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Reem Kalani, singer

Contributed by Arab Educational Institute on 20.09.2008:

Source: The Guardian

‘My narrative is that I exist’

Natalie Hanman talks to the Manchester-born Palestinian singer and jazz musician about her eclectic influences and connecting with her roots

Seated in the courtyard of a cafe on west London’s Portobello Road, Reem Kelani is reading aloud a poem by Mahmoud Darwish, the poet and writer who became a symbol of the struggle for Palestinian nationalism and whose death last month led to an outpouring of grief among those, like Kelani, who knew and respected his life’s work.

Kelani used Darwish’s poem, Mawwaal: Variations on Loss, as the lyrical backbone for a musical composition on her critically acclaimed debut album, Sprinting Gazelle, released in 2006. She will perform it – “I always have it. People go crazy if I don’t include a Darwish poem,” she tells me – along with other traditional poems and songs from Palestine and the diaspora, rendered in her trademark jazz-laced style, at a concert in London next week as part of the Barbican’s Ramadan Nights series.

On the day we meet, Kelani recites Darwish’s verses to me in English, in order to elucidate the appeal of his politics. “They asked me, ‘Do you love the beautiful woman?’ and I replied, ‘My love is worship. Her hair is lavish and abundant, her breast the dearest pillow. Wedding her is a sign of valour’,” Kelani intones.

“He’s talking about Palestine,” she explains. “It’s totally non-compromising but anyone could relate to this, I think.”

Anyone but the British music industry, it seems. Kelani, a Palestinian singer born in Manchester and raised in Kuwait by her father who comes from Ya’bad near Jenin and her mother who hails from Nazareth in Galilee, initially struggled to get a record contract here because of her subject matter.

“On my CD cover I was very careful,” she says. “I did not say ‘from Palestine’. I said ‘from the motherland’. I’m walking on eggshells all the time.”

Palestinians, too, are divided in their response to her. “Many Palestinians criticised me because I didn’t have the colours of the Palestinian flag on [the cover of Sprinting Gazelle], because I didn’t have a picture of a child throwing a stone at an Israeli tank,” Kelani says. “Some Muslim Palestinians don’t like the fact that I sang one song in a Christian Eastern style. Secular Palestinians don’t like the fact that on the Sprinting Gazelle song I praise the prophet Muhammad.”

Her political commitment is evident, however, in the catalogue number of the Sprinting Gazelle CD: 48, a reference to 60 years ago – the formation of the state of Israel in 1948 and, from the Palestinian perspective, al-Nakba (the catastrophe).

“There is a message that Palestinians don’t exist, so my narrative is that I exist – my narrative is my existence, both personally and collectively … As a human being, as a woman, as a Palestinian.”

Kelani’s musical mission, it could be said, is to educate the world, and the west in particular, about Arabic history and culture, to trace a musical map of Palestine and the Middle East – her next project is on the Egyptian composer Sayyid Darwish (1892-1923). It was not, however, always like this.

“I’m a newcomer to Arabic music,” Kelani explains. “I didn’t like it until I was in my teens and saw a group of women singing at a wedding in a village outside of my maternal hometown of Nazareth in 1974. That was the first time. Global pop was taking over. I was a David Cassidy chick, my sister used to like – God forbid – Donny Osmond. So I was not interested in Arabic music as such – it was always long and monotonous.

“But at that village wedding, I thought, ‘Gosh, this is good’. These women were not crying, they were not feeling sorry for themselves, they were not the image of a Palestinian woman crying at the grave of her son that you see on the news. They were quite modestly dressed but they were sensuous, flirtatious – mother earth. I’m in love with them. I call them the big mammas.”

These “big mammas” are key to the Arabic musical tradition. “Women are better singers,” Kelani says. “They are not ashamed of their feelings, so that makes them better repositories of the oral tradition and therefore better interpreters of it.”

Kelani’s influences, evident in her work, are widespread, ranging from English folk music, to Bessie Smith and French singer Barbara, but it is Arabic music, in all its many manifestations, that really runs through her veins.

“The music of the Arabs taught me the connection between folk and classical music, even in the western tradition,” she says.

As such, Kelani has here selected 10 artists or musical genres that both influenced her and serve as an introduction to Arabic music for the uninitiated.

“With all due respect, when people here listen to world music, it is not representative of Arabic music,” she says. “Without all of these 10 rivers of influence I would not have been with you today.”

1) The Music of the Arabs, which accompanies a book by the same name written by Habib Hassan Touma, a Palestinian who came from Nazareth. Kelani: “It’s not pastiche, it’s not world-music, it’s not pop: you need to start from the folk and the classical musician to understand Arabic music.”

2) Asmahan, a Syrian princess from the Druze community. “In my view the greatest female Arab singer, alongside Umm Kulthoum. Syria is historically one of the purest roots of Arabic music.”

Listen to Asmahan sing a traditional Syrian tune.

3) Umm Kulthoum, from Egypt. “She taught me to include both the sacred and the secular in my repertoire, because she did both. Her performance techniques are also incredible and she taught me how to be able to help generate a state of mind as a performer that helps connect you and the audience. It’s what Federico Garcia Lorca wrote about: duende – that minute when everything clicks between you and the performer.”

Listen to Kulthoum sing at a concert in Kuwait, 1968.

4) Fairouz, a Lebanese Christian singer. “She taught me how to combine modernity with being in touch with your ancestral and collective routes. The beauty of Fairouz is that she sang a lot of songs that seemingly sounded more western than Arab, but actually there is a lot of maqaam theory there, combined with modernity.”

Listen to Fairouz sing about Palestinians wanting to return to their homeland one day.

5) Lebanese composer Ziad Rahbani, son of Fairouz and composer ‘Asi Rahbani. “Great innovator, playwright, singer, composer, also worked a lot with jazz elements: my idea of using a jazz rhythm section is inspired by him. He also inspired me to combine jazz with Arabic melodic modes – maqaam – and taught me how to be a social observer. Ziad’s music is not just beauty for the sake of beauty, but beauty and content, doing music for a purpose.”

Listen to Rahbani use western and Arabic instruments to play a tribute to Louis Armstrong.

6) Flamenco singer Camarón. “He was the master of a style of singing called cante jondo – deep singing – which developed in Spain but originated in Baghdad in 850. Listening to Cameron, although he’s Spanish, will connect you with cante jondo and the Qasida style – it’s still Arabic.”

Listen to the “question and answer” performance technique of Camarón’s cante jondo.

7) Egyptian composer Sayyid Darwish. “His greatest achievement is that he got Arabic music out of the palaces and into the street. His music also had a purpose, he became a social observer, he wrote songs about how Egyptian Muslims, Christians and Jews should unite. Music became not a political weapon but music with content, with purpose.”

Listen to a rare recording in Darwish’s own voice, made sometime between 1919 and 1923 – it pays tribute to porters and manual workers.

8) Sudanese singer Muhammad Wardi. “Wardi sings in Arabic but he is ethnically Nubian. Here he is singing and playing the Tanbur, a Nubian string instrument that uses the pentatonic scale – like the rest of Africa and in China – which connects to the Blues tradition. So this is still Arabic music but I’m taking you to Africa and to the Mississippi.”

9)Funoun al-Bahr (Songs of the Sea) by Arabian Gulf pearl fishers. “Notice the drone in their voices and their swaying movements, meant to resemble the motion of the sea. The clapping with the beat and off-beat pattern is exactly the same style used in Flamenco music.”

10) Sacred Arabic Chant: a) the Qur’anic recitation (Sheikh Abdul-Basit Abdul-Samad from Egypt); and b) Eastern Christian Byzantine chant. “Both of these are vocally, technically quite incredible, and on a spiritual level they are connected.”

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