All Eyes Are on Marcel Khalifé in Concert

Molly Colin on December 19, 2016
Marcel Khalifé

Legendary Lebanese-French oudist, vocalist, and composer Marcel Khalifé ((kawleef-ay) is no stranger to performing in the San Francisco Bay Area, and he typically holds the spotlight while accompanied by his sons Bachar and Rami on percussion and piano. But at their San Francisco concert on Dec. 15, father and sons shared equal billing at Nourse Auditorium as three singular artists whose offerings were as magical as they were eclectic.

During the intermissionless 90-minute concert, presented by the Washington, D.C.-based American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), the elegant musical patriarch, wearing his trademark scarf, only left the stage once to turn the spotlight completely on his two talented sons.

The elder Khalifé rose to prominence in the Middle East in the late 1970s, earning the moniker “Bob Dylan of the Arab World” for the protest songs he penned and sang. In the 40 years since his first concerts amid the civil war rubble of Beirut, he has established himself as a noted composer for the lute-like oud, as well as film scores and orchestral music.

His symphonic and choral works include the 2006 Sharq (east or orient in Arabic), and he played a fundamental role in the establishment and development of the Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra in 2008, which commissioned his Arabian Concerto for its inaugural concert, which was conducted by Lorin Maazel.

L to R: Rami, Bachar, and Marcel Khalifé | Credit: Denis Rideau

At Thursday evening’s concert, old songs by the elder Khalifé , such as “Ritapeppered the program and were clearly favorites of the audience, who heartily sang along when invited. Khalifé ‘s voice was melliflous despite the fact that he was fighting a cold. Some of the wistful, often brooding works performed on the program were from the group’s 2016 collaborative release, Andalusia of Love, a seamless, haunting suite of delicate songs and instrumental passages that combines various musical idioms with the poetry of the late Palestinian writer Mahmoud Darwish.

The elder Khalifé , a Maronite Christian, has set to music the words of Darwish, a Muslim, throughout his career. He points to Andalusia, a region in southern Spain and Portugal, where Muslims, Jews, and Christians lived together for centuries during the medieval era as a reminder that peaceful cohabitation is possible for people of diverse faiths.

The elder Khalifé ‘s sons, both Paris-based musicians, also draw from a tone palette of western and traditional Middle Eastern instruments. Their richly textured compositions wove complex rhythms of the Arab musical scale with lush jazz and folk music.

Rami Khalifé | Credit: Denis Rideau

Rami Khalifé , a Paris conservatory- and Juilliard-trained pianist and composer, brought a range of temperaments, imagination, and facility to the wide-ranging compositions for piano and synthesizer. His brother Bachar, a Paris conservatory-trained percussionist and composer, brought another kind of meticulous focus to the range of instruments arranged around him on a raised platform facing the audience. He managed a compelling complexity of rhythms that, at one point, had him playing the snare drum with his right hand, beating the mic’d box on which he sat with his left hand to a different rhythm, and stamping his right foot with a mic’d ankle bracelet of bells to still another completely different beat.

Bachar Khalifé | Credit: Denis Rideau

While perfectly in sync with their father during songs they have performed many times together, the two younger Khalifé s seemed increasingly energized by the improvised portions of the concert. There was no printed program listing the pieces performed, and the audience experienced each work as it was played, without any preset expectations for specific selections. It offered surprises in the same way one might experience a pop concert.

Marcel Khalifé

As I watched the three men perform, it seemed difficult for the sons to take the spotlight proffered by their father equally and easily when their father shared the stage with them. The elder Khalifé has a commanding stage presence — you could not help noticing him even when he sat out a few pieces on his raised platform, eyes closed, his oud resting silently. As the sons continue to mature as artists in their own right, they will need to engage their audiences more directly: It’s the kind of connection and charisma great artists, such as Marcel Khalifé , are either born with or work to acquire.

Nourse Auditorium proved an unfortunate venue that evening as the combination of acoustics and sound sytem didn’t do justice to the musical gifts of the artists. I sat in the front row and the sound was, at times, deafening.

The elder Khalifé, a 2005 UNESCO Artist for Peace, faintly referenced world conflicts during the performance, utilizing his music to voice his optimism, he says, of a world with peace and reconciliation. Before begining his popular song “The Boy and the Traffic Police,” Khalifé , spoke in Arabic to the audience. Immediately after the performance what he’d said was roughly translated for me. He reminded the audience that when he wrote the song’s lyrics and music in the 1970s, it was an era in Lebanon and the Middle East when generals were needed to sort out even minor traffic infractions. Today, he doesn’t have to update the lyrics. “Not much has changed,” said the now white-bearded icon of contemporary Arab music, with a wistful sigh. “You still need generals.”