Marcel Khalife Discusses the New and the Old in Arabic Music in a Leading Literary Supplement

The Rationalization of Arabic Music
Elie Chalala

Arab audiences have long known Marcel Khalife as melodist, singer and musical composer. Now, Khalife emerges with a new experiment, an attempt to develop Arabic musical traditions and "rationalize" it, as he told Lebanese novelist Elias Khoury and journalist Bilal Khabbaz in a feature interview published in Mulhaq Al Nahar Al Thaqafi (An Nahar Cultural Supplement), one of Lebanon and the Arab world's foremost literary publications.
The purpose of "rationalizing" musical traditions, Khalife told An Nahar, is to prevent the mere reproduction of the past. Though appreciative and attached to his traditions, Khalife admits to technical problems confronting the composer and musician in the Arab world. In order to play what was not performed in the past, Khalife prepared a scholastic method for his beloved oud (lute) and supplemented it with "Jadal," a duo oud, performed by himself and Charbel Rouhan on the oud, Ali al Khatib on the riq (tambourine) and Aboud Al Saadi on acoustic bass guitar. The four are members of Al Mayadine Ensemble.
Khalife would have preferred "Jadal" to be performed by an orchestra rather than a quartet, but for reasons beyond his control the performance consisted of four players. What distinguishes "Jadal" is that both the solos and the rhythms of the riq are in a written form in their entirety as well as the solos performed by the ouds of Khalife and Rouhan.
A new approach to studying the oud instrument preoccupies Khalife's interest nowadays. Khalife, who long studied the oud in the Lebanese Conservatory, Lebanon's prestigious school of music, discovered certain shortcomings in mastering this instrument. This "led me to compose "Oud Marcel Khalife" (the Lute of Marcel Khalife), which "is an academic method developed through 500 pages." The book itself has a chapter entitled "Oud Quartet," in which Khalife inquires as to why the Arabs lack a "family of the oud" in the same way we have "one for the kaman [violin]; why not have oud-bass, oud-soprano, and oud aktovat?" asks Khalife. Writing the oud quartet, Khalife adds, helped him complete the "Oud Concerto," which was performed with the Philharmonic Orchestra in Kieve, Ukraine. This task was anything but simple, he said, especially as it was the "first time the oud, that instrument of love, warmth, and soft sound, stood in relation to other instruments like the blowing brass trumpets...In preparing this work, I spent seven months practicing daily to regain the technique so as to stand up to the orchestra." Khalife adds that it is the first time an oud concerto has been composed. There were other attempts, especially in Egypt, but they fell short of being concerti.
Among Khalife's works are "Simphoniyyat al Awada" (Symphony of Return) and "Tahalil al Sharq" (The Chants of the East). In “Tahalil al Sharq,” a musical choral composition, Khalife elaborates, the chorus "vocalises," that is, singing without words. These works have been printed, but remain unrecorded. "The reasons which precluded recording the "Symphoniyyat al Awda," although I started it in 1986, are due to the difficult production conditions. Every producer is more concerned with vocalists than musical texts," Khalife said.
Khalife's views on Arabic music recently sparked a controversy that spilled into the pages of daily newspapers in Beirut. "I realize myself more in music than in singing. This tendency is evident in several of my works, the last of which was the 'Oud Concerto,”’ Khalife said. He adds that all his works are interconnected with each other, and even the popular songs sung by Al Mayadine Ensemble member Oumayma El Khalil in her latest work, "Khalini Ghanilak" (Let Me Sing for You), are marked by unique musical harmony. "When the text is absent, I find myself more comfortable in composing music, although this need not suggest that I am ignoring the song, which is essential to me. Rather, my real interest lies in musical composition. This was present in early compositions like "Rita," "Aaras" (Weddings) and "Tusbahouna ala Watan" (Ode to Homeland). Each of these was a musical composition and not just music written for songs. In these works, whenever the lyrics stop the music continues; and whenever I feel the lyrics are incomplete, they are completed by music."
This led to another question: “Does your reliance on the musical text distance you from tatreeb (singing)?” Apparently, Khalife's views on this issue were misconceived, and at times, misrepresented. In An Nahar's interview, he set the record straight: "I am not against tatreeb, which is something very beautiful in Arabic music. Tatreeb exists in Western music, too. When applause continues for ten minutes at the end of a musical presentation, it is tatreeb and tarab (elation or ecstasy). Eastern tatreeb is immediate; that is when the singer finishes his part the audience greets him with continuous cheering. Showing affection toward a musical work is common among all peoples. Thus I am not against tatreeb and the exultation it causes or otherwise I would have ruled out the beauty of music. What I object to is the exaggeration in the lengthy cheers. But still, the listener could enjoy tarab and internalize the elation, if such a term can be used."
Khalife goes on to state his support for a rationalized tatreeb rather than for an immediate one. He cites "Rita," one of his famous songs, as an example of a rationalized tatreeb. In "Rita," Khalife adds, there is musical composition and less reliance on the Mawal (roundelays or colloquial folk songs) which cause listeners to utter cheers after each section. Tarab in "Rita," for example, "is internal both in spirit and idea."
Writing a history of Arabic music is of paramount importance, claims Khalife. "We Arabs have no history of our music. In my judgment, we have linked music to singing, and it is time to write down the history of music, not just song." There are several such attempts now being made. "Serious as they are, they need to move away from the song to the musical theater as the important vehicle for developing Arabic music." Sayyid Darwish, the legendary Egyptian musician, "realized this problem, consciously or unconsciously. He, of all others, gave Arabic music a distinct identity." Sayyid Darwish remains the "principal architect of Arabic song and the development of that song." When the solo song emerged — mainly with Muhammad Abed Al Wahhab and Umm Kulthum (the former both a musician and a singer, and the latter a solo singer) and the Rahbani brothers, Mansour Rahbani and the late Assi Rahbani, both celebrated Lebanese musicians — they benefitted significantly from Sayyid Darwish.
The contributions of Abed Al Wahhab and Umm Kulthum to Arabic music have not been all positive. They have dominated the musical scene and suppressed other talents, Khalife argues, namely those based on collective cooperative efforts rather than on the voice of a solo singer. "Singing theater," Khalife urges, "must regain its importance since only through it can the "battle for music be won."
Sayyid Darwish remains on the mind of Marcel Khalife. Darwish, in Khalife's opinion, rationalized tarab. "Arab arts, generally speaking, elate the heart without reaching the mind...This is the main problem in Arab arts." The solution, as seen by Khalife, resides in combining the heart and mind, because this will open new and broad horizons. The tarab of Sayyid Darwish differs significantly from others, and seems distinguishable from other forms of tarab. Darwish's tarab, concludes Khalife, has no looseness, subservience, prolongation; instead, it is brief, a work that fits a theatrical text and interacts with it.
This article appeared in Al Jadid magazine, Vol. 1, No. 1 (November 1995).
Copyright © 1995 by Al Jadid