BEIRUT: In different circumstances, Mahmoud Darwish (1941-2008) would be recognized as a great poet. Since during his lifetime his work came to be a voice of inspiration and hope for the Palestinian people, Darwish was elevated to become a leading figure in the Palestinian cause. His death represented a huge loss to literature, both internationally and regionally.
Artistically and politically, Lebanese composer and oud virtuoso Marcel Khalife stood toe to toe with Darwish. Their friendship lasted four decades.
Khalife has made efforts to step beyond the image of the oud player who sings for Palestine and social justice, and his music has changed considerably in recent decades, but it is nostalgia for his older persona that draws his most enthusiastic audience.
In 2011, Khalife and Al-Mayadine ensemble launched a world tour featuring pieces that set Darwish’s poems to music. After dates in North America, Europe, and the Gulf, Khalife and his ensemble gave a concert in Sidon that September.
These tunes have since been released in the Darwish tribute album “Fall of the Moon,” a two-CD set comprised of Khalife’s musical interpretation of Darwish’s poems. It is a fully musical interpretation. Spoken-word readings of the works are complemented by instrumental tracks and others in which the poems are crooned to orchestral accompaniment.
Palestinian-American poet Fady Joudah, who contributed an essay to the album’s liner notes, notes that they illuminate “the contemporary Arabic song’s ability to embrace rhythm and phrase within new horizons.”
Like Gibran Khalil Gibran before him, Darwish was able to compose work intense enough to touch readers to the core, work that never loses significance.
“Some of the poems here,” Joudah writes, “are excerpts of their original whole, seamlessly sliced and then spliced by Marcel Khalife: the text become music’s subject.”
“Oh, my proud wound / My land isn’t a suitcase / and I’m not a traveler / I’m a lover / and my beloved’s the land.”
This brief Darwish poem naturally reflects the sentiments of displaced Palestinians, but it speaks to the experiences of anyone who has – for reasons of war, occupation or livelihood – has been made to leave their country behind.
Khalife delivers these verses with a sensitivity that unfolds the anguish and anger at the heart of them. “The Pigeons Fly” – the album’s opening track – commences with a piano solo by Khalife’s son Rami, a delicate instrumental that could depict a bird alighting.
“The pigeons fly / The pigeons descend / Prepare the land for me so I can rest / because I love you until I’m weary.”
After a brief pause, the elder Khalife’s oud echoes forth, stressing the density of Darwish’s verses.
The instrumental track “The Stranger’s Bed” is equally illustrative of this mood. Cello and piano solos immerse the listener in a seductive musical narrative. The music oscillates between up-tempo and down-beat time signatures, mingling in pace with an unspoken poetic narrative. The composition breathes love, but fear and despair as well.
Darwish wrote “Now, In Exile’ when he was 60 years old, and its language is that of one who sees the world from the perspective of one who has seen a good deal of the world.
“Now, in exile ... yes, in the house, / in the sixties of a swift age / they blow out the candles for you.”
Khalife’s vocals and musical arrangement he’s composed to accompany the lyrics reflect nothing of the depressed sadness another reader might find in Darwish’s verses, however. Rather he brings a light-hearted (and not unpleasant) wit to the proceedings.
If the first CD in the set is dominated by spoken word and minimal musical accompaniment, the second is characterized by orchestral arrangements – foregrounding the work of the Kiev Philharmonic Orchestra, under the baton of Vladimir Sirinko.
The Ukrainians open the second CD with an instrumental version of “Fall of the Moon.” Alternating among outstanding percussion work, clarinet and violin solos, the piece immerses the listener within a fantasy world.
There is also an element of fantasia in “A Song on my Mind,” in which a chorus of vocalists and orchestra recount the tale of a brother writing a story about his sister.
“I saw your body / carried in chains / and leaking colors / ... There’s a song on my mind / sister / about my country / Why don’t you sleep / so I can tattoo it on my flesh.”
The Palestinian condition is omnipresent in Darwish’s poems. The pride and honor suggested in the poet’s writings is reiterated and magnified by Khalife’s orchestra arrangements. The music augments the verse. The decision to employ mixed male and female choruses creates the impression that the entire community of displaced persons has taken up his words.
Among the most powerful tracks of the second sets second CD is “The Poem of the Land.”
“You who are heading / to the mountain of fire / pass over my body / You who pass over my body / will not pass / I am the land in a body.”
Marcel Khalife’s “Fall to the Moon” is available at select outlets, including Virgin Megastore. Khalife will also perform at the Baalbeck International Festival on Aug. 24.