Marcel Khalife has always demanded a certain respect for his formal compositions when performing, interspersing his most popular songs featuring the phenomenal voice of Omayma al-Khalil with more symphonic, purely instrumental pieces. But during his last tour of the United States this insistence on his status as a composer was even more pronounced: Leaving Omayma and the rest of his regular band al-Mayadine at home, Khalife brought a trio of his regular musicians to accompany him in his latest composition, entitled “Jadal,” Arabic for discussion, argument, dialectic. With Charbel Rouhana joining Khalife on oud, Aboud al-Saadi on electric bass and Ali al-Khatib on the riq, the Quartet rolled through the four pieces, billed as a “concerto for two ouds.”
It marked a formal departure from traditional arrangements, since the oud usually performs alone, as in taqsim, or is orchestrated against different instruments. During the performance, Khalife mixed the logics of the classical oud maqamat, which play upon fixed tonal forms and rhythmic variations, and European composition, which runs contrary to that in its play between set rhythms and tonal differentiation. In his San Francisco performance it was difficult to hear a “duo” at work in the first two pieces since the two ouds, played by Khalife and Charbel Rouhana, harmonized in a tight arrangement. But by the third piece, the Quartet hit its stride as the ouds began to pull away from one another, contending with each other, embellishing each other, interrupting each other and finishing each other’s sentences.
Throughout the second half of the performance, the ouds continued their conversations and disputes, with samples from Western classical music and reprises from popular and classical Arabic music smoothing over the tensions generated by taqsim-sounding flourishes. By the end of the concert, it was clear the Khalife Quartet had won over some of the audience, most of whom had come to hear his earlier, more explicitly political songs. Still, the performance was difficult for many to enjoy, but not merely because he had ventured off into formal experimentation: In adhering to such a closely scripted text throughout the night, Khalife’s performance seemed distant, without the usual improvisation and tarab (the dynamic obtained between musical artist and audience during a performance) of either popular or classical Arabic music. In short, if the audience seemed less than enthusiastic about the concert, it was probably because the performance compelled them to hear a different Marcel Khalife.
The Khalife the audience had expected was the one who established himself, during the 1970s and 1980s, along with his band al-Mayadine, as a popular, experimental force in Lebanese music, performing in abandoned theaters and packed concert halls. Through a network of underground tape distribution, their folk songs gained popularity in the Arab world (and among Palestinians especially), making Khalife into a symbol of resistance providing hope and inspiration for leftist political communities. Trained in the National Music Conservatory in Beirut and working with poets such as Mahmoud Darwish, he combined crystalline poetics and uncompromising politics with music drawn from Lebanese folklore, European melodies and the classical tradition of improvisational oud performance. The rich and varied roots of his compositions, no matter how experimental, did not make them inaccessible. On the contrary, the sense of dignity embedded in the lyrics of his songs contributed to their popular dissemination, just as their melodies made the struggle for justice bearable, if not profoundly beautiful. His fans were not the only ones to appreciate this: The popularity of Khalife’s music led Israeli authorities to confiscate his tapes and often raised the suspicions of Arab governments.
Although Khalife for a long time has experimented with more elaborately orchestrated musical compositions, these endeavors never seemed to contradict his status as a revolutionary icon — until now. With “Jadal,” the long-standing tension between the “popular” and the “symphonic” Khalife was brought to a head: Concert audiences seemed discomfited by the gap between their image of Khalife as a voice of political dissent and the purely instrumental performance he rendered. Explaining his new formalist direction, Khalife remarked that he was trying to “rationalize” Arabic music, to challenge the audience to use their minds, not only their hearts, in deriving pleasure from the concert. While the crowd in San Francisco rose to the challenge and warmed to the melodic sounds of the Quartet, the rigid scripting of Khalife’s performances distanced him from the audience which was used to a more improvisational style. Instead of experiencing the nostalgic and near cathartic releases that have characterized past performances, this time the audience was compelled to contemplate the arrangement dispassionately, effectively dissuaded from clapping or tapping their feet too audibly. Marcel could not have asked for a cooler, more cerebral sense of appreciation from his audience.
If in past tours of the US Khalife’s status as an artist was never disconnected from a sense of progressive politics, it was not due solely to the lyrics of his songs. The fact that he would raise money for social projects while touring and courting his Arab-American audiences guaranteed, in a sense, that there was a project or dream, shared by audience and performer, that went beyond purely aesthetic aspirations. During this tour, however, Khalife and his tour promoters insisted that his audiences applaud only one Marcel: the highbrow artist.
This narrowing of Khalife’s significance was registered foremost in the musical composition and the performance itself, where it was announced that Khalife has (for the time being at least) abandoned lyrics altogether in favor of formal experimentation. But if Khalife was demanding that his audiences appreciate him in a more detached manner, the tour’s promoters were well aware that his audiences might continue to harbor more sentimental expectations. This was most apparent in the way the tour was advertised as a celebration of the one hundredth anniversary of Gibran Khalil Gibran’s arrival in the United States. But the connection between Gibran, Khalife and his Arab-American audiences — a connection with rich potential — was left unexplored by Khalife himself. Instead it was merely alluded to in brief recitations of Gibran’s poetry before the concert, leaving one to suspect that this gesture was motivated more by marketing sensibilities than any sort of artistic affinity. Moreover, in the lobby, gone from the tables were the copies of Darwish’s diwan that were found at previous shows, replaced by the complete works of Gibran, works which, when decontextualized, lose most of their original political and cultural relevance and which are now, unfortunately, mostly consumed for their safe spiritualism and gooey humanism.
At first glance it may seem surprising that Khalife, as one of the major performers of the Arab world, has not been picked up by world music critics and audiences. However, Khalife has resisted this by claiming that, in contrast to performers such as Khaled (the Algerian rai artist) who rework traditional musics against European tastes, his work is aimed at reinvigorating classical forms of Arabic music for Arab audiences, with the hope of imbuing both with a sense of history. This move, however quixotic, is laudable if only for the reason that so much of the marketing for world music serves to decouple Third World musics from their dense local moorings, obscuring the histories behind them in order to give Western audiences a taste of easily consumed, “exotic” music flavors.
Although Marcel’s work will most likely continue to resist this kind of commodification, his last tour was nevertheless enmeshed with the culture of globalized consumption. As if to emphasize the truly global nature of Khalife’s artistic reach, AT&T’s centerfold advertisement in the tour program welcomed the Marcel Khalife Quartet to the US by quoting Gibran: “Earth is my country and humanity is my family.” Linking itself to such cloying sentiments of empty humanism, AT&T is apparently aiming to conquer new markets, marry into the Arab “family” and become the “True Choice” for those wishing to maintain links with the Middle East. By advertising at Khalife’s concerts AT&T seeks to appeal to a mobile community of investors and professionals who move back and forth between the Middle East and the West. One might be tempted to welcome corporate backing and argue that the support helps to alleviate the financial concerns for coordinating such tours. Still, it is worth considering that AT&T might not only be aiming to attract customers among Arab-American constituencies, but also to normalize its new position in the Middle East: Having recently won the contract to develop the phone service in the Palestinian self-ruled areas, the company is poised to become one of the region’s largest investors and enjoy a near monopoly on its communications systems.
It could be that Khalife’s new style is symptomatic of these sorts of shifts in the nature of global capital. With the Oslo accords reconfiguring the face of Palestine and the reconstruction of Lebanon proceeding apace, the expectation that Marcel maintain a 1970s sense of politics risks not only cultural anachronism but political irrelevancy.
To say that we yearn for a different Khalife is not to say that we demand the revolutionary Khalife of old. As times have changed and resistance movements have disappeared or been coopted, the need to reconsider conventional notions about politics — and aesthetics — has become all the more urgent. It is therefore not so much a matter of an artist’s right to experiment as it is the necessity of doing so if art is to remain potent, relevant. However, when an artist indulges a new style we should interrogate not only what sorts of possibilities open up but also what sorts of opportunities are closed down.
In the case of “Jadal,” Khalife’s new style does indeed obfuscate specific struggles that need to be brought to the fore. It might be argued that his reinterpretation of the oud tradition marks a radical break on certain aesthetic and political grounds, but his decision to renounce the lyrical (however temporarily) forfeits artistic narrative and concrete imagery at a critical moment. The move away from words, for instance, is distressingly symptomatic of a more widespread silencing of voices opposed to the way in which the Oslo accords are reinvigorating US-Israeli hegemony in the region. Perhaps more importantly, the sense of alienation felt by many who attended Khalife’s recent tour is reminiscent of the perceived dissolution of progressive communities.
Khalife’s demand for a cooler sense of appreciation left many wondering about exactly what they were supposed to glean from the concert. It seems disheartening that Khalife, who has been so effective in galvanizing political communities through emotive aesthetics, should now adopt a style that serves to decouple these two elements of his music. But before one mournfully proclaims the death of the spirit of the left and gives in to an amorphous feeling of impotency, perhaps one might look upon Khalife’s aesthetic experimentation as the sort of project that could in fact create opportunities and open new spaces for radical activism. “Jadal” does not seem to have succeeded in this regard. Perhaps Khalife’s next attempt will.