Marcel Khalife…Don’t Call Him Bob Dylan

BY Arts Desk  January 13, 2009 at 5:40 PM EST

Marcel Khalife is often described in articles as the “Bob Dylan of the Middle East.” (In my preparation for this trip, by the way, I discovered two different women described as the “Oprah of the Middle East”). He is a master of the oud (lute), a singer, composer and one of the leading musical figures in the region. And he’s well known for setting poetry to music — the work of Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish and others. But I’m not sure he likes the Dylan comparison. My sense after spending a good part of a day with him is that he doesn’t like tags of any sort.

We visited Khalife, his wife Yolla Keryakos and their son, Rami, at their home in the village of Amchit, about an hour north of Beirut on the Mediterranean coast. For most of the last 20 years, they’ve lived in Paris but have now come back to Lebanon because, Keryakos says, “It’s time.” But theirs is an international life. Rami is a performing artist trained at Juilliard. Another son, Bachar is a percussionist. Both sons perform and record often with their father. “He says he plays with us because we’re good musicians,” Rami tells me, “not because we’re his sons.” Keryakos herself is a singer and continues to perform with her husband. As for Khalife, it doesn’t seem to matter all where his “home” is. “I live on planes,” he says. And he ticks off his itinerary of the last few weeks, which seems to include every major Arab city and several in Europe.

When we arrive, we tell him we’d like to have him play for us a bit. He declines. He’s not warmed up, he prefers not to. “Why don’t you just show concert footage?” he says.

Impossible, I explain. I tell him I want to talk about his music and that we need to show our audience what the lute looks and sounds like. And the concert footage is great, but it’s just not the same. And, of course, I am also thinking, “Mr. Khalife, I have come a long way and I am going to hear that oud!”

“So, OK,” he says. “I’ll hold the oud and show it to you.” And I know then that we’re fine. Put an instrument in the hands of a musician and before long he’s going to play it. He has to play it. There is often, in these interviews, the moment of “let me show you what I mean…” Those are wonderful moments.

Soon, Khalife is warmed up and quite friendly. He takes us to his old school and down to the port where his grandfather was a fisherman. He’s also quite dashing, with a graying beard, a dark corduroy suit and a scarf that he seems to wear all the time, including later when he’s helping his wife prepare some food for us. (Here, the camera will lie: he never helps in the kitchen, Keryakos tells us.) Our translator is a woman and several times I have to ask Khalife to look at me and not at her when answering questions.

“Well, I will try,” he says. “But if I have the choice between talking to a woman and talking to a man, I’ll always choose the woman.”

Here’s a clip of Khalife performing at “A Salute to Mahmoud Darwish” last year in Syria: