Douglas Heselgrave's #3 album for 2007
First Appeared in The Music Box, December 2007, Volume 14, #12
Written by Douglas Heselgrave
Tue December 11, 2007, 07:20 AM CST
Taqasim, the latest release from Lebanese composer and oud master Marcel Khalife, is one of those rare recordings of world music that is destined to become an enduring classic around the globe. Transcending musical and cultural boundaries, each of its three lengthy compositions will be appreciated immediately by jazz and acoustic music fans everywhere. In Khalife’s hands, the Arabic lute or oud reaches a level of expression that quite literally leaves listeners gasping in disbelief. This is an album for the ages that is every bit the equal of anything that has been recorded in the past decade.
To compare Khalife’s playing with Ravi Shankar, Stephane Grappelli, and, at his most intuitive and free flowing, Jerry Garcia may seem hyperbolic. In truth, however, there are no recent parallels to the fluidity, grace, and power of Khalife’s fretwork on Taqasim. Every note and phrase emitted from his oud forces a person to reach for superlatives, but none of them do Khalife’s playing justice. It is perfect, and like the best music from anywhere, it is simply beyond words. It is hard to conceive that there is a better string player alive in the world today than Marcel Khalife.
In addition to being a musician without a peer, Khalife is a peace activist who risked his life in the 1970s by performing in devastated Lebanese concert halls during his homeland’s civil war. Last August, in response to Israel’s bombing of his country, he made the following statement in a letter to fellow UNESCO Artists for Peace: "Nothing justifies our art other than to speak for those who cannot speak. We have vowed to release our work as songs of love for, and unity with, the victims of persecution everywhere." Ironically, this peace-loving musician encountered persecution himself during his last North American tour. Though most of his dates in Canada and the U.S. were without incident, his concert in San Diego was cancelled due to Khalife’s nationality and Islamic background. This was not the first time that ignorance of the breadth of Middle Eastern music and cultural expression — and an unfortunate tendency to be suspicious of artists from the Arabic world — has deprived audiences from experiencing the sublime playing of one of the best musicians alive today.
Tolerance is, of course, a double-edged sword, and Khalife’s tendency to operate outside the boundaries of traditional music also has resulted in the cancellation of his concerts in the Middle East. This was the case earlier this year when a performance of a composition based on an old, Arabic love story was banned in Bahrain due to the perceived sexual nature of the work.
Born in Amchit and educated in Beirut at the National Conservatory of Music, Khalife has been teaching oud and recording albums of his own compositions since 1975. His decision to write music for Lebanese dance artists has been crucial to the creation of new forms of Eastern ballet, including those that were pioneered by companies like Caracalla and the Sarab Ensemble. In addition to this work as well as the creation of more than 20 albums of his own avant-garde music for oud and Western instruments, Khalife has composed soundtracks for feature films and documentaries. He also has written several symphonic pieces that have been performed by outfits as diverse as the Kiev Symphony and the San Francisco Chamber Orchestra. To round out his already considerable achievements, Khalife has penned several books about music theory that reflect the depth and breadth of his vision.
What distinguishes Khalife’s output from many other artists playing within the framework of Arabic culture is that his compositions are instrumental, and they do not rely on vocals or traditional song structures. He often bases his material on Arabic tunes from the early 20th Century. Similarly, the works of Egyptian poet Sayyed Darweesh have been a particularly important source of inspiration for Khalife. On Taqasim, however, rather than writing musical settings for Darweesh’s poems, Khalife uses the moods and insinuations of Darweesh’s writings as his motivation. The result is that Taqasim is an album that can be judged strictly on its musical merits because Khalife did not force prospective fans to contend with the complexities of Arabic song structure. Consequently, he has re-envisioned the very nature of Arabic song; he has broken its stereotypes and provided a context for his music that should allow listeners to experience it free of prejudice and preconception.
The music on Taqasim is very listener-friendly. Essentially it is a series of duets between the oud and the upright bass, with only a modicum of supportive percussion. Each of the three compositions on the album is a journey through several moods and inflections that should be familiar to fans of John McLaughlin and Jerry Garcia. Indeed, some of the late Grateful Dead guitarist’s collaborations with David Grisman share similar musical sensibilities with the compositions featured on Taqasim. As ever, comparisons can be dangerous and misleading, so it is best to take the plunge and experience Khalife’s work on its own glorious terms.
Taqasim is quite unlike any other album released and widely available in the Western world, and it should challenge, delight, and beguile listeners for years to come. One would be hard-pressed to choose a better instrumental outing for companionship as the days grow shorter and the nights extend well into the morning. Simultaneously dark, moody, and elevating, Taqasim is the perfect companion for contemplative winter nights spent sitting in front of the fire. It is essential and highly recommended.
1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2007 The Music Box