Music Review: Reem Kelani: Live at the Tabernacle – Fuse Records CFCD050
In 2006 I concluded my review of Reem Kelani’s debut album Sprinting Gazelle with the phrase “I believe it’s a masterpiece.” That belief has subsequently matured into a certainty, and the disc has become one of my favourite albums in any genre. A full decade later Kelani‘s follow-up album Live at the Tabernacle, on Leon Rosselson’s Fuse label, could easily have proved an anti-climax. Instead, it complements its predecessor admirably while also being a masterpiece on its own terms.
Kelani refers in the album booklet to “live concerts” as “the essence of what my musical journey is all about”. This journey has hitherto also entailed composing, teaching, musicology, and performing in works by classical western composers with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, so it is hardly surprising – if frustrating for her growing legion of fans – that she regards recording as something of a sideshow.
The performance recorded here took place at the 2012 Nour Festival of Arts in London (the Tabernacle, Notting Hill), and the double-album eventually materialised thanks to a Kickstarter campaign of which Kelani says: “In an age in which music is structured according to the laws of the market place, and political narratives are suppressed, nothing is more comforting and assuring than grassroots support which can be neither bought nor sold.”
Concerning Sprinting Gazelle, I wrote that Kelani “shuns political rhetoric, preferring to allow the music to speak for itself”. This is as true of the Palestinian material on the new album as it is of Kelani’s comments both on stage and in the excellent booklet accompanying the recording (I really recommend buying the hard copy, as the whole thing is so beautifully produced). Of course Kelani is hardly apolitical. She is a member of the Anti Capitalist Roadshow, a “collective of singers and songwriters… opposed to the ideologically driven austerity programme imposed by this [UK] millionaire government”. Some of the material on the second Tabernacle disc relates overtly to the 1919 Egyptian revolution and the 2011 Tunisian revolution. However, she seems content to allow Palestine’s interminable trauma the status of an implicit if unmistakeable backdrop.
So has a political narrative been suppressed here after all? An informative and sympathetic Guardian interview from 2008 clarified that Kelani “initially struggled to get a record contract here [the UK] because of her [Palestinian] subject matter.” She admits that on the cover of Sprinting Gazelle “I was very careful…I did not say ‘from Palestine’. I said ‘from the motherland’. I’m walking on eggshells all the time.” Nonetheless, she asserted that “[t]here is a message that Palestinians don’t exist, so my narrative is… my existence, both personally and collectively … As a human being, as a woman, as a Palestinian.”
By now Reem Kelani’s existence and hence her narrative is so firmly established that she could probably afford to kick aside the eggshells, although admittedly the defamatory energies of the Israel lobby are inexhaustible. In the CD booklet Alan Kirwan, curator of the Nour Festival in 2012, writes that “[a]t the heart of her work is the recurring image of Palestine”, and the album’s epigraph – cited in English and Arabic – is a defiant quatrain from the jubilant traditional Palestinian song Il-Hamdillah:
Praise God, that evil is no more
We planted peppers in the heat
Our foes said they wouldn’t turn red
Praise God, our peppers grew and turned red.
This song, which euphorically closes both this album and Sprinting Gazelle, contains lyrics “collected… from field recordings of Palestinian refugee women in Lebanon and Jordan”. The opening track on Disc I, Let us in! (Hawwilouna!), was “recorded from a group of Palestinian refugee women, originally from the village of Sha’ab near Acre” (in present-day Israel).
The song Sprinting Gazelle itself, a new version of the début CD’s title song (the Arabic for “gazelle” is “reem”), is described as “represent(ing) a journey of profound pain interlaced with ecstatic hope. Palestinians refer to this as sumoud (‘steadfastness’). I felt this eerie beauty at the end of the frenzied rendition by the [refugee] women, when the matriarch of the group… quietly retorted: ‘We had no shoes on our feet when we left Palestine!’”
The song Yarmouk was written for Axel Salvatori-Sinz’s documentary about the eponymous Palestinian refugee camp in Syria. In an extract from this film included on CD II (the first CD also features a “promo video” that includes an interview with Kelani – to watch these, you must play these enhanced CDs on a computer!) one speaker asserts that “[t]he camp is a piece of Palestine.”
In short, although Kelani doesn’t directly mention the Balfour Declaration, occupation or colonisation, Live from the Tabernacle is imbued with Palestinian politics from start to finish.
Kelani uses the same basic jazz combo of piano, percussion, and double-bass that stood her in such good stead in her first album, but with different personnel: US-born, UK-based Pianist Bruno Heinen, British bassist Ryan Trebilcock (“Cornish, not English!” as Kelani insists), and Italian percussionist Antonio Fusco. This excellent trio in which individual virtuosity and collective partnership are indissoluble is joined by the Palestinian ‘Oud-player Tamer Abu Ghazaleh, who is also a renowned singer-songwriter.
The two discs are somewhat asymmetrical in the layout of their content. All material on Disc I is Palestinian, except for the last number which, like the first two on Disc II, is part of Kelani’s ongoing homage to the Egyptian composer Sayyid [Sayed] Darwish (1892-1923). However, the sheer exuberance and flamboyance of The Porters’ Anthem, with its playful and highly political text by Badi’ Khayri (1893-1966), made it an ideal finale to part 1 of the public concert, hence its placing here.
Its companion piece, The Preachers’ Album, is graced with one of Kelani’s most imaginative arrangements: “a ‘western’ musical style reminiscent of infantry Jazz bands during WWII, juxtaposed with frenzied Egyptian percussion…”, a perfect complement to Badi’ Khayr’s modernist poem with its multilingual references.
The third Sayyid Darwish piece, 1932, is predominantly instrumental; only Reem Kelani could compose a homage whose “title refers to the year in which the first ‘Cairo Congress of Arabic Music’ was convened at the Institute of Oriental Music…” The booklet notes tell us in fascinating detail about the issues debated at this Congress, and about the suspicion with which Darwish’s music was viewed by the Egyptian establishment of the day – a suspicion that appears to have lingered, despite his having composed the Egyptian national anthem.
On her home page, Kelani refers to her “decade-long project on the Egyptian composer Sayyid Darwish”, reminds us that it was “his songs which dominated the protests in Tahrir Square in Cairo and elsewhere”, and expresses her hope “to produce a triple CD, with detailed musicological and historical notes…” This is an intriguing and exciting prospect indeed.
Two more tracks need to be mentioned. The Ship Sounded its Horn (Babour Zammar) was composed in the 1970s by the Tunisian musician and activist El-Hédi Guella (1951-2012) to a text by El-Mouldi Zleilah (1917-2009) “as a tribute to the student revolution in France, and it returned to the Tunisian people’s consciousness when their own revolution erupted in December 2010.” Kelani had already recorded a version of this for the Anti Capitalist Roadshow Celebrating Subversion album, where she dedicated it to the memory of Mohamed Bouazizi whose self-immolation instigated the Tunisian revolution.
Finally, the exquisitely haunting Galilean Lullaby was composed by Kelani herself to a traditional poem the last lines of which (echoed in The Preachers’ Anthem) could provide a second epigraph to this marvellous, indispensable album:
Do tell our loved ones who’ve moved away,
That for anyone, hardship never lasts forever
Never lasts forever… Never lasts forever…
Raymond Deane is a composer, author, and activist. His memoir In My Own Light is published by Liffey Press.
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