01 October 2007

Monday's mp3: Who's Afraid of Oud?

Marcel Khalife doesn't go out of his way to be controversial. No Fela-style taunting of governments or Manu Chao-esque protest songs. Indeed, the composer and oud player's profile is so low he isn't even mentioned in the 1999 Rough Guide to World Music or the 2000 MusicHound World, although he's been composing music since 1974 and releasing albums under his own name since the mid 1990s. Khalife has a particular fascination with Arabic poetry, composing music for the words of Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, among others.

But just being Palestinian seems to have drawn a swirl of controversy to Khalife. Earlier this year a San Diego show had to be moved when the Salvation Army refused to allow a scheduled concert at its Joan B. Kroc Theatre.

Khalife has faced resistance before -- his music was banned in Tunesia and Bharain...Arabic countries that apparently objected to his messages promoting peace and freedom of expression. But the San Diego objections sound like base ignorance; the Salvation Army said that the concert would be divisive and unbalanced if the show didn't also include an Israeli artist. So next time Chava Alberstein performs, we'll expect her to have Simon Shaheen opening, right? The absurdity of a requirement for a geopolitically "balanced" musical performance boggles the mind!

Americans have show such cultural ignorance before, particularly in making throwing up new hoops for visiting performing artists to jump through in the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks. Hugely popular Iranian singer Googoosh was denied a US visa, as were Mexican duo Rodrigo y Gabriela, South African group The Mahotella Queens, and Cubans Ibrahim Ferrer and Barbarito Torres.

"I'm used to these kinds of problems in the U.S.," Khalife says in an interview. "Still, it's puzzling to me that such things can happen in a democatic country where freedom of speech is valued so highly. We need to look more deeply into what's really going on, find out who is responsible and why, because these problems that may seem minor can lead to bigger problems that are much worse for everyone. But I'd prefer to focus on art, not politics."

I'm happy to honor that wish and move from controversy to the wonder of Khalife's music, which he's currently bringing to cities around North America. Khalife has just released a new album, entitled Sharq, which I haven't yet heard. Here's a selection from his previous CD, which consisted of three 20-minute movements dedicated to the poet Darwish.

[mp3] Marcel Khalife: Excerpt from Taqasim, part 2
from the album Taqasim

Khalife tours US cities through October and November: tour schedule

My work isn't governed by what goes on in the world. I will continue to create freely, as I always have. Just like whatever happens here on earth won't stop the sun from shining, nothing is going to get in the way of the music I make.
-- Marcel Khalife
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