cd – TAQASIM – press

TAQASIM – Marcel Khalife

Marcel Khalife oud/composition
Bachar Khalife percussion
Peter Herbert bass


Improvising a new instrumental language – Khalife reproduces Darwish’s poetry with music

BEIRUT: Marcel Khalife’s latest album „Taqasim“ consists of just three tracks, all of them untitled, instrumental and around 20 minutes in length. The first opens with mournfully low scales – a surprise to faithful listeners, as the oud does not traditionally linger in such deep registers. But as „Taqasim“ brings Khalife’s total musical output to over 15 recordings, he can probably be forgiven for being intentionally unconventional. A dense resonance characterizes all the musical passages that follow those first booming progressions. The oud feeds off the pulsating rumbles of an upright bass, the percussion adds sparse accents and sensitive microphones amplify every detail. Each instrument resounds to the hilt and Khalife pushes a typically nimble oud technique toward more muscular executions. A sound field of floating overtones and oscillating reverberations results, providing as much improvised sonority as the musical pitches from which they arise. Listening to Khalife’s latest feels like sinking into waves of murky water. It is an uncannily physical experience. Once dubbed the Dylan of the Middle East, Khalife is a world-renowned folk singer, a virtuoso oud player and a classically trained composer. His acclaim stems from his intimate songs of political protest, yet Khalife is more than mere artist. He is a populist paragon who has come to embody the Arab spirit of resistance in the face of oppression and injustice. As the late scholar Edward Said once remarked while introducing Khalife ahead of a performance at Pennsylvania’s Swarthmore College: „He is a musicien engage – he is involved in the society and the times of which he is a part.“ Born in 1950 in the northern seaside village of Amchit, Khalife studied the oud at Lebanon’s National Conservatory of Music. In 1976, he created the Al-Mayadine Ensemble, which enlisted a changing roster of instrumentalists and singers such as Charbel Rouhana and Oumaima al-Khalil. Touring and recording with Al-Mayadine for years, Khalife successfully set contemporary Arab poems to music, delivering his manifesto of popular lyricism to generations of listeners. „Instead of soporific sentimentalism,“ reflected Said, „Marcel Khalife has brought an elevation of lyrics in a popular idiom to the entire Arab world in a way that nobody has succeeded in doing.“ On „Taqasim“ (which means „improvisations“), Khalife moves away from the sung poems of his early career in favor of jazz-inflected instrumental compositions. With his son Bachar Khalife beating out rhythms and Peter Herbert wielding a surprisingly versatile upright bass, Khalife’s oud releases mercurial melodic motifs into a soundscape of deviating tonalities.Emerging from all the colliding vibrations are his solos. They begin as passages of compelling grace. Akin to the sunny tunes of Egyptian composer Sayed Darwish, they are pleasantly familiar – until they modulate into atonal explorations. Though they build slowly, they sound sudden. Rhythms break and shatter; agile finger-picking is replaced by crescendos of forceful strumming. Despite the solid mesh of sound Khalife has created, there is a remarkable, fragmented quality to „Taqasim.“ It is unclear how much of the music is improvised and how much is predetermined. No overriding structure organizes or unifies the whole. Whatever core the musicians follow, it remains largely incomprehensible to those who don’t have the actual scorebook in front of them. Khalife and his colleagues seem to follow a standard jazz form, with each instrument taking turns improvising solos. But rather than nicely rounded returns to the previous musical material, the refrains that follow the solos consist of constantly shifting counterpoints, and the musicians continually plunge into intuitive jams. Although these jams produce culminating peaks of beauty, the listener easily becomes unmoored in this turbulent sea of musical ideas. If „Taqasim“ is difficult to absorb, it may be because Khalife draws upon his lifelong love of Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish’s verse. This love is the hidden structure from which his improvisations arise. As Khalife explains in his liner notes: „I will try to reproduce, only as music can, the esthetical, spiritual, emotional and intellectual resonance of Darwish’s poetry.“ Instrumental works often use poetic or literary texts as sources of inspiration, but Khalife insists that his music „will not ‚portray‘ anything or ‚refer‘ to anything. Rather than attempt to reconcile two systems of expression, it will re-create what the poetry of Darwish has created in me.“ What he offers the listener is a kind of instrumental tarab – an expression of ecstatic appreciation encoded into instrumental textures rather than the lilt of a singing voice. Darwish’s poetry has evoked lyrical euphoria in Khalife for decades. But rather than express this joy by continuing to put Darwish’s poems to song, Khalife says that on „Taqasim,“ he is attempting „to communicate what my singing voice has never been able to communicate in any setting of Darwish’s poems.“ The listener is thus left to decode Khalife’s intimate tarab as it echoes through his oud strings. The voice remains the heart of the Arab musical tradition. Very few orchestral or instrumental compositions of significance exist within thattradition, and in all likelihood an Arab audience would sooner appreciate the impulsive beauty of a singing voice than the rational intricacies of a masterful orchestral arrangement. That said, when a singer pours forth an engaging tune, the accompaniment is all too often lacking. When the Lebanese Philharmonic gives a concert, for example, it performs primarily Western classical works. When violent political events call for national mourning, local television channels run sober interpretations of Mozart symphonies.
There is a great need for the development of a rigorous instrumental language in the Arab musical tradition – a language at once distinct from but well aware of its ties to the Western instrumental tradition that surrounds it. In „Taqasim,“ Khalife experiments with Western modes of sonority and improvisation, all the while anchoring his music in Darwish’s Arab lyricism.
Khalife responds to the need for a new instrumental language, and although the results are not a full realization of this need, „Taqasim“ nevertheless stands as a daring and undeniably intriguing attempt.

Marcel Khalife’s „Taqasim“ is out now of Nagam Records. For more information,
please see

-Zeina Nasr-

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