Sarah Irving

I do things with words, mainly English and Arabic

Reem Kelani: one live album, one new album Kickstarter

It’s been rather a while since I posted on here, due to various changes in direction. This post is slightly recycling insofar as I’m putting up a review of Reem Kelani’s wonderful 2016 album, Live at the Tabernacle. The review was originally written for Electronic Intifada, but for reasons which are too lengthy and tedious to go into I’m not really writing for them anymore, so it’s going here instead. I’ve chosen to do this now so that I can also post this link to the Kickstarter appeal for Kelani’s new album.

Reem Kelani
Live at the Tabernacle (2 CD set)
Fuse Records CFCD050
2016

Reem Kelani, the Palestinian scientist-turned-musician-and-musicologist, is rightfully known as delivering a uniquely powerful and compelling live experience. Her ability to combine musical virtuosity, vocal strength, historical depth and lively engagement with the audience takes Kelani’s appearances well out of the field of a normal concert and draws the unwary into a headlong rush of emotional, aesthetic and intellectual richness.

Asking a CD or download to convey this experience is a tall order, but Live at the Tabernacle goes a good way towards achieving it. Whilst the recording and mixing don’t always fully capture the richness of Kelani’s voice, they do convey much of the complexity and energy of her shows.

Recorded at the well-known London venue during the annual Nour Festival of Arabic arts, the album features Kelani performing with backing from regular collaborators Bruno Heinen on piano, Ryan Trebilcock on double bass and Antonio Fusco on percussion.

Tamer Abu Ghazaleh, the Palestinian ‘oud player whose solo albums and works with Alif Ensemble and a range of other Arab musicians is rapidly making him a star on global music scenes, also makes an appearance on ‘Sprinting Gazelle’, the title track from Kelani’s first album, and on the thumping beat of ‘Il-Hamdillah’.

Sales of CDs may have crashed in recent years, subject to the ease of downloading music and the retro cool of vinyl. For those seeking only the music on Live from the Tabernacle, downloads are available on platforms such as Bandcamp.

But in this case, investing in the CD pack is well worth it. The two discs sit at either end of a lavish booklet which, alongside the usual live photographs and lists of thanks, contains a wealth of information which highlights the extent to which Kelani is as much a scholar as she is a musician.

And on the discs themselves are filmed and animated accounts of Kelani’s own musical journeys and an excerpt from the film Shebabs of Yarmouk, for which Kelani wrote the title track.

Each song comes with a historical, ethnographic and personal account which places it in the broader context of Palestinian musical culture, as well as stories direct from Kelani herself about the circumstances of her encounter with the song (or songs: several of the works are original arrangements which unite more than one set of lyrics into a single piece).

Some of the songs are traditional works from Palestinian peasant origins, passed on to Kelani by groups of refugee women in Lebanon, by villagers in her home region of the Galilee or, in one particularly moving example, by her mother in the weeks before she died.

In each of these cases, Kelani describes the setting in which the song might ordinarily be sung: at a wedding, whilst dressing a bride, a child’s first tooth, or at times of village celebration. We are told of the dances performed to the traditional tune, or of the deeper meanings and resonances a piece might have acquired for women driven from their land.

The lyrics, provided in Arabic and in English translation, are themselves a joy. Sometimes poetic, religious or solemn in tone, at other moments they are stubborn and amusing in their demands and defiance. ‘Hawwilouna’ (Let Us In), for example, a wedding song recorded by Kelani in Yaabad, near Jenin,

ends in the threat that:
he who doesn’t give us his daughter’s hand
shall be made to clear up after our cattle,

whilst ‘Il-Hamdillah’ (Giving Praise), a song sung during collective house-building efforts, takes on a political resonance with the resilience of lines such as:

we planted peppers in the heat
our foes said they wouldn’t turn red
Praise God! Our peppers grew and turned red.

Other tracks are drawn from Kelani’s long-running project to collate, perform and publicize the works of the great Egyptian musicologist and composer Sayyid Darwish.

Darwish, working in the early decades of the twentieth century, collected popular songs and tunes, and wrote his own music to the words of political and popular poetry.

This was the era of Egypt’s own struggle for independence, culminating in a revolution in 1919 which defied the abuses and exploitation of British rule imposed after the invasion of 1882.

In the ensuing decades, Egypt’s economy had been distorted into a supplier of raw materials, especially cotton, for Britain’s manufacturers. British officials and military officers had become hated for events such as the travesty of Denshawai, in which four villagers were hanged and dozens more sentenced to hard labour of flogging – for the crime of trying to stop British soldiers shooting the village’s carefully-bred and -cared for pigeons for sport.

One of Darwish’s most famous songs, featured on this CD, gives voice to striking porters, taking part in the revolution and celebrating as the colonial infrastructure grinds to a halt. Kelani’s adoption and revivification of these songs highlights the connections between Palestine and the rest of the Arab world, and between anti-colonial struggles still ongoing across the region.

A third type of track on the albums are those written solely by Kelani herself, or in collaboration with others.

A stand-out example of these is Yarmouk, the theme tune to the heartrending film Shebabs of Yarmouk, which depicts the lives of young men and women from the vast Palestinian refugee camp on the outskirts of the Syrian capital of Damascus.

One of the protagonists of the film, Hassan Hassan, was arrested by the Syrian authorities not long after the film’s release, for making short movies criticising the Assad regime. He died shortly afterwards in prison.

The melancholy tones of Kelani’s music are admirably matched by the words, specially commissioned from Glasgow-based Syrian-Palestinian poet Iyad Hayatleh, himself a native of Yarmouk camp, and thus a double refugee.

The emotional impact of Kelani’s performances, and of this recording of them, is always huge: swinging from joyous wedding songs to the defiant political statements of Sayyid Darwish, it couldn’t be otherwise. But in this collection, it is Kelani and Hayatleh’s poignant tribute to those who suffered and died – or survived – the Syrian war’s crushing violence against Yarmouk camp which packs the greatest punch.

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