MARCEL KHALIFE performing as part of the SMALL WORLD FESTIVAL at Toronto Centre for the Arts (5040 Yonge), Sunday (September 30), 7:30 pm. $30-$50. 416-870-8000, www.smallworldmusic.com. Rating: NNNNN
For a musician who doesn't consider himself particularly religious and says he'd rather not talk politics, Lebanese oud maestro Marcel Khalife has been embroiled in a lot of controversy.
The 57-year-old composer, currently living in exile in Paris, has written critically acclaimed works for solo oud as well as orchestras and chorales. He's scored numerous films, theatre productions and ballets, but he's best known for setting to music the verse of Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, a former executive committee member of the Palestine Liberation Organization.
Although Khalife's Darwishian numbers haven't had much chart success in Israel, they've met with even harsher reviews in Arabic countries. In Lebanon, Khalife was brought to court and charged three times with what senior Sunni Muslim clerics deemed blasphemy and insulting religious values because his song I Am Yusuf, Oh Father, based on a Darwish poem alluding to the suffering of Palestinians, cited a two-line verse from the Qur'an. Khalife was ultimately found innocent and avoided a three-year prison sentence.
Then in 2005, the same year that the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) named Khalife an Artist for Peace, Tunisian authorities banned his music from state-controlled radio and television stations because he signed a petition protesting human rights violations in that country.
More recently, Khalife's collaboration with Bahraini poet Qassim Haddad on a musical production of the love story Qais And Laila a sort of Arabic Romeo And Juliet was denounced by a fundamentalist member of the Bahraini parliament who felt its dance routines were offensive to Muslims and called for a full investigation.
However, it's not just in the Middle East where Khalife has trouble with fundamentalists. A San Diego date on his current North American tour with his five-piece Al Mayadeen Ensemble (featuring his sons Rami on piano and Bachar on percussion) had to be moved to another venue when administrators of the Salvation Army's Kroc Center decided the performance would be "divisive" and "unbalanced" without an Israeli performer on the same bill. Unless the Salvation Army has started asking Christian artists to hire Buddhist or Taoist opening acts, it would appear to be a strange double standard.
"I'm used to these kinds of problems in the U.S.," sighs Khalife, speaking through a translator. "Still, it's puzzling to me that such things can happen in a democatic country where freedom of speech is valued so highly.
"We need to look more deeply into what's really going on, find out who is responsible and why, because these problems that may seem minor can lead to bigger problems that are much worse for everyone. But I'd prefer to focus on art, not politics."
What makes the whole San Diego situation even more perplexing is the fact that Khalife will be focusing on the instrumental music from his new Taqasim (Nagam/Connecting Cultures) disc, a salute to Darwish. A song cycle sans vocals might seem like an odd way to pay tribute to an artist admired for his passionate and persuasive use of language, but Khalife was looking at serious jail time for his prior Darwish-connected recording, so a wordless album may have been the safe way to go.
Asked point blank if his past run-ins with fundamentalist clerics had anything to do with his decision to leave off the potentially troublesome lyrics, Khalife sounds shocked.
"No, no, no, no! There was no political reason for my choice to make this an instrumetal album. It was a purely artistic decision based on the music I envisioned. To celebrate the 30 years I've worked with Mahmoud, this had to be a special recording. I wanted to create a work that would somehow convey the real spirit of Mahmoud's poetry, the beauty with which he writes about love and peace. To do that, I needed to free my compositions from the vocal element so the power of his words could be felt in my music.
"What happened to me in the past, whether in Lebanon or in Bahrain, has no influence on what I do as an artist. My work isn't governed by what goes on in the world. I will continue to create freely, as I always have. Just like whatever happens here on earth won't stop the sun from shining, nothing is going to get in the way of the music I make."