|This exiled musician, writer, composer and activist currently resides in Paris. He is well known for setting the words of Arabic writers, such as Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, (the Principal Prince Claus laureate of 2004) to music and for stretching the boundaries of the oud, introducing Arabic music to the people of the world and displaying the oud under a new light.
Later, pianist Rami Khalifé joined the trio adding lush classical strains to the already complex musical meanderings. The consistent swirling of musical treats began slowly and increased in intensity, replete with sudden musical pockets quickly filled with dreamy yet powerful solos that were swept away as the remaining musicians expertly increased the tempo.
Many pieces during the evening were so soul-stirringly drenched with Arabic sensibilities that the only thing missing was the traditional wailing so common at many Middle Eastern festivities.
Overall, the rhythms of most of the luscious melodies were Arabic with many invoking traditional Lebanese dabke* rhythms. Others elicited such powerful beats and unique strains that the spirits of long passed away bellydancers could be felt pleading to be allowed to once again grace the stage and immerse themselves in these mesmerizing melodies.
Although the repertoire of these virtuosos bathed the theatre with a steady and powerful Arabic sensibility, during many instances, whispers of flamenco, the distant thunder of rock 'n' roll, a dusting of jazz, the yearning of blues, or the dreaminess of classical music would drift out of nowhere to land onto the stage like smoke from a distant arguile or hookah pipe.
The creativity of these musical masters flowed like an incoming tide onto the stage at many intervals such as the occasional flirting between the oud and piano or the playful fencing between the oud and bass as they powerfully gripped, pulled and stretched their strings to haunting effect. The quality and strength of sound they produced emitted the power of an orchestra rather than a mere quartet.
A third of the way into the first set, Marcel Khalifé treated the audience to his emotion-filled singing. Oud and piano alone provided a gorgeous frame for his heart-wrenching vocals which, whether or not one comprehended the meaning, were tear-inducing. Watching Marcel play, an onlooker realizes he is totally immersed, but when he sings, this feeling is increased tenfold as his voice reverberates with an outpouring of emotion from his whole heart and soul.
The musical template of swift melodies gliding into meditative solos which then effortlessly became spinning musical dust storms, flowed as sheiks' veils across the stage throughout the performance. Each musician was a true virtuoso in his own right from Marcel Khalifé pulling the strings of his oud so they would reverberate just so; to Peter Herbert alternating between using a bow and fingers to squeeze diamonds of sound from the strings; to Bachar Khalifé with his flying fingers Charlestoning between his bench and derbakeh; or, to Rami Khalifé who would alternately reach in to pull the strings of the piano or channel the speed of sound into the fingers of one hand flying across the keys while holding steadfastly onto a few keys with the fingers of the other.
There was not a lot of banter with the audience until the second set when Marcel Khalifé's sense of humour had the crowd giggling and cheering on many occasions. Yet, nothing ever stood in the way of the masterpiece which was unequivocally: the music.
The George Weston Recital Hall, with its wonderful warm and intimate atmosphere and fabulous pin-drop acoustics was the perfect venue for this performance.
Marcel Khalifé is currently participating in an extensive North American tour in support of his latest album, Taqasim, with his equally talented sons Bachar and Rami and double bass master, Peter Herbert. During this particular tour, they were banned from performing at The Joan B. Kroc Theatre at the Salvation Army Corps Community Center in San Diego, California on political grounds. Political grounds for musicians? Apparently. Since they were not performing alongside an Israeli musician, the theatre operators felt the quartet's performance would be "divisive" and "unbalanced".
This is unfortunately a scenario with which Khalifé is all too familiar. No stranger to controversy or to war, during the many tumultuous battles in the Middle East, Khalifé frequently drove through war-torn streets to perform in bomb-ravaged concert halls in his homeland. Understandably as a result, it would be easy for him to focus solely on the plight of his country, Lebanon, but he is too aware of the many others around the world who are persecuted.
For example, Khalifé's work has been banned from Tunisia because he, along with many prominent Arab intellectuals, signed a petition protesting the suppression of freedom of expression and violations of human rights in Tunisia. Khalifé consistently speaks out for peace and reconciliation and draws attention to injustices around the world.
On this evening, Khalifé and his colleagues were very low-key, allowing the heart-wrenchingly gorgeous melodies to permeate the room. These rhythms were primal yet sophisticated and one could feel the crowd hold back from their desire to get up onto the chairs to dance. In fact, it was wonderful to see a group of young men finally give in as they swayed in front of their seats and waved their arms in the air as they sang along in pure abandon with Khalifé.
A testament to the hypnotic pull of Marcel Khalifé's music was the reaction of a woman seated in front of me in the theatre. At the beginning of the evening, this woman petulantly complained to her partner that, "This is probably going to be old people's music. That's all you ever make me listen to." Unsurprisingly, once the music began, she was elatedly taking pictures and singing along with everyone else throughout the evening!
It was so heartwarming to hear Khalifé begin singing a few bars of a song only to have the crowd carry the rest of the vocals while the musicians stopped playing to proudly watch their spirited audience clapping and singing. When the singing would slow down, the musicians would then resume their mastery of the piece. This happened on a number of emotional occasions.
As Marcel Khalifé sang of olive trees and peaceloving fishermen this was definitely a joyous and harmonious (musically and spiritually) evening! A raucous standing ovation greeted the performers at the end of their encore while a man ran onto the stage to present Marcel Khalifé with the Lebanese flag which displayed the famous Cedars of Lebanon. Khalifé then graciously agreed to sign copies of his album for a line up of fans that was long and animated.
*Lebanese dabke: A popular traditional group dance performed in a circle formation.