Musical storytelling: Reem Kelani interviewed

Reem Kelani (Şahan Nuhoğlu/Roll magazine)

Watching Reem Kelani perform in front of an ecstatic crowd at Halifax’s “Discover Palestine” festival, one would be forgiven for thinking that this is an artist with her career path laid out for her. She delivers stunning vocal performances, ranging from Palestinian lullabies and settings of Mahmoud Darwish’s poems to early twentieth century pieces by Egyptian master Sheikh Sayyid Darwish evoking the lives of working-class Nubian Egyptians. Describing herself as a storyteller, her performance incorporates a joyful desire to share knowledge and understanding. Arabic-language lyrics are translated for the mainly English-speaking audience and the long, intricate histories behind some of the lyrics and melodies are unpicked. The audience is gently encouraged to join in, and slowly relaxing its British reserve, ends by clapping and singing along enthusiastically. And an unplanned performance from the Lajee Center debka troupe, dancing to Kelani and her band, leaves the crowd torn between shouting their defiance or drying tears from their eyes.

But offstage, Kelani, born in Manchester to Palestinian parents and raised in Kuwait, tells a tougher tale of her struggle to establish herself as a Palestinian artist in the “world” music industry.

Kelani has met with predictable refusals to engage with the politics of her Palestinian identity. A commission for the music for a 1992 BBC documentary commemorating the tenth anniversary of the Sabra and Shatila massacres included instructions not to use the words Sabra, Shatila, Palestine or Israel. But, she says, it is the world music scene which, while presenting itself as progressive and as engaging with indigenous peoples’ rights, has most insidiously undermined her progress as a Palestinian artist.

“They’ll join Amnesty International, go to WOMAD [World of Music, Arts and Dance festival], buy second-hand clothes from Oxfam and fight every cause from gay rights to the Saharawis, but when they come to Palestinians, they freeze,” she says. “The reason is that Israel is very big on the world music scene. Some of the biggest world music stars are Israeli — some are very talented, some aren’t, like any other artist.”

The Israeli Foreign Ministry’s hasbara (propaganda) department actively recruits musicians to go to world music festivals, making them sign documents saying they’ll promote the image of Israel in return for funding. Kelani quotes a July 2008 article from the Israeli daily Haaretz, which divulged a government “hasbara contract” leaked by an Israeli artist to dissident writer Yitzhak Laor. The contract includes the lines: “The service provider is aware that the purpose of ordering services from him is to promote the policy interests of the State of Israel via culture and art, including contributing to creating a positive image for Israel.”

“But if I got one penny from the [Palestine Liberation Organization] the critics would dismiss me as political,” Kelani notes. She mentions a recent music festival in Ireland to which she was invited but had to refuse because organizers were unable to pay a reasonable level of fees or expenses. An Israeli artist, funded by the embassy in Dublin, was scheduled instead. Only lobbying of the festival organizers by Palestine solidarity campaigners prevented the Israeli government from being credited as a supporter on festival publicity.

The world music hierarchy, Kelani says, want their acts to look “exotic” and come from “authentic” places (rather than diasporas) while “sounding fusion. I get great reviews from ethno-musicologists. They see that I might bring in a jazz rhythm section but I stick to Arabic maqam theory and use microtones. I look fusion but I am ethnic — politically, spiritually, genetically and that scares the hell out of their neo-colonialist, Orientalist, pseudo-political asses!”

Kelani also rejects absolutely the tendency she’s observed amongst radio presenters and festival organizers to “justify” her presence as a Palestinian artist by pairing her with an Israeli performer. Kelani has refused festival and radio appearances on these grounds, and recently turned down a slot in a high-profile world music compilation after she found that not only was an Israeli musician on the track listings, but their songs were adjacent.

“It is as if to say that as a Palestinian, Reem is only allowed to exist if an Israeli is always there to justify her existence,” says Kelani’s husband and manager, Chris Somes-Charlton. Often, Kelani adds, musicians are labeled as “Ladino” or from other longstanding Jewish cultural traditions — often those rooted in the Arab world — rather than as Israeli.

While Israeli musicians get state backing, Kelani highlights the struggles faced by Palestinian artists, especially those from the diaspora. She and Somes-Charlton funded her first album, Sprinting Gazelle, out of their own pockets. According to Somes-Charlton, every funding application they’ve made for a follow-up album has been turned down, by both European and Arab organizations. “There’s a lot of injustice but it’s collective, not personal, and I always say focus on the collective, because it’s not about me,” Kelani insists.

Despite the financial setbacks, work on Kelani’s second album continues. It will be devoted to the works of the early twentieth century Egyptian composer Sheikh Sayyid Darwish, a controversial figure who kept mistresses, wrote songs in defense of hashish smokers and is said by some to have died of a drug overdose.

However, evidence Kelani uncovered during a recent research trip to Egypt suggests that this could have been part of a libel campaign by the British colonial authorities or King Fuad’s regime. Indeed, other versions of the tale of his death in 1923 suggest that he may have been deliberately poisoned. Darwish’s criticism of colonial and political hierarchies and defense of marginalized peoples such as the Nubians meant that his work was suppressed by the authorities for many years. But, says Kelani, “his saving grace is that the masses love him. I’d get into a cab and be asked, what are you doing in Egypt? I’d say, I’m researching Sayyid Darwish and my God, they’d do anything for me.”

Kelani has, she admits, been asked why she, as a Palestinian performer, isn’t concentrating on Palestinian music. “I went instinctively to Sayyid Darwish as soon as I was done with working on the Palestinian stuff for Sprinting Gazelle,” she explains. “It just flowed naturally.”

Kelani’s political spirit seems to find immediate affinity with Darwish’s rebelliousness. He was born in the working-class Alexandria neighborhood of Kom al-Dikka, the site of a British army base which, says Kelani, “literally looked down on him. He was working class, his father was a carpenter, so it wasn’t like he’s carrying the message for someone else. He was from that community.”

Kelani has recently translated a significant article on Darwish which suggests that his legacy is still being suppressed by an Egyptian regime fearful of ideological challenges. “The safest thing is just to ignore him and concentrate on Umm Kalthoum, who was great, but Sayyid Darwish was a socialist musician, which is different,” Kelani says.

Reem Kelani will be touring the UK in October. See Reem Kelani for details.

Sarah Irving is a freelance writer. She worked with the International Solidarity Movement in the occupied West Bank in 2001-02 and with Olive Co-op, promoting fair trade Palestinian products and solidarity visits, in 2004-06. She now writes full-time on a range of issues, including Palestine. Her first book, Gaza: Beneath the Bombs, co-authored with Sharyn Lock, was published in January 2010.