Reem Kelani: The music and the memory

Reem Kelani: The music and the memory
The UK-based Palestinian singer discusses how her music is part of a struggle for Palestinian identity
5 min read
05 November, 2014


Interviewing Reem Kelani is sometimes like attending one of her concerts.


In conversation, Kelani is liable to burst into song, and you are suddenly treated to folk melodies of rural Palestine or the rhythmic clapping that accompanies weddings in that part of the world. In concert, conversely, she will stop to talk, engage the audience, lecture and explain.


In both, she is keen to provide an education on Palestinian and Arab music and its importance to the maintenance of Palestinian identity. It is a focus integral to her art. It is also one she feels has been a hurdle in her career.


“Carrying the Palestinian narrative pre-1948 will never help you,” Kelani says. “The Palestinian issue will never be a fashionable one. If I refuse to be on the same

     From the moment I set foot there everything changed: I'm not just Arab and Muslim. I'm Palestinian
bill as an Israeli artist, I lose the gig. They love to neutralise you; ‘let's play happy families’.”


But the 51-year-old singer, born in Manchester in the north of England, raised in Kuwait, and now living in London, has not let this difficulty silence her. On the contrary, she regards her politics as inseparable from her music and it has clearly informed her first, and only, album, 'Sprinting Gazelle – Palestinian Songs from the Motherland and the Diaspora'.


The album, according to its press release, seeks to demonstrate “the fact of the Palestinians' existence, now and in the past”. Selected by the Financial Times and Time Out as one of the best of 2006, the album features traditional Arabic instrumentation alongside a number of renowned British jazz musicians. They combine to share Kelani’s vision of traditional Palestinian folk songs as well as her musical arrangements of more contemporary Palestinian resistance poetry by the likes of Mahmoud Darwish and Salma Khadra-Jayyousi.


“Extreme joy, deep sadness, even when you are talking of death,” Kelani says, when asked about how Palestine influences her music. “That's what for me became the Palestinian form of existence.” 


Kelani was not interested in Palestinian music – or even Arabic music in general - as a young child. It was her first trip, as a nine-year-old in 1972, to the land her parents fled in 1948 which first brought Palestinian music to life for her.


She attended a family wedding in Nein, her mother’s village, just outside Nazareth. The experience proved a world away from the Palestinian diaspora weddings she had until then attended in fancy hotels in Kuwait.


“From the moment I set foot there, everything changed,” she says. It became clear to her that: “I'm not just Arab and Muslim, I'm Palestinian.”


It was this sense of authenticity that Kelani saw in Nazareth that particularly struck her and that would influence her music. Most Palestinian artists sing the songs of resistance, what Kelani terms “reactionary” music - in that it is a reaction to the establishment of the State of Israel. Kelani chooses instead to sing the songs of the Palestinian countryside, the “actionary” songs of the fellahin rural workers.


She researched many of the songs herself. Even many Palestinians will not have heard them before. But it is this music that counters Zionist arguments that Palestinians did not exist prior to 1948, she says.

“We've always been there, these are the songs that we've always had… [Palestinians] refused to leave [when the Israeli state was created], so that gives me the sense of steadfastness, the sense of continuity, the land - it came out and crystallised through culture and music.”


It is through these songs that Kelani emphasises the history of the Palestinian people, something she says - with glasses of water as explanatory aids - Israelis are trying to appropriate.


“With the Zionists, they want to be the other, they want all our music, our culture, our tradition, our songs, our swear words even,” she says, as she pours water from one glass to another. “They want to be Palestinian and this is what I am fighting musically. It's as simple as that.”

Engaging the audience


The fight against this appropriation of Palestinian identity is not the only battle Kelani has taken on. As a member of the Palestinian diaspora, Kelani feels she is regarded as not authentic enough, a perception she lays at the door of what she terms the “World Music Mafia”.


“In England, because they don't know enough about their culture musically, they're more into exoticising the culture of the other, rather than appreciating it. They're not interested in their own indigenous music, they're not interested in the indigenous music of the migrants in this country.”


It’s an uncompromising stance that could put her at odds with a non-Arab audience. Yet Kelani’s debut album was received to great critical acclaim, especially in the UK, in part because of her refusal to produce an “easy-listening crossover album”, in the words of one reviewer with the alternative music site, Subba Cultcha.


And the audience for Kelani’s concert one August night at The Tabernacle in London’s Shoreditch reflects this appeal. As many Arab as non-Arab-looking faces in the crowd were moved by Kelani’s highly passionate style, heavy on audience participation, a singer who will not take no for an answer, even from her audience.


And this focus on the audience will also be reflected in her second album due out later this year, which will be called Live at The Tabernacle.


“The audience is part and parcel of the performance. It's all question and answer, call and response. I was a student [of this style] myself. So all I'm doing is I'm going with you through what I've been through.”


The student is now the teacher. After each song, Kelani explains what the Arabic means, and what the history behind the song is. The audience, of whatever background, will come out knowing more about Palestinian culture, music, and history.


That alone is reason enough for Kelani to perform. Her songs - the songs of Palestine - are a way for her to keep her identity alive. They are also, she says, a bulwark against madness.


“It's the personal and the collective. The motherland and the diaspora. And that's my music.”