Marcel Khalifé created his own global sound world

Marcel Khalifé and his talented Al Mayadine Ensemble of international musicians gave an outstanding performance at the sold-out Royal Opera, House of Musical Arts on Thursday evening. This return after his first appearance in Oman in 2015 was enjoyed by Arabic and Western audiences alike. The performance set of 90 minutes stretched to a whopping 135 minutes without an interval, and yet it passed in a blink, so engaging and varied was his programme. The running order was selected at random from a diverse playlist, so one can only imagine what they came up with the following night.
Lebanese Oud player and composer, Marcel Khalifé has surrounded himself with world-class musicians, each one capable of superb virtuoso performances, and together they provided a formidable, eclectic orchestra. Khalifé has created his own sound world with his unusual instrumentation and diverse musical influences. Central to his current line-up was his son, Julliard-trained pianist Rami Khalifa, who performed an extended solo on the miked-up house Bösendorfer using reverb, delay effects and plucking strings under the lid.
The concert was slightly late starting, but after the thirteen musicians filed on stage, followed by the great Oud player himself, no one was admitted until a break in the programme. Using a piano in Arabic music at all is unusual, and the first instrumental piece with piano intro was a slightly jazzy affair, featuring Ismail Lumanovski in an arresting Klezma-like clarinet solo. When the whole ensemble played, including four percussionists, the music became highly syncopated, contrasting with the calm of Khalifé’s Oud solo. There was a beautiful Qanoon solo from Feras Charestan over atmospheric sustained cello bows from Marcel’s nephew, Sary Khalifa. Marcel Khalifé began to sing in an improvisatory vocal style, with Antoine Khalifa providing a beautiful violin obligato. Suddenly they were interrupted by a familiar rhythmic Arabic refrain, adding flute, piano and percussion (Req, Darbouka, Daff and bongos).
Marcel Khalifé addressed his public between each number, explaining the background with characteristic humour. He was bathed in a warm, red light as he encouraged listeners to sing along to, “Fi al Bal Oughiyaton”, by popular Palestinian poet and Khalifé’s collaborator, Mahmoud Darwish. They clapped along too, and gave a rousing applause at its conclusion!
Next, another Mahmoud Darwish composition, the Muwashahat, “Andalus al Hob” for the audience to participate in, followed by a slow, intricate Oud solo. The tutti section featured the amazing accordion playing of Nadim Rouhana. His melodic solo gave a distinctive Spanish flavour to the music, with its flute addition from Ana Carrera. It dissolved into a lullaby-like vocal exchange between Marcel’s intimate delivery and Lumanovski’s velveteen clarinet melody.
After two traditional songs, the maestro gave his son centre stage with a long piano solo, reaching inside the piano to pluck the strings and using lovely harmonies, added chords and delicate melodies. As the solo developed, including runs and virtuoso passages, the father spoke: a recital of Darwish poetry from the heart. Suddenly the house lights went up and the audience were encouraged to participate in a vocal call and response to Samih al Qasim’s well-known, “Montassib al Qamat Amshi”, complete with high clarinet refrain and enthusiastic clapping.
In a delightful change of mood, a lovely instrumental ensemble (of violin, cello, clarinet, flute and piano) sounded for all the world like Argentinian composer, Astor Piazzola’s delicious accordion tangos with wild tutti breaks. The Hispanic influence continued. The next Arabic-Argentinian Fusion featured Elie Al Khouri on Bazooka in a romantically chromatic Tango. Blue-red lighting announced a Lebanese composition in a contrasting style, and then the entrance of the accordion brought back the sound of South America as the piece built up to a frenetic, energetic ending.
The extended central piano work mentioned earlier was entitled “Beirut Requiem” using many effects and zany techniques to gain attention, and then a 20th century atonal language emerged using crossed hands and repeating patterns. It was an exceptional tour de force, building up with big crashing chords, repeating over and over by Rami, now standing, and then dissolving into a Rachmaninov-like cadenza with waves of sound. He sang wordless phrases in a haunting, evocative song before a final massive crescendo climax.
That was a hard act to follow, but Marcel Khalifé alone on stage performed, “Oummi” (My Mother) in a focused, poignant heart-felt solo, bathed in atmospheric light. The pin-drop silence erupted into applause as the whole concert drew to a close with everyone singing and clapping along to the popular folk song, “Ya Bahriyyeh” which did not want to end. And the audience just did not want these splendid musicians to leave the platform — or Muscat.