Despite being banned from Tunisia and put on trial in Lebanon, Marcel Khalife continues to preach peace through his songs
It’s been 20 years since renowned Arabic musician Marcel Khalife last paid a visit to Calgary. In that time, the internationally renowned oud player has traversed the globe recording music, performing at venues such as the Kennedy Center and Berkeley College and attempting to build bridges between people and their respective ideologies.
A native to Lebanon, Khalife now makes his home in Paris, where he composes original, traditionally influenced music to complement soul-stirring verses penned by Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish. His latest release, Taqasim, embodies the essence of an artist who has faced censorship on every front, yet has remained steadfast in his efforts to break down the barriers that reside within. Summing up 30 years of dedication and tribute to Darwish — his friend, lyricist and national poet of the Palestinian people — Taqasim is a thoughtful and passionate collection of songs that takes its name from the Arabic word for improvisations.
“There is always a unifying message in my music and in the poetry of Darwish,” Khalife explains. “It is a message of peace and harmony, a message of love and hope and a message of justice, and also resistance to persecution wherever it emanates from. It is my attempt to express the feelings and emotions that Mahmoud Darwish's poetry has instilled in me in music, without the lyrics.”
Once again touring with the Al Mayadine Ensemble, a fluctuating collection of accomplished players who furnish each piece with their manifold vocal and instrumental talents, Khalife is eager to present his unique blend of modern and traditional compositions to the delight of audiences worldwide. Performing as a trio, quartet or larger group, the ever-evolving Al Maydine Ensemble takes whatever form necessary to meet the requirements of the work in question.
“My music is grounded in my Arab culture and music, yet open to influences from music of cultures in other parts of the world,” he says, “I draw my inspiration from the poetry that I read, which touches me deeply, and from everyday episodes of life and people.”
Khalife has been persecuted by governments (he was banished from Tunisia for expressing his support for political prisoners and activists in that country), corporations and individuals who take offence at his views. He has even been taken to court three times, facing a three-year prison term in Lebanon for “insulting religious values” by singing a poem adapted from a story from the Qur’an. Despite ongoing accusations that he is guilty of blasphemy under Islamic law and the very real threat of detainment, Khalife’s projects continue with the same indomitable spirit.
“There have been several attempts to stifle my work and ban it,” Khalife says. “There were attempts to persecute me by falsely accusing me of blasphemy and insulting religious beliefs. On this tour, my performance in one of the cities in the U.S. was cancelled by the venue that the presenter had secured for the concert by claiming that my event is unbalanced and divisive, and might be alienating to a certain community in the city.”
Pitchforkmedia and MuzzleWatch.com reported that the San Diego Salvation Army recently refused to rent space for Khalife’s performance, because doing so would be unfair unless an Israeli was allowed to play the same stage.
“It makes me more persistent in the work I do,” Khalife says. “Cultural and artistic production is our last line of defence in the face of the gradual political collapse that the world is currently experiencing.”