Musica aeterna: Marcel Khalife reinvents himself in the familial trio

Ati Metwaly, Saturday 1 Nov 2014

Capturing music philosophy of oud master Marcel Khalife, the trio that goes under the name Marcel, Rami & Bachar Khalife is a journey through the memories. The trio performed in Cairo on 24 October

Marcel, Rami & Bachar Khalife
Marcel, Rami & Bachar Khalife trio in concert at Al Azhar Park, Cairo (Photo: Ati Metwaly)

The closer you look into music, the more layers of meaning you find. Sounds and rhythms speak different languages that seem to be mutually intelligible in music — and perhaps only in music — so that dreams and sensitivities are articulated through the receptors of the listeners, filtered into a personal and individual experience by their social, cultural and aesthetic values without losing their universality.

The rhythmic patterns and sequences of notes, whether accompanied by lyrics or in their pure form, can speak to us in different ways even as they transmit the same human message: each of us responds to different layers of the same pieces, seeing a different palette of colours. The skill of the composer depends on juggling the universal and the personal, interweaving layers of communication so that they will suffuse the minds of listeners across cultures and generations, as it does on distilling an aesthetic essence.

Marcel Khalife, the iconic Lebanese musician, is a case in point. Over four decades of growth he has addressed the Arab world while enriching non-Arab ears with a wealth of creative connections, receiving sizable portions of airtime across both cultural spaces. Countless critics and commentators have analysed Khalife’s achievements, profiling the artist and recounting his biography, and together they tell a story that begins in Amchit, Lebanon, soon moving onto the formation of the Al-Mayadeen ensemble in 1976, Khalife’s departure from the war-torn Lebanon, his life in Paris and friendship with Mahmoud Darwish, the renowned Palestinian poet who remains one of Khalife’s core inspirations.

It is just as much a message of progressiveness and resistance evidencing dedication to the Palestinian cause as a career in music — over 20 albums of songs and instrumental compositions, many film scores, major concert hall appearances, high-profile collaborations with musicians and dance troupes, no end of awards — and it earned Khalife a bad name with religious clerics in Lebanon for a long time (from the 1990s to 2003) as well as causing his songs to be banned by Tunisian state television. It is a story well-documented across media, but there is one aspect of it that had remained uncelebrated.

The personal life story of a unique soul comes through in Khalife’s relationship with his two sons: the pianist Rami, and the percussionist Bachar, both accomplished musicians in their own rights. Thus the family collaboration which goes under the name of Marcel, Rami & Bachar Khalife has never been limited to three musicians working together as such. It is rather an enactment of the very core of Marcel’s philosophy of music, which he has successfully passed on to his heirs.

On 24 October, the Egyptian audience had the chance to witness this extraordinary life story, which Khalife calls “a love story”, on the stage of Al Azhar Park, in a concert organised by the Bibliotheca Alexandrina. The trio moved from acoustic to traditional to electronic music and back again, creating an artistic exchange between Marcel Khalife’s musical legacy and his sons’ contemporary approach to the same material. One of the most moving compositions performed was Sarkha (Scream), addressing mothers of the martyrs. Opening with a piano solo performed by Rami before Bachar joins him on percussions, the music is built around a circular, trance-like theme that, progressing, becomes an instrumental articulation of the pain those mothers experience.

On the other hand, a poem about revolution, Akher El-Leil (or “Night’s End”), which opens with Khalife’s recitation to the sounds of piano and a gentle percussion drone, invites the listeners to reflect on their troubled nations and the anguish of belonging. The concert did not lack for wildly popular classics like

Ummi (My Mother) and Jawaz Al-Safar (Passport) — both Darwish poems popularised by the Khalife — the latter providing a great deal of space for Rami’s improvisations on a theme, in which he was again accompanied by Bachar, challenging the music with their distinctive approaches. And to celebrate their being in Egypt for the first time since 2008, Marcel Khalife invited rising Egyptian talent Mohamed Mohsen to sing a well-known composition by Sayed Darwish Aho da elli sar.

Together with many other captivating compositions, these songs generated a space for questioning not only Khalife’s legacy but also the values of the region he hails from and how those values have reached international audiences. The collaboration with his sons offers yet another perspective; it is a creative experiment that brings the trio a lot of praise but also prompts some skepticism on the part of Arab audiences who always expect to hear Khalife as they knew him 20 and 30 years ago and base their response of the Marcel, Rami & Bachar Khalife project on preferences frozen in the past.

What should be remembered in this context is that music has soul of its own and unlimited power to operate through different tools to reach the same goals. And this is where universality steps in, this is where the message  transcends all conceptual, cultural, even musical boundaries — and all we need to do is to let it reach us — to play with us. In many interviews, Marcel Khalife points to the coast he admired in Amchit, drawing comparisons between the openness of the sea and boundlessness of music.  

With this trio, Khalife only shows how his legacy crosses frontiers, be they artistic, geographical, social or political. Naturally, such concept has continued to nurture Rami and Bachar since their childhood. Raised in a household where music from went beyond all the creative borders, their souls have been open to endless influences. Today, just like their father, Rami and Bachar rise above music itself. Their musical education and practice has only provided them with the tools and technical skill to express what their minds have been already soaked with. Conceptually inspired by Marcel, Rami and Bachar’s musical philosophy is very similar to their father’s; what differs is the tools they use.

With utter serenity, Marcel extracts from the oud its age-old wisdom even as Rami and Bachar fill the stage with energetic expressions, contemporary and electronic sounds topped with the powerful rhythmic backbone that combines percussion with oriental drums. Totally submerged in the creation, the listener finds it impossible to tell who leads the music and who follows. The trio is a showcase of unprecedented musicianship, testimony to the artistic skill of all three musicians and a journey through their memories.

Marcel, Rami & Bachar Khalife — but why not Rami, Bachar & Marcel Khalife, or Bachar, Marcel & Rami Khalife? The semantic limitations of words on paper, the order of their choice, belies the very nature of what is being presented. It is the autonomy of the various musical colours employed by the trio that makes their project unique, expressing a philosophy of creation that emphasies freedom of artistic consciousness.

Marcel, Rami & Bachar Khalife – let us abide by their formal name – comprises the wealth of Marcel Khalife and his legacy, revisited and enriched, stretched to new and limitless spheres. Its creative palette invites all listeners to appreciate all or some of its colours: the composure, the bubbling dynamism, the upbeat and the contemplative, the heritage and the experimentation, the Orient and electronica; in short, the boundless languages that music speaks.

This article was originally published in Al Ahram Weekly

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