Live review

Marcel Khalifé and Bachar Mar-Khalifé – ‘Mahmoud, Marcel and I’ (EFG LJF 2021)

Marcel Khalifé and Bachar Mar-Khalifé – Mahmoud, Marcel and I

(Barbican Centre, 15 November 2021. EFG London Jazz Festival. Live Review by Rachel Coombes)

Marcel Khalifé (left), Bachar Mar Khalifé with bassist Aleksander Angelov. Publicity photo courtesy of Serious

“Marcel went to Australia for a few days in early 2020 and we saw him a year and eight months later,” chuckled the French Lebanese multi-instrumentalist and composer Bachar Mar-Khalifé from the Barbican stage, as he mused on the relief that the musicians felt at being back together. Joining forces after a long hiatus (their last gig together was in March 2020 at the Paris Philharmonic) were Bachar (piano, vocals), Nenad Gajin (electric guitar), Anthony Millet (accordion), Sary Khalifé (cello), Jérôme Arrighi (electric and double bass), Doğan Poyraz (percussion) and, of course, the venerable singer and oud player Marcel Khalifé. Bachar, whose distinctive musical voice embraces Arab music, jazz and electronica, conceived the show as a musical homage to his father Marcel’s long-standing friendship and creative partnership with the late Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish (1941 – 2008). United in their support of the Palestinian cause, the pair has gained recognition for their amplification of the voices of the oppressed and occupied, sometimes facing controversy along the way.

Even before their first meetings in Paris at the Café du Trocadéro in the 1980s, Marcel (sometimes referred to affectionately as the Bob Dylan of Lebanon) had been busy setting Darwish’s poems to music. Some of his best-loved musical settings appeared on the politically-charged album Promises of the Storm in 1976. If the audience at the Barbican show were expecting an evening of intimate Lebanese folk ballads in the vein of this album, they were in for a surprise. Bachar had masterminded an eclectic, high-energy affair that was thoughtfully crafted so as to showcase the political messages in the poems as well as his close musical relationship with his father. Subtle monochrome visuals and texts projected on a screen behind the musicians helped in the construction of a narrative, especially for non-Arabic speakers.

The opening song, an ode to Beirut (“Beirut is our tent / Beirut is our star”) was based on a Darwish poem marking the Israeli invasion of the city in 1982. The accompaniment to Marcel’s rich vocals alternated between soulful cello lines and soft piano touches (Bachar often dampened the piano strings to create a velvety texture), and the fuller forces of percussion and guitar. The next song was dedicated to a city etched in the minds of many as Beirut’s “twin” – Haifa. Darwish spent his teenage years in the city, but was unable to return after becoming synonymous with the Palestinian struggle. The song was based on his poem “Haifa Started Here”; Anthony Millet’s haunting and mournful melodic interjections on the accordion tied in well with the poignant line drawing of a face behind barbed wire projected behind the band. The following number (based on Darwish’s “This Sea is Mine”) paid tribute to a third city, London, beginning with a bluesy conversation between double bass and guitar. The work gave Sary Khalifé (the nephew of both Marcel Khalifé and the oud virtuoso Charbel Rouhana) an opportunity to demonstrate his virtuosity, with a precise microtonal solo that soared to the upper limits of the instrument. The song ended with a powerfully plaintive passagein which Marcel repeated Darwish’s words Ana lastu li (“I am not mine”).

Up next was “Birds of Galilee”, which Bachar arranged in his own characteristic fashion, playing with frequent changes in texture and tempi. After a wistful interpretation of Darwish’s “Afraid of the Moon”, the band left the stage, leaving father and son to perform an intimate duet “I am Joseph, Oh Father” (which incorporates a passage from the story of Joseph in the Qu’ran, causing Marcel to face criminal prosecution for blasphemy in the 1990s). Bachar then moved to the synthesizer, where a sombre chord sequence on the organ set the mood for his father’s recitation of Darwish’s “My God, Why Have you Forsaken Me?” All of a sudden, the sober ceremonial – almost liturgical – mood was interrupted by Bachar’s switching to an upbeat, punchy synth motif, matching his father’s crystal-clear articulation.

As the musicians filed back on stage, each paused at the microphone, reading a phrase from Darwish’s poem “Wait for Her” in their native language. The motivation for this celebration of the band’s diverse backgrounds became clear as Marcel plucked the opening riff of one of his most iconic songs, “Passport”. Doğan Poyraz’s thrilling manipulation ofArabic beats, which underscored this riotous, ecstatic reworking of Marcel’s original 1976 solo setting, got the crowd clapping and dancing in their seats.

The evening drew to a close with Marcel alone on stage, transporting the audience to a more contemplative musical space which allowed for more interaction between the oud player and his audience. Requesting the auditorium lights to be raised so that he could see the crowd, Marcel invited us to sing along to one of his best-loved ballads “Rita and the Rifle” (written by Darwish as a love letter to a Jewish girlfriend in the context of the Israeli occupation). This was followed by the equally popular “My Mother”, after which the ensemble gathered back around Marcel, with some of them taking up riqs (traditional Arabic tambourines) to accompany “The Pigeons Fly.” The standing ovation at the end of the concert reflected in part the breadth of the show’s appeal: the evening was a masterful union of Mahmoud’s lyrical poetic texts, the best of Marcel’s oud playing and compositions, and Bachar’s ingenious musical ideas.

LINK: Bachar Mar Khalife on Bandcamp

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