Monday, June 25, 2012

Celebrating Sanctuary and Refugee Week hold Casablanca evening at V and A

this brief video clip conveys the atmosphere of the performance by Palestinian singer Reem Kelani and her musicians 

 Reem Kelani
Live music resounded through London's Victoria and Albert Museum from several performance points on  Friday night as the museum hosted a 'Casablanca Evening'  - the first-ever joint event of Celebrating Sanctuary and Refugee Week to be held at the V and A. The streams of music cascading through the V and A's Cafe, galleries, Grand Entrance and courtyard  included Palestinian, Egyptian and Tunisian songs, Arab melodies on piano and oud, Andalucian music, Latin piano jazz and North African Gnawa music.

At a time when multiculturalism has come under pressure and criticism from certain quarters in Britain, the evening was a highly enjoyable affirmation of the rich contribution immigrant and refugee communities make to Britain's musical life.

Alex Wilson

The evening (to which entry was free) was inspired by the 1942  classic film Casablanca - starring Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart as former lovers Rick and Ilsa - with its themes of flight, refuge, identity, Morocco North Africa, and piano music. As a tribute to Casablanca, which marks its 70th anniversary this year, the dress code was "black and white". 

Rick's Piano Bar is the setting of some of Casablanca's most memorable lines including Rick's ""Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine" and "You played it for her, you can play it for me!" and Ilsa's "Play it Sam, play 'As Time Goes By'".  

Pianos were at the heart of the three main musical acts of the Casablanca evening, with three grand pianos specially transported to the V and A and installed in different locations. The Palestinian singer and musician Reem Kelani, with pianist and Arabic keyboard player Bruno Heinen, double bassist Andrea di Biase and percussionist Pedro Segundo, gave two performances in the V and A Cafe. The 83-year-old Jewish-Algerian pianist Maurice El Medioni (who made aliyah from France to Israel in 2009), Syria-born Iraqi oud player Khyam Allami and Greek drummer Vasilis Sarikis, gave two performances in the  Sculpture Gallery. British-Sierra Leonean jazz pianist Alex Wilson played solo three Latin jazz sessions in the museum's Grand Entrance. 

The annual Refugee Week, held this year from 18 to 24 June, is a UK-wide programme of cultural and educational events celebrating the contribution of refugees to the UK, and aiming to improve understanding between communities. Celebrating Sanctuary is an annual free festival which celebrates the art of refugee communities in the UK and launches Refugee Week. 

Celebrating Sanctuary is programmed by curators and broadcasters Max Reinhardt (BBC Radio 3, Late Junction) and Rita Ray (BBC World Service), and creative producer Almir Koldzic (UK Refugee Week/ Platforma). Supported by Arts Council England/The National Lottery, the Mayor of London and the PRS Foundation, Celebrating Sanctuary's media partners include fRoots Magazine, Radio SOAS and BBC Radio 3.

Max Reinhardt introduces Maurice El Medioni, Khyam Allami and Vasilis Sarikis

The Casablanca evening was one of three London events organised by Celebrating Sanctuary during Refugee Week. The first event was Celebrating Sanctuary on the Southbank, held on the afternoon of Sunday 17 June in Bernie Spain Gardens.  On Saturday 23 June an event was held at Rich Mix arts centre in East London.

At the V and A Casablanca evening, the programme included Sounds of the Souq in the V and A shop. In the Johan Madjski Garden and Sculpture Gallery there were three performances of classical Arabic and Andalusian music by Algerian trio El Andaluz, interspersed with traditional music and world dances performed by Dance Around the World. In addition there were  three performances in the Grand Entrance by Electronic Gnawa Fusion - comprising North African Gwana Dub produced by Soundspecies and Moroccan Gnawa Master Simo Lagnawi. In the  Hochhauser Auditorium there was a screening of the film Casablanca introduced with a talk by journalist and newsreader Samira Ahmed, and there were also two screenings in the Lecture Theatre. 

To coincide with the Casablanca evening Samira Ahmed wrote an excellent piece for the Spectator on the refugee theme of Casablanca. Examining the plight of refugees during Second World War Morocco one finds a "reversal of black and white" contrasted with today's refugee situation. In the film "the desperate hordes are white. Their traffickers and potential liberators mostly Middle Eastern or black." The term 'refugee' has become "debased into a synonym for economic or illegal migrant mostly black or dark skinned, probably ill-educated." One rarely finds positive stories on refugees in the media, but she cited some stories each of which is "a Casablanca of inspiration, talent, love and determination". 

The splendidly ornate interior of the V and A Cafe

Reem Kelani and fan at the mike

Reem Kelani and her musicians provided the packed-out audience in the V and A Cafe with a vibrant menu of Palestinian and Egyptian music, including songs from her first album Sprinting Gazelle: Palestinian Songs from the Motherland and the Diaspora and from her forthcoming second album of songs by the pioneering Egyptian composer Sayyid Darwish (1892-1923). Kelani has been researching Darwish's work for eight years now; his compositions have recently enjoyed renewed popularity during the Egyptian revolution. 

The enthusiastic audience clapped and sang to the spirited joy-infused performances of Reem Kelani and her trio of musicians, and Reem frequently invited members of the audience to join her at the mike. The nationalities of those who joined her included Turkish, Iraqi, Moroccan, Yemeni, Sudanese and Eritrean. The Palestinian singer and oud player Bassel Zayed, originally from Jerusalem and currently studying music therapy in London, had a solo spot singing at the mike in his deep sonorous voice.


Bassel Zayed

As so often at her concerts Kelani had a musical surprise up her sleeve, in the form of a Tunisian addition to her repertoire - the 1972 song Babour Zammar meaning The Ship Sounded its Horn. Kelani explained that the song, inspired by the French students' revolution, speaks of the emigration of young Tunisians to work in Europe and is commonly known in Tunis as Anthem for Emigration. The song's composer, singer El Hedi Guella, died in March - having witnessed the Tunisian revolution, which came after years of his being sidelined because of his political views. The song's lyricist, 'Amm El-Mawlidi Z'leilah was a street and railway platform sweeper and a champion of poetry written in colloquial Tunisian.
report and pictures by Susannah Tarbush

Maurice El Medioni

L to R: Maurice El Medioni, Khyam Allami, Vasilis Sarikis

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