Reem Kelani's journey from occupied territories to occupied Tahrir

Ati Metwaly, Thursday 23 Feb 2012

Palestinian singer Reem Kelani indulges herself in research on iconic Egyptian music legend, Sayed Darwish

Reem Kelani

Born in Manchester, England to father from Ya’bad near Jenin and mother from Nazareth in Galilee, Reem Kelani is a Palestinian singer, musician and broadcaster. Though she graduated from the Kuwait University as a biologist before switching to a full-time musical career, Kelani’s household had ensured that she was exposed to music and learned piano from a young age. But her fascination with Palestinian music was not born until, as a child, she attended a family wedding in Galilee. Kelani’s scientific background was possibly one of the reasons behind her immersion in research of her most passionately pursued interest. Kelani sings and composes; she also shares her knowledge and experience of Arabic and Palestinian music in lectures at schools, and festivals.

Her first album, Sprinting Gazelle – Palestinian Songs from the Motherland and the Diaspora, released in 2006, is a fruit of two decades of research into Palestinian music and encounters with people in Galilee and elsewhere in the world. The album, which is dedicated to her mother and to “all the big Mamas who taught [her] to sing and to belong” received dozens of positive reviews and reached rankings among the best albums of 2006 in the Financial Times, Time Out and the New Internationalist. Ten tracks that testify to years of reading and studying reveal Kelani’s identity and invite the listener to a personalized encounter with traditional Palestinian melodies arranged by Kelani as well as original compositions to poetry by Salma Khadra Jayyusi, Rashid Hussain, Rasheed Zaid Kelani and Mahmoud Darwish.

One of the simplest dictionary definitions of the musician is: “One skilled in the art or science of music; especially a skilled singer, or performer on a musical instrument.” But the truth isn’t as simple and the history of music proves that not every singer is a musician and not every performer is an artist. Music also implies a lifestyle, a vocation – and dedication to the craft. Kelani is a musician who doesn’t live from one concert to the next; each of her on-stage performance, each lecture she gives, is in fact a small stepping stone on a much more profound artistic and personal journey. Along with her captivating voice and her understanding of her musical material, it is a life-long process of self discovery and creative development that makes Kelani’s debut album very special and renders her work particularly interesting.

“The album is my statement. It is my story of being Palestinian, my collective. Music is part of my life and in it I find a reflection of all the cumulative experiences that I go through and the people I meet,” Kelani says, revealing that her personal approach is always coloured by a particular interest in music versus community and politics. No wonder it was such experience that directed Kelani to further artistic meanders as she embarked on a researching Sayed Darwish (1892 – 1923), whom she has been studying for the past eight years.

Kelani believes that Darwish is not sufficiently recognized outside the Arab Word and she wants her years of study to result in a second album, a double CD with a booklet, presenting Darwish to the world through her own eyes. “Darwish became yet another personal experience and an important part of my collective,” Kelani asserts. 

Moving into territory of Darwish was a “natural step” for Kelani who stresses that the decision was not a conscious choice but rather the subject matter takes her through research and charts new creative grounds. “I knew that Darwish spent 1912-1914 in Aleppo so I had to go there. In Syria, I learned about Darwish’s master, who was a Sufi scholar under the Turkish Sultan Abdul Hamid. I travelled to Turkey. In parallel the British Library has lots of material about Darwish hence – I spent lots of time researching there.”

Kelani’s family are no strangers to Egypt. Her grandfather studied at Al-Azhar, her father graduated from the faculty of medicine in Alexandria and her sister is married to an Egyptian from Beni Sweif. For Kelani, Darwish was the reason that Egypt became part of work “more intensely in last two years.” She decided to study oud in Cairo conservatory in order to better absorb Egyptian musical culture. Kelani’s first stay in Egypt was between December 2010 and May 2011; it coincided with the Egyptian Revolution, and was followed by a visit in November 2011 and another visit earlier this month (February 2012).

On the musical level, Kelani sees the past months as an extremely enriching period which allowed her to be close to the people in Tahrir and around Egypt. By default she got to know Eskenderella, Salam Yousri’s The Choir Project, Khaled Abol Naga from The Microphone – among many artists. She kept observing the Tahrir community and examined many new artistic sparkles. Songs for Tahrir is one of her recent radio programmes on BBC Radio 4, aired on 18 January 2012; the link is still available through her web site . In it through conversations with several young artists actively involved in the protests, Kelani talks about the return of Sayed Darwish, a symbol of the patriotic movement, and music being an important component of the revolution. 

Though the revolution delayed her project on Sayed Darwish, it also added a new perspective to her research. Kelani is interested in the return of Darwish’s songs to demonstrations: “This is a wonderful time when Egyptian young musicians return to their roots and find a parallel between Egypt’s Revolution and Darwish’s songs, which were at the backdrop to the 1919 revolution against the British Protectorate. Similarly to the experiences that led to my first album, Egyptians embarked on a journey that takes them back to the roots and allows them to get liberated,” she comments.

Kelani has found Egyptian young artists to be more than ready for the revolution. She used The Microphone by Ahmad Abdalla, and the Choir Project as examples of a counter culture that contributed to paving the road to revolution.  It is in the counter culture and in Tahrir Square that Kelani has found real talent, including true artistic gems among the young people not visible to the global arena.

Kelani asserts that musicians and artists in general face a great challenge: “Artists have a chance to grasp an opportunity, to reconcile with the past while making sure that their art stands on its own, even if they are not singing about politics. The international arena is very interested in their work and it’s in their hands to come forward with valuable and exciting artistic productions.” On the other hand, she has noticed the obvious dynamism and enthusiasm in their products being restricted to political life. It is in this sense that she finds similarities between Egyptian and Palestinian musicians; she is also aware of many logistical constraints.

Kelani will be coming back to Egypt in May 2012 to continue her journey through Egypt’s music of revolution and Sayed Darwish. She also looks forward to an artistic cooperation with Arab musicians. “I am already working with a few jazz musicians in the UK and Syrian musicians. I also hope to cooperate with the Egyptian artists.”

Kelani’s upcoming album, which she hopes to release still in 2012, will be a tribute to Sayed Darwish, concluding over eight years of the research filled with numerous field trips to Syria, Turkey, and Egypt.

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