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Towards an Arab-American songbook

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    Towards an Arab-American songbook By David Honigmann The Financial Times http://www.ft.com/cms/s/e87b8960-a5cf-11db-a4e0-0000779e2340.html A few years ago, at
    Message 1 of 1 , Mar 5, 2007
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      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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