Marcel Khalifé: Defending causes with popular songs

Marcel Khalifé (left), sometimes described as the Middle East’s Bob Dylan, plays Berkeley on Sunday

Long before the Arab Spring upended the Middle East’s calcified political order, Marcel Khalifé threw down a musical gauntlet, challenging the forces of repression and reaction with his supremely sophisticated, wildly popular songs.

An evocative vocalist and master of the oud, the pear-shaped 11-string fretless Middle Eastern lute, Khalifé was finishing his studies at Beirut’s National Higher Conservatory of Music when civil war erupted in 1975. He sought succor in the flowing verse of celebrated Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, setting his poems to music.

Recording songs such as “Jawaz al-Safr” (Passport) and “Ummi” (My Mother), Khalifé combined aesthetic innovation with a genuinely populist sensibility. The music captured the imagination of huge swath of the Arab world, and Khalifé became a star transcending the region’s religious and national fissures.

“I wanted to do something, and this poem was with me,” said the Paris-based Khalifé, speaking in French through an interpreter. “I started to create these songs and they became popular very quickly. But at the time it was really for me, not for the public or the future or history. It was for my pleasure and my need. I was looking for light in the poems and this light burst forth.”


Presented by Cal’s Center For Middle Eastern Studies and the Arab Cultural and Community Center, Khalifé celebrates the release of his new CD, “Fall of the Moon” (Nagam Records), Sunday at Zellerbach Auditorium with his Al Mayadine Ensemble. The album is an homage to Darwish and a salute to the Arab Spring they helped to instigate.

Long described as the Middle East’s Bob Dylan, Khalifé has finally seen the times catch up to his advocacy. While he shares none of Dylan’s personal myth making, he is a protean figure who constantly reinvents himself as an artist, while remaining rooted in the dazzlingly rich classical Arabic tradition. Over the past four decades he’s created a remarkable body of music, including compositions for solo oud, orchestral works, film and ballet scores, and of course his tremendously popular songs.

In the years before Darwish’s death in 2008, Khalifé had been engaged in a different creative struggle, determined to swim against the tide of Arab culture by carving out space for instrumental music, emphasizing his work as a player and composer.

“Poetry is essential in Arab culture and most Arabic musical creations have been based on lyrics and poetry, but it’s also true that some composers and musicians have created significant instrumental works, experimenting with solo pieces for classical Arabic instruments such as oud and qanun,” said Khalifé, 61, referring to the dulcimer-like Arabic harp. “I took this a step further, and for the first time instrumental music has reached the people and been well received despite its experimental nature.”

While finding an audience in the Arab world for his instrumental compositions has been a major challenge, Khalifé has faced far more daunting hurdles as a performer. In a region where free expression is often squeezed between the repressive impulses of authoritarian states and Islamic fundamentalism, Khalifé has frequently faced threats and prosecution.

Blasphemy trials

Since the mid-1990s, he has endured three blasphemy trials in Lebanon for including a Koranic verse in his song “O Father, It Is I, Yousef,” which is based on a Darwish poem. Raised in a Maronite Christian family, Khalifé has been denounced repeatedly by Sunni clerics, though Darwish spoke for many in the Middle East when he rallied to the musician’s defense.

“Fundamentalism is in the process of stifling culture and creation in the Arab world, and I say it is shameful,” Darwish said. “We should all be ashamed. If Marcel Khalifé is found guilty, it will be an insult to culture.” Ultimately, Khalifé was found innocent.

But he continued to ruffle feathers. In Bahrain his collaboration with poet Qassim Haddad, inspired by the passionate Arab love story of Qais and Laila, sparked an investigation by a hard-line Islamic faction in parliament. Around the same time in 2005, Khalifé’s work was banned in Tunisia because he joined other prominent Arab intellectuals in signing a petition protesting the country’s curtailment of freedom of expression and violation of human rights. As the Middle East continues to muddle uncertainly toward a political realignment, he has no plans to lower his voice.

“I am a man who seeks peace and love on the Earth,” Khalifé said. “We miss it because of politics, which only brings us war. I defend all causes that need to be defended.”

For tickets to Sunday’s performance, visit Brown Paper Tickets.

Andrew Gilbert, whose Berkeleyside music column appears every Thursday, also covers music and dance for the San Jose Mercury News, Contra Costa Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and KQED’s California Report. He lives in west Berkeley. 

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