Monday, September 29, 2008

reem kelani's 'ramadan nights' concert

Palestinian singer Reem Kelani opens the Ramadan Nights season of concerts in London

The Ramadan Nights concert given at the London venue LSO St Luke’s by the Palestinian singer and musician Reem Kelani and her band on Thursday night was in effect a tribute to two great Arab artists who happen to share a surname: the Egyptian composer Sayyid Darwish (1892-1923), and the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish who died on August 9.

The concert was the opening event of the Barbican Centre’s fourth annual Ramadan Nights season of concerts by outstanding Muslim singers and musicians from Britain and abroad. Kelani is a long-time resident of the capital, and tickets to her concert had sold out well in advance.

The event began in stunning style with Kelani singing unaccompanied her arrangement of Sayyid Darwish’s “Birth of the Chosen Prophet”. Her pure voice, subtly ornamented, took wing with this devotional song and soared in the spacious yet intimate hall of the 18th century former church designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor.

Then came the rousing traditional Palestinian wedding song “Hawwilouna”, from the coastal city of Akka. The audience joined with gusto in the syncopated clapping by Kelani and the musicians. There was laughter when Kelani observed that the song “tells the family of the groom if you treat our daughter nicely in marriage we’ll make you ruler of all the Arab tribes, but if you don’t you’ll be cleaning after our animals and sheep.”

Kelani dedicated the concert to Mahmoud Darwish, and among the songs she performed was her setting of his 1967 poem “Mawwaal – Variations on Loss”. The opening lines read: “I lost a beautiful dream / I lost the lilies’ sting / My night has been long / stretched over the garden walls / But I have not lost the way.”

The song began with drummer Patrick Illingworth setting a somber beat before the Anglo-Bengali pianist Zoe Rahman came in with a captivating hymn-like succession of chords. Saxophone playing by Ian East and by Zoe’s brother Idris Rahman gave the Mawwaal a soulful sound. Kelani’s powerfully moving rendering of the song was concluded by a skilful tabla solo from the Iranian percussionist Fariborz Kiani.

“Mawwaal – Variations on Loss” and several other numbers performed during the concert came from Kelani’s 2006 debut CD “Sprinting Gazelle: Palestinian songs from the Motherland and the Diaspora”. She is now working on her second CD, devoted to the music of Sayyid Darwish [pictured], “considered to be the godfather of contemporary Arab music.”

Half the 12 songs performed during the concert were Kelani’s arrangements of compositions by Sayyid Darwish to lyrics by various authors. Kelani described Darwish as a “working class hero” who wrote anthems for professions such as water sellers, sailors, fortune tellers and builders.

She said: “He was a tortured soul and I relate a lot to his suffering. He was torn between his faith and his music, and [this is] something that many practicing Muslim artists, especially if they are women, go through. So Darwish’s suffering was very much collective, and he remained with that turmoil most of his life, and the third dimension that came out of that suffering was his beautiful music.”
“The Porters’ Anthem”, with lyrics by Badi’ Khairi (1893-1966), says “buckle up your belt and carry the heavy load because as an Egyptian you’re proud enough to work hard instead of stretching your hand asking for money.” It includes the porters’ cries of “hina hina” that Darwish used to hear in the markets of Alexandria.

Kelani’s performances always include the unexpected, even for those who know her music well, and one surprise in this concert was her first-ever public performance on the tanbour lyre. She accompanied herself as she sang a Sayyid Darwish song about Nubians, which she has entitled “Ode to the Downtrodden

Kelani was born in the northern English city of Manchester, to a medical doctor father from the village of Ya’bad near Jenin and a mother from Nazareth, and grew up in Kuwait. It was in Kuwait that she first heard Sudanese music and got to know the music of the famous Nubian Sudanese singer, songwriter and tanbour player Mohammed Wardi.

The concert was the occasion for Kelani’s first public airing of “Ode to the Downtrodden” (originally entitled “Ashinger Damolina”), and it went down well with the audience. It had a distinctly African feel, particularly through her playing of the tanboura. Kelani gave the audience an idea of the stereotyped way in which Nubians have tended to be viewed in Egypt. She worked with a Nubian linguistics professor visiting Britain to try to ensure that her translations of Nubian words were correct and that she was not treading on sensitivities. She dedicated the song to the Nubian villages that were submerged as a result of the building of the Aswan dam.

Kelani performed several songs from the Palestinian repertoire for which she is best known. The lyrics of the traditional “Galilean Lullaby” were collected by the Palestinian poet Tawfiq Zayyad. Kelani has composed her own music to the lyrics, which begin: “Our loved ones have left home, / Gone away without saying goodbye”.

She learned a song she calls “A Baker’s Dozen” from a group of women in the Ain al-Helweh Palestinian refugee camp in southern Lebanon. She found the song had a 13-beat cycle, and when she was recording “Sprinting Gazelle” her production engineer Steve Lowe, who is from Bolton in northern England, suggested the title “A Baker’s Dozen”. The original Arabic title is “Habl el-Ghiwa” or “The Pull of Seduction”.

The striking introduction to “A Baker’s Dozen” was played on the double bass by Pete Billington with Arabic inflections that gave an effect almost like that of an oud. Kelani said the song expresses both the tragedy and love of life, and she got the audience to come in with cries of “Awf!” at appropriate moments. The effect of Kelani’s vocal improvisations interwoven with the excellent tight playing of her band was very jazzy, and yet at the same time utterly Arab.

As an encore Kelani and her musicians performed the Sayyid Darwish “I am Egyptian”, segueing into one of his most famous songs “Zourouni!” (“Visit Me!”). At the end of the concert members of the audience were invited to partake of Ramadan dates and almonds.

The concert was an exhilarating opening to the Ramadan Nights season of four main concerts, and several smaller Freestage and Clubstage events. The other concerts feature the Azeri singer and daf player Alim Qasimov and his daughter Fargana, sharing the bill with the Kronos Quartet; the legendary Iranian-Kurdish Kamkar family - seven brothers and one sister –appearing on the same program as Turkish ney player Kudsi Erguner and his group; and the Mali musician Bassekou Kouyat√© with his Ngoni ba group, and the Mali Tuareg group Tartit.

Susannah Tarbush

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