campus, American University in Cairo, 171 Tahrir St, Bab El Louk, Cairo