January 16, 2007 6:00 pm

World Music: Towards an Arab-American songbook

A few years ago, at a time of emotional stress, Reem Kelani found herself unable to sing. “Losing my voice was the nearest experience to death,” she says. To get through it, she worked on a setting of her fellow Palestinian Rashid Husain’s poem “Thoughts and Echoes”. It appears, entitled “Yearning”, on her CD Sprinting Gazelle: after some gentle, minor-key piano improvisation from Zoe Rahman, Kelani starts to hum the melody, wordlessly at first, before bursting into Husain’s melancholy words.

“Music,” Kelani insists, “is everyone’s salvation. I made a series of radio documentaries for the BBC about displaced people, and an Armenian Big Mama said to me, you can burn a painting, you can burn a book, but you can’t burn a song. I try to divert my rage and anger into existing, just being. You have to turn it all into music, or you’d go mad.”Kelani is fiercely uncompromising. Sprinting Gazelle gives a jazz background to songs from Palestine before 1948, in contradiction of the notion that this had been a “land without people”. Hers is a cultural nationalism, centred on music and, intriguingly, food. For Kelani, “the greatest form of resistance” is za’atar, the paste of dried herbs, sesame seeds and sumac eaten with bread in Middle Eastern homes. “Cultural appropriation,” she insists, “is a lot more dangerous than dispossessing people or demolishing their homes. How can someone from Poland tell me that falafel and hummus are Jewish foods?

She is resistant, however, to Palestinian radical chic. “People said: ‘Why don’t you have a cover with a child throwing stones?’ but I can’t stand that kind of emotional pornography. I didn’t even have a flag on the front cover. Those flowers there” – pointing to the yellow flowers that border the CD – “are rue. A purely Galilean plant. We eat black olives pressed in rue, that’s our native culture. No politician, no neocon, can take that away from me.

This suspicion extends to the current vogue for the arabesque. “What a lot of people think of as Arabic music is pastiche, orientalism. It’s white man’s music. There are no quarter tones, no melodic modes.”

She scorns the notion of a clash of civilisations based on religion. “I am a Palestinian first and a Muslim second. I refuse the Islamicisation of the Palestinian question. I believe in an ecumenical Palestine, with room for all three faiths, without either Zionists or radical Muslims. It probably won’t happen in my lifetime, but what a goal to work towards.” Even so, Kelani refuses to appear on stage with Israelis and has joined the call for a cultural boycott of Israel. She complains about her work not being played on the radio unless it is “neutralised by being played with Israeli artists”.

After our interview, Kelani and her band play a concert in the lecture hall at London’s School of African and Oriental Studies as a warm-up for a tour of Syria under the auspices of the British Council. In performance, the songs are relentless. Rahman (Mercury Prize-nominated last year for her jazz album Melting Pot) stirs ripples of piano underneath Kelani, Rahman’s brother Idris growls on the bass saxophone, and drums and double-bass play Arabic rhythms. Kelani marches on the spot, waves a scarf, murmurs “Allah” as the music reaches fever pitch.

Lighter moments come when she expands her repertoire to the songs of Sayyid Darwish, a bohemian Egyptian composer of the 1920s. Growing up in Kuwait, she told me earlier, her father was “obsessed with Gershwin and [Irving] Berlin. It was just like listening to the call to prayer. Insh’Allah, my next CD will be the Arab-American Songbook, mixing them with Sayyid Darwish. He and Gershwin were growing up at the same time. They both had the blues, they were both marginalised in their own backgrounds.”

And indeed, in the middle of Darwish’s suggestive “Zourouni” she swerves neatly into “I Got Rhythm”. When she told me earlier that she did not “see any difference between jazz and Arabic music”, it sounded a stretch; here, for a moment, the two spin together so fast they sound like one.

‘Sprinting Gazelle’ is released on Fuse Records

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