Fall of the Moon: Marcel Khalifé Pays Homage to the Late Poet Mahmoud Darwish and the Spirit of the Arab Spring on New Album and on U.S. Tour, Spring 2012

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The poetry of Palestine, the melodies of Lebanon. Uniting across national, ethnic and religious lines, resounding above the din of bitter politics, rockets, poverty. Singing instead of the shade of grapevines, the bright eyes of loved ones, the heartache of divisions and decline that could be healed, love that could be returned. 

Marcel Khalifé, Lebanese master of the oud (lute), evokes this world, honoring the spirit of his late friend and collaborator Mahmoud Darwish, a strikingly original poet born in Galilee.  Khalifé’s oud trembles, rumbles, sighs, and resonates beyond cultural specificities. Too often compared to Bob Dylan because of his firm counter-mainstream stance, Khalifé’s work can shift between the sweet melodic sensibility of Cole Porter and the gravitas of the best of Western chamber music, between the heady daring of jazz experimenters and rock defiance.

Fallofthemoon_coverNow, as protesters rally in the streets across the Middle East, they sing his songs. Khalifé has come out as an ardent supporter of the Arab Spring. “I sang for them,” Khalifé explained in a recent statement protesting government crackdowns on protesters in Tunisia, Bahrain, Egypt, Syria and across the Arab world, “and they gave me the feeling that they were my kin, that they were the source of strength to bring about the impossible.”

Khalifé has translated his profound sense of kinship with his fellow Arabs and with humanity writ large into stirring, eloquent music on Fall of the Moon. Revisiting some of his earliest engagement with the words of the late exiled and revered Palestinian poet, Mahmoud Darwish, Khalifé once again turns personal loss, alienation, and love into a universal, soulful call.

“On the stage, I’m in my natural milieu, saying what I want,” Khalifé states. “There’s no censorship of what I say.”

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It began with a young man, confined by war and persecution to his home in Lebanon, awestruck by the raw, eloquent words of a Palestinian poet. He picked up his oud and restlessly plucked out pieces that would go on to shake the Arab world.

The connection to Darwish began the first moment Khalifé opened one of his early books of poems. Over three decades, it evolved into a bosom collaboration that was more than the sum of its parts. “Our respective corpora have grown to be reminiscent of each other, so that the name of each of the twain, instantly and without reflection, would evoke the name of the other,” Khalifé reflects. “Even before we got to know each other personally, I felt as though Darwish’s poetry, with its divine assertiveness and prophetic cadences, had been revealed to me and for me.”

The feeling was mutual: Darwish often referred to Khalifé as his “heart’s artistic twin.” Though from different countries and religious backgrounds, both artists shared a sense of desperation about the state of their homelands and the world. From the beginning of his musical life, Khalifé has sought to restore the neglected beauty and adventuresome roots of Arab musical culture, founding a groundbreaking ensemble in his home village, teaching a new generation of musicians, and composing pieces that redefine the music of the region.

Khalifé takes traditions and transforms them according to new, yet deeply appropriate rules: While the text dictates the tenor and shape of his pieces, the music retains an edge of the avant garde. In the free-flowing bittersweet sweep of pieces like “In Exile,” pensive vocals intertwine with hints of jazz ballads and classical lieder, mirroring the haunting journey of Darwish’s words through sorrow, reflection, and joy despite mortality: “And tell absence: You lack me/ yet I am present…to make you whole.”

Both Darwish and Khalifé sought elevation through technical mastery and passionate honesty beyond the morass of politics, into the realm of the human, the vitally connected. Darwish’s complicated life of activism, exile, imprisonment, and marginalization did not prevent him from producing stunning poems that chronicled his travails with a freshness and precision similar to Khalifé’s musical approaches.

“Marcel eliminated the gap created by the poets between poem and song. He restored to exiled emotion its rescuing power to reconcile poetry, which glorified its distance from people and was thus abandoned by them,” Darwish explained in a statement before his passing in 2008. “Poetry, therefore, developed the song of Marcel Khalifé, while Khalifé's song mended the relationship of poetry with people. With this, the people on the street started to sing, and lyrics need not a podium, as bread need not announce itself to the hungry.”

Together, these two iconic figures of contemporary Arab art and culture achieved one of Khalifé’s life-long goals: to give voice to the voiceless. His art has won him recognition from UNESCO, who declared Khalifé an Artist for Peace in 2005. It has been featured on the world’s most prestigious stages and in major feature films like 2007’s Rendition. In a newly awakened Middle East, Khalifé’s works continue to inspire and transform, reminding singers and listeners of their innate humanity and dignity.

“Music is my oxygen,” Khalifé told Democracy Now host Amy Goodman in an interview.  “Without it, I feel life is lacking something. I wish that these politicians who control the world would listen to a tune before they go to bed. Perhaps then, instead of declaring war, they would declare love.”

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