Marcel Khalife and Sons: A Remixed Repertory

Nelida Nassar 07.20.2014

Amchit born Marcel Khalife’s oud virtuosity, eclecticism, showmanship and ironically delivered politics were the focus to his anticipated appearance at the Byblos International Festival 2014 edition this week: there was an unexpected biographical video, a collaboration with the 80 musicians of the Lebanese Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of Maestro Harout Fazlian accompanied by the Al Mayadine ensemble, and a choir of 60 singers from the Antonine and the Notre-Dame Universities.

Oudist Khalife and his sons the percussionist Bachar and the pianist Rami blend their Lebanese with the latest Western music. The trio builds a musical cycle that looks to their Arab roots while absorbing and morphing contemporary music styles – rast (tune in Arabic music), break beats, jazz grooves, blues, tango and opera with such an imaginative freedom that sets them apart from their contemporaries. The oud hovers between tradition and futurism, with varying moods ranging from classical sounds to contemporary tunes. The evening features guest appearance of singers Oumaima el Khalil, Mohamed Mohsen, and soprano Felicitras Fuchs.

Khalife displayed his steady, pitch-clean sound on the concert’s opening, Mahmoud Darwiche’s Ahennou Ila Khubzi Oummi. But he soon cranked up the theme’s staccato hook, then sprinted into flying double-time punch. Most of the other improvisation diversions came from pianist Rami Khalife – who, like his father, favors oblique buildups to what become energetic addresses – though percussionists Aleksandar Petrov and Bachar Khalife, accordionist Julien Labro as well as Ismail Lumanovski were the ensemble’s steadily pulsing and sometimes roaring engine.

Khalife’s played his mischievously sentimental song Rita before once again twisting the pitching to give it a pensive, discomfiting feel. Mahmoud Darwiche’s Gawaz Safar was a melancholy ballad over bowed bass that became a group wail. A theme reminiscent of Ounsi el-Hage’s Qamr al Marayh turned into Tesbahoun Ala Watan, and then into Beil Akhdar Kaffennah, before a laconic vocal improvisation threw Koulou Kouloube Al Nasse in for good measure. At the close, the leader turned to pure-toned Lumanovski’s baroque clarinet, veering into an Eastern European folk-dance feel. For an encore he paid tribute to one of the favorite Lebanese poet – Khalil Hawi’s Al Jirsr. He announced that his heartfelt account of Darwiche’s Ya Bashria Shido al Hime followed by Wei Ana Amchy most famous hit that he dedicated to all the children fallen victim of the Arab Spring proves to him “that despite hatred, strife and war, we believe it can still be a peaceful world.”

A shrewd pacer of live shows, Khalife strayed in wanting to transform his melodious beautiful solo music into a monumental symphonic work. It just did not succeed. The mixing of choirs, orchestra and his songs were dissonant and disenchanting. However,
he succeeded in steering the performance from ambiguous, unsettling micro-tonal and geographical drifts between the West and the Middle East, toward an optimistic, conventionally tempered finale, pulled off without a hint of crudeness. If the concert had its ebbs and flows and its unsettling various music genre of discordant qualities, the public was forgiving for all the concert’s inconsistencies and weaknesses, embracing with open arms its prodigious son return home.

Byblos International Festival 2014
17 July  2014

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