Artist Feature: Marcel Khalife

For most of the Arabic-speaking world, Marcel Khalife requires no introduction: his songs were hummed by our parents, played on our tape recorders and sung together at home and in the street; today his music reverberates in concert halls across the world. In this feature, we celebrate the Lebanese singer, oud-player and composer adopted by the Palestinian cause, and reflect on what it means to us to listen to this musical giant of our times. We include photographs, memories and favourite songs sent to Marsm via social media and invite you to add your own using the comments section below.

Marcel felt the Palestinian struggle, and showed his solidarity through his music. Especially in the 80s, at the peak of Palestinian resistance, he was the anthem of the revolution, giving strength to the people, and a reminder of what it meant to love our land. – Emad

Photograph courtesy of Yassine Kak

Growing up in Palestine during the First Intifada (1987-1993), listening to Marcel Khalife was an act of defiance. With no radio stations to call their own, due to the Israeli monopoly of the airwaves, if Palestinians from occupied territories wanted to listen to music that wasn’t produced by the Israeli State, they listened to tapes distributed via underground networks.

Khalife sang the words that Palestinians wanted to speak; by putting contemporary Arabic poetry to music, he gave hope that someone was telling the world their reality whilst making that reality bearable. His fans and followers were eager to stay up-to-date with each new release he made and would flock to the homes and shops of informal distributors to make copies on two-reel cassette recorders. One shop-owner recalls his mother burying his collection of Khalife tapes alongside political books in her giant flour container, in case their house was raided by Israeli authorities. These forbidden cassettes were incredibly important to people, as Yassine Kak recalls:

The first audio cassette that I owned in my life – I remember saving for it, I was about 7 years old – was his album “Tousbihouna Ala Watan” [Literally: May you wake up with a Homeland] (I still have it by the way). I remember back in those days, how I refused to go to sleep without listening to the entire cassette. I would be so sleepy but I’d make sure to stay awake to reverse the cassette and listen to the B-side. I didn’t know much about music at the time but Marcel’s music felt very special to me. – Yassine Kak

In those days, the music Khalife made with his group Al Mayadin was like a lifeline to the rest of the world, at a time when the people of Gaza felt cut off. When their lives were a constant struggle with check points and military oppression, the sound provided the energy to resist and the knowledge that others were listening.

I especially remember his two songs “Muntasiba Lqamati Amshi/منتصب القامة أمشي” (A very patriotic song that includes the lines ‘walking with my head up high, in my hand is an olive branch and over my shoulder is my coffin’) and “Ahinnu ila Khubzi Ummi/أحن إلى خبز أمي” [“I Yearn for my Mother’s Bread”]. I heard that song on TV the same day I discovered there was something called ‘Mother’s Day’. Back then satellite channels weren’t that prevalent or online or digital TV. So the Arabic music and TV broadcast we used to receive was from neighbouring countries like Syria and Jordan. The signal wasn’t the best and the quality wasn’t always clear.

Today of course, there is nothing underground about Khalife. Appointed by UNESCO in 2005 as an ‘international artist for peace’, the Lebanese-born mega star now tours the most prestigious venues in the world, playing to packed out audiences in New York, Toronto, Brussels, London and Tunisia (for his impressive touring itineraries, visit his website). 

This journey – from voice of the oppressed to international superstar – has not been without its challenges: audiences nostalgic for fiery protest songs like My Mother’s Bread and Rita are sometimes bemused by his experiments with modern melodies and improvisation. Khalife, like many artists, has had to tow the narrow path between artistic integrity and a fervent fanbase. What happens when the ‘voice of a generation’ ceases to write music with lyrics, and plays to a concert crowd? What does it mean to listen to Marcel Khalife today?

Waking up to Marcel’s music: my Dad used to always sing Al-Tayyara and Tout Tout – Ammar Mustapha

Khalife has an impressive ability to experiment with a range of musical material whilst remembering those who still need songs which speak of their pain and longing. Khalife’s concerts are expansive and inclusive, with high art and poetry woven through with references to the everyday. On his journeys between highbrow and easy listening peppered with hard truths, he has attracted a fan base as eclectic as his music. For musical accomplishment, try his Concertos for the Oud; for sheer enjoyment hear his Summer Night’s Dream or the delicious Concerto Al Andalus.

When everyone sang Rita during his concert in Damascus in August 2010. It was hot, it was packed, it was by the walls of the old city (the citadel), and absolutely everyone knew all the lyrics of Rita. It was incredible! –  Anon.

I just love how the Khalife’s mix the grand tradition of Oud and poetry with more electronic and experimental music. – Yassine Alaoui

True to form, in the Barbican concert Marsm organised in London in 2019, Khalife and his son Rami presented a set which combined drama, musical experimentation and new arrangements of all-time favourites (we’re glad to hear from @Abdulisms that this concert was his favourite Marcel memory). The audience was spellbound at one moment and singing enthusiastically at the next. Rami Khalife performed ‘Requiem for Beirut’ as a solo. Here is a recording of his performance of this piece, with full orchestral backing, in Martyr Square, Beirut.

This extraordinary contemporary composition was staged alongside an arrangement of Mahmoud Darwish’s poignantly angry poem Passport as well as one of Khalife’s most popular arrangements, Ommi (‘To my Mother’) accompanied sparingly by the Oud, as in this rendition:

Looking across the Barbican auditorium, the Marsm team were excited to see that the audience was made up of fans from multiple generations. We and our parents grew up with his music and now our children delight in it too. 

I showed my mum the video from his London show [Marcel singing Ommi], she began to cry “I’ve been taken back 30 years.” – Maha

Ouissal Harize was at the Barbican concert and it connected her to her father who had seen Marcel Khalife play in Algeria in the 1980s. She sent us this precious photograph, which shows her father posing with his friends and Marcel.

Photo courtesy of Ouissal Harize

Like all Arabs, I grew up listening to Marcel Khalife’s music. This picture dates back to 1982, it was taken in my home town Tebessa-Algeria. My dad was lucky enough to take a picture with him. Last September, I went to Khalife’s concert in London. I was planning on showing him the picture and taking one with him. I was in awe of him and I completely forgot about the picture. The performance was enough. Happy Birthday ستخلد منتصب القامة, مرفوع الهامة

Playing Khalife

Many artists have been moved to make their own covers of Khalife’s arrangements, carrying them to new generations and audiences. Yassine Alaoui’s beautiful pared down version of Asfour (translated into English here) uses guitar and vocals by ‘Rim’ to demonstrate the continued potency of Khalife and Oumeima El Khalil‘s bittersweet folksong. The song, which tells the story of a broken bird trying to escape a cage, is dedicated to all Arab prisoners in Israeli prisons and Arab prisoners in Arab prisons.

Moroccan singer Yassine Kak transplants the much-loved Ommi to North Africa, with his touching arrangement for guitar and oud. Kak reflects on the meaning of the song to him and the broader impact of Khalife’s music.

I’ve chosen to cover Oumi because it captures a very specific dimension of the relationship between a child and his mother, it is in my opinion about how a child grows and becomes a man, but somehow he remains a child inside. The whole world might beat him and be unfair to him; he’s no longer that sweet little child that everyone wants to hug; his only link to his lost childhood then, to that beautiful lost world that was once his, is his mother, ‘Oumi’. In short I covered this song because it’s very dear to my heart, I might even shed a tear every time I listen to it. I think Marcel really took the poetry of Mahmoud Darwish to a whole new level. Not only does Marcel Khalife have an influence on my music, he has an influence on everyone’s music, on music itself, specially here in the Arab world, he’s truly a living legend. – Yassine Kak

Further Listening

The Marsm team would like to thank those who have shared their stories, photographs and reflections on the work of Marcel Khalife. We leave you with this beautiful rendition of Shiddo Al-Himmeh, recommended by both @alasalamay and @just_pots.