Marcel Khalife: The liberation of poetry and resistance

Marcel Khalife: The liberation of poetry and resistance
The veteran musician and all-round superstar spoke exclusively about music and the courage of universal love to Zak Brophy for The New Arab.
6 min read
08 April, 2016
Marcel Khalife is a renowned musician, composer, singer and oud player
Editor's note: Marcel Khalife is a musician - a composer, singer and oud player - originally from Lebanon. His lengthy career has seen him teach at the prestigious Beirut Conservatory of Music, reaching worldwide popularity and fame with music characterised by the political poetry of dispossession and exile made famous by Mahmoud Darwish. He spoke exclusively to The New Arab.

You rose to fame as a protest musician in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s, pushing for radical change, championing social justice and Arab unity.

Today, in the wake of the revolutionary winds blowing across the Arab world, we see revived authoritarianism, sectarianism, war and division. Is there hope amid the chaos?

I see hope in creativity, in beauty. Without creativity, life will always be full of difficulties. Daily life is subject to ideology, but creativity is more free - music and songs do not submit to any ideology.

The importance of creative and artistic work is the content that evolves a certain vision. As such, creativity is that artistic work which stands alone and has its freedom to communicate.

If this message reaches the enemy then that is almost more of a success that communicating the message to a friend. Music can serve a cause but it cannot use the cause.

You have sung some of the most famous odes to Lebanon and Beirut. With the country in such disarray and the whole political system so corrupted, how do you feel when you sing about your homeland these days?

It is a truly lamentable situation that we have arrived at, and the reality we are passing though. But still we hold onto the dream and vision that we will move on from this place to what we yearned for in my music.

My music and my songs liberate me from this hopelessness. The source of these wars and this dark void is not just in our region, it is global. What is being weaved in small rooms for these people and these countries?

Of course our region carries its own responsibility, but globally, what are we planning for this region? What is the vision?
Listen now: Marcel Khalife plays 'Rita'

Do you see the roots of real and sustainable change among the #YouStink protesters who have rallied against the political elites this past year?

The people are agitating. They want to stand up and say "no" to all this despair that we are living in. They are calling out to say "no more". When you revolt against corruption and misery and against everything you are living through this has to be something positive.

I look at it all with the view that it is pushing our means of struggle, our means of building a new and better society.

During the #YouStink demonstrations there were occasions when protesters demanded the sound systems stopped playing your music. They wanted new music that reflected their voice.

Are you relevant to this generation of revolutionaries or do you represent a generation that failed and is part of the problem?  

Everything in life changes and moves on. There are always new phenomena and new personalities who are taking the music forward - and there is so much thriving in Lebanon and the region right now.

As for the music I was making some 40 years ago, it remains prevalent because it does not belong to any one era or one place, but songs such as Rita, Oumi and Jiwaaz As Sifar transcend the time they were from. It is music that enters into the depths of our humanity and it gave what it had to give.

I know people who come to the concerts and the songs are older than they are, but they embrace the music and love it. Families - from grandparents to the young children - share in this music.

For many people looking at the Arab world through the narrow lens of the media and news, the narrative is dominated by violence, conflict and migration. What is your role as a musician and artist in countering that?

Music plays an important role that you cannot easily describe. 

It is deeper than something you can see or touch. People take from my music what they need, it can be spiritual, emotional - or something intrinsic to the individual. Music is a universal language and you can connect with and learn from people from any part of the world regardless of their language.

I believe my new album Andalus al Hub is significant because it is pointing the listeners towards the most important cause, which is love. Not just romantic love but that universal love. The courage of this love - we can export it, make it resonate, realise it.

Palestine has often been a central theme of your musical work. With the region riddled with so much internal conflict has the Palestinian cause dropped off the radar?

Without any doubt. With these wars engulfing the Arab lands, the Palestinian cause has been left behind.

There were many platitudes offered to Palestine - but in many ways there has proven to be a lack of depth or substance to the Arab-Palestine relationship. In my reading of events, these wars are being waged to distract us from the issue of Palestine.

The Palestinian cause remains the rightful cause and the primary cause. There needs to be a real uprising against the ongoing sufferings of the Palestinian people. We cannot solve our other problems if we cannot solve this issue.

Some people say your continued success rests on nostalgia for ideas of 'The Nation' or 'The Resistance'…  Is that fair? 

No, Not at all. I am much broader than that. There are works that don't have a direct political expression or nationalist idea. There are works that have value in their musical content, in their poetic content wider than specific labels.

Listen now: Marcel Khalife plays 'Jiwaaz As Sifar' [with subtitles]

You came to fame as a cultural figurehead for the resistance, or, 'al Muqaawemeh', a popular Arabic resistance against imperialism, Zionism and capitalism.

That whole term, 'resistance' has become intrinsically associated with Hizballah and as such is ensnared in the Syrian conflict. Do you still identify as being part of 'al Muqaawemeh'?

All work that aims to move us forward is a work of resistance; whether it be musical, social, intellectual or poetic. Resistance is not just bound to the liberation of land.

Everyday, I am striving for self-liberation, internal liberation, so I can then help liberate other things. I can not liberate anything else if I am not liberated.

If I am in any resistance it is to carry this message, that to liberate the land you have to liberate the self first.

How do you lend your weight to the Palestinian cause these days? Are there any movements - such as the BDS campaign - that you support?

I am not in the media or a political person, I am an artist.

I have another language, music and the Qaseda. If you put this work as an addition into the evolution of man then I never abandoned any cause in which I participated - and that includes the Palestinian cause.

What is the central message of your new album Andulus al Hob?

I wanted to dedicate this work to the memory of 75 years since the birth of Mahmoud Darwish. When Mahmoud and I were together in Paris, he said he wanted to show me something and he recited the poem Andalus al Hob.

And then gave me a piece of paper, on which he had written: 'Marcel Khalife, you are my musical twin.'

I wanted to repay Mahmoud Darwish with my love this year. This poem speaks about love. This is important because in this era through which we are living, the deafening monstrosity, the only way to face it is through this work - coming in a different language from a place far away from this world laden with screaming, violence and pain. This is Andalus al Hob.  

Follow Zak Brophy on Twitter: @zakbrophy