Reams have been written about Lebanese musician, composer and singer Marcel Khalife, who is one of the most popular and controversial musicians in the Arab world today. He’s made his name by expanding the possibilities of the Arabian lute, called the oud, and through his interpretations of the sometimes controversial poetry of the late Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish.
For the past few years Khalife has been performing with his sons Rami, an accomplished international pianist, and percussionist and artist Bachar. They apparently make liberal use of synthesizers in much of their music, but with this project they’re taking a different, more roots-based approach. The three are joined by Jilbert Yamine on kanoun, a hammered dulcimer.
Andalusia of Love is a suite built around Darwish’s poetry, a spiritual expression of longing for unification of Muslim, Jewish and Christian people, represented by Andalusia, the southern Iberian land where the three religions and cultures cohabited until the late 15th century.
The 14 pieces that make up Andalusia flow seamlessly from track to track, as the work slowly builds to a musical and emotional crescendo. It incorporates elements of classical, folk and jazz music from Western and Middle Eastern traditions. The classical piano section of “Maraya” gives way to the emotively poetic “Ya Habibi,” followed by the rhythmically insistent “Achtahiki,” which flows into “Faracha,” a quietly dissonant piece that includes prepared piano. The longing oozes from Khalife’s vocals and the arrangement of “Nahla,” and the insistent strains of Yamine’s kanoun on “Yadaik” set the scene for the final two tracks, “Andalos Al Hob” and “Achikain.”
Throughout this work there is virtuosic playing, some of a solo nature but mostly by the ensemble, with the oud, piano and kanoun playing in unison, counterpoint and call-and-response modes, with the mood frequently established by Bachar’s masterful percussion. As just one example, the interplay between oud and piano on the climactic section of the final track “Achikain” is a match for any modern jazz improvisation you’ll encounter.
I’ve long been a fan of the oud (and its musical cousins) in many settings, from the proto-world music of Sandy Bull to Cuban masters like Barbarito Torres to numerous musicians of the Arab and North African scenes. Khalife’s performance on Andalusia of Love is not at all what I expected, but much more. It’s a moving performance of music that is complex yet welcoming. Recommended to all lovers of world music.