Americans like to sit on their hands. Even when they’re telling the truth you have to worry. Are you trying to take something from me, steal my identity, assault my assiduously guarded self-image? I may be feeling something, but you’ll have to read between the lines. God forbid I should tell you what and why, and if I do it will likely be too late. These curious thoughts came to mind when I caught Lebanese oud master-composer-singer Marcel Khalife and his ensemble for the second time — the first was at New York’s Town Hall in 2004 — at San Francisco’s Herbst Theater.
Why? Because Khalife’s music goes straight to the heart, and never holds back, much less apologize for what it feels. Which isn’t to downplay its appeal to the mind. But its principal goal is to connect with the heart, and hearts and minds and bodies were certainly reached in this concert. Artists are people, after all, and wouldn’t you rather spend time with someone who can express than with someone who can’t?
The American media likes to portray Arabs as unlettered savages, but that’s hardly the truth. Arabic music, after all, is one of the oldest, richest traditions on the planet, and Khalife has devoted his life to expanding and deepening these traditions. With about 80 maqamat, or scale /modes, this music is complex, sophisticated, and highly expressive. Khalife drew on these riches in his latest nearly hour long ensemble piece, Taqasim, where he was joined by his son, Bachar, on Arabic percussion, and guest bassist Mark Helias. Taqasim means improvisation, and this three-part piece is an instrumental evocation of Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish’s work, which Khalife has set many times. It centers on the mid-lower range of the oud, and bass, with discreet, but colorful contributions from Arabic percussion like riqq ( tambourine ), and assorted drums. Lines coalesce and vanish, drones give way to unisons, the bass is sometimes played like a drum. The dream of Al-Andalus comes and goes.
Another, perhaps pan-Arabic, dream also seemed to be conjured, in further largely Darwish settings, which Khalife sang on the second half of the program — the primeval My Mother, with its wonderfully built contributions from Khalife’s other son, Rami, on piano, and the very famous Passport, which had an even more brilliantly structured and stylistically varied solo from him. The nearly packed house was also big on audience participation — a Khalife concert specialty — and yet another indication that Arabs aren’t wont to sit on their hands. I Walk (lyric, Samih el-Qassim ), which is a kind of hymn of defiance and solidarity, got a call and response treatment from the balcony and main floor, while the closing O Fisherman, Haila, Haila ( lyrics by Khalife’s Al-Mayadine ensemble ), had a thick driving intensity from piano — hammered chords — Khalife pere, Helias, and Bachar Khalife’s Arabic bass drum.
We in the West like to think that music is principally melody and harmony, though its wellspring has always been rhythm, which is something that Arabic music has never forgotten. Western musicians — and especially American ones — can learn lots from this music. And it isn’t afraid to communicate, and touch the heart, on the deepest possible level. Khalife is the first Arab to ever win the UNESCO Artist For Peace Award, and it’s easy to see why.His San Francisco stop is but one of many on his Taqasim Tour.
Michael McDonagh is a San Francisco-based poet and writer on the arts, whose poems have appeared in several places, including Stanford’s Mantis 3: Poetry and Performance, which ran 3 of the 6 poems Lisa Scola Prosek set as the song cycle, Miniature Portraits. He has done two poem-picture books with SF-based painter Gary Bukovnik, and has wriitten 2 pieces for the theatre — Touch and Go,and Sight Unseen. McDonagh is a staff writer on the arts for the SF-based BAY AREA REPORTER. He is the sole writer for www.alexnorthmusic.com; and contributes to www.classical-music-review.org, www.21st-centurymusic.com; New Music Connoisseur; and www.sfcv.org.