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Marcel Khalife @ Haverford College with Abeer Nehme.

November 17, 2014

Text by Jumah Chaguan.

There was no space available at Haverford College on Saturday. Even the aisles had to be used to seat people.  On stage, it was no different – around 80 choir singers and 34 musicians took up every inch of space. There was just enough space for the headliner, Marcel Khalife, to walk to the front of the stage with special guest Abeer Nehme.

“We have so many people here, we don’t have room for the performance,” joked conductor Thomas Lloyd with the crowd.

Khalife is an acclaimed Lebanese composer, singer and oud master.  The oud, a pear-shaped guitar, is also known as the king of the instruments in Middle East. Khalife studied the oud and claimed early fame for showcasing the oud as a solo instrument. In the mid 70s, he formed his own ensemble in which he blended the Arabic classical stylings with western instrumentation and poetry.

Although Khalife has visited Philadelphia before, this weekend’s concert in Haverford was special because it served as the US premiere of his work titled Chants of the East. It is a work that is best described as a musical collage of the modern and traditional, blended with opera and classical, with lyrics inspired by Sufi poets. The compositions have enough modernity to make it accessible to newcomers to the genre and younger generations.

When Khalife took the stage, he didn’t immediately sing. In true Khalife fashion, he took a crowd request – the popular song “Rita” – and asked the crowd to join.

“In Lebanon, people in the first row don’t sing but here they do,” Khalife said with a quiet smile at the end of the song.

He then sang more traditional songs with lyrics composed by the late Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, including “Salamun Alayki,” a lament for a lost mother or homeland. Other songs touched on the hardships of fishermen, while “Arabic Coffee Pot” highlighted the beauty of women. And although Khalife sang, he was joined on stage by Abeer Nehme, a Lebanese singer and musicologist who’s one of the few artists with the ability to sing in 20 twenty languages.

“The voice that echoes beauty is beauty,” a man yelled to the graceful Nehme once she finished her opera-like performance.

Khalife and Nehme’s visit was made possible by Al-Bustan, a non-profit that promotes Arabic culture through music. They secured grants from the William Penn Foundation and others to organize the event. Because of the commitment to grow music education, Khalife held a music demonstration at Moffet Elementary School in Philadelphia earlier in the day.

The Keystone State Boychoir, which performed with Khalife,  began preparing for the performance in September. The week of the event, they were clocking 3-hour practice sessions. On the day of the event, they practiced for 8 hours straight.

The hard work paid off. The fans in the audience clapped and sang along.

“When I was in Saudi Arabia, I just listened to American music,” said Doaa Sabagh. “But once here, whenever I hear Arabic music, I feel home.”

She closed her eyes and held her hands closer to her heart.

One Comment
  1. November 20, 2014 9:07 pm

    You failed to mention Philadelphia’s own Prometheus Chamber Orchestra who, along with the tahkt ensemble, accompanied Marcel and Abeer the entire second half of this program!

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