From Lebanon’s Marcel Khalife, Songs of Strife and Love

February 27, 2009 at 6:45 PM EDT
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In another in our series about the Kennedy Center's Arabesque art festival, Jeffrey Brown profiles Lebanese folk singer Marcel Khalife, who for nearly 40 years has been rousing audiences with songs about love and strife, politics and injustice.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And finally tonight, another in our series of stories tied to “Arabesque,” the festival of Arab arts at Washington’s Kennedy Center. Jeffrey Brown was in Lebanon recently to talk with one of the Mideast’s leading musicians.

JEFFREY BROWN: When Marcel Khalife sings his songs of love and strife, as he has for more than 30 years now, his audiences often join in, familiar with the words and melodies.

Khalife is a major figure in his native Lebanon and throughout the Middle East, known as a master of the oud, or lute, as a troubadour who puts modern Arabic poetry to song and tells of struggles within his region, and as a composer and performer of many musical styles.

MARCEL KHALIFE, Musician-Composer (through translator): I like variety. I like music from around the globe. I like folk music and classical music. I like to mix music.

JEFFREY BROWN: It began with the pear-shaped oud. Khalife says his parents gave him at age 8 to stop him from improvising music by banging on kitchen pots and pans. Khalife is widely credited with helping to transform the oud into a solo instrument, expanding its musical range.

I see your eyes close.

MARCEL KHALIFE (through translator): To see better and to see more.

JEFFREY BROWN: You close your eyes to see better?

MARCEL KHALIFE (through translator): When I open my eyes, the view is limited. But when my eyes are closed, I can see forever.

Khalife influenced by war

JEFFREY BROWN: Lebanon is a multi-sectarian, multi-religion Arab society. And Khalife grew up in a Christian community in the coastal town of Amchit, about 30 miles north of Beirut. His father drove a taxi; his grandfather was a fisherman...

So your grandfather used to have a boat here?

... who played the Arabic flute and sang and gave the young Marcel his first exposure to folk songs. Khalife was also influenced by the religious and classical music that he sang at the French Catholic school he attended in Amchit.

MARCEL KHALIFE (through translator): I love this place very much, because this is where the world of music opened up for me.

JEFFREY BROWN: He went on to earn a degree at the National Academy of Music in Beirut, a city that exploded and split apart in a devastating civil war, beginning in 1975, just as Khalife's career was beginning.

The war would go on for 15 years, involving Muslim and Christian factions, Palestinian refugees, and interventions by Syria and Israel. Khalife continued to perform through the chaos, at times in bombed-out concert halls amid the eruption of nearby gunfire. All of it, he says, gave him a sense of artistic mission.

MARCEL KHALIFE (through translator): Art in general -- not just music, but literature and poetry -- is created in a moment of rebellion. Art is not the result of ordinary moments. The artist needs to remind people to rebel. He should remind them not to surrender to ordinary life.

Run-ins with the law

JEFFREY BROWN: The plight of Palestinian refugees became a special cause for Khalife, and he set to music many works by the late Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish.

But his use of poetry and his strong views have also gotten him into trouble in his own and other Arab countries. Ten years ago, he was charged with blasphemy for a song based on a Darwish poem which quoted the Koran. Some Muslim clerics said singing lines from the Koran was strictly forbidden. His fans protested. Ultimately, a Lebanese court exonerated him.

MARCEL KHALIFE (through translator): I've encountered many problems, not only the Darwish poem, but also others. But this doesn't stop me. I continue.

JEFFREY BROWN: Does it make you afraid, more careful about what you say or what you sing?

MARCEL KHALIFE (through translator): I never was afraid. I feel energy from inside me to say no, no.

Music 'like oxygen'

JEFFREY BROWN: For Khalife, music is very much a family affair. His wife, Yolla Keryakos, has sung with him for more than three decades. Their two sons are also musicians who often perform with their father: Bachar on percussion, and Rami, who trained at Juilliard in New York, on piano.

RAMI KHALIFE: Music was -- I didn't have option, you know? Since I was a kid, I knew what I wanted to be. Playing alongside him was for me a big thing. And he always liked to say that I don't play with him because I'm his son, but I play with him because he could detect my talent.

MARCEL KHALIFE (through translator): For my family, music is like oxygen. If we didn't have it, we wouldn't survive.

JEFFREY BROWN: The variety of Marcel Khalife's approach to music was on display earlier this week at the opening night gala of the Kennedy Center's "Arabesque" festival. An orchestral piece he composed was performed by the Qatar Philharmonic, where Khalife is music director.

And father and sons, joined by bass player Mark Elias, played one of Khalife's most famous songs, another of those set to a poem by Mahmoud Darwish, called "Passport." He said he'd picked it as a way of reaching out to all people across nationalities. Its final words: "All the hearts of the people are my identity, so take away my passport."

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, as always, much more on our series and on the "Arabesque" festival is available online. Look for the "Art Beat" page on our Web site.