In those moments of pre-performance mingling at the Cairo Opera House, as we waited for the revolutionary and much revered Lebanese oud master Marcel Khalife and his Al Mayadine Quartet on the main stage last Tuesday, my friend pointed to a casually dressed Palestinian man from Paris, wandering amidst them Cairenes in their couture.
He was fresh off the plane, and in desperate want of a ticket. He was dismayed to learn they weren’t selling any at the door. He had flown in all the way just for the night, for the music of Marcel Khalife, for the poetry of Mahmoud Darwish.
This man’s eagerness to snatch a ticket for whatever price was a clear indication of the popularity of the legendary singer, however the disappointment that was clear on his face was somehow similar to that of others in attendance after the show was over.
Acclaimed in the Arab world and beyond for the manner in which he blended messages and themes of political resistance into a revival of revolutionary rhythms, Khalife is often associated with the Palestinian national poet Mahmoud Darwish who provides the lyrics and subject for Khalife’s anthems.
In the past, the particularities of his performances have also been political. Leaving the confines of the Beirut National Conservatory and taking to the streets during the civil war in Lebanon, he chose to be with the people back then, to attempt to heal the fractures of society with his music. A few years ago, in 2005, Khalife was given UNESCO’s Artist for Peace award.
Cairo’s past encounters with Khalife had confirmed his commitment to such causes, and the event held last week was in commemoration of the 30th anniversary of the socialist-leftist Tagammu’ Party. So it was perhaps no surprise that when Khalife graced the stage, he was received with a standing, stomping ovation; passions and expectations running high in the veins of the avid crowd.
Dressed in black with a peacock blue scarf around his neck, and double bass player Peter Herbert by his side, Khalife stepped into the brightness of the limelight, and stayed there for the duration of the evening. Without a word, he began to strum, and at times even drum, his oud, courting Cairo in an unexpected experimental session. For the first set, he didn’t utter a single syllable. Most of the performance was comprised of cuts from Khalife’s new all-instrumental album, Taqasim. Joined by his son Bachar on the percussions, and a little later by his son Rami on the piano, the quartet went for a beautiful and powerful composition on stage.
To me, a novice to the mastery of Khalife, the music was magnificent. Coming from the cacophony of Cairo, my sensibilities were susceptible to the magic of Arabic melody while my ears were eager for the impulse of Jazz improvisation. Carrying no aficionado antics in my purse that night, I easy one to please.
But Cairo had come in the wake of strikes against the state, unjust arrests and attempts at street demonstrations. The second set, which Khalife, in breaking his vow of silence, dedicated to 60 years since the Palestinian Nakba, was an obvious sign that the audience was waiting at the edge of their seats for Khalife to play out their political and/or poetic passions, to break out into the familiarity of Mahmoud Darwish’s verse. The songs ‘Jawaz Safar’ and ‘Ummi’ were taken over by the audience, but Khalife exerted control over his craft by inserting an extended ‘pause’ filled with improvisation, before closing the verse.
The main complaint that night was that there wasn’t enough for the audience who wanted a little more than what was performed. Having tuned his inner ear to his instrument, Khalife the musician, it seems, failed to feel the pulse of the people, and overlooked the spontaneous need to strum the strings of Cairo’s political crisis.