54. EFG London Jazz Festival, Rich Mix Arts Centre, Shoreditch, London, 22 November 2015
The Palestinian singer and ethnomusicologist is a remarkable live performer, as Peter Culshaw witnesses, and urges all music lovers to share the experience.
There are those artist who don't really fit into prescribed musical boxes, like Tom Zé, Susheela Raman or Bjork. But they also tend to be among the more interesting, provocative and inspiring ones. Reem Kelani is a fully paid-up member of this brilliant, awkward squad. If you get a chance to see her, grab it, as she doesn't do conventional tours - she puts so much into each performance she needs to rest for several days afterwards.
At the closing concert of last year's EFG London Jazz Festival at Rich Mix she kicked off with 'The Preachers' Anthem', with lyrics about the Sykes-Picot Agreement and how the Egyptians felt betrayed by the British after World War I. The music switched from a gorgeous Arabic melody to snatches from English music hall and 'It's a Long Way to Tipperary'. The jazz bass and piano mixed with 'oud (lute) and bendir (frame drum) reflected the clash she was singing about. Other songs were about Palestinian women visiting their husbands in jail and (usually tragic) lullabies and wedding songs.
She is certainly a brave singer, fearlessly taking on 'Strange Fruit', the classic that is so identified with Billie Holliday that most singers wouldn't go near it. Having explained the song was written by a Jewish writer, Abel Meeropol, under his pseudonym Lewis Allan, Kelani gave the song a whole new meaning. She ended the evening by merrily exhorting the rapt audience to "**** ISIS, let's dance".
If some of her material is harrowing, she is hugely entertaining, flirting with the band and audience and revelling in her self-described status as a "sexy momma", and at times she is closer to a stand-up comedian that a conventional singer. She is part of a ragtag collective called the Anti-Capitalist Roadshow, which includes singers like Leon Rosselson and 'socialist magician' Ian Saville.
Kelani was born in Manchester of Palestinian heritage. Her dad was a huge jazz fan, and she became obsessed with Palestinian music after a visit to a family wedding in Galilee in the 1970s, and its Palestinian culture and the struggle of its people seems closest to her heart. She does, though, spread her musical net wide, having collaborated with Gaelic singer Catriona Watt, Portuguese fadista Liana, and Selim Sesler, the legendary Turkish Gypsy clarinettist.
While her work has been supported by the BBC, the Arts Council, the British Council, the Paul Hamlyn Foundation and others, she feels, with some justification, relatively overlooked within world music circles. Partly she thinks that's because she is London-based and not some "submissive, Oriental beauty fluttering her eyelashes", flying in as an exotic outsider.
She is something of a perfectionist too, which may have held her back - her debut album "Sprinting Gazelle - Palestinian Songs from the Motherland and the Diaspora", received to rapturous reviews, was ten years ago.
Her magnum opus on Egyptian composer Sayyid Darwish has been several years in the making. Impatient fans can at last hear some of that work in progress on her new album "Live at the Tabernacle". It comes with, as befitting an ethnomusicologist, meticulously researched notes and is a handsome package. As well as being informative, it is an excellent souvenir of her work. But to get the full Kelani experience, she should really be seen live in concert.
Peter Culshaw, Songlines, May 2016.
53. Celtic Connections, The Old Fruitmarket, Glasgow, 25 January 2016
Long Live Palestine! Long Live Scotland!
Finally the exceptional talent that is Manchester-born Palestinian singer, Reem Kelani, and her band took the stage. She has an impressive multi-cultural background, and that is clear in the approach to songs. While she uses traditional song from Palestine, (and Egypt, Turkey, Spain) and sings mostly in Arabic, she often updates them either lyrically or in their musical treatment - her father's enthusiasm for early Fred Astaire films have led to a major jazz influence in her own work - and she is also happy to introduce western standards. A Palestinian wedding song, and a lullaby from Nazareth, were followed by a song about the 1919 Egyptian revolution - that she paralleled with Tahrir Square.
Chris Bartter, Culture Matters.Click here to see the original review
52. Celtic Connections, The Old Fruitmarket, Glasgow, 25 January 2016
BEMIS Celebrates Burns: Reem Kelani, Old Fruitmarket
Burns but not as you know it, Jim, as BEMIS, the umbrella body for Scotland's ethnic minority voluntary sector, joined with Celtic Connections for a "supper" in which the haggis came in pakoras and the performers were powerful exponents of music from a beleaguered Middle East, all of it reflecting the Ayrshire bard's humanity, egalitarianism and internationalism.
Palestinian singer Reem Kelani was an ebullient, commanding presence, accompanied by a sterling quartet of piano, saxophone/clarinet, double bass and drums. Her repertoire - apart from a brief, blues-steeped reprise of Burns's Slave's Lament - was frequently drawn from refugee camps. A Gallilean lullaby, for instance, with its all-too-resonant references to departed loved ones and abandoned homes, worked its way from incantatory cadences to impassioned outpouring, while her closing Il-Hamdillah, with its whooping opening, was a hypnotic statement of resilience in the face of displacement.
Jim Gilchrist, The Scotsman.Click here to see the original review
51. Celtic Connections, The Old Fruitmarket, Glasgow, 25 January 2016
Reem Kelani doesn't hang around. The Manchester-born Palestinian singer was renewing her Scottish connections - her father studied in Glasgow and she has entertaining memories of her own experiences of Millport bars - and she wasn't to be hindered by formalities like waiting for the sound engineer's thumb's up.
Her off-mic introduction turned out to be an endearingly apt overture to a performance in which she combined restless energy with vigorous political engagement, persuasive audience involvement and an illustrated, impressively far-reaching musicological dissertation.
Visiting Celtic Connections as the headline attraction in a Burns Night celebration staged by the festival in conjunction with BEMIS, the organisation that empowers Scotland's ethnic and cultural minority communities, Kelani took care to include her own Burns tribute, The Slave's Lament, delivered as a deeply-felt blues.
Kelani's frank emotional engagement with her material could easily tumble into complete chaos but she has her performance under her own kind of control and the way she works with her highly schooled quartet and her songs' exacting arrangements is mesmerising. One song was taken from village square to conservatoire in a primal to baroque adventure and another, with the audience's participation, brought harmony to the Middle East. If only political leaders could find such healing charm.
Rob Adams is Folk & Jazz critic, The Herald, Glasgow.Click here to see the original review
50. Stabat Mater, the Royal Albert Hall, London, 30 October 2015
Stirred to the core tonight by newly knighted Sir Karl Jenkins conducting the London Philharmonic Choir and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Albert Hall.
Dies Irae from Requiem;
Benedictus from The Armed Man;
Song of the Spirit, Adiemus, Song of the Plains
All these and more were spellbinding.
Stabat Mater solos from soprano Lucy Knight, mezzo-soprano Katie Bray, the startlingly glorious Palestinian singer, musician and musicologist Reem Kelani, together with charismatic performance from percussionist Zands Duggan, and sheer exuberance and involved joy in two male choristers especially, all these moved me to tears and overwhelming joy in equal measure.
But, next to the breathtaking stardom of the maestro himself, I think the entire assembly was lifted early in the evening to a sublime height never experienced, or ever even dreamed about, by the presence in and of, and the violin solo Lament by, the spectacularly extraordinary Joo Yeon Sir.
Defying description, save by the soaring notes themselves, I think I was given a glimpse of how a capacity for Lament, reaching to breadth, depth and height, might ultimately and eternally unite all things; a glimpse of something truly redemptive, a longed-for restoration, a coming home, the ultimate arrival, eye-blinking and astonished awakening. Pure genius. A bridge between worlds.
49. Arab Women Artists Now (AWAN), Rich Mix Arts Centre, Shoreditch, London, 7 March 2015
On 7 March, the London-based cultural organisation Arts Canteen launched AWAN (Arab Women Artists Now), a new annual festival to celebrate women artists from the Arab world. After a day of heated discussion on art and politics, and a visual art exhibition, the event came to its finale with a night of daring musical performance, with three acts challenging artistic boundaries in front of a packed out room of enthusiastic supporters. Headed by the irrepressible Palestinian vocalist Reem Kelani, we were also introduced to Christelle Madani and Reham, two very different singers with unique and undeniable talents. Together they highlighted the potential power of Arab womens' voices in today's world.
Reem Kelani is a real phenomenon of contemporary Arabic music. As a Palestinian artist constantly battling against the British recording industry's refusal to see beyond the "P-word", Reem has had to fight for recognition (and is even crowdfunding her next album, Live at the Tabernacle). But as her AWAN performance showed, this is music that demands attention, as Reem and pianist Bruno Heinen gave everything to a captivated London crowd. Reem's stage presence moves beyond the category of 'singer', not only in her flamenco-reminiscent rhythmic stomping and call and response clapping, but also in her flamboyant sense of humour. After recalling one of her many stories about Palestinian 'big mamas' - this one in particular about a 'beautiful gazelle with breasts like luscious pomegranates' - she asked loudly, "are you listening Isis?" The audience was in stitches.
I'd recently been a bit disappointed at myself for missing out on cheap tickets to see a Brecht/Weill play, but Reem totally made up for my error of judgement with an exploration of the pioneering works of Egyptian composer Sayed Darwish (1892-1923) and his lyricist Badi' Khairi. These anti-imperialist anthems satirised the British colonial occupation, bypassing its many censors, and it is startling that Reem's reworkings show that the songs still have relevance a century later. With a dynamic introduction, Heinen's piano brings virtuoso jazz into The Porters Anthem, before staccato rhythms to lyrics celebrating the role of workers in the 1919 Egyptian revolutionary struggle.
Reem's performance brought an ecstatic encore as all the evening's performers were brought to the stage for a totally unplanned rendition of Zourouni (Visit Me), a classic Darwish melody later performed by Fairouz. The lyrics were brought to life with improvisational vocals from Christelle Madani. 'Visit me once every year, it's a pity that you would forget about me completely.' Nobody present will be forgetting this remarkable performance any time soon and it will be fascinating to see how Aser al Saqqa and the other organisers top this concert next year.
Louis Brehony is a musician and activist from Manchester, Britain. He is also initiator and director of the musical project 'Let Palestine Sing'.Click here to see the full review
48. Rich Mix Arts Centre, Shoreditch, London, 25 July 2014
Well I can be perfectly honest in saying that 2 weeks ago I had no idea who Reem Kelani was or even guess what field she was involved with. However, after witnessing this inspiring performance from the Palestinian artist, I was beyond determined to delve deeper into her catalogue of work and to grasp on to her contemporaries work.
Reem Kelani, as I found out with some brief Internet surfing prior to the performance, has brought the music world’s attention to Palestinian music. And what a joy it is. Reem stated during the performance that tonight we were to be brought into the Palestinian village; to be able to experience culturally through her music, what the Palestinian life could be. Performing in an intimate lounge/bar/gallery room Reem’s dramatic flair varied with each note she sang. Her movements on stage matched the emotional pull, caressing the air with her hands and tapping her shoes, she was painting us all a picture and with each layer you moved with her. All this sounds quite overly dramatic. Possibly because this is my first experience of such an occasion and to a seasoned person of Middle Eastern music this may be their daily muse. Yet, for someone who has been raised in East London where Middle Eastern culture is a daily part of your life whether you like it or not, this performance was inspiring as insightful.
As Reem went through her Sprinting Gazelle album, which found international acclaim, and into her upcoming material to be released her backing band provided a glorious mix of jazz and subtle Middle Eastern rhythms that left the audience hooked on the double bass riffs. Most exciting about the whole performance was Reem’s interaction with the audience. Throughout the evening she talked through her songs in both English and Arabic while getting the audience to clap, sing and laugh with her. A true performer throughout, her over arching presence on stage kept all eyes on her while she sang of Palestinian love, despair and ancient history. Even further interaction towards the end saw various members of the audience given laminated cards with factions of the Palestinian people marked on them. With Reem propelling the emotional resonance of the room to its height, the audience members called out their faction. I had my moment calling out my faction and once all had been stated Reem gave a round of applause and hummed her way back into song. A brilliant moment and reaction from the crowd followed in appreciation.
The room provided the perfect space for such a performance where the artist and audience had strong intimacy and play off one another. Rich Mix’s Main Space room proved to be very enjoyable for the event with the setup, lighting and sound always on par. Although, the one draw back was, being a multipurpose venue, Reem briefly pointed out some disturbances on the floor above to which she had to pause a highlight the issue before she could continue.
Reem continued to satisfy leading to the inevitable a standing ovation by the end. From newcomers to loyal fans and from those speaking Arabic to those who don’t, Reem Kelani achieved what seemed to be her goal all night – to enhance the spread of Palestinian culture to all and to bring people together through Palestinian music.
The MongrellickClick here to see
47. Rich Mix Arts Centre, Shoreditch, London, 25 July 2014
From last night's amazing EFG London Jazz Festival concert by Palestinian singer, musician, musicologist Reem Kelani at Rich Mix London presented by Arts Canteen. Arts Canteen's curator, founder & director Aser El Saqqa not only introduced Reem and her musicians from the stage, but also duetted most pleasingly with her in 'Zourouni (kull sana marra)', sung as the encore demanded by the audience while it gave Reem a prolonged standing ovation. Reem had an extraordinary rapport with the highly-responsive audience in the packed-out concert hall. There was much audience participation, clapping, ululating and singing along. Many members of the audience tweeted their appreciation; John Scott who tweeted: "The wonderful @ReemKelani, channeling Joplin, Brecht and Um Kalthoum. She is a force of nature."
Reem performed with a great line-up of musicians: Bruno Heinen on piano, Ian East on reeds, Ryan Trebilcock on double bass and Antonio Fusco on drums. The programme varied widely in geography, time and genre. Some of the songs were from her first, 2006, album Sprinting Gazelle and certain of her Palestinian songs incorporated her moving field recordings of Palestinian "big mamas". And there was her setting of 'Love Poem' by Palestinian poet Samih Qassem, translated by Salma Khadra Jayyusi. From the southern USA there was the jazz number 'Strange Fruit', on the lynching of Afro-Americans, written by Abel Meeropol in 1937 and famously recorded by Billie Holiday. (It was excellent to hear that Reem and jazz pianist Bruno Heinen are to record an album together). There were songs by Sayyid Darwish from Reem's forthcoming album of works by the great Egyptian composer who lived from 1892-1923. Reem's eagerly-anticipated second album, 'Reem Kelani: Live at the Tabernacle' is due to be launched in March 2016.
Susannah Tarbush, cultural journalist and blogger
46. Grieghallen, Bergen, Norway, 21 May 2014
Stemmer (Voices & Votes), Grieghallen, Bergen, Norway - review
An illuminating, often moving account of 200 years of the struggle for human rights
Orlando Gough has a well-established reputation as a composer who can deliver imaginative large-scale events that span abilities and genres; his latest work, which opened the Bergen Festival (on May 21), is no exception. Stemmer, which means both "voices" and "votes" in Norwegian, was commissioned by Bergen National Opera to mark the bicentenary of Norway's constitution, bringing together children's, youth and adult amateur choirs alongside international soloists, the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra and five multi-instrumentalists as an onstage band.
This illuminating, and often moving account of the fight for freedom and human rights over the past 200 years focused on well-known campaigns in India, South Africa and Israel/Palestine. Wimme Saari, a Sami singer, bookended the 90-minute opera-torio which began with a summary of the rights enshrined in Norway's 1814 constitution. However, the pellucid tones of soprano Hanna Husahr, as early Norwegian feminist Gina Krog, swiftly asked: "Whose rights?" The question was reiterated by Manickam Yogeswaran, as Gandhi fighting for India's independence, and baritone Njabulo Madlala, who superbly recounted Nelson Mandela's long walk to freedom in South Africa.
The most poignant passages highlighted the still unresolved conflict in the Middle East, juxtaposing those who fought for the state of Israel with the Palestinians forced from their homes. Reem Kelani's haunting laments for Jaffa, the construction of the wall, the unstoppable intifada and the mounting dead were searingly beautiful.
Gough has an ear for a good tune, deftly weaving these diverse cultural strands together to create a vibrant musical tapestry, while in the pit, conductor Clark Rundell kept all the musical forces in play with crisp precision while maintaining momentum and balance throughout.
Staging productions of this nature can be tricky to bring off dramatically and director Olivia Fuchs wisely kept things simple. The 250-strong combined choir flanked the stage, contributing to the main action as and when required. The use of historic voice recordings, archive photos and other imagery projected on to a large screen also created a sense of unity, as did dancer Sulekha Ali Omar as a silent witness/companion moving elegantly between the different worlds.
It was humbling to be reminded of the hard-won freedoms we now take for granted along with many other human rights which are still not universal. Stemmer concluded by envisioning a new all-embracing constitution that commemorates the lost voices of the past, represented by candles flickering in the darkness, and reconciles dreams with reality.
Susan Nickalls, Financial TimesClick here to see the original review
45. Traditions Cafe, Olympia, Washington State, 9 April 2013
From the Soul, For the World: Reem Kelani performs in Olympia
The cozy interior of Traditions Cafe is almost full. The noises of people conversing fills the air as the stage and microphones are prepared. As seven o'clock rolls around, the lights are dimmed and someone gets onstage to introduce the night's performer, Reem Kelani. She is a native of Kuwait, raised there but born in Manchester, England. The performance tonight is brought to Olympia by the Rachel Corrie Foundation, who have been trying to get her here for twenty years.
Reem begins her set simply by saying, “Don't be scared.” It becomes obvious why as she begins to loudly and rhythmically stamp her feet and clap her hands. After this first song (an intense piece with minimal musical accompaniment) she tells the audience that it is an old Palestinian wedding song. This is typical of the rest of the evening. Kelani is as much telling stories at this performance as making music. Virtually every piece of the night is prefaced and expanded upon with both Kelani's personal feelings and historical facts. The effect of such knowledge is profound. It transforms what would otherwise be simple bits of musical experience into equal parts folk tale and history. Every piece of music Kelani sings has a place in the world and in her soul, and she expertly imparts this onto her audience.
The fact that much of the performance is personal inevitably leads to personal opinions. Kelani does give her own political views during the show, but not in the form of a lecture or self-righteous tirade. They are simply given as facts that inform the music and her choices, and once again the audience is richer for it. It helps greatly that the show is not a somber parade of pain and suffering. It is rather more akin to a stand-up show. Kelani is not afraid to let humor flavor her ideas, in fact, it is a big part of the show. Throughout the night she asks the audience, “Is there anyone here from Spain? Any Arabic speakers?” When there are no audience members fitting the description she simply laughs it off. And she asks these questions for a reason. The night is filled with audience participation, whether that be simply clapping along or singing onstage with her. Combined with the storytelling and history provided, it ingrains the listeners into the world Kelani brings into being.
The music of jazz pianist Bruno Heinen bears mention as well. He accompanies her on all of her pieces during the night, whether on piano or drum. His skill on the keys deftly slips from classical jazz to Middle Eastern-inspired minor chords to 15th century troubadour. Heinen also becomes part of the audience participation of the night, as Kelani constantly apologizes to him for rambling, or encourages him to take the stage with her, or tells stories of his life and family. It truly comes off as unrehearsed (which it may well be) and adds further to the atmosphere of fun and personal storytelling of the show.
Kelani and Heinen's musical variety shines throughout the performance. While all but a few of the songs are contemporary Egyptian or Palestinian, the differing styles make each one feel like an entirely different genre. And there are traditional songs like the opener, and even older ones dating back hundreds of years. The aforementioned humor is quite often there, but Kelani knows when to make things somber and quiet, such as during a piano backed reading of poetry.
Reem Kelani is currently working on her second album, dedicated to the work of Egyptian composer Sayyid Darwish, and she has worked with the BBC for “Songs for Tahrir.”
Thomas Petrie, Works In Progress community newspaper, OlympiaClick here to see the original review
44. Musicport Festival, Whitby, East Yorkshire, 5-7 October 2012
Rather than go to see another artist we hung onto our seats at the main stage to ensure we had a good position to watch Reem Kelani and her band. I have seen Reem twice before at Musicport and she is an astounding performer, using music and song to demonstrate the plight but also to celebrate the life of Palestinians and others caught in the tensions that exist in the Middle East and North Africa. Ninety minutes passed incredibly quickly in the company of this charismatic woman and her superb band - if you get the chance to see Reem please do so - your life will be better for it.
Sunday morning we headed straight to the theatre to see Reem Kelani's presentation which, despite problems with the laptop and projector, was so informative and enjoyable it was hard to tear ourselves away to see Calaita.
Joe Grint, FateaClick here to go to the full review of the Festival
43. Ealing Jazz Festival, London, 28 July 2012
Remembering Egypt and Palestine with Reem Kelani at the Ealing Jazz Festival
“Many people ask me, how come you like jazz and you're an Arab? And I tell them it's because I'm an Arab“ Reem teases, laughing at her own joke. She's referring to the make-up of her band; it's unusual to see an Arabic singer with British jazz musicians.
In the South tent of the Ealing Jazz festival this Saturday, Palestinian singer Reem Kelani goes on to describe similarities between Arabic music and jazz. As her voice thunders out Reem's lyrics are in full harmony with her band, leaving the audience wondering what other rhythm her words could possibly blend so well with.
It's not just the nature of the music that is curious but Reem herself. With a mother from Nazareth in Galilee and a father from Ya'bad near Jenin, Reem was actually born in Manchester and grew up in Kuwait. She has a striking appearance with blonde hair, a loose black tunic with embroidered pink edges, high-wedged shoes and a voice to match.
Not entirely content with belting out each song for listeners to digest, she stops in between to address the audience. There is an unmistakable element of story-telling to her music, one that is easy to relate to as the songs unfold in a mixture of Arabic and English. Many of Reem's songs are laced with nostalgia, a way of remembering the past or educating people about the Middle East.
One of Reem's passions is the Egyptian composer Sayyid Darwish (1892 - 1923). Describing an experience she had on Qasr el Nile Bridge, Egypt amongst the tear gas of the 2011 revolution she introduces her next song, originally by him.
“At that very minute when we were on the bridge Mubarak's regime cut off telephone lines, the internet, everything, and the revolutionaries were isolated... in the 1919 revolt in Egypt against British rule... it was the revolutionaries who cut off the telegrams and the telephone lines to isolate Cairo from London, to be able to make sure that the revolution worked... I was thinking of that song walking on the bridge.“
Ironically, here were two revolutions one hundred years apart, with the Internet and phone lines down, purposefully cut only for completely different reasons.
If Egypt is one of Reem's connections to Arabic music, Palestine certainly provides another. Reem tells us how great it was to watch Palestine in the Olympic procession, of her support for stateless countries. Her pride and positivism is uplifting throughout her performance.
“I will take you back to where I originally come from, Palestine... people talk about destruction. We're going to talk about construction. This is a song that people sing when they're building homes in Palestine, it only revolves around one word. Alhamdulillah.“
As the last song finishes, amongst the clapping and dancing a lady in the audience all dressed in pink with a Palestinian keffiyeh wrapped around her shoulders, gives a standing ovation. Reem is back for another Sayyid Darwish song.
Amelia Smith, al-HourriahClick here to go to the original article
42. Casablanca, Refugee Week, the Victoria & Albert Museum, London, 22 June 2012
The penultimate event in this year's Refugee Week took place in the glorious environs of the Victoria & Albert Museum - with the themes of flight, refuge and identity resonating loud and clear in the programme, which included screenings of the classic black & white film, Casablanca, plus music.
Time for some refreshment in what is surely one of London's most ornate and beautiful cafés - for this particular night recreated as Rick's Café, with a grand piano taking centre-stage. This is where Palestinian singer Reem Kelani sang a rousing set of songs with her trio of musicians on piano, double bass and percussion. Kelani is a dynamic performer and got the audience's full attention with her engaging and passionate introductions to the songs, many by the Egyptian composer Sayyid Darwish, from her forthcoming album. She dedicated one to the revolution in Tunisia, 'Babour Zammar,' by Hédi Guella. A prominent political singer in Tunisia, Guella died shortly after the revolution last year. The song - more commonly known as the 'Anthem for Emigration' by Tunisians - speaks of the emigration of young Tunisians to work in Europe.
Jo Frost, SonglinesClick here to go to the original article
41. Sheffield University Spring Concert series, 13 March 2012
Live performance is at it its best when it surprises. What was I expecting when – a week last Tuesday – I attended a concert at Sheffield University by Anglo-Palestinian singer Reem Kelani? Well perhaps it was the somewhat formal publicity photo. Or the description of her voice by the London Evening Standard as “…holy…like a call to prayer.” Whatever it was, despite the concert billing as “Music of the Egyptian Revolution” somehow I wasn’t expecting to be leaving Firth Hall having witnessed one of the most spontaneously joyous and uplifting musical performances of my whole life. The first surprise – on a Tuesday evening – was that the hall was packed. The second was the extraordinary music of Egyptian composer Sayyid Darwish (1892-1923) that Reem was showcasing alongside her own material. In his short life Darwish wrote music that made the journey between traditional Arab, western music hall and jazz, and penned genuinely moving calls to rise up against the British during the 1919 revolution at the same time as hilarious songs seeing life from the viewpoint of cigarette smokers and even cocaine addicts.
But the main surprise was Reem herself – about as far from the ethereal world of religious mysticism that I had been expecting that it is possible to get. After a deceptively quiet start the woman on stage seemed to become possessed by some collective energy and by the second half of the set had transformed into a cross between dervish and shaman, almost literally making the music come alive, throwing its crazed rhythms out among us like sparks from some ritual fire. The final surprise was when I got home and found that on her way to becoming an acclaimed singer, musicologist and broadcaster, this Manchester-born Palestinian activist had been an accomplished marine biologist. Like my hero Belzoni, that is some career. And like him, I know she is going to be a continuing inspiration.
TheGreatBelzoni, SheffieldClick here to go to the original article
40. Nour Festival of Arts, London, 22 October 2010
Reem Kelani delivered one of the best concerts seen in years at Leighton House last week.
From start to finish, her energy burst from the stage making it impossible for the sold out audience not to sing, clap and in many cases dance along. Showcasing new material from her forthcoming album and including acclaimed numbers from her past best-selling record 'Sprinting Gazelle', the influence of the great Egyptian composer Sayyid Darwish (1892-1923) was never far from the surface. While her Palestinian heritage was at the core of the performance, her delicately crafted songs touched on the traces of Turkish, Egyptian and British musicianship in vogue in the Middle East in the early 20th century. A memorable element of the evening was Kelani's storytelling between songs, highlighting their origins and her natural ability to make the audience feel they were all personal friends.
A truly memorable evening.
Leighton House, London
39. St Ethelburgas, London, 12 December 2009
A top class performance from Reem Kelani and her band. It's hard to know what to say about this performer whose 'live' shows are always full of passion as she sings her heart out with every song. She is so comfortable with her audience and in the intimate setting of St Ethelburga's even more so, leaving the stage on a number of occasions and moving around to sing closer to the audience. There's always a ripple of humour with Reem as well. Each song has a story behind it, often based on research she's been doing over 20 yrs with Palestinians and their struggle in the Middle East. Her family hail from Galilee and she has deep feelings about her roots there. Also outstanding in the band line-up was Zoe Rahman. English born with Bengali roots. This is a Mercury nominated jazz pianist and watching her caress the keys of the piano with such agility was another bonus to another outstanding night at St Ethelburga's.
Wallee McDonnell, World Music Coordinator, St EthelburgasClick here to go to the original article
38. St Ethelburgas, London, 12 December 2009
Translated from Arabic © The Miktab Ltd
An hour with Reem Kelani
Listening to the Palestinian artist Reem Kelani is food for the soul, heart and mind. As a university graduate, she mixes her scientific methodology with her musical knowledge and powerful voice, giving us as ever a rich background on her songs and arrangements. Her primary area is traditional Palestinian music, in which she takes great pride. And whilst some of our musicians might spend their leisure time in coffee shops, nightclubs and the palatial homes of rich benefactors, Reem spends her time in places such as the British Library and research archives across the world, or conducting field work in the Middle East, listening to songs performed at weddings and other celebrations. She listens, collates, records and analyses.
Reem is an artist of whom Arabs and Muslims should be proud: a true ambassador for her people and her cause. I've often wondered why we don't chose our ambassadors from among our literary figures, artists and intellectuals, those who can interact with universal cultures. Instead, our diplomats seem to think that inviting a Western official over for stuffed courgettes, stewed okra and vine leaves that may give them a tummy ache for a week, is a guarantee of converting them to our cause.
I say that she is a source of pride because Reem has become an authority on Middle Eastern folklore, as well as the music of the 'other'. Her musical ensemble boasts an international cast of various nationalities and creeds. She is also a seasoned broadcaster, with her series of documentaries for BBC Radio Four about the music of migrant communities as one example.
Reem has performed at many venues, both in the UK and overseas. Her last concert at St. Ethelburga's Centre for Reconciliation and Peace in London was a showcase for songs from her next album which is dedicated to the Egyptian composer Sayyid Darwish. One of the songs she presented was a song so famous that there isn't an Arab that doesn't know it; the song was made even more famous by the Lebanese singer Fairouz. The song, of course, was Zourouni (Visit Me).
We all know this song as a romantic song where one lover berates the other for not visiting them often enough. But now, thanks to Reem, we found out that the 'lover' in mind is our own Prophet Muhammad.
Fairouz added the song to her repertoire after it had been made famous by Sayyid Darwish in the 1920s, following his meeting with a musician from Iraq. "Mulla" 'Uthman al-Musilli was a professional and proficient reader of the Holy Qur'an. When the Ottoman Sultan heard of al-Musilli, he invited him to Istanbul and appointed him as an official Qur'an reader and caller to prayer in the Aya Sofia Mosque.
Al-Musilli lived in Istanbul for a while, but the soul of Sufi asceticism rebelled against palace life. Thus, he returned to the Arab world and settled in Aleppo where he became master of a Sufi brotherhood. It was also in Aleppo where he established himself as a virtuoso singer, musician and expert on Arabic maqams (melodic modes).
Apparently, al-Musilli saw Prophet Muhammad in a dream one night, whereupon the Prophet berated him for not visiting his grave in Medina. When he woke up, al-Musilli had made up his mind about going on a pilgrimage to visit the Prophet's grave.
When he returned to Aleppo after his pilgrimage, the Prophet's reproof continued to occupy his mind and to play on the strings of his artistic self. Soon after, this preoccupation resulted in a song in which, in accordance with Sufi philosophy, al-Musilli combined love with faith, love of the Divine with the love of others, and yearning for God and his Prophet with desire for beauty and perfection:
Visit me, even if it's but once a year
It's not fair
To forget all about me
It's not fair
To forget all about me
When Sayyid Darwish met al-Musilli and studied under him in Aleppo, he got to know this song. Subsequently, he adapted it in a secular context, thus giving it pride of place as a love story.
Khalid Kishtainy, Iraqi journalist and critic, al-Sharq al-Awsat, UKClick here to go to the original article in Arabic
37. Duke of Yorks Theatre, London, 10 November 2009
Eloquent Protest (an artist’s response to the price of war, which honours the fallen and counts the cost of their sacrifice)
Third musician to raise the roof was Reem Kelani, a Manchester-born Palestinian who sang a song based on the words of Mahmoud Darwish, a celebrated Palestinian poet. Coming in straight after Messrs [Tony] Benn and [Roy] Bailey, she elicited a laugh of disbelief from the audience when echoing Bailey’s invitation for us to sing along – the fact that she was singing in Arabic aside, this woman could do things with her voice I’d hitherto thought impossible. In contrast to the caged fury we’d got from Fiona MacDonald, Reem Kelani was a dervish, beating her drum, flailing at the air, and screeching and screaming through a beguilingly energetic rendition of what she told us was a 'celebration of life'.
Sam Haddow, Culture Wars, UKClick here to view the full review
36. London, 9 October 2009
Review of the Arab Women's Association's Let Gaza Live
The Arab Women's Association presented Let Gaza Live at the Royal Geographical Society, London, 9 Oct 2009 and it was a fascinating evening by turns deeply moving, highly intelligent throughout and informed by an intensely concentrated, though controlled anger. All proceeds were in aid of the Red Crescent Society for the Gaza Strip and the Arab Women's Association Fund for Gaza.
Whilst the nature of the event inevitably made for a tone both sombre and outraged, there was - thankfully - a degree of humour, especially in the performances of the amazing phenomenon that is the charismatic Reem Kelani (who not surprisingly got the loudest cheers of the evening) and with the contrasting but equally effective stage presence of Leon Rosselson ('Song of the Olive Tree' and-"by command of Reem!"-his "Conversation on a Mobile", which brought the house down).
Victoria Brittain brought the wealth of her experience to compering. Shelagh Weir, former curator for Middle East Ethnography at the Museum of Mankind at the British Museum gave a fascinating illustrated talk on Palestinian costume and textiles. Despite the time constraints she managed to convey very powerfully the nature and continuity of the Palestinian culture and history that antedated the nakba, giving a sense of just how much had been lost and why it had been such a catastrophe for an entire, settled people. (Writing this note, I can't help but be reminded of the comparable loss of Yiddish theatre, newspapers, klezmer music-another whole culture-in the European destruction of the 20th century.)
A backdrop screen projected still and moving images throughout, giving added force to the words and music. One section comprised a video of singer-songwriter Rev. Garth Hewitt performing the song he composed, inspired by a letter written to him by a priest, "The Broken Heart of Gaza".
Camilla Saunders, well known musician who uses improvisation in her performances, played a piece - "Unbinding - for Gaza" - at the piano. It began and ended quietly, reflectively, on a plaintive modal theme, which she elaborated into arpeggiated angry flashes, especially in aggressive repeated bass notes and clusters, resolving again to the theme and mood with which she began, and ending with a slightly ambiguous cadence, as if to suggest not resignation, but that things were not yet resolved, the last chord leaving a question in the air.
Alfie Horrocks and his dad Bill played and sang "In Memory of Iman from Gaza" - the 13 year old girl shot by an IDF soldier on her way back from school one day. (He said he thought her satchel was a suicide bomb, he said, but went on shooting ... The crime was reported round the world at the time.)
Nobody needs me to tell them about Reem Kelani, so I wont attempt it. Except to say that I couldn't help thinking, witnessing how the audience received her, what a towering cultural icon she is for the Palestinian people (although her musicianship and artistry make her appeal wholly universal). Later, when I got home, I was reflecting on this. During Reem's final performance of the evening, I had snatched a few glances at those faces in the audience that I could see and what I saw there brought home to me just what she means, and not only as artist, to Palestinians especially.
Most of the effect is of course musical, but there's something extra-musical as well. I've seen the same thing amongst Jewish audiences listening to, for example, Yehudi Menuhin or Itzhak Perlman - something for want of a better word that I'd describe as a consciousness of a shared soul.
I really don't think I'm overstating this. I thought, there she is, Reem Kelani, pouring every milligram of her being into this performance, her audience rapt, transported before her, and there's this precious, non-violent force transmuting a mouthful of air into articulate energy, an energy that evokes sympathetic vibrations through whole communities, giving hope and strength, lifting human spirits from out of their dark times.
And then I thought of how greatly tyrannies, dictatorships, occupying colonial powers, fascist states of all kinds fear this one thing - the power of art, probably music above all, and the voice of the artist, to undermine their foundations.
It reminded me of a book I have and often dip into, called "University over the Abyss: The story behind 520 lecturers and 2,430 lectures in KZ [Concentration Camp] Theresienstadt 1942 - 1944", compiled by Elena and Sergei Makarov and Victor Kuperman. It makes for grim but at the same time inspiring reading, a record of how people can sometimes rise above the most awful of circumstances. I shall come back to this in a moment.
The evening was for Gaza and it was from Gaza that Dr Mona al-Farra had been expected to come to present her report, Siege and Survival. As everyone in the audience would have known, Dr Mona al-Farra is a Palestinian physician living in Gaza and a Project Director for Middle East Children's Alliance.
However, the Rafah crossing had been closed, and neither the Israelis nor the Egyptians would let her out, so her talk was read for her by her student daughter, who came specially from Manchester for the occasion. Her daughter read the piece admirably, and it proved to be an extraordinarily powerful denunciation of Israeli brutality and cruelty from one who has seen at first hand the medical consequences.
The food journalist Joanna Blythman spoke on "Food and Palestine". This was a most fascinating and illuminating account. She spoke of the destruction of the Palestinian agricultural economy, the obstacles placed by the Israelis in the way of farmers and their markets, and connected all this to the politics of supermarkets in this country and their close monitoring of customer opinion.
It was a chore, she knew, and boring, but she implored us to write to supermarkets where they were stocking goods ambiguously (i.e. dishonestly) labelled as coming from "the West Bank". Every customer letter and phone call is logged, scrupulously, and sent to HQ, so that if there are enough of them the supermarkets are forced to take note and act accordingly. And she told us to tell them about the delicious Palestinian olive oil, the almonds ... "We'll buy them", tell them. (And there was a great display of Palestinian goods, including Zaytoun olive oil, za'atar, almonds, dates, soap, T-shirts and more, for sale in the foyer outside the hall, and those who knew the quality, i.e. everyone, soon snapped them up!).
Joanna got the second loudest cheer of the evening (to my ears Reem would have won on sheer decibel levels) when with inexorable logic she led up to a call to support the boycott of Israeli food produce.
The event approached its conclusion with a immensely strong, dramatic reading by Corin Redgrave and Kika Markham, appearing together as they had one year ago, at Cadogan Hall, London, in Palestine Aloud: A Cultural Celebration in support of Palestine. On this occasion they read from Ghassan Kanafani's deeply moving "Letter from Gaza". (Corin's character visits his niece in hospital after her wounding at the hands of the IDF. He tells her that he has brought her presents, especially the red pants she'd always wanted. She is weak, quiet, very subdued and begins to weep. At last she lifts her head from the pillow and in a small voice manages to tell him: her leg has been amputated at the thigh. You may imagine how Redgrave conveyed the horror of that moment.)
As the audience entered at the start of the evening, they found on every seat a leaflet in the style of a folded programme. Inside, printed beautifully in English and Arabic, were the words of the song, Mawtini, (My Homeland), lyrics by Ibrahim Touqan, Music by the Fuleifel Brothers. The translation was made by Reem Kelani and Christopher Somes-Charlton.
On the cover (it's before me now) is a lovely reproduction of the picture, Orphan Child, by Nicholas Egon. It can be seen here: http://www.awa-london.org/
Reem and her musicians ended the evening with this anthem, Mawtini, getting the audience to join in, in a heartfelt rendition. It was a great end to a great evening.
I had not intended to write this review at all. I hadn't taken any notes during the evening and it had simply not occurred to me to write about it. Somehow, and I can't explain why, when I got home and sat at the computer to check my email, I just found myself beginning to write about it - at first a few short sentences, and then it just grew almost by itself.
When I got to the bit where I tried to compare the experience of Gazans with that of European Jews in concentration camps, I wondered how many points of comparison there might really be, or whether it might be perhaps invidious to try to make them.
I'm a signatory of the Statement of Jews for Justice for Palestinians, a founder member of the UK branch of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, and I've been to Palestine twice, most recently last year with a group of clinicians on a fact finding tour (the Israelis refused us entry to Gaza although we'd applied to enter several months beforehand).
I ended the night feeling how unbearably tragic it was that the nakba had been done by 'my' people to Reem's people, and that 'my' people are still perpetuating, every hour, that monstrous iniquity.
It all happened and is happening, and now our two peoples might, in time, have so much to share, but only if those of my people who inflicted and are inflicting such misery can truly repent, can effect some degree of restitution, make reparation to a degree sufficient to help Reem's people to forgive us. I don't know if that's ever going to be possible - although I look with hope to the example of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. But first there must be repentance and restitution. Perhaps then - in the end - her people can forgive mine.
Dr Brian Robinson, Musicweaver, UKClick here to go to Musicweaver
35. al-Wehda, Syria, 20 July 2009
Translated from Arabic © The Miktab Ltd, 2009
Reem Kelani and her Anglo-Syrian band at Jableh
I told a number of my colleagues who attended the Palestinian musician Reem Kelani's concert with me "the Roman spirit is alive and well in Jableh's ancient amphitheatre" because the Festival has brought to it a new lease of life, after years of neglect by local residents.
There she was, the singer Reem Kelani coming from the UK to make wonders with her voice, her songs, her choreography, her humour and her ability to enthrall. Evidently, the Jableh audience had been waiting long for Reem; that much I could see from the way in which they responded to her. Indeed, they gave Reem and her band a well-deserved standing ovation for their brilliant performance.
Reem sang and told the audience that she was a daughter of Jableh every bit as much as she was a daughter of Palestine. Her concert was a big success and it was extremely well received at this year's Jableh Cultural Festival.
Reem's Anglo-Syrian line-up for this concert comprised:
- Basel Rajoub on saxophones
- Amir Qara Jouli on violin
- Simon Mreach on drums
- Bruno Heinen on piano
- Ryan Trebilcock on double bass.
Together they presented us with a unique artistic display.
Samah Muhammad al-'Ali
34. Burngreave Messenger, Sheffield, 29 May 2009
Songs and stories with Reem Kelani
On Monday 11th May, well known London based, Palestinian singer Reem Kelani, (accompanied by Bruno Heinen on Piano) gave a stunning performance of a number of songs from Arabic speaking countries, to a packed audience at the Burngreave Vestry Hall.
“This was multiculturalism at its best, a real celebration of diversity. Reem has such a gift for story telling, and sharing her knowledge of the history of music, musicians and composers from many countries. All were invited to participate, in clapping, finger-clicking and ulullation.” David Havard
Though the performance (organised by Jon Cowley and Rashida Hassanali) was free, a collection raised £300 for a children’s charity in Gaza.
As part of Adult Learner’s Week provision, Reem also led a workshop just for women on the following morning at Sorby House on Spital Hill. This surpassed even the excellence of the previous evening’s performance. Women from a dozen different nationalities were supported into learning and performing each others songs. Language didn’t matter! It was a very emotional morning.
“It was a very special day for me. She carried me back to Palestine, making me sing our own songs. I appreciated the common feelings we shared.” Arwa
“Reem Kelani made everyone special and everyone sang without music in their own languages. We felt sad, happy and emotional. People who even weren’t Arabic sang in Arabic language. It was incredible event. She reminded people of their past and what they learned from their mothers when they were young.” Amal
“Reem asked me to sing in my language. I did’t have any idea how to sing but she pushed and encouraged me. And I sang and every body got happy. We were all from different countries and had different languages but we were singing all together.” Azeb
“Listening to Reem I felt so proud to live in such a diverse community. I wish I could do more to bring Burngreave people together to celebrate and share things like music, stories, customs and recipes.” Rashida Hassanali
Story: Saleema Imam
33. Ritmos del Mundo, Issue Number 08, Barcelona, Spain, January - February 2009
Translated from Castilian Spanish © Noemí Rubio i Gómez & The Miktab Ltd, 2009
To say that it rained does not do justice to what fell from the skies during Manresa's Festival of Traditional Performing Arts. One of the heaviest storms arrived just as the UK-based Palestinian singer Reem Kelani began to sing in a half-full marquee.
Faced with such a prospect, more than a few of us were irritated that, with this great artist of Arabic traditions and innovative Jazz rhythms before us, we couldn't hear her properly because of the weather conditions. It was Kelani's first performance in our country and perhaps she had somewhat invoked the severe weather, as she explained that "rain in Palestine means that God is with us". And then she started to sing with her impressive voice and she delighted us with material from her debut album “Sprinting Gazelle“.
It was a most beautiful repertoire of popular Palestinian songs, from refugee parting songs to lullabies and wedding songs, part “cante chico“ (light-hearted singing) and part “cante jondo“ (deep singing).
Kelani's daring attempt at singing “El noi de la mare“, one of the most traditional Catalan Christmas carols, provided a cheeky little surprise. We were also treated to the real thing in “Mawwaal“, her own setting of a poem by Mahmud Darwish who died last summer and whom we were reminded was one of the most celebrated Arab poets of modern times. Magda Farré
32. Agenda - Out and About in Brussels, 27 November 2008
Thierry Noville has lined up quite a few groups for the Palestinian Festival Masarat, but Reem Kelani is particularly close to his heart. "Reem Kelani performs a popular repertoire, whereas the other Masarat musicians are more linked to classical Arabic music or to more modern stuff, like Kamilya Joubran or the rappers of DAM", explains Thierry Noville, who is in charge of world music programming both at the Espace Senghor and for Masarat.
"Kelani is the only one who takes a real interest in popular song, in wedding singing and so on. When I travelled to Palestine to prepare for Masarat, I was asked to find some traditional singing. I searched, but I couldn't find anything. Back in Belgium, by chance, I came across Reem Kelani, a Palestinian singer who lives in London and works in this field.
"For a country like Palestine, much of whose culture has been scattered in the diaspora, it is moving to see Kelani carrying out this work of collecting, in the refugee camps, in historic Palestine, and in England. On the basis of that research she produces something very personal.
"This is very expressive music, which at times evokes the joy of weddings but can also be very tragic, for it is the music that accompanies the everyday lives of Palestinians. While other musicians at Masarat may stimulate the imagination more, Kelani expresses more feelings.
"She adds modern instruments to this traditional repertoire, such as a piano, drum kit, or a saxophone. I love it when traditional music is reinterpreted by musicians here and now. These people explore their roots; they know where they come from, but at the same time they are the musicians of today.
This is not the music of the past, but music that has been brought to life - in Kelani's case, by adding elements of jazz".
31. Musical stories of the invisible country (a Catalan cultural website), 6 November 2008
Translated from Catalan © Laia Serra Sanguesa, Noemí Rubio i Gómez & The Miktab Ltd, 2008
Mediterrania Festival, Manresa, Barcelona, Spain 31 October 2008
For many years we have been able to get to know Palestinian music through three women whose art appears to complement each other: Rim Banna, Amal Murkus and Reem Kelani. Three different ways of interpreting the musical traditions of their homeland are embodied in a large number of fascinating CDs: for example, the one CD to date published by Reem Kelani entitled "Sprinting Gazelle: Palestinian Songs from the Motherland and the Diaspora (2005) which is the wonderful result of many years of work, research and reflection.
Born in Manchester, of Palestinian parents, and brought up in Kuwait, Reem Kelani learned this music in the refugee camps in Lebanon and Palestine and has refined it by arrangements containing elements of jazz, respectful, precise, and perfectly integrated with the musical narrative.
We were much interested in seeing live the great artistry contained in the CD, and we have to confess that initially there was something in the performance with which we were not comfortable: perhaps it was because the audience was small or maybe the sound of the rain, or maybe the dramatic way in which the performer tackled the songs. Nevertheless, within a short while, the power of her dramatic persona, the strength of her voice, the precise arrangements of the musicians accompanying her, overcame all reservations and enchanted us. We were introduced to a repertoire which was full of turns and surprises: the pianist played an oriental melody influenced by Keith Jarrett; a suite of children's songs which flowed out into "El noi de la mare"; an Andalusian muwwashah in 17/8 rhythm which captivated the audience with her enormous energy and was persuasive. One of the most delightful songs from Sprinting Gazelle was A Baker's Dozen, and she completed the set, leading her audience in clapping in 13/4 time while the musicians painted a melody of concentric circles, her voice flaunting its potential and its expressiveness.
Reem Kelani doesn't just sing; she lives the song. She performs with profound emotion, proud of her culture and with an ability to communicate from which you can not escape - which overcame any initial doubts - and which made us fall at her feet. Josep Vicent Frechina
30. Poetry International, Southbank Centre, London 31 October 2008
Poetry International Opener (Reem Kelani: A stunning performance)
The first night of poetry international was a vibrant well collaborated start to a celebration of different cultures.
The energy and excitement was electric you could feel volts bounce through your body as Reem Kelani worked the stage with her powerful voice projecting her thoughts and songs aloud to the audience the Palestinian singer engaged and included the crowd with an uproar of cultural difference the wild clapping and stomping was enough to set a weary heart ablaze, she danced she jumped about walked through the audience what more could you ask for, really a woman so strong and passionate about what she can do deserves a place in the hall of fame.
Reem Kelani thank you for a spectacular evening! Micheal Oladeji
To see a clip of Reem's performance, go to: Poetry International Opener
29. The Financial Times, 26 September 2008
The rhythms of Ramadan
Reem Kelani: LSO St Luke's, London
Outside, it was too dark to tell a black thread from a white. Inside, the Palestinian singer Reem Kelani was opening the Barbican's Ramadan Nights festival. She began singing alone, seated, an invocation echoing off the walls of the church. On "Hawwilouna", a boisterously belligerent wedding song, the band joined in, clapping and stamping and slapping the body of a double bass.
On the third song, a grim Galilean lullaby, her musicians finally had their head. Zoe Raman set up a slow swell of piano, building into a rippling torrent before dropping away abruptly into an ominous minor key, over which her brother Idris played brooding clarinet.
Partly, this concert was road-testing songs by one of Kelani's heroes, the tortured Egyptian composer Sayyid Darwish. "Definitely a working-class hero," she asserted, "torn between his faith and his music." His anthem for the porters of Cairo had a bouncy swing, Patrick Illingworth riding his hi-hat and Zoe Raman barrelhousing away: Kelani's claims for Darwish's kinship with Gershwin seemed eminently plausible. His "Anthem For the Downtrodden", in solidarity with the Nubians despised by the Egyptian street, was set to a metallic strum on the tanbur, a Sudanese lute.
But she dedicated the concert to another Darwish, the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, who died in August. Kelani read his last poem aloud, and then sang her setting of his "Mawwaal", written in the immediate aftermath of the six-day war but rejecting despair. Over a funereal drumbeat, Idris Raman played a slow lament, building through quiet passages into a thunderous climax. Zoe Raman picked out high notes and the song ended in a whispered percussion coda, Fariborz Kiani stroking the skin of a darbuka with the tips of his fingernails.
The encore belonged, again, to Sayyid Darwish. It was perhaps his most celebrated song, "Zourouni", with an "Egyptian Mae West", in Kelani's words, begging her lover to come up and see her. She started slow, over a murmur of piano and bowed double bass, hesitating as if at the top of a rollercoaster before the song tipped headlong into its chorus. Ian East played pennywhistle patterns on the flute and two women from the audience leapt on stage to karaoke along. Darwish's impudent march was a joyous, if frustratingly early close. David Honigmann
28. Tanjara, London September 2008
Palestinian singer Reem Kelani opens the Ramadan Nights season of concerts in London
The Ramadan Nights concert given at the London venue LSO St Luke’s by the Palestinian singer and musician Reem Kelani and her band on Thursday night was in effect a tribute to two great Arab artists who happen to share a surname: the Egyptian composer Sayyid Darwish (1892-1923), and the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish who died on August 9.
The concert was the opening event of the Barbican Centre’s fourth annual Ramadan Nights season of concerts by outstanding Muslim singers and musicians from Britain and abroad. Kelani is a long-time resident of the capital, and tickets to her concert had sold out well in advance.
The event began in stunning style with Kelani singing unaccompanied her arrangement of Sayyid Darwish’s “Birth of the Chosen Prophet”. Her pure voice, subtly ornamented, took wing with this devotional song and soared in the spacious yet intimate hall of the 18th century former church designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor.
Then came the rousing traditional Palestinian wedding song “Hawwilouna”, from the coastal city of Akka. The audience joined with gusto in the syncopated clapping by Kelani and the musicians. There was laughter when Kelani observed that the song “tells the family of the groom if you treat our daughter nicely in marriage we’ll make you ruler of all the Arab tribes, but if you don’t you’ll be cleaning after our animals and sheep.”
Kelani dedicated the concert to Mahmoud Darwish, and among the songs she performed was her setting of his 1967 poem “Mawwaal – Variations on Loss”. The opening lines read: “I lost a beautiful dream / I lost the lilies’ sting / My night has been long / stretched over the garden walls / But I have not lost the way.”
The song began with drummer Patrick Illingworth setting a somber beat before the Anglo-Bengali pianist Zoe Rahman came in with a captivating hymn-like succession of chords. Saxophone playing by Ian East and by Zoe’s brother Idris Rahman gave the Mawwaal a soulful sound. Kelani’s powerfully moving rendering of the song was concluded by a skilful tabla solo from the Iranian percussionist Fariborz Kiani.
“Mawwaal – Variations on Loss” and several other numbers performed during the concert came from Kelani’s 2006 debut CD “Sprinting Gazelle: Palestinian songs from the Motherland and the Diaspora”. She is now working on her second CD, devoted to the music of Sayyid Darwish, “considered to be the godfather of contemporary Arab music.”
Half the 12 songs performed during the concert were Kelani’s arrangements of compositions by Sayyid Darwish to lyrics by various authors. Kelani described Darwish as a “working class hero” who wrote anthems for professions such as water sellers, sailors, fortune tellers and builders.
She said: “He was a tortured soul and I relate a lot to his suffering. He was torn between his faith and his music, and [this is] something that many practicing Muslim artists, especially if they are women, go through. So Darwish’s suffering was very much collective, and he remained with that turmoil most of his life, and the third dimension that came out of that suffering was his beautiful music.”
“The Porters’ Anthem”, with lyrics by Badi’ Khairi (1893-1966), says “buckle up your belt and carry the heavy load because as an Egyptian you’re proud enough to work hard instead of stretching your hand asking for money.” It includes the porters’ cries of “hina hina” that Darwish used to hear in the markets of Alexandria.
Kelani’s performances always include the unexpected, even for those who know her music well, and one surprise in this concert was her first-ever public performance on the tanbour lyre. She accompanied herself as she sang a Sayyid Darwish song about Nubians, which she has entitled “Ode to the Downtrodden
Kelani was born in the northern English city of Manchester, to a medical doctor father from the village of Ya’bad near Jenin and a mother from Nazareth, and grew up in Kuwait. It was in Kuwait that she first heard Sudanese music and got to know the music of the famous Nubian Sudanese singer, songwriter and tanbour player Mohammed Wardi.
The concert was the occasion for Kelani’s first public airing of “Ode to the Downtrodden” (originally entitled “Ashinger Damolina”), and it went down well with the audience. It had a distinctly African feel, particularly through her playing of the tanboura. Kelani gave the audience an idea of the stereotyped way in which Nubians have tended to be viewed in Egypt. She worked with a Nubian linguistics professor visiting Britain to try to ensure that her translations of Nubian words were correct and that she was not treading on sensitivities. She dedicated the song to the Nubian villages that were submerged as a result of the building of the Aswan dam.
Kelani performed several songs from the Palestinian repertoire for which she is best known. The lyrics of the traditional “Galilean Lullaby” were collected by the Palestinian poet Tawfiq Zayyad. Kelani has composed her own music to the lyrics, which begin: “Our loved ones have left home, / Gone away without saying goodbye”.
She learned a song she calls “A Baker’s Dozen” from a group of women in the Ain al-Helweh Palestinian refugee camp in southern Lebanon. She found the song had a 13-beat cycle, and when she was recording “Sprinting Gazelle” her production engineer Steve Lowe, who is from Bolton in northern England, suggested the title “A Baker’s Dozen”. The original Arabic title is “Habl el-Ghiwa” or “The Pull of Seduction”.
The striking introduction to “A Baker’s Dozen” was played on the double bass by Pete Billington with Arabic inflections that gave an effect almost like that of an oud. Kelani said the song expresses both the tragedy and love of life, and she got the audience to come in with cries of “Awf!” at appropriate moments. The effect of Kelani’s vocal improvisations interwoven with the excellent tight playing of her band was very jazzy, and yet at the same time utterly Arab.
As an encore Kelani and her musicians performed the Sayyid Darwish “I am Egyptian”, segueing into one of his most famous songs “Zourouni!” (“Visit Me!”). At the end of the concert members of the audience were invited to partake of Ramadan dates and almonds.
The concert was an exhilarating opening to the Ramadan Nights season of four main concerts, and several smaller Freestage and Clubstage events. The other concerts feature the Azeri singer and daf player Alim Qasimov and his daughter Fargana, sharing the bill with the Kronos Quartet; the legendary Iranian-Kurdish Kamkar family - seven brothers and one sister –appearing on the same program as Turkish ney player Kudsi Erguner and his group; and the Mali musician Bassekou Kouyaté with his Ngoni ba group, and the Mali Tuareg group Tartit. Susannah Tarbush
27. Liverpool Echo, 24 July 2008
RATHER like the BBC, Reem Kelani's remit seems to be to educate, inform - and of course to entertain.
The indefatigable Palestinian doesn't simply perform the songs she sings. She also takes time to act as an enthused teacher explaining the historical, religious - though rarely political - background to each. These are less tub-thumping protest songs and more the lyrical tales of love or loss.
Manchester-born (but Kuwait-raised) Kelani has researched her subject well over 20 years, talking to people in both Palestine and Palestinian refugee camps. But as her two-hour set showed, her net spreads wide to embrace the music of Egypt, Spain, Iraq, Syria, Iran, the Nubian people and even Bulgaria.
In a crowded Bluecoat performance space, non-Arabic members of the audience outnumbered the Arabic. But then that was mirrored on stage where Kelani's excellent jazz-style ensemble included a double bass player called Oli, a bald-headed drummer from Lancashire and a sax/flautist with floppy hair. And there was a jazz inflection to Kelani's performance, born from growing up with her father's jazz records. Songs were delivered with intense passion with the singer telling the story with her arms, urging on her musicians, stamping her feet and clapping her hands. It's a performance that needs real stamina.
She also cajoled the audience into joining in when they felt like it, declaring the evening less of a gig and more of a workshop. There were flamenco overtones to an energetic, insistent short song written by Egyptian composer Sayid Darwish - described by Kelani as the Arabic equivalent of English rural folk song champion Percy Grainger.
It was one of the highlights of a set which also touched on Bollywood, blues, "Palestinian bebop" and a Persian song in mind-bending 17/8 time, all delivered with an infectious sense of fun. The evening of Middle Eastern travel came to a satisfyingly raucous conclusion back in Palestine with a touch of Arabic yodelling and an infectious encore number paying homage to Lebanese legend Fairuz. Catherine Jones
26. Dimitriou's Jazz Alley, Seattle, USA 15 May 2008
REEM KELANI: SEATTLE INTERNATIONAL CHILDREN'S FESTIVAL GLOBAL DIVAS SHOW
Some of the best music I've seen in Seattle at any venue over the last few years has been at the Seattle Children's Festival. Last night, during the 2008 version was no exception. I'm a fool for the music of Colombia and Petrona Martinez and her ensemble were stellar. Savannah Fuentes is a native daughter who's chosen the long and arduous road of becoming a flamenco dancer has all the right moves to make your heart drop. My wife pointed out to me the next morning that the cantadora was named Keiko who clapped some mean palmas. Palestinian singer Reem Kelani was a new name in my world, but the woman was so endearing I'll never forget her.
Let's face it; this is not a great time for Arab-US relations. But humans know deep inside that what their governments do don't often reflect what the citizens feel. Kelani brought that point home over and over again in a program that exposed her love of her country, the music of the Arab world and the beauty of the contributions that world has made. She's a sweet and easy sip of tea that introduces you to the village, the city, and the world she marvels at. Born in Manchester England and raised in Kuwait, Kelani has researched the music of the refugee camps of Palestine and Lebanon. She's a spokeswoman for her heritage and it was a treat to be introduced into her world that to Americans is exotic for no other reason than it's not readily available to us. Her perfect English was witty and her repartee hilarious. Once during the show she explained how she had been asked to include the other two groups for the evening's finale. She said about Spanish Flamenco "No problem, remember the Arab world ruled Spain longer than the Spaniards have". And then she added "No problem with Colombian Petrona Martinez, for me she's Mother Africa".
In some ways the music was a surprise to me containing as much of a jazz element as it does. It probably should not have, as the Palestinian neighbors in Israel have been producing some of the most exciting new jazz coming out these days. Kelani's group was comprised of trap drums manned by a Brit, an obviously classically trained pianist who played folk and conservatory both in the same phrase and an Egyptian violin player that when added up into a whole reminded me of some vagabond gypsy troupe that had spent more than a minute at the casbah and had reveled at more than one wedding that lasted for days.
It was another surprise to me that Seattle has a strong Palestinian contingent. There were fans in the audience singing along who obviously relished the chance to reunite with their homeland and during one very touching moment during the performance of a village wedding song many in the audience led a mass rush to the dance floor, where with joined hands they danced the traditional dance of the ceremony. There was so much love and joy in the room that tears were surely brought to many happy eyes.
Kelani is certainly a cheerleader for her love of Arab music and I was glad to be at her game of introducing us to the beauty of her language and music. Never once did I feel like an outsider and more than once I thought she was performing just for me. She's bringing her cards to the table in an effort for us to recognize not only the vastness of her knowledge about the music of the Arab world but also for the right for her community to live in peace with her neighbors. Music is a powerful weapon for healing and Reem Kelani is a master of seducing us gently into her thoughts and goals. Gary Bannister
(Gary Bannister is Artistic Director at Dimitriou's Jazz Alley, Seattle)
25. Soundroots.org, Olympia, Washington State, USA June 2008
Seattle International Children's Festival: the Best Semi-Secret Festival on Earth
My favorite secret festival has come and gone once again, leaving me with new cultural impressions, a bit of puzzlement, and a lot of music and laughter ringing in my ears.
The organizers of the Seattle International Children's Festival aren't trying to keep it a secret. In fact, they do a great job of spreading the word to area schools, which ship off shouting yellow busloads of kids, filling the theater seats with their noise and energy and fidgeting. Talking, twisting, and being shh'ed by teachers, the kids can seem a little ambivalent about what they're doing here and what they're about to see.
It's exactly the focus on the kids, however, that tends to keep SICF secret. Most shows are held mid-day, when kids are in school and when adults generally toil instead of attending concerts and circus performances. But the festival will gladly sell tickets to those adults willing to pry themselves away from work for an hour or two of entertainment at the hands of some truly compelling global acts.
After a short break, Palestinian singer Reem Kelani took the stage. Her band's cool sophistication was a sharp contrast to the earthy energy of the Colombians, but Kelani established her own claim on the audience's attention with her first song, a bare vocal piece with clapping and stomping percussion. She followed with the "Galilean Lullaby" before launching into a long raucous dabke (dance) tune that got much of the mixed crowd of kids and adults up and moving.
Kelani is clearly a master organizer/director - not only in leading her band in sometimes unexpected direction, but also in getting the kids to ease from this jubilant dancing to quiet breathing exercises, which she calls chillaxing (chill/relax). Without lecturing, she spoke of the interfaith heritage of Jerusalem then introduced a song based on a poem by Egyptian composer Sayyid Darwish. Tough to count (17/8 time!) but easy to enjoy, the song is a savory taste of Kelani's upcoming tribute album to Darwish, who was trained as a Muslim clergyman but was pulled away from the pious life by the allure of music.
"Most of his songs have become pan-Arab classics," Kelani said in a Spin The Globe radio interview, "and as an Arab musician if you haven't tackled the Sayyid Darwish repertoire, you still haven't been initiated." Scott Stevens
24. The Scotsman, 3 March 2008
Live music review: Mehfil
Centre for Contemporary Arts, Glasgow
THE four feisty international women artists at Mehfil 2008, the second event of this nature organised by Glasgow's multi-racial Ankur Productions, gave new meaning and impetus to the Urdu word for "artistic gathering". Each pushed the envelope of creativity in unexpected directions, embodying stories of family, community, migration and exile with original vision and quirky humour.
Kicking off, Bangladeshi poet Shamin Azad conjured up what was to come by calling herself a "heritage animator". Her vibrant account of the Bangladeshi myth of the migrant journey to Britain involving the fording of seven seas and 30 rivers touched the well-springs of folktale tradition. It also illuminated her witty argument about the necessary relationship between "naked truth" and "story" if we are to hear the experiences of others and glimpse the world through their eyes.
Gaelic singer Catriona Watt continued the theme with songs her Lewis grandmother had taught her, delivered with a sense of moving wonder and serenity. She was followed by Iranian singer Vida Kashizadeh whose fluent German/French-inflected accordion playing and beautiful vocal jokes revealed subtle new angles on cabaret.
While the night belonged to all four women, undoubtedly the charisma of Palestinian singer Reem Kelani was a high spot. In witty repartee with both audience and her inventive pianist, Bruno Heinen, Kelani took us from Galilee to Egypt, India to Persia and back to Palestine, her riveting songs of deep soul delivered with thrilling panache. Jan Fairley
23. The Waterfront, Swansea University student newspaper, March 2008
Reem Kelani at the Taliesin
Describing how one particularly insensitive journalist had recently asked her if she was 'willing to die for Palestine,' Palestinian singer Reem Kelani told a packed Taliesin that she had firmly replied 'I want to LIVE for Palestine'!
With a set comprising songs from her new album Sprinting Gazelle - Palestinian Songs from the Motherland and the Diaspora she demonstrated a range and vocal dexterity of awesome power.
Accompanied by an excellent five piece jazz ensemble including Mercury prize nominee Zoe Rahman on piano, Kelani's style is difficult to categorize, but encompasses elements of classical Arabic music, folk and jazz.
Classical Arabic songs by Rashid Husain and the world renowned Egyptian musician Sayyid Darwish were given an added emotional impact by the continued sufferings of the Palestinian people.
The crowd rose to their feet after the closing number to give Reem Kelani and her top notch musicians a well deserved standing ovation, although there were perhaps a few tears shed as well by those exiles in the audience missing their homeland. Paul Seacombe
22. The Swansea Evening Post, February 2008
Taliesin Arts Centre, Swansea
Sunday, February 24 Musicians who attempt to straddle the very different genres of jazz and what has become known as "world music" have become increasingly popular in recent years, due in no small part to the manner in which enlightened audiences have embraced multi-culturalism and the perception that we now live in a global village.
Palestinian singer Reem Kelani is one such artist, and while her musical style owes far more to traditional Arabic and folk music - including sequences which clearly demonstrate the roots of Gypsy music and flamenco - than to Western jazz, of which there was very little(if any)here, then this is more than compensated for by her extraordinarily powerful and emotive voice and her confidence in connecting with her audience.
Joined here by Zoe Rahman(piano), Ian East(saxophones/flutes), Pete Billington(double bass), Samy Bishai(violin), John Blease(drums), Kelani performed songs from her debut album Sprinting Gazelle and blew the crowd away with the depth of emotion with which she delivered these complex and lyrical works.
A total lack of the kind of political controversy for which such events are renowned was a definite plus, inasmuch as Kelani chooses to spread the word about Palestinian culture and identity in an infinitely more subtle and effective way. Graham Williams
21. Red Pepper, Manchester, December 2007
The Voice of Palestine
Reem Kelani filled Sheffield City's Memorial Hall on 17th October, with her presence, her music and her voice that ranged further than the hills of Palestine. Her band of top class jazz musicians, renowned in their own right, provided vibrant improvisation to support her voice and the adaptation of traditional Arabic rhythms and melodies to modern interpretations of classical Arabic poetry and songs.
Reem has collected traditional folk songs from Palestinian women around the world. The women she has met have inspired her to sing, to portray their struggle through the celebration of Palestinian musical heritage. She told the story of how she learnt a wedding song in Syria from a Palestinian woman refugee - how that woman had held onto her songs and memories despite having left her land over sixty years ago.
Her passion for the voice of women through song echoes the tribulations of Palestinian life through the centuries through to the modern day. It belies the propaganda which denies the Palestinians their past and their culture. It belies the notion that Palestinian women (or any Arab women) are not a central element of creating and maintaining the strong sense of Palestinian life, culture and society which has enabled them to carry on their national struggle.
As Reem explains: "I care about the land, but without Palestinian culture it's meaningless. Turning my nation into refugees has meant that we have lost, and continue to lose, our cultural heritage, but what is worse is Israeli cultural appropriation. We can't access many of the manuscripts of our poets and musicians because they are held by the Israeli government, and you need a permit to visit the archives."
Born in Manchester, raised in Kuwait and now living in London, Reem has worked to bring Arab and non-Arab musical traditions together. Her use of a jazz rhythm section as a backing band, allows her the flexibility of improvisations whilst she maintains the conventions of classical Arabic singing. The power of her voice to ring clear on the lowest softest notes through to ululating during a wedding song, and threatening to break the windows in the hall, captivated the audience.
With the sublime accompaniment of Zoe Rahman on piano, Samy Bashai on violin, Ian East on saxophones & flute, Patrick Illingworth on drums and Oli Hayhurst on double bass, Reem sang wedding songs, songs of return, of labourers and of the harvest. She had adapted traditional and modern poetry into song. Her poignant rendition of Mahmoud Salim al-Hout's poem, YAFA, left the audience holding its breath as the last note rang out across the concert hall. It tells of the poet having to flee his home when Israel was established, how he walked away never to return.
Reem explains to the non-Arabic speakers, the meanings and sometimes the literal translation of the lyrics, and why and where they were sung. One song that dates back to the Ottoman period (14th – 19th century) tells of a woman wishing her husband soldier to return safely.
Reem was able to convey the Palestinian woman's soul and the Palestinians’ claim to identity and rights far more effectively than weeks of leafleting streets or holding vigils and marches. There were no need for slogans, no need to push the message home, the beauty of her voice, her presence and of the women who have sung the songs over centuries was captured for us in that concert in Sheffield.
The concert was jointly organised by Yorkshire Palestine Cultural Exchange, Sheffield Palestine Solidarity Campaign and concert4palestine, as a fund-raiser for children’s projects in Gaza Strip. Sara Gowen
20. The Institute of Musical Research, November 2007
Middle East and Central Asia Music Forum
The second Middle East and Central Asia Music Forum concluded with live music, a wonderful performance of Palestinian music by Reem Kelani on voice and frame drum, accompanied on piano by Bruno Heinen.
Many of the songs were collected by Reem from women in Palestinian refugee camps. But Reem's music also draws on a wide range of musical influences beyond Palestinian repertoire, from flamenco to jazz, and her performance at the Forum included a particularly interesting 'fusion' between Palestinian music and Bach, as well as some wonderful dancing and unusual rhythmic and metric patterns, including a 17-beat cycle which Reem managed to teach the audience.
19. Oor World Music magazine, the Netherlands, August 2007
One pleasant surprise was the fiery, flaxen-haired Palestinian singer Reem Kelani who, with her mix of flamenco singing, Arabic dance music, poems of Palestinian suffering and songs by forgotten Egyptian legends like Said Darwish, was one of the great revelations of Womad. The combination of a jazzy quartet and her fabulous, powerful voice was a successful experiment.
Later on, at the Taste World tent where musicians talk about the role of food in their cultures, she proved to be a very good cook, handing out bowls of her wonderful pumpkin dip. Pieter Franssen
18. The Bristol Evening Post, 30 July 2007
Acts shine, but no sign of the sun
Womad: Charlton Park, Malmesbury. It was billed as the great homecoming to the West, after many years away. Sadly, the story of the summer - rain and more rain - was also the story of Womad 2007.
This is always the sunniest of festivals - if not in terms of the orange ball in the sky, then certainly in the dazzling array of musical talent from across the globe.
But while the acts burned brightly, the weather grudgingly refused to catch up, rendering Womad's new home at Charlton Park a mudpit of vast proportions.
The festival spirit was severely tested by two weekend downpours but, as Womad founder Peter Gabriel noted, if the festival had remained at Reading, by the Thames, it would have been cancelled outright.
Friday's outing for Senegalese hip-hoppers Daara J was a welcome excursion into hi-energy dance, while the Kronos Quartet offered an unlikely but otherwise fantastic insight into avant-garde classical music.
Slightly disappointing were ska legends Toots and the Maytals - more cabaret than Caribbean - and Mr Gabriel himself, who seemed to lack the verve to swing a flagging crowd around.
As ever, the trick is to find the off-kilter acts who might one day reappear as headliners. The Radio 3 stage, in the new Aboretum area, was the place and, if there's any justice in the world, Palestinian singer Reem Kelani should be back again soon. The same goes for Brazilians Clube Do Balanco, who paid homage to their country's rich musical heritage with a fine retro samba-rock sound.
Saturday also saw the live debut of The Imagined Village, a broad church of like-minded stars (Martin and Eliza Carthy, Billy Bragg and Benjamin Zephaniah, among others) playing re-interpreted English traditional music. When it worked, it soared; when it didn't, it felt clunky and forced.
Rain and unfamiliar territory were the root of some grumbles, but there were more than enough compensatory smiles. Mel Greenwood
17. BBC Manchester, July 2007
Manchester International Festival: Exodus Live
Reem Kelani and the Beating Wing Orchestra shine at a celebration of world music at Club Academy
With performances from countries including Palestine, Kurdistan, Brazil and Angola, Exodus Live brought a world of music to Manchester.
This was an evening of performances from musicians from refugee and migrant backgrounds. Opening with Bhangra and semi-Classical, Asian Music Talent started the night with music from India and Pakistan, with Angolan singer/songwriter Serafim Bernardo hot on their heels to warm up the crowd with a gentle acoustic set featuring African and Latin sounds.
Next up, the Lost Melody Music Group presented a vibrant set of Kurdish folk songs with musicians from Iraq, Syria, Iran and Turkey before Gambian Kora player Jali N Kuyateh took to the stage, followed by the laidback sounds of Heritage Survival, the final act before the interval bringing their own blend of Zimbabwean Afro-Jazz to the stage.
Following on, the pièce de résistance was Paradise In Strangers, a new piece of music composed especially for the Manchester International Festival by Palestinian musician Reem Kelani and performed by the Beating Wing Orchestra.
In a five part musical exploration of migration, reunion and slavery, Reem brought a powerful sense of coherence to a performance which featured musicians from all corners of the globe.
From China and Brazil to Kurdistan and the Democratic Republic of Congo, Paradise In Strangers drew together a wealth of musical influences to create a powerful celebration of cross-cultural collaboration.
As Britannia Rumba played out the night, the atmosphere in the Academy spoke volumes about value of world music. When it comes to collaboration, the Manchester International Festival does not get more international than this. Zannah Ingraham
16. Manchester Metro, Tuesday 10 July 2007
Manchester International Festival
Reem Kelani & Beating Wing Orchestra *****
World music, like blues, used to be predicated on the appeal of the other. For full enjoyment, the music had to come from somewhere remote and exotic. The bluesman or griot from up the road was viewed with suspicion. Globalisation has changed all that. The Beating Wing Orchestra consists of musicians-in-exile from Manchester’s wide immigrant population. Their union disproves the idea that multi-culturalism is a threat. Communities can best unite, is the Beating Wing lesson, not by inter-faith dialogue, but by inter-musical dialogue.
The achievement of Reem Kelani’s stunning work, Paradise In Strangers - commissioned by Manchester International Festival - is to penetrate superficial differences to reveal deeper human truths. The first section introduced variously ethnically diverse singers in succession, each with a song of exile. Haili Heaton brought the highly stylised refinements of Chinese opera, whereas Alan Mardan might have been chanting across a mountain-range in Kurdistan. Emmanuela Macholi Yogolelo, from the Congo, transcended language with the tragic force of her singing. If pain is a universal, so is love, and Haili and Azhar Nasir made an attractive cross-cultural Romeo and Juliet in the third section, Question-And-Answer on Love.
This is not watered down fusion, but the antidote to watered down fusion. The entire company participated with gusto in the ‘Gulf clapping’ of Dhow Boat Speaks. The mood by now had irreversibly shifted from sadness to celebration. Kelani mischievously sprang the biggest surprise with the final section - an adaption in 6/8 time of a Manchester broadside ballad. It was the first full outing for her own incomparable voice, and surely represented a reconciliation with her birthplace: Reem Kelani is the world’s most prominent Manchester-born Palestinian singer. This impression was confirmed when the singers began chanting in unison, ‘sing hey, sing ho, sing hey down gai-ly, Manchester’s improving dai-ly.’ Exile has its bright moments too. Mike Butler
15. Saudi Gazette, 25 June 2007
Reem Kelani sings at Leighton House
It is difficult to think of a more fitting venue for a festival of Muslim Cultures in London than Leighton House Museum near Holland Park in the west of the city.
For those with an interest in Arab music, the Afternoon of Middle Eastern Music was a particularly memorable part of the festival. The afternoon featured two London-based women singers from different parts of the Arab world. Houria Niati was born in Algeria, while Palestinian Reem Kelani was born in Manchester, England, to a mother from Nazareth and a father from the village of Ya’bad near Jenin, and grew up in Kuwait.
Reem Kelani’s CD “Sprinting Gazelle” was released in early 2006 to much critical acclaim. The CD comprised traditional Palestinian songs and Kelani’s settings of works by Palestinians poets. In her recital she performed compositions from this CD as well as from her second CD which is dedicated to the work of the great Egyptian musician Sheikh Sayed Darwish of Alexandria. He died in 1923 at the age of only 31.
Kelani began her recital in a whirlwind of clapping, yodeling and foot stamping as she performed a wedding song from the city of Acre. The audience was amused by her comment: “The family of the bridge tells the groom’s family that because you accepted our daughter in marriage, we are going to make you ruler of all Arab tribes. Mind you, if you had rejected her we would have made you clean up after our cattle.”
After this boisterous beginning, David Beebee jangled cow bells from the Khorasan region of Iran in the gentle introduction to a Galilean song, a setting by Kelani of a work by the late Palestinian poet and politician Tawfiq Zayyad. The song tells of the singer’s loved ones moving away. “My heart has never stopped shedding tears for them…if you see the cameleer of the caravan stop him to tell my loved ones in their deserted homes that hardship shall never last for ever.” The song was juxtaposed with a contemporary lullaby and with a 19th century lullaby in which Muslim women in Bethlehem ask the Virgin Mary to protect their babies while they are sleeping.
Niati had performed muwashahat from North Africa in her recital, and Kelani’s recital included a muwashaha from Egypt. Kelani observed that Western music abandoned quarter-tones but that they remain in Arab music. In her arrangement for piano of the muwashaha, “I’d like to pay tribute to the meeting point when quarter tones were still not dropped - and hopefully we’ll put the notion of a clash of civilizations into the dustbin, at least for this afternoon.”
Kelani then moved on to a song by Sheikh Sayed Darwish in a 17/8 rhythmic pattern known in Farsi as “khosh rank”, meaning “beautiful color.” The intricate dynamic rhythm carried the listener along with its syncopations and Spanish-type inflections. She also sang the Darwish composition “The Porters’ Anthem”. Darwish studied Italian opera, and also wrote a song for almost every manual profession in Egypt at the time. In his porters’ anthem he incorporates the porters’ cries of “Hela hela” that he would hear in his area of Alexandria.
Kelani’s next number was a love song she described as “’mellow,’ a sanitized way of saying it’s a wrist-slasher”. It was her setting of the qasida “Yafa!” written by Yafa (Jaffa)-born Mahmoud Salim Al-Hout in 1948 when he lost all his manuscripts while fleeing the city. He compares Yafa to a beautiful woman. David Beebee seemed to utilize the entire length of the piano keyboard in his solo introduction to the piece, which was tinged with sorrow and captured the depth and movement of the sea.
Kelani compared the qasida to Niati’s style of singing which is called in Spanish “canta hondo”, meaning “deep singing.” She observed that the Spanish poet and dramatist Federico Garcia Lorca had written much about canta hondo and had paid tribute to the poets of Seville and Granada at a time when there was not much recognition in Spain of the influence of Arab music and Andalusian culture. Kelani said that Lorca had influenced many Palestinian poets after 1948 and that Samih Al-Qassem and Tawfiq Zayyad had dedicated poems to him.
Niati joined Kelani on stage for a rousing rendering of one of Darwish’s most famous songs “Zourouni kull sana marra” or “Visit me once a year”. As an encore Kelani performed Palestinian poet Salma Khadra Jayyusi’s translation into English of Love Poem by Samih Qassim. Susannah Tarbush
14. Alitidal, USA/Syria, March 2007
Translated from Arabic © The Miktab Ltd, 2007
The ‘Oaff’ melisma is more powerful than the sword
She came, she amazed us, she sang, she danced, she made us cry and she made us laugh. Her powerful voice ignited within us feelings of longing, as did it evoke contradictory and heart-rending feelings of sorrow.
Under the patronage of the Minister of Culture Dr. Riyad Naasan Agha, Reem Kelani was invited by the British Council to perform in Damascus recently at the Syrian Opera House. And there… she sang Palestine.
Kelani has sung her songs in Europe, the Middle East and the USA for years. “She doesn’t sing the music, but lives it with her whole body and soul” wrote British music critic Roger Van Schaik, “The sheer emotional power of it hits you right in the solar plexus, but it’s totally controlled – she can switch instantly from anger to laughter, from grief to celebration.”
Kelani was accompanied on her tour by a group of excellent Syrian and British musicians.
13. Tishreen, Syria, Friday 9 February 2007
Translated from Arabic © The Miktab Ltd, 2007
Palestinian Songs from the Motherland and the Diaspora
Palestinian singer Reem Kelani gave a concert organised by the British Council at the Syrian Opera House in Damascus, accompanied by British and Syrian musicians including Amir Qara Jouli, Basel Rajoub and Simon Mreach from Syria and Oli Hayhurst, Patrick Illingworth and Zoe Rahman from Britain.
The concert was entitled ‘Palestinian Songs from the Motherland and the Diaspora’, which is the sub-title of her debut CD ‘Sprinting Gazelle’ released in February 2006. The album is the fruit of her research into traditional Palestinian music and song that has taken the best part of the last twenty years.
Kelani chose the title of the CD because “the gazelle is a free and beautiful creature, but it is also vulnerable. My people are free, beautiful and they love life despite the many attempts at their annihilation. There are many similarities between the gazelle and the Palestinians: the gazelle knows that it is surrounded by danger and is in a continuous state of fright and flight. At the same time, the gazelle is neither cowardly nor reluctant. It is always sprinting deep into the woods seeking its freedom, just like my people who reject death and victim-hood.”
When asked by British journalists if she would die for Palestine, Kelani retorts that she would rather “live for Palestine”! With sentiments such as these, Kelani rejects the Western media’s portrayal of the Palestinians as a people in love with death. She manifests this in her music and in her collation of traditional songs which exist in her own collective and which she memorised from older Palestinian women. Kelani travels the world with her repertoire, sprinting around like a gazelle, to show how our thirst for life enriches our music and traditions.
She appears on stage with a determined face and an agile body, her voice afire with songs from the motherland and the Palestinian Diaspora. She shows the bankruptcy of the claim that Palestine was ‘a land without a people. Kelani sings songs about farming, harvest, marriage and parting that go back over a century and which are imprinted in our collective memory. By this act, she affirms that Palestine before 1948 was indeed a land with a people pulsating with life and song.
In concert, Kelani presents the traditional repertoire as well as her own settings of contemporary resistance poetry. Of particular note is her arrangement of ‘The Cameleer Tormented my Heart’, which was previously researched by poet Tawfiq Zayyad. Her voice rises halfway through the song, hailing the Palestinian right of return. Through this rendition, Palestine was present from the outset of the concert.
Kelani’s innovative and dramatic performance came through a joint British-Syrian project which gave her the opportunity to challenge the notion of a ‘clash of civilisations’.
Kelani’s many abilities of singing, composition and performance enabled her to fill the auditorium with sadness, joy and life. She seized hold of us with her passion, a passion which rejects the protracted sense of catastrophe and dispersion which has been visited upon the Palestinians in the wake of Israel’s creation. In an instant, Kelani switches effortlessly from anger and pain to joy and laughter, in a successful juxtaposition of our collective existence: one of pain and the other ridiculing that pain.
Kelani’s soul and voice are stronger than any political map. She performs ‘Galilean Lullaby’ about the pain of separation and ‘As Nazarene Women Crossed the Meadow’ about Nazareth and its resilient women as they crossed the pasture of Ibn ‘Aamer. It is as if Nazareth and 1948 Palestine were present before us in folklore and music, a riposte to those politicians and diplomats who seek to deny this existence.
“There are those who would like to ignore the original problem and erase the past” Kelani adds, “but they can not take away our identity within”. Kelani may have no political clout or authority, but she has her traditions and her music which, interestingly enough, she combines with piano and jazz.
Some may find this innovative style confusing, but Kelani explains that she does not wish traditional music to remain “confined within its regional borders.” In her view, the melodic sentence should be preserved, but one should also strive to take it to a wider audience. She directly relates her use of jazz in the traditional repertoire to the origins of this idiom. “My musical message is inspired by the suffering of African Americans. When I sing traditional Palestinian songs, I see this as a victory over two forms of racism, that of the white man and that of Zionism. When I listen to an old Scottish woman singing a traditional lament, it moves me the same way a Palestinian parting song might. Traditional music is universal, only the language is different”.
Kelani’s stage presence, performance and passionate renditions are controlled and they combine emotions of suffering and victory. She does this by singing a defiantly celebratory traditional song. Kelani parades her cause in song on stage with all her power, using instruments such as piano, violin, percussion and drums. The upshot is one complete voice emanating from a British-born Palestinian who follows her roots wherever she may be.
Her settings of resistance poetry included ‘Mawwaal’ by Mahmoud Darwish, a poem that contains many a subtle declamation such as ‘I defend my right to defend my right’. The concert ended with a rousing performance of ‘Il-Hamdillah’, a traditional song ironically themed around house building, when Palestinians are often forced to rebuild their bulldozered homes. One verse boasted the following lyrics: ‘Praise God we planted peppers in the heat… Our foes said they wouldn’t turn red… Praise God our peppers grew and turned red’. As Kelani performed this verse, she used traditional hand gestures in a manner so impulsive it ignited instant and infectious laughter amongst her audience. Not comical laughter, but something full of self-belief and resilience. Very much like a sprinting gazelle. Khuzama Rasheed, Damascus-based Palestinian writer and playwright
12. Al-Hayat, London/Syria, 5 February 2007
Reem Kelani celebrates the Palestinian DNA!
Grandmothers’ songs in a journey that delves into the collective memory inside the refugee camps and the Occupied Territories:
Imagine the Opera House inviting some old women to sing traditional songs. How do you think the concert would fare? What would the audience be like? That is assuming that they turned up in the expectation of something more than just light entertainment and ridicule.
As it happens, someone did take this idea seriously and was welcomed by a responsive audience, all the more so when it became clear that this woman had carried her tape recorder and gone in search of the surviving traditional songs in Palestinian refugee camps and in the Occupied Territories.
This was a painstakingly long journey undertaken by Reem Kelani, who transports the Palestinians’ songs from the streets of refugee camps into theatres and opera houses.
Her journey might be deemed to have begun when she was born in Manchester in Britain to Palestinian refugee parents. Or perhaps it started when she sang in public for the first time at the age of four. In either case, her experience led to her debut album ‘Sprinting Gazelle’ and to her songs being performed in Europe, America and the Middle East.
It is not really enough to think, from a distance, about Kelani’s journey and all its tribulations. I only began to appreciate the precision and substance of her work after attending one of two concerts she gave with her band at the Syrian Opera House recently.
The concert programme stated that the evening was dedicated to showcasing traditional songs, but the sight of western instruments on stage made this seem unlikely. If we were wondering how Kelani would present her songs, it did not take long to become clear. Kelani walked on stage alongside her musicians and headed towards a designated chair in the middle. She took a bow beside it, and then she sat down facing the microphone.
This made us think initially that the performance would be of a formal and traditional nature, but Kelani dispersed this notion in an instant. The chair was merely a point of respite, rather than an onstage base. She soon left it to lead her jazz rhythm section playing Eastern melodic modes into a passionate song. Next, her body was swaying with the rhythm, adding foot-stamping percussion that borrowed from Flamenco, among other sources.
Kelani continued to sing traditional songs, at times whilst sitting on her chair and playing her frame drums. And her ecstatic dance in no way distracted her from playing her drums. Instead, she used the charges emanating from the music, rhythm and dance in order to breathe life into the lyrics of these songs. In so doing, it looked like she was singing with her whole body and spirit.
The evening was more than just a musical performance; it was a multi-faceted show which sought to revive the very spirit of tradition. Kelani had a story to tell about each song: parting songs that used to be performed by our forefathers as they bade their loved ones and their homeland farewell, and love songs that were sung by ancient lovers in moments of passion. And the storytelling was not complete until Kelani recounted her meetings with these Palestinian women. She even acted out some of her conversations with them. But this was not done in a random manner or for comic effect. It was merely one of the many tools that she used in order to celebrate what she appropriately coined the “Palestinian DNA”.
Even Kelani’s way of introducing her musicians was inspired by the simplicity and impulsiveness of daily talk laced with local dialects. As in the case when she introduced Patrick Illingworth (drums) as someone from the north of England, she put on a northern English accent with an unmatched sense of humour and timing. Alongside Illingworth, Kelani was joined by Zoe Rahman (piano) and Oli Hayhurst (double bass) from Britain and Amir Qara Jouli (violin), Basel Rajoub (saxophones) and Simon Mreach (percussion) from Syria.
Kelani’s way of relating to her musicians was noteworthy. She helped to create a second spotlight over each of them, in an attempt to encourage them and more importantly, to instil their names in our memory.
In order not to confuse her audience, Kelani answered an inquiry about how much of her arrangements are pre-prepared or on-the-spot improvisations. Those of us who noticed her set her stopwatch at the beginning of the show did not need reassurance, and Kelani explained her song arrangements, including the individual solo slots (as would happen in jazz performances) and rhythmic grooves.
It was confusing, nonetheless, that the evening was given only the one subtitle, namely ‘Palestinian Songs from the Motherland and the Diaspora’. Was this evening simply a performance of song or a novel and versatile jazz gig?
In truth, it was far more than this, and it entered the realms of theatrical performance and the use of monologue, as Kelani told the stories behind every song and interacted with her musicians and the audience. She was even joined by an old woman in the audience who engaged in a spontaneous call-and-response rendition of the yodel-like chants of women’s songs during weddings and celebrations.
What is clear is that the format that Kelani has created is more like a celebration, and an unprecedented one at that, of Palestinian folklore. She has turned it into a unique artistic idiom that was received with admiration and interest as she enthralled her audience which joined in singing with her. I should also mention that the traditional songs that Kelani presented are the very ones that you might hear from an old woman, including the style of singing, as manifested in the lengthening and shortening of phrases according to traits handed down across generations.
Reem Kelani has succeeded in re-presenting the old songs that are stuck in the collective memory of Palestinians, and doing so faithfully on stage. In this way, she has invented an artistic format which is more than mere documentation. Indeed, she makes traditional music pulsate with a modern splendour that neither diminishes nor harms it.
Kelani’s efforts pose an important question to Arab musicians: is reviving traditional music and verse in both documentation and performance only possible when it is under the threat of annihilation and elimination? This goes to the heart of an answer Kelani herself gave, when she was asked how, as an Arab, she sang Jazz: “It is because I’m an Arab that I sing Jazz”. Wasim Ibrahim, Syrian music critic
11. As-Safir, Lebanon/Syria, 3 February 2007
Translated from Arabic © The Miktab Ltd, 2007
A Universal Presentation of Palestinian Soul
I was one of many stunned members of the audience who recently attended a concert, organised by the British Council, by Palestinian singer Reem Kelani at the Syrian Opera House in Damascus. This was not only because we witnessed a style of singing which is so against the current trend, but also because of the richness and multifarious talents in view in one personality.
Born in Britain to Palestinian parents and raised in Kuwait, Reem Kelani attended a traditional wedding in a village outside Nazareth in her childhood. After some hesitation about her musical direction, this experience proved to be a changing point which eventually led her to hold firm to her innate musical feelings. It was obviously a seminal moment which strengthened her resolve about which way she should go. Through learning these traditional rituals, Kelani felt proud at belonging to an identity which is often shrouded with the ambiguity of dispersion in the Diaspora. She naturally assimilated the first experiences upon which she would later build new musical forms.
Kelani assuredly knows the value of preserving and documenting traditions, and not just relying on them being passed down orally. At the same time, she makes sure that the politics do not take over her musical message. According to her, “music should be able to exist in its own right”. Kelani, who studied piano as a child and was fascinated by Jazz from an early age, managed to take in all the details of the Palestinian wedding and to present them in a different arrangement. Who would have imagined that our own folksongs could be conveyed by a Jazz rhythm section comprising saxophones, drums and piano?
In concert, Kelani performed songs such as ‘As Nazarene Women Crossed the Meadow’, an old traditional song about Palestinian women from Nazareth bidding their men farewell as they crossed the pasture of Marj Ibn ‘Aamer. She also sang ‘Il-Hamdillah’which Palestinians sing when they build homes, and she arranged it in a zikr fashion as in sacred remembrance sessions. Kelani also brought forth the poetry of Palestinian poets such as Rashid Husain, who was burnt alive alone in his room in New York, Tawfiq Zayyad and Mahmoud Darwish. For the latter, she sang his poem ‘Mawwaal’, where the chorus line is taken from the traditional verse: “O Mother! I can stand a dagger’s thrust… But not the rule of a coward”.
I must admit that whilst I am quite keen on traditional Palestinian music, what I found here was more than just mere singing. I saw the amazing presence of this singer, her towering stance and appearance on stage, her interaction with the band and with the audience. It all reflected Kelani’s many talents: aside from singing and composing, Kelani is a freelance broadcaster and a passionate folk dancer. And nor did she conceal her acting abilities during this performance.
To be honest, throughout the concert I could not stop thinking about Kelani’s emancipated posture on stage and of her amazing versatility and resourcefulness, and most importantly, what I can call the universal presentation of the Palestinian soul. Such universality can also be found in the excellent works of other Palestinians such as Elia Suleiman [Divine Intervention], Hany Abu-Assad [Paradise Now], Nizar Zu’bi and the Joubran family; it is nothing like the scary narrow image we otherwise have of internecine strife.
Kelani’s experiment could be described as a “civilised and artistic response”, an expression which the Palestinian actor Muhammad Bakri normally uses when he describes the Palestinian creative and artistic riposte to Israeli brutality.
But Kelani’s experiment gives us another example of co-existence, as opposed to fusion, coming as it does out of Britain. Such co-existence encompasses the experience of immigrants and shapes their creative input, thus combining to produce works of universal appeal. So it was natural that this co-existence in Kelani’s work should be manifested in working with musicians who are mostly non-Arab. As well as being accompanied in Damascus by British musicians such as Oli Hayhurst (double bass), Patrick Illingworth (drums) and Zoe Rahman (piano), Kelani also involved Syrian musicians Amir Qara Jouli (violin), Basel Rajoub (saxophones) and Simon Mreach (percussion).
The concert in Damascus by Reem Kelani was billed as ‘Palestinian Songs from the Motherland and the Diaspora’, but it was not overtly populist in any way. The audience may have included only specialist musicians and dedicated fans. Kelani nonetheless commanded great influence and authority over the audience, and they joined in with her and interacted well with the band. If the absence of those Palestinians in the crowd who are accustomed only to listening to their ‘own songs’ was not a matter of bad publicity, then it is a sign worthy of reflection. Rashid Issa, Damascus-based Palestinian art critic and writer
10. Albaath, Syria, February 2007
Translated from Arabic © The Miktab Ltd, 2007
Reem Kelani’s Emergence as a Role Model
Diversity in culture requires mastery of more than one language. For me, this is exhibited in the widespread use of English in the Gulf, but the same could be said about the use of French in North Africa and Lebanon. Universities in Egypt, Jordan and Sudan even use English in their science curricula.
Contrary to what some in Syria believe, this widespread use of other languages did not eliminate Arabic. Such misconceptions led to decisions which have skewed generations and which have made it difficult for them to cope with the ‘other’, even with citizens from neighbouring Arab countries.
Little effort has been made to change this failed policy, and it continues to impinge upon our lives and those of our children. Foreign language teaching in Syria remains inadequate for bringing up people who can adapt, who can think for themselves and who are comfortable with other potentially enriching cultures. Indeed, Egypt is evidence of the positive aspects of ‘inoculating’ one’s culture with other rich and interesting cultures. This has enabled Egypt to promote its own culture abroad, thereby boosting tourism, which is one of its most important sources of income.
We face a dilemma of whether we can have confidence in our Arabic cultural identity as one capable of developing and contributing to the world around it.
The British-born Palestinian singer and musician Reem Kelani’s experience is an excellent example to follow. In her recent concerts in Damascus, Kelani stunned her audience with a potent blend of Arabic and Western music, which was at once faithful to the Palestinian cultural identity whilst at the same time enriching it with the music of the ‘other’.
Kelani evokes elements of Jazz which are redolent with the pain of the Palestinians, and in so doing, she expands the Palestinian narrative beyond the realms of folklore and takes us to an understanding of true universal human suffering.
Kelani does not present Jazz as an absolute. Instead, she seeks to offer Jazz as a means of expression, in this case of the historic pain of African Americans, and to use it to relate it to the suffering of Palestinians under occupation. Assf Ibrahim
9. Al-Thawra, Syria, Tuesday, 30 January 2007
Translated from Arabic © The Miktab Ltd, 2007
Reem Kelani Sings of Palestinian Pain
Reem Kelani emerged from the depth of Palestinian pain to carry her homeland in her heart and through her voice to a wider world. Her voice retains its Palestinian characteristics, especially those from her maternal home of Nazareth, her paternal home of Jenin, and from the Galilee generally.
Kelani found what she was looking so long for in the traditional Palestinian repertoire. She memorised many songs, re-arranged them, and added to their lyrics with the works of well-known Palestinian poets such as Tawfiq Zayyad. She then re-presented this repertoire with her own voice, alongside her own compositions structured upon resistance poetry from her occupied homeland.
Kelani’s project involves performances all over the world, informing her audiences about traditional Palestinian folklore, and thereby about the Palestinian tragedy. This effort has taken the best part of twenty years, dedicated to research and collation of material. Her work is all the more important in Europe and the rest of the world because it stands against Israeli attempts to appropriate Palestinian tradition and claim it as theirs. Indeed, many traditional Palestinian songs have already been appropriated by Israel, through use of the same musical sentences with juxtaposition of modern Hebrew lyrics, published thereafter as Israeli folklore.
Kelani’s project saw her perform recently in Damascus at the Syrian Opera House, during which she presented seven songs from her debut CD ‘Sprinting Gazelle’. The first song ‘As Nazarene Women Crossed the Meadow’ was a song Nazarene women used to sing to their men as they crossed the pasture of Ibn ‘Aamer. Kelani followed this with the traditional ‘The Cameleer Tormented my Heart’, adding new lyrics hailing the Palestinian right of return. ‘Galilean Lullaby’ came next, using traditional lyrics that lament exile and separation, resulting in a haunting singing style that was profoundly sad. ‘A Baker’s Dozen’ followed, a well-known song in Palestine, Jordan and Syria. Unlike the previous numbers, it was a happy and flirtatious song. It speaks of a woman searching for her beloved amongst a crowd of men all wearing the same white headdress.
Kelani also presented her own settings of contemporary poetry. The first was her composition ‘Mawwaal’ from a poem by Mahmoud Darwish. The original poem is much longer; it takes up six pages in Darwish’s anthology. Kelani chose three sections and arranged the traditional lament within the poem as a chorus line, as it was intended in the original poem. Kelani composed this piece for a BBC documentary about the massacres of Sabra and Shatila. Through this commission, Kelani realised that Darwish’s poetry was subtle enough to address this painful subject without running foul of BBC guidelines and sensitivities.
From the poetry of Rashid Husain who died prematurely, Kelani sang her setting of his poem ‘Thoughts and Echoes’ which appears under the title ‘Yearning’ on her CD. A return to traditional Palestinian music included Kelani’s rendition of an old song about a woman left behind as her loved ones go on a pilgrimage to Mecca. She also sang ‘Il-Hamdillah’ which she prefaced with a sonorous rendition of the ‘Aweeha’ women’s song-form. To add variety, Kelani sang ‘Salla Fina’ a beautiful strophic muwashshah whose lyrics were written by Homs-born lyricist Amin Al-Jundi. The music is believed to have been composed by Egyptian Sayyid Darwish to a 17/8 Persian rhythmic pattern that is rarely used in Arabic music called ‘khosh rank’.
Kelani’s repertoire is more expansive still, encompassing other traditional songs and translated poems such as Samih al-Qasem’s ‘Love Poem’, which she sings in English.
To introduce her work to a wider audience and to document old Palestinian songs, Kelani produced and financed on her own her debut album which was released in February 2006. The album contains 10 tracks, including the seven songs that she performed during her Syrian tour. The other three tracks are ‘Qasidah of Return’ by Salma Khadra Jayyusi, ‘Yafa’ by Mahmoud Salim al-Hout and the title track which is a rendition of the traditional ‘Ah! Ya Reem al-Ghuzlaan’. A detailed booklet accompanies the album, containing the lyrics in Arabic, their translation into English, introductory notes and a glossary.
Kelani’s mainly British band on the album includes Zoe Rahman on piano, Idris Rahman on saxophones, Patrick Illingworth on drums, Samy Bishai on violin and Iranian percussionist Fariborz Kiani. On tour in Syria, she was accompanied by Britons Zoe Rahman, Patrick Illingworth and Oli Hayhurst on double bass and by Syrian musicians Amir Qara Jouli on violin, Simon Mreach on percussion and Basel Rajoub on saxophones.
I must admit that when I first saw the line-up I felt apprehensive. Traditional Arabic songs, I thought, should be presented with traditional instruments such as the rabaaba spike fiddle, nay flute, mijwiz double clarinet, buzuq long-necked lute and riqq tambourine. I feared that the songs might have been ruined. When I heard the songs, however, I felt complete relief. The western instruments have been skilfully deployed, respecting traditional melodies. Indeed, Kelani’s musical arrangements made sure that the instruments were used to proper effect.
Kelani knew what she was doing when she planned this project: she spent years researching this music; she studied piano as a child and toured refugee camps in search of traditional songs; she moulded this legacy in a scientific and scholarly way.
Reem Kelani was born in Manchester in England of Palestinian parents. She was first exposed to Arabic culture as a child in Kuwait. She studied the Quran and was enchanted by the daily calls to prayers she heard from the minarets around her. She later became interested in American Jazz, Arabic and Iranian music, as well as East African rhythms. Without doubt, this vast pool of musical knowledge served her well when she came to take on her present, enormous undertaking. Ahmad Boubes, Syrian writer and music historian Click here to go to the original article
8. The Financial Times, 16 January 2007
World Music: Towards an Arab-American songbook
A few years ago, at a time of emotional stress, Reem Kelani found herself unable to sing. “Losing my voice was the nearest experience to death,” she says. To get through it, she worked on a setting of her fellow Palestinian Rashid Husain’s poem “Thoughts and Echoes”. It appears, entitled “Yearning”, on her CD Sprinting Gazelle: after some gentle, minor-key piano improvisation from Zoe Rahman, Kelani starts to hum the melody, wordlessly at first, before bursting into Husain’s melancholy words.
“Music,” Kelani insists, “is everyone’s salvation. I made a series of radio documentaries for the BBC about displaced people, and an Armenian Big Mama said to me, you can burn a painting, you can burn a book, but you can’t burn a song. I try to divert my rage and anger into existing, just being. You have to turn it all into music, or you’d go mad.”Kelani is fiercely uncompromising. Sprinting Gazelle gives a jazz background to songs from Palestine before 1948, in contradiction of the notion that this had been a “land without people”. Hers is a cultural nationalism, centred on music and, intriguingly, food. For Kelani, “the greatest form of resistance” is za’atar, the paste of dried herbs, sesame seeds and sumac eaten with bread in Middle Eastern homes.
She is resistant, however, to Palestinian radical chic. “People said: ‘Why don’t you have a cover with a child throwing stones?’ but I can’t stand that kind of emotional pornography. I didn’t even have a flag on the front cover. Those flowers there” – pointing to the yellow flowers that border the CD – “are rue. A purely Galilean plant. We eat black olives pressed in rue, that’s our native culture. No politician, no neocon, can take that away from me.”
This suspicion extends to the current vogue for the arabesque. “What a lot of people think of as Arabic music is pastiche, orientalism. It’s white man’s music. There are no quarter tones, no melodic modes.”
She scorns the notion of a clash of civilisations based on religion. “I am a Palestinian first and a Muslim second. I refuse the Islamicisation of the Palestinian question. I believe in an ecumenical Palestine, with room for all three faiths, without either Zionists or radical Muslims. It probably won’t happen in my lifetime, but what a goal to work towards.” Even so, Kelani refuses to appear on stage with Israelis and has joined the call for a cultural boycott of Israel. She complains about her work not being played on the radio unless it is “neutralised by being played with Israeli artists”.
After our interview, Kelani and her band play a concert in the lecture hall at London’s School of African and Oriental Studies as a warm-up for a tour of Syria under the auspices of the British Council. In performance, the songs are relentless. Rahman (Mercury Prize-nominated last year for her jazz album Melting Pot) stirs ripples of piano underneath Kelani, Rahman’s brother Idris growls on the bass saxophone, and drums and double-bass play Arabic rhythms. Kelani marches on the spot, waves a scarf, murmurs “Allah” as the music reaches fever pitch.
Lighter moments come when she expands her repertoire to the songs of Sayyid Darwish, a bohemian Egyptian composer of the 1920s. Growing up in Kuwait, she told me earlier, her father was “obsessed with Gershwin and [Irving] Berlin. It was just like listening to the call to prayer. Insh’Allah, my next CD will be the Arab-American Songbook, mixing them with Sayyid Darwish. He and Gershwin were growing up at the same time. They both had the blues, they were both marginalised in their own backgrounds.”
And indeed, in the middle of Darwish’s suggestive “Zourouni” she swerves neatly into “I Got Rhythm”. When she told me earlier that she did not “see any difference between jazz and Arabic music”, it sounded a stretch; here, for a moment, the two spin together so fast they sound like one. David Honigmann
7. The London Evening Standard, 11 January 2007 ****
Promise from Palestine - Reem Kelani
So often, fine international musicians resident in Britain are overshadowed by celebrity artists flying in from around the world. But Reem Kelani, the London-based Palestinian singer who released her debut CD Sprinting Gazelle early last year, is a voice to be reckoned with and has a feisty rapport with her audience.
She had a standing-room-only audience clapping along in 17/8 time and making this university theatre into a convivial performance space.
This was one of a dozen free concerts from international artists at the Brunei Gallery. There’s a lot of stamping, clapping and ululating in Kelani’s performance, but it’s an intense musical experience and she has a story to tell about every song.
Her excellent four-piece band includes Mercury-nominee pianist Zoe Rahman (sadly electric keyboard rather than piano), her brother Idris Rahman on clarinets and sax, plus drum kit and bass. This is no ethnographic ensemble, but an ace band in which Oli Hayhurst recreates an Arabic oud solo on the double bass.
Kelani has collected many songs from Palestinians across the Middle East and sad but resilient is the overwhelming mood. The emotional contour of the evening was warming, however, and some of the most enthusiastic support was for the words of Egyptian composer Sayyid Darwish, who said: “Whether you are a Muslim, Christian or Jew, if your country unites you, don’t let religion divide you.” Simon Broughton
6. Gondwana Sound, 30 December 2006
REEM KELANI - PALESTINIAN DIASPORA - came to Whitby Musicport in October and made a lasting impression. She moves around the stage, involving all of her band as she feeds from and gives back musical cues. It was an experience similar to those I've had at jazz gigs, where you are not quite sure where the music might go but you sure know when you get there and on arrival you feel as if you have to let out a ripple of applause or even a whoop an holler in celebration. It was an emotional rollercoaster of a gig, excitement over the music, yet the tragedy of the songs from the Palestinian diaspora, songs of yearning, loss and separation. All the time Reem Kelani would take time to explain the music , the lyrics and where possible she would try and deflect the sombreness of some of the lyrics with her own humerous take . All of this added up to drawing the audience in closer. I've never been to a gig / performance where at the end , myself and so many around me are visibly moved, with tears rolling down our cheeks but with no time or inclination to mop them away as we are too busy applauding. The stage compere walked on stage and she too, could only get a few words out before she too crumpled. Incredible to be a part of and an unforgetable highlight from a tremendous festival. Jill Turner
5. Folkdevils, December 2006
The performance by Reem Kelani at Whitby’s own Musicport in 2006 is one that will be talked about and remembered for a good long while. It had everything: drama, emotion, education, humour, power, musicianship, surprises, and above all a level of musical and personal integrity that shone throughout the whole set. How often do you see not only members of the audience but also the mc, the lovely Jo Freya, brought to tears by the sheer intensity of a performance? Dave Longmate
4. Business AM, Scotland, June 2001
If there is one thing Michael Dale, director of Glasgow's West End Festival, has learned from his years of programming arts events, it is that a festival should open by playing to its strengths. By presenting live music from different corners of the globe, he got this year's shebang off to a truly auspicious start.
It was a pleasure and a privilege to hear the folk music of Palestinian Reem Kelani at the Kibble Palace in the Botanic Gardens. With the mid-evening sun streaming through the Kibble's glass dome, and the children of Glasgow's Palestinian community doing what children do best, we did not have to stretch our imaginations too far to join Kelani in the Palestinian refugee camps of south Lebanon. She performed a scintillating set of songs of plaintive mourning and tunes of defiant resistance. Singing laments for the "big Mamas", the women who are the backbone of the Palestinian exile communities, her emotive, unaccompanied voice sent tingles down the spine. Mark Brown
3. Socialist Worker, 15 May 1993
Songs of DefianceI've never counted, but I suppose in my life I've spoken at about a thousand public meetings.
It's a form of expression which is very much downgraded in these days of the soundbite.
There are obvious problems with it - chief among which is the potential for boredom, and the impossibility of discovering whether people are bored. You can't turn a speaker off, as you can with the television.
You never know, however, and here is proof. On 30 April I had agreed to speak at a celebration organised by Hackney NALGO at the CLR James library in Dalston, north London.
I was not optimistic when I arrived to find two or three Socialist Worker Party members hanging about outside, so bored they had actually fled into the evening sunshine.
When I heard that the hugely advertised meeting had attracted no more than 30 people and that most of the evening was dedicated to poems and songs in languages I could not understand, I became, as so often, overwhelmed with a sense of frustration - part angry, part resigned. Here were another few hours down the drain.
Meetings like this, I comforted myself, though utterly useless from every point of view, were unavoidable in the present lamentable state of British labour.
Gloom turned to a sullen rage as I went up to the meeting, to be greeted by 20 minutes droning from a pompous sectarian whose main message was that socialism lives and works in Cuba.
Would this never end? Apparently not. The long suffering chair told me I would be asked to sum up the meeting at around 9.15pm or slightly later. In the meantime, there would be songs.
I bought historian Brian Manning's latest book on the English Revolution from the bookstall and started to read it avidly, hoping at least to have something to remember from the evening.
The singer, accompanied by a man on a flute and a percussion instrument which I could not identify, was introduced as Reem Kelani. She sat at the microphone and started to speak.
Immediately the whole atmosphere was transformed. She spoke with a gleeful energy which at once infected everyone in the room. The songs of the Palestinians were, she said, all songs of resistance since the entire life of the Palestinian people was resistance.
She spoke in particular about the beleaguered town of Nablus, which escaped the Zionist rage of 1948, but was swallowed up by the occupation of 1967.
When she started to sing, she was smiling, almost laughing with defiance. She sang five songs of different rhythm and pace, but all with the same message of cheerful fury.
Her last song was dedicated to the murdered Palestinians in the Lebanese camps. It was called "Hardship Doesn't Last Forever".
I fell to thinking while she sang that the message is not always true. Hardship can and often does go on forever, or at least for a lifetime. But what the song meant was that people cannot go on being battered forever without resisting.
When I came to speak I muttered that hers was an act literally impossible to follow.
I wondered aloud why I had been so moved by the songs, and thought perhaps it might have something to do with the fact that I was born in Nablus. She jumped up, clapping. "And I", she shouted triumphantly, "was born in Manchester".
Who dares to say that May Day, International Day, does not mean anything anymore? Paul Foot
2. Kuwait Times, May 1988
A Night Out for a Good Cause
A British-Palestinian singer and a group of enthusiasts from Britain and Kuwait are putting on a charity show called 'I Got Rhythm' on June 2 at the Regency Palace Hotel.
The one-night variety show is for the British-based charity Medical Aid for Palestinians (MAP) patronised by Dr Pauline Cutting OBE. Dr Cutting's book 'Children of the siege' is well-known for focussing on the plight of Palestinian refugee children.
The lead vocalist at the show will be Reem Kelani. Reem, who is a member of Kuwait Singers, ACT, Kuwait Folk Group and the Kuwait Players has appeared in several musicals staged by amateur theatrical groups in Kuwait. She joined Kuwait Players this February and debuted in Winter Serenade.
The group got the idea after a charity show for Palestinians was held in Britain recently. 'When the British could raise money for refugees, why couldn't we?' asks Reem, who seems to be the driving force behind the effort to raise funds for MAP.
MAP was established after the massacres at Sabra and Chatilla under a deed of trust 'for the relief of poverty and sickness....and education....among refugees and displaced persons, particularly refugees from Palestine'. In 1972, it started as Palestinian Medical Aid and was re-launched in 1984 as MAP. Among the initiators were several British and other citizens who had been in Lebanon in 1982 and witnessed the horrors of Israeli invasion that year.
"MAP's work is purely humanitarian; we are careful to avoid political activity or statements", said Reem.
MAP workers cooperate with UNWRA, Unicef, Save The Children, Oxfam, War on Want and Norwa and other groups which have parallel and complementary interests. MAP is devoted to helping 'non-combatant victims of war' and sends volunteers and specialised medical teams from Britain to Lebanon and supports health and welfare institutions in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
The Kuwait show was organised after overcoming several hurdles. The name 'Palestinians' seemed to put off a large number of people, who were wary of political implications. 'Once people understood it was non-political and in aid of refugees, they came forward to help', said one member of the group. After overcoming the initial teething problems they are now rehearsing for the 'I Got Rhythm' concert.
Rhythm is aplenty. Reem and her team are to put on a Western musical show with an Oriental touch. Lebanese songs originally sung by Fairouz and a selection of numbers from British and American musicals are to be performed by Reem. Songs by Barbara Streisand and Liza Minelli are also included in the programme, interspersed with Palestinian dabke folk dancing. If past shows are any indication, this one should be a winner with toe-tapping music and oriental dancing.
1. Arab Times, June 1988
I have been a fan of Reem Kelani ever since I heard her sing at a folk concert last year. On Thursday she is starring in 'I Got Rhythm' at the Regency Palace and after attending last night's rehearsal, I can promise that the show is just about the best we've seen in Kuwait for a very long time. My advice is: beg, borrow or steal and see the show.
But be prepared to shed a tear or two, as well as smile. The show packs a real emotional wallop that is rarely found in amateur productions. This is partly due to Reem's stunning voice, but she also has a backing choir of 57 kids from almost as many nationalities, singing songs like 'Let It Be', 'We Are the World' and 'The Greatest Love'. It's a very potent combination that brings a definite lump to the throat. One of the unexpected marvels of the show is little Reza Mohammed, a ten year old pianist, who had the adult musicians goggling with amazement and envy.
From the opening song, 'I Got Rhythm', you know you're in for a great evening. Reem mixes pop songs with some powerful Palestinian folk songs and lots of standards like 'Georgia On My Mind', 'Stormy Weather' and 'New York, New York'. She manages to switch effortlessly from the cabaret sophistication of Fred Astaire's 'Top Hat' to the haunting 'When the Horsemen Ride By' and back to a bustling 'Chattanooga Choo Choo'.
The kids' choir, directed by Jean Chinn, do a fabulous version of 'alexander's Ragtime Band', they're all as keen as mustard and it's a real finger-snapping, toe-tapping, swing-along glory of a song that will have the audience on its feet and cheering the house down.
The concert is being held to raise funds for the British charity Medical Aid for Palestinians, MAP, the organisation which employed Dr Pauline Cutting O.B.E. and Dr Swee Chai Ang in Bourj al-Barajneh camp in Beirut. Produced by Kerry Langley and directed by Glenis Muckle, the show is compered by Derek Hicks who tells some moving stories of individual Palestinian children who have been maimed or crippled in the fighting in Lebanon and the West Bank. Whatever one's politics, it is undeniable that the children of the camps have inherited a tragic legacy through no fault of their own. When they are wounded, paralysed or disfigured by the fighting, MAP does its best to restore them to as near a normal life as possible. Keith Wells