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).