Towards an Arab-American songbook
By David Honigmann
The Financial Times
A few years ago, at a time of stress, Reem Kelani found herself
unable to sing. "Losing my voice was the nearest experience to
death," she says. To get through it, she worked on a setting of her
fellow Palestinian Rashid Husain's poem "Thoughts and Echoes". It
appears, entitled "Yearning", on her CD Sprinting Gazelle: after
some gentle, minor-key piano improvisation from Zoe Rahman, Kelani
starts to hum the melody, before bursting into Husain's melancholy
"Music," Kelani insists, "is everyone's salvation. I made a series
of radio documentaries for the BBC aboutdisplaced people, and an
Armenian Big Mama said to me, you can burn a painting, you can burn
a book, but you can't burn a song. I try to divert my rage and anger
into existing, just being. You have to turn it all into music, or
you'd go mad."
She is resistant, however, to Palestinian radical chic. "People
said: 'Why don't you have a cover with a child throwing stones?' but
I can't stand that kind of emotional pornography." This suspicion
extends to the current vogue for the arabesque. "What a lot of
people think of as Arabic music is pastiche, orientalism. It's white
man's music. There are no quarter tones, no melodic modes."
She scorns the notion of a clash of civilisations based on
religion. "I am a Palestinian first and a Muslimsecond. I refuse the
Islamicisation of the Palestinian question. I believe in an
ecumenical Palestine, with room for all three faiths, without either
Zionists or radical Muslims. It probably won't happen in my
lifetime, but what a goal to work towards." Even so, Kelani refuses
to appear on stage with Israelis and has joined the call for a
cultural boycott of Israel.
After our interview, Kelani and her band play aconcert in the
lecture hall at London's School of African and Oriental Studies as a
warm-up for a tour of Syria under the auspices of the British
Council. In performance, the songs are relentless. Rahman (Mercury
Prize-nominated last year for her jazz album Melting Pot) stirs
ripples of piano underneath Kelani, Rahman's brother Idris growls on
the bass saxophone, and drums and double-bass play Arabic rhythms.
Kelani marches on the spot, waves a scarf,murmurs "Allah" as the
music reaches fever pitch.
Lighter moments come when she expands her repertoire to the songs of
Sayyid Darwish, a bohemian Egyptian composer of the 1920s. Growing
up in Kuwait, she told me earlier, her father was "obsessed with
Gershwin and [Irving] Berlin. It was just like listening to the call
to prayer. Insh'Allah, my next CD will be the Arab-American
Songbook, mixing them with Sayyid Darwish. He and Gershwin were
growing up at thesame time. They both had the blues, they were both
marginalised in their own backgrounds."
And indeed, in the middle of Darwish's suggestive "Zourouni" she
swerves neatly into "I Got Rhythm". When she told me earlier that
she did not "see any difference between jazz and Arabic music", it
sounded a stretch; here, for a moment, the two spin together so fast
they sound like one.
'Sprinting Gazelle' is released on Fuse Records
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