Monday, March 09, 2009

'this week in palestine' profiles reem kelani

Reem Kelani performs with the Turkish clarinettist Selim Sesler at the Babylon Club in Istanbul.
credit: Sahan Nuhoglu

The latest issue of This Week in Palestine has a profile of the Palestinian singer and musician Reem Kelani. To mark International Women's Day on 8 March, the issue focuses on Palestinian women.

some excerpts from 'Reem Kelani: A Sprinting Gazelle '

When the Palestinian singer, musician and broadcaster Reem Kelani took to the podium in London’s Trafalgar Square on 17 January to address a rally of tens of thousands of demonstrators protesting over Israel’s Gaza offensive, she first paid tribute to the women she calls the “Palestinian big mamas”. Clad in an embroidered costume she declared: “I am wearing the traditional Palestinian dress in honour of every Palestinian mother - the wonderful Big Mamas.”

...The twin themes of Palestinian women and of Palestinian cultural and national identity have been interwoven throughout Kelani’s singing career. She dedicated her debut album “Sprinting Gazelle: Palestinian Songs from the Motherland and the Diaspora” to her late mother Yusra Zu’bi and “to all the ‘Big Mamas’ who taught me to sing and to belong.” Some of her most joyful musical experiences took place in the Palestinian refugee camps of Lebanon when she was researching music among women.

...Reviewers sometimes compare the power, soulfulness and range of Kelani’s voice to that of black American singers such as Bessie Smith. Kelani was born in 1963 in the northern English city of Manchester and grew up in Kuwait. Her interest in Palestinian music was ignited when at the age of 13 she attended a wedding in the village of Nein near Nazareth and was captivated by the singing and dancing of the women. Kelani returned to Britain in 1989 to do an MSc in Biological Sciences at King’s College, London University. But the pull of music proved too strong to resist, and she left her studies in order to pursue her dream of becoming a professional singer and musician.

... In the twenty years since then she has built up a remarkably successful and varied career, and she has a high musical profile... As an independent Palestinian musician, Kelani faced particular challenges in issuing her first CD. “Sprinting Gazelle” did not appear until 2006, on the small private Fuse label. The CD was widely reviewed, and received much critical acclaim in both the non-Arab and Arab worlds. Its ten songs take the listener on a 74-minute odyssey through the Palestinian experience from the 19th century onwards. ...Kelani is now working on her second CD, featuring the work of Egyptian composer Sayyid Darwish (1892-1923). She identifies with his “humanitarian, universal and politically non-compromising” approach and says: “As a Palestinian in exile at the turn of the 21st century, I relate to Sayyid Darwish at the turn of the 20th century. And like him I am torn between my music and my faith.”

... Kelani has pushed the boundaries of her Palestinian music ever wider, working with singers and musicians from different traditions. One such venture, the “From Palestine to Portugal Project” with the fado singer Liana, fuses Palestinian and Portuguese poetry and music. “We spent six months researching songs and rehearsing,” says Kelani. The project was premiered last October at the Musicport Festival in Bridlington, northern England. A collaboration with the Gaelic singer Catriona Watt resulted from a Radio Scotland interview. The presenter “asked me to play some of my field recordings of Palestinian women and instantly noticed the connections with the Scottish Big Mamas - through the songs they sing while beating newly-woven tweed.”
... An appearance with the legendary Turkish clarinettist Selim Sesler came about when Kelani was invited to Turkey in November for a cultural programme organised by the British Council. The programme included a performance by Kelani at the famous Babylon Club accompanied by British and Turkish musicians including Sesler himself.
...Kelani believes that "our mission as Palestinian artists and musicians is to establish our existence and not our victimhood. By researching our oral and musical traditions, we show that our art is ’actionary’ and not just ’reactionary’. We have always been there. With all the suffering inflicted upon us, we are hurt, we are injured, but we are not victims. We feel the pain, we acknowledge it, and then we carry on with our life and our struggle."
Susannah Tarbush

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