Marcel Khalifé & the Al Mayadine Ensemble performed their new album “Fall of the Moon” at the Copernicus Theatre in Chicago, on 4 May 2012. “Fall of the Moon” is a eulogy to Mahmoud Darwish, the late poet laureat to the Palestinians, and a salute to the Arab Spring.

As someone who was raised in Lebanese culture and tradition, who nonetheless had never had the privilege to attend a concert by such a revered Lebanese artist, it was an especially important evening for me. The performance not only reminded me of Darwish’s words about Khalifé, but affirmed them: “I consider the music of Marcel Khalifé one of the few cultural phenomena contributing to [Arab] spiritual revival.”

Khalifé, a lauded Lebanese composer, Oud master, singer and performer, first discovered Darwish’s writings in the 70s, in the midst of the Lebanese civil war. He became an admirer of Darwish’s versifications on life, land, and identity, and as he says, “Even before we got to know each other personally, I felt as though Darwish’s poetry, with its divine assertiveness and prophetic cadences, had been revealed to me and for me.”

Meeting Darwish in the 80s,  Khalifé informed the poet that he had set music to his poetry, and this paved the way for a friendship that lasted until Darwish’s parting in 2008. Palestinian-American and PEN awardee Fady Joudah explains, “There is perhaps no parallel in our modern times to the artistic bond between Marcel Khalifé and Mahmoud Darwish. It is rare that a celebrated musician is the twin manifestation of a great contemporary poet.”

Like Darwish’s poetry, Khalifé’s music has become part of the Arab social and cultural fabric, its history, self-perception and identity. In a time of widespread Islamophobia, Khalifé’s music not only counters the negative and false perceptions of Arabs and Arab-Muslims in the world, but it also touches and unifies them, and gives voice to their differing struggles.  As Darwish once said of Khalifé’s music, “In Marcel’s song, we find those driven to death able to sing, creating a standard of truth marked by a freedom that had been lacking in lyrics and rhythm”

“Fall of the Moon” an 18-track album, combines vocals and instrumentals that are set to prose from Darwish’s posthumous publication In the Presence of Absence. And while there are a few tracks with lyrics written by Lebanese poet Talal Haider,  Al Mayadine, and Samih Al Qasim, Darwish’s “Rita”, “Mohammad” and “Passport” triggered highly emotional and moving choral responses from the audience. The audience’s mood oscillated between long silences that observed the elegant voices of Yolla Khalifé and Oumaima Khalil, to the mastery the musicians have over their instruments, to the heartfelt moments where it was impossible to contain the feeling and many rose to sing with the Khalifés and Khalil.

Hosted by the Arab American Action Network, “Fall of the Moon” proved to be an unforgettable 3 and a half-hour performance, a mediation between nostalgia and expectation, sorrow and felicity, but ultimately a deep obeisance to the legacy and memory of Darwish, and an outlook towards an exciting future that the Arab Spring has made possible.

A few tracks from the “Fall of the Moon” album follow to help you sample some of the music. The lyrics will give you an idea of the meaning behind the words. First, based on one of Darwish’s well-known poems titled “Passport”, now a song that gives musical voice to the Palestinian struggle. Darwish wrote:

I am naked, without name or belonging,
on a soil nurtured with my hand.

If you enjoyed Khalifé’s musical rendition of “Passport”, then take a look at this filmed performance from their Detroit stop where they set music to Darwish’s poem “Rita”.

Between Rita and my eyes there’s a rifle
and whoever knows Rita
kneels and prays
to the divinity in those honey-colored eyes.

And, “Sparrow” is Yolla Khalifé’s solo on the album, and she sings:

He saw his wings flutter
Beyond the high gates
He saw the forest flying
On the wings of freedom.

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