Q&A | Marcel Khalife Oud player, singer: ‘Music is not meant solely for your friends’

Regarded as one of the most prolific Arabic musicians and an icon of humanitarian activism, Lebanese oud master Marcel Khalife will perform tomorrow night at the Macau Cultural Center.

The 67-year-old Khalife was born in Lebanon, and studied the oud (the Arabic lute) at the Beirut National Conservatory of Music, from which he graduated in 1971. In 2005, international cultural organization UNESCO named him an Artist of Peace.

Khalife is known for his informal collaboration with the late Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish – the so-called “poet of the resistance” – who was behind the Palestinian declaration of independence in 1988 and is himself admired throughout the Arab world.

Speaking to the media yesterday, Khalife stressed that the collaboration was in some ways incidental, and that he had initially failed to seek the poet’s approval to use his works.

How did you learn to love the oud?

Marcel Khalife (MK) – When I was a little boy, I used to go to a church with my mother and I listened to the religious hymns there. Those hymns created happiness and joy in me, though I never understood what they [meant].

As a child I indulged in [making music] from pots and pans. My parents […] felt I had some [talent] there, and they decided to buy me an instrument [which they] decided would be the oud.

– You have been described as the Bob Dylan of the East. What do you make of that?

MK – The similarity, if you like, is confined to the social commitment and the content of [Bob Dylan’s] lyrics. Maybe there are similarities in the [lyrics] but musically, each artist has their own path. It’s okay – it doesn’t bother me – but I don’t think much of it.

– What was the inspiration behind your collaboration with Darwish?

MK – After I graduated from the Conservatory and went into music as a career, the civil war erupted in Lebanon. I was confined in my village – in my home – because of my differences in political opinion with those who controlled the area.

I wanted to do something and I had access to Darwish’s works. I never knew him, had never met him before, but I was spending time taking his poetry and putting it to music. […] All of a sudden, something that I created in the darkness saw light […] and it spread like wildfire across the Arab world.

I met Mahmoud [Darwish] seven years after I first recorded the work, at the debut of my first album. Perhaps out of youthful ignorance, I didn’t realize that you have to ask the poet whether I can use their poetry for music or not.

Darwish was a noble poet, and actually he had been following my path from afar, so he was happy because my music actually made his poetry more accessible to a broader audience.

When we met for the first time, he called me over: “Young man, come here. Don’t you know that those poems have a poet?” He was [joking], but from then on, there was a very strong relationship.

– Does your political activism have a spillover effect on your music?

MK – [The message] in my music is not direct. There is no obvious political meaning to my work. It’s not a direct reference to any particular cause. I don’t like to use a cause for a musical composition. Music has to present itself in isolation of one’s political views. What I do, in terms of my political and humanitarian activism, is a different story.

During the civil war in Lebanon, even those who did not agree with my views would listen to my music. In spite of the various warring factions, there are certain aspects of human beings that transcend politics. Music is not meant solely for your friends; it is for everyone.

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