Album review: Reem Kelani′s ″Live at the Tabernacle″

Cultivating fusion

Since the early 1990s, the Palestinian-British singer, musicologist and broadcaster Reem Kelani has carved a unique niche for herself on the Arab and international music scenes. Her new album ″Reem Kelani: Live at the Tabernacle″ provides renewed confirmation of her rare talent. By Susannah Tarbush

The album is a double CD recorded at a concert Kelani gave at the Tabernacle in Notting Hill, West London in November 2012 as part of the Nour Festival, held annually by the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC). Curator of the 2012 Nour Festival, Alan Kirwan, writes in the album′s sleeve notes that at the heart of Kelani′s work ″is the recurring image of Palestine, her voice for the listener, an insightful adventure through the sounds of that country, both ancient and contemporary.″

Her performance at the Tabernacle ″took the audience on a trip across the Middle East, from the genius of Egyptian composer Sayyid Darwish to musical gems from Tunisia, Turkey, Syria and Palestine. An example, if ever one was needed, of just how cultural bridges can be built between East and West.″

Kelani was born in the northern English city of Manchester and grew up in Kuwait.  Her father was a jazz-loving medical doctor and in multicultural Kuwait she was exposed to diverse musical influences. Her talent as a vocalist was evident from an early age, but it was after moving to the UK to do a postgraduate degree in marine biology that she decided instead to pursue a career in music.

Cover of "Reem Kelani: Live at the Tabernacle" (produced by Fuse Records)
On 12 October there is another chance to see Reem Kelani perform live at the Tabernacle, at a special concert produced by the Nour Festival as a prelude to this year′s festival which runs from 21 October to 6 November. The concert is ″in celebration of Reem′s music and in recognition of her achievements in music globally as well as locally within RBKC.″

Building cultural bridges

Over the years Kelani has introduced many non-Arab musicians to Arabic music. Three of them performed with her at the Tabernacle: British-American jazz pianist Bruno Heinen, British double bass player Ryan Trebilcock and Italian drummer and percussionist Antonio Fusco. Virtuoso Palestinian oud player Tamer Abu Ghazaleh, on a visit from Egypt, was guest performer. There was wonderful synergy between Kelani′s exquisite, versatile voice and the contributions from the four musicians.

″Live at the Tabernacle″ is Kelani′s second album. The first, ″Sprinting Gazelle: Palestinian Songs from the Motherland and the Diaspora″, was released to acclaim in 2006.  Both albums are on the Fuse Records label of the British singer-songwriter and activist Leon Rosselson.

The two albums complement each other well. While ″Sprinting Gazelle″ is a studio album, the new album captures the essence of a live performance by Kelani, with her charisma, energy and rapport with the audience.

Kelani is a resolutely independent musician; she is not signed to a label and has no PR company acting on her behalf. In order to raise funds for ″Live at the Tabernacle″, she and her husband and manager Christopher Somes-Charlton launched a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign. It reached its target well ahead of time, with 148 pledgers.

"Part and parcel of the performance"

″In an age in which music is structured according to the laws of the market place and political narratives are suppressed, nothing is more comforting and assuring than grassroots support which can be neither bought nor sold,″ Kelani says of the Kickstarter campaign.

″Live at the Tabernacle″ includes a 60-page booklet of sleeve notes, with information on each song alongside the lyrics in both Arabic and Kelani′s translations into English. The album also has two short videos. In the first, Kelani describes the Tabernacle event as one of the most important concerts she has ever given. ″There was something about the audience dynamic on that night: everyone seemed to be part and parcel of the performance, not just in call and response but in singing along, clapping, being silent, laughing, crying, jumping on stage.″

Kelani hopes through the album ″to convey to those who were not there what happened –  not just the energy and the music, but more importantly a narrative, a main narrative behind that concert specifically and what my music stands for generally.″

The second video on the album was edited by the French film director Axel Salvatori-Sinz from his multiple award-winning film ″Les Chebabs de Yarmouk″ (″The Shebabs of Yarmouk″) accompanied by the live rendition of Kelani′s haunting song ″Yarmouk″ (″Huna al-Yarmouk!″).

"Recurring image of Palestine"

In 2012 Salvatori-Sinz commissioned Kelani to compose the music for this documentary on the lives and dreams of a group of young men and women in Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in Damascus. Kelani asked the Glasgow-based Palestinian poet Iyad Hayatleh, originally from Yarmouk camp, to write a poem that she could set to music.

The album opens with four songs from Kelani′s extensive Palestinian repertoire. First is the spirited ″Let us in!″ (″Hawwilouna″) with Kelani stamping her feet and clapping before breaking into song.  This is followed by ″Galilean Lullaby″ (″Tahlileh Jaliliyyeh″) the lyrics of which Kelani found in a book on Palestinian literature by Nazarene poet Tawfiq Zayyad (1929-94).

Kelani learnt ″Sprinting Gazelle″ (″Ah! Ya Reem al-Ghuzlaan″), the title song of her first album, from an old woman in the Palestinian refugee camp of Ain al-Hilweh in Lebanon.  On the album Reem can be heard encouraging Abu Ghazaleh on oud and Trebilcock on double bass to ″fight″ in a riveting contest between their Arab and Western instruments.  

″Songs of Parting″ (″Furaaqiyaat″) develops into a melody reminiscent of the well-known Turkish lullaby ″Dandani, Dandani″.  Reem was joined on stage by two audience members: Turkish musicologist Cahit Baylav, playing his violin and Turkish Kurdish woman Cihan Ademhan on vocals.

Tribute to Sayyid Darwish

The concert showcases two songs from Reem′s long-term project on Egyptian composer Sayyid Darwish (1892-1923), both with lyrics by Badi′ Khayri. ″The Porters′ Anthem″ (″Lahn el-Shayyaalin″) alludes to the 1919 Revolution against British occupation. Like many of Darwish′s songs it focuses on the downtrodden and marginalised.

Reem Kelani performs live at the Tabernacle (photo: Christopher Scholey)
Over the years Kelani has introduced many non-Arab musicians to Arabic music. Three of them performed with her at the Tabernacle: British-American jazz pianist Bruno Heinen, British double bass player Ryan Trebilcock and Italian drummer and percussionist Antonio Fusco. Virtuoso Palestinian oud player Tamer Abu Ghazaleh, on a visit from Egypt, was guest performer

″The Preachers′ Anthem″ (″Lahn el-Fuqahaa″) portrays two preachers on Armistice Day 1918 anticipating the independence Egypt has been promised. There is hilarity as they dream of travelling to Europe where ″their women sway like blancmange″. Kelani′s arrangement of the song is a tour de force, ending with snatches of the British Army song ″It′s a long Way to Tipperary″.

Kelani′s composition ″1932″, dedicated to Darwish, marks the year in which the first Congress of Arabic Music was held. While Heinen and Abu Ghazaleh play the meditative, nuanced melody Kelani reads ″The Vinegar Cup″ (″Ka′s al-Khall″) by Gaza poet Mu′in Bseiso.

The Tunisian song ″The Ship Sounded its Horn″ (″Babour Zammar″) was written by El-Hedi Guella, with lyrics by El-Mouldi Zleilah, in the 1970s. The song is a tribute to the student revolution in France and tells of migrants leaving on a ship to work abroad: ″Uprooting young men from fertile lands / To a life so harsh″.

The concert ends on a high with the Palestinian song ″Giving Praise″ (Il-Hamdillah). Kelani lets rip with the loud and joyous ″Aweeha! ″ yodel that is integral to the song forms of Palestinian women.

On 12 October there is another chance to see Reem Kalani perform live at the Tabernacle, at a special concert produced by the Nour Festival as a prelude to this year′s festival which runs from 21 October to 6 November. The concert is ″in celebration of Reem′s music and in recognition of her achievements in music globally as well as locally within RBKC.″

Susannah Tarbush

© Qantara.de 2016

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