Hicham Chami Marcel KhalifeThe Joan W. and Irving B. Harris Theater for Music and Dance was jammed.

The crowd was quite diverse: men, women, children, first-generation Arab immigrants in their fifties/sixties, second-generation Arabs born and raised in Chicago, Middle-Easterners, North Africans, white American Chicagoans… All were there to attend a concert by Marcel Khalife and his Al Mayadine Ensemble. The concert was part of a U.S. tour that lasted for two months and included major cities in the U.S.

In each one of his stops, just like he did in Chicago, Marcel Khalife was able to draw a full house.
That his U.S. tour coincided with the Holy month of Ramadan, a month of prayers, piety and thought-gathering, apparently didn’t matter. That his Chicago concert took place on a very rainy day apparently didn’t matter either. “Sold out” is the answer a potential attendee would have gotten from the box office weeks before the concert. The cheapest tickets, sold for $25, were gone in the first few days. The most expensive ones, sold for $100, were gone…well, in the first few days too.

While these figures might seem reasonable by Chicago standards for a visiting world-class performer, they are quite exceptional for a visiting artist from the Middle-East or the Arab world in general.

In a Spring 2004 concert, Wadie Essafi, in a concert that also featured female artist Nagwa Karam, gathered a rowdy crowd of 600-700 people. Souad Massi, a Paris-based Algerian singer and feminist, could only appeal to 200 people last July. Simon Shaheen, an ‘Ud virtuoso, probably the most acclaimed Palestinian artist based in the U.S., draws 400-500 enthusiasts to each one of his Chicago appearances.

Why this infatuation for Marcel Khalife?
Why this enthusiasm for an artist whose music, all things considered, is quite different from the classics his targeted audience is more likely to enjoy?
Why this feverish passion for a musician whose instrumentation (Xylophone, Piano, Cuban Congas, Upright Bass) should theoretically upset an Arab ear more trained to the familiar sounds of ‘Ud, Qanun, Ney, Violin, and Riqq? Why this excitement about a composer/singer whose arrangements are closer to Jazz music than to Classical Arabic Music?

The answer to these questions comes from two aspects of Marcel Khalife’s shows. First is his ability to capitalize on the Arabs’ sympathy for the Palestinian cause, and make the most out of the feeling of frustration an average Arab citizen has toward the issue. The second instrumental aspect behind Marcel Khalife’s success is undoubtedly his mastery of the art of interacting with the crowd while on stage, creating shows built on a crescendo momentum: shows starting with soft instrumental musical pieces, and ending with a standing-up audience clapping, dancing, and chanting along with him.

Songs with themes: Struggle and Pride

The Palestinian cause, the Aqsa Intifada, the problem of Pan-Arabism and Arab unity, are topics broached in most of his famous songs, those that people in the audience could sing along by heart.

I am tempted to say that Marcel Khalife built his fame by making the most out of topics precious to the hearts of Arab public opinion. Most of Marcel Khalife’s lyrics were written by Mahmoud Darwish, a Palestinian poet known for embodying the struggle of the Palestinian population.

In Edward Said’s words, “[Marcel] gives voice to those great issues that face the Arab world in a way that is not only contemporary, but deeply moving…. He sings about liberation, social injustice, tradition and modernity and the lives of people. He has done more than anyone, done the most to raise the level of popular music in the Arab world.”

A song like Asfoor (“The Sparrow”) is largely seen as a metaphor for the occupation the Palestinians have to endure:

A sparrow stood at my window.
And said “Oh, little one.
Hide me with you
I beg you.”
I said, “Where are you from?”
“From the limits of the sky,” he said.
I said “Where did you come from?”
“From the neighbor’s house” he answered.
I said, “What are you afraid of?”
“I escaped from the cage”, he said
I said “What are your feathers?”
“Fate took care of them,” he said.
A tear fell on his cheek.
His wings tucked underneath him,
He landed on the ground and said
“I want to walk, but I can’t.”
I held him to my heart,
Hurting from his wounds
Before he finally broke out of his jail
He broke his voice and his wings
I said, “Do not fear,
See the sun rising?”
He looked toward the forest
Saw the tides of freedom glitter,
He saw wings flutter
Beyond the high gates.
He saw the forest flying.
On the wings of freedom.

Marcel Khalife’s obsessive commitment to wear a kaffieh – the Arab headdress popularized by Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian street fighters – at every one of his concerts, interviews, public appearances… is also a clear sign of pride in being an Arab and totally identifies him with the Palestinian cause and resistance.

Pride is another important topic present in Marcel Khalife’s songs. Mountassiba Al-Kamati Amshee (“With Straight Posture I Walk”) is undoubtedly his most famous song. It is considered as symbolizing the reaction of the Lebanese and Palestinians in facing off the Israeli occupation:

“With straight posture I walk,
with the forehead up high I walk.
In my hand is an olive branch,
and on my shoulder is my coffin.
And on I walk.”

Audience participation

The concert had two distinct parts.

The first one, all instrumental, made up about a fifth of the program (three pieces out of fourteen). It covered an innovative repertoire unknown to most of the audience. The pieces included lengthy improvisation parts by musicians playing instruments not quite typical in the standard Arabic chamber music ensemble. Rami Khalife, a Julliard School of Music graduate, played the Grand Piano in an uncommon posture, standing up most of the time. Bachar Khalife, in addition to using a Riqq, an Egyptian Tabla, and a Mazhar (hand drums regularly used in Arabic music), played Xylophone, Congas, and Bongos. Finally, Peter Herbert performed on Upright Bass.

For Marcel Khalife’s typical unconditional fan, this first part of the program was, I believe, quite unexciting. The expectation was different. People were not there to listen to out-of-the-ordinary-sounding improvisations brought to them by musicians trained in the Western tradition of classical music and jazz, on instruments some were hearing for the first time.

The concerto went crescendo with the participation of female vocalist Umaima Al Khalil, who has been performing with Marcel Khalife since she was twelve years old. Her voice was recognizable; the songs she performed were familiar. The second of her songs required an almost religious attention. Lights were dimmed, instruments were silenced… Only her voice was audible for about four to five minutes. Four to five minutes during which the audience sat agape. The moment was magical.

At the end of the song, a standing ovation for Umaima; and without waiting for the end of the well-deserved round of applause, Marcel Khalife played on his ‘Ud the first notes of Mountassiba Al-Kamati Amshee. I am not sure whether it took the members of the audience three or four seconds before they rose to their feet in unison and sang in chorus with him or without him. From that moment until the end of the concert, every attendee became a performer in his own right. Marcel Khalife’s ability to interact with his audience, and conduct its performance, was truly amazing. He managed to “teach” the lyrics to those among us who didn’t know them. He dealt with the clapping as part of the music he was producing. He handled the acceleration of the momentum in a way very few musicians can. He knew exactly when the audience would stand up and would sit back down. The intensity of the lighting was one with the music. The frenzied audience followed the volume of the music, and at the end of the concert, all lights were on, and everybody in the audience was standing up, clapping, and singing the best they could.