Once called the Bob Dylan of Arabic music, Marcel Khalifé, musician, oudist, singer, song writer, composer, teacher, and writer, has been described as a folk hero, inspiring his listeners with passion for the many educational and humanitarian causes he has championed since 1970.
Khalifé was born in Amchit, Lebanon, in 1950. His father was a fisherman, but also a flutist. Khalifé acknowledged the influence of both Christianity and Islam when growing up: “I used to go to church and listen to Christian music, and also to Islamic recitations of the Qur’an. In Lebanon we have a marriage of Islamic and Christian culture. That really helped to form my musical awareness.”
A teacher in the village advised his parents to encourage the boy to immerse himself in music. After studying the oud at the National Academy of Music in Beirut, he taught at the academy from 1970 to 1975 and began traveling around the Middle East, North Africa, Europe, and the United States, giving solo concerts on the oud.
In 1976 he formed the Al Mayadeen Ensemble, a musical group consisting of two ouds, a bass guitar, and a tambourine, which gained popularity throughout the Arab world, performing favorite songs such as Ummi (My mother), Rita w’al-Bundaqiya (Rita and the rifle), and Jawaz al-Safr (Passport).
Khalifé’s popularity spread and continues to grow. He has traveled the world, giving concerts throughout the Arab world and in Europe, the United States, Canada, South America, Australia, and Japan. He has performed in many of the great festivals and concert halls, from the World Festival of Music in San Francisco to the Wellington Music Festival in New Zealand, from the Fes Festival of Sacred Music in Morocco, to the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, the Royal Festival Hall in London, and the Cairo Opera House.
The performances were often those of a rebel. “Since I was born,” he wrote, “I’ve felt I had a rebel’s soul . . . I rejected things that might be inherited, but that were wrong.” His compositions arose from civic and humanitarian concerns. Writing in the Los Angeles Times in January 2007, Don Heckman wrote, “Ultimately, all musicians—regardless of origin—will offer their music as the ultimate statement of their values, creatively, culturally, and politically. And Khalifé is best experienced in his stirring improvisations.” Writing during the early years of the Lebanese civil war, Khalifé said, “My music is for the service of humanity, and is intended to present a serious and sincere work for those tormented in this destructive war. My music was a sort of balm for those wounds.” He espoused the Palestinian cause early in his career, often using the words of Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish in his songs. Commenting on a 2007 concert, Heckman said Khalifé’s use of “the rich-toned middle and lower areas of his instrument, employing vocal-like melismatic phrases, constantly [reminded] his listener of the complex, lyrical rhythms of Darwish’s poetry.”
Heckman notes Khalifé’s “skirmishes with various authorities, for pro-Arab political statements as well as alleged ‘insults of religious values.’” On three separate occasions he was at risk of criminal prosecution for insulting religious values in the song, “I am Joseph, O Father.” The piece, with words written by Darwish, contained a verse from the Qur’an. He once dedicated a song to Che Guevara, and in 2005 his songs, perhaps for his support of Arabs imprisoned in their own countries, were banned in Tunisia.
A “politically engaged” artist, he not only supports the Palestinians, but has also given voice to the cause of human rights throughout the Arab world, writing songs about nationalism and revolution. His songs expose poverty, injustice, and “political aggression.” In 1983 he produced Promises of the Storm, a small collection of protest songs and political ballads. Most recently he withdrew from the Bahrain Spring Festival, condemning government violence used against protesters. But he said he pulled out for human, not political reasons. He wrote, “I am one of them, and I confront those who shed their blood.” For similar stands he had been named by UNESCO as an International Artist for Peace in 2005.
Khalifé says his mission is to modernize Arabic music to make it more accessible to the outside world. Labeled “a musician who ‘composes in Western style,’” he defended himself by saying that modern oud playing “requires mastery of both western harmony [and] our maqamat” (“the collection of note sequences that are the foundation of Arabic music”). Khalifé’s attempts to revive Arabic musical heritage began with the oud, giving the playing of the instrument “a higher level of precision.” He tried to go beyond traditional technical limitations and was “able to free the instrument from those constraints . . . thus greatly expanding its possibilities” and “injecting new life into the oud.”
The song writer has also written several books promoting his understanding of the Arab musical heritage: in 1981 Al Samaa, a collection of compositions for various traditional Arab musical instruments; in 1982 a methodology in six parts for the study of the oud; and in 1984 the French version of Arabic Music Theory and Practice.
Emphasizing instrumental music, Khalifé began working with orchestras. “I realize myself more in music than in singing,” he wrote. “When the text is absent, I find myself more comfortable in composing music . . . my real interest lies in musical composition.”
His compositions have been performed by numerous orchestras including the Kiev Symphony Orchestra, the San Francisco Chamber Orchestra, the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, the Italian Philharmonic Orchestra, the Royal Oman Symphony Orchestra, and several others. In 2008 he helped establish the Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra and was named its musical director and resident composer.
Khalifé also wrote music for documentary films such as Kamal Jumblatt (1976) and All for the Homeland (1978) and scored music for such films as The Half Meter Incident (1981) and The Box of the World (2003). His music was also used in Hollywood films like East and West (2006) and Rendition (2007).
Throughout the years Marcel Khalifé has received numerous awards and prizes from the Arab world, Europe, and the United States, among which are the American Folkloric Festival Award in 1975, the National Palestine Medal for Arts and Culture in 2001, the UNESCO Artist for Peace award in 2005, and the prestigious Charles Cros Award for World Music in 2008. On receiving the Palestine Medal in 2001 he donated the prize money to the Edward Said National Conservatory of Music in Palestine, where an annual music competition was created in his name. Lebanese recognition has included awards from Antelias, South Lebanon, and Beirut (the Lebanese Ministry of Tourism medal, the Jerusalem Medal), and the government Cedar Medal in 2005.
Marcel Khalifé remains actively on tour. Since the beginning of this year he has been warmly received in Beirut, Qatar, Singapore, Paris, Washington DC, Philadelphia, and Singapore. His music is readily available in numerous albums and DVDs.