Marcel Khalife (Arabic: مرسيل خليفة; b. June 10, 1950, Amchit, Mount Lebanon Governorate, Lebanon) is a Lebanese composer, singer and oud player. From 1970 to 1975, he taught at the conservatory in Beirut. In 1976, he created Al Mayadeen Ensemble and became famous all over the world for songs like Ummi (My Mother), Rita w'al-Bunduqiya (Rita and the Rifle) and Jawaz al-Safar (Passport), based on Mahmoud Darwish's poetry.
In 1999 he was granted the Palestine Award for Music. In turn, he contributed the financial portion of the award to the National Conservatory of Music at Birzeit University in Palestine. In 2005, Khalife was named UNESCO Artist for Peace.
Marcel Khalife was born in 1950 in Amchit, a small coastal village north of Beirut. His grandfather was a fisherman.
His first lessons in music was with a retired military man, a teacher in his village, Hanna Karam, who advised the parents of the young boy to let him continue learning music. His mother died of cancer when he was 16 years old. He studied the oud at the National Academy of Music in Beirut and contributed to the expansion of the possibilities of the oud.
From 1970 to 1975, he taught at the conservatory in Beirut and other local institutions and toured the Middle East, North Africa, Europe and the United States giving solo performances on the oud.
In 1972, Marcel Khalife created a musical group in his native village with the goal of reviving its musical heritage and Arabic choral singing. The first performances took place in Lebanon during the Lebanese civil war in 1975. During the war, he risked his life in bombed out concert halls.
"Since I was born, I've felt I had a rebel's soul within me. I rejected things that might be inherited, but that were wrong."
"I connected my artistic project with the fatherland, with life, society, and the people,"
"My music is for the service of humanity, and is intended to present a serious and sincere work for those tormented in this destructive war. My music was a sort of balm for those wounds."
In 1983, Paredon Records, now Smithsonian Folkways, released Promises of the Storm, a small collection of protest songs and political ballads.
Al Mayadeen ensemble
His work combines traditional Arabic music with Western elements like the piano. Mainly, Marcel Khalife uses modern Arab poetry (like Mahmoud Darwish) and muwashahat (music of Al-Andalus). He composes and sings the poetry of Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, songs on nationalism and revolution.
1976 saw the birth of Al Mayadeen Ensemble. Al-mayadeen is the plural of maydan, which can mean both battlefield and village square, the site of festive events, weddings, song and dance. Enriched by the previous ensemble’s musical experiences, Al Mayadeen’s notoriety went well beyond Lebanon, performing the songs Umi (My Mother), Rita w'al-Bundaqiya (Rita and the Rifle) and Jawaz al-Safr (Passport), based on Darwish's poetry. The band performed in Arab countries, Europe, the United States, Canada, South America, Australia, and Japan.
Marcel Khalife has been invited several times to festivals of international fame such as: Baalbeck, Beit Eddine (Lebanon), Antakya (Antakia), Carthage, El Hammamat (Tunisia), Timgad (Algeria), Jarash (Jordan), Arles (France), Krems, Linz (Austria), Bremen (Germany), ReOrient (Sweden), Pavia (Italy), World Music Festival in San Francisco, New York, Cleveland (U.S.). He performed in many prestigious halls at the Place des Arts in Montreal, Symphony Space and Merkin Concert in New York, the "Kennedy Center" in Washington, D.C., Berklee Theatre and New England Conservatory in Boston, Royal Festival Hall and Queen Elizabeth Hall in London, UNESCO Palace of Beirut, Cairo Opera House (Egypt).
His recent works consist mainly of instrumental works like Arabian Concerto, The Symphony of Return, Chants of the East, as well as the Concerto Al-Andalus, Suite for Oud and Orchestra, as well as a piece called Sharq. In Arabic, the word 'sharq' means 'East' or 'Orient', and the piece is a musical case-history or a musical memoir of the Arabic musical legacy that was written by Khalife for 100 choral singers and 100 musicians. Additional recent works include Mouda'aba (Caress), Diwan Al Oud, Jadal Oud duo, Oud Quartet, Al Samaa in the traditional Arabic forms and Taqasim, a duo for oud and double bass. Marcel Khalife’s compositions has been performed by several orchestras, notably the Kiev Symphony Orchestra, the Academy of Boulogne Billancourt Orchestra, The San Francisco Chamber Orchestra, the Orchestra of the city of Tunis, the Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra and the Absolute Ensemble. Lorin Maazel recently conducted Khalife's orchestral works.
Marcel, Rami & Bachar Khalife
In 2011, a new familial collaboration debuted at the Beirut Music & Art Festival under the banner of ‘Marcel, Rami & Bachar Khalife’. The concert showcased a fusion of oriental, electronic, classical and percussion music composed by the trio. The collaboration was critically acclaimed. The father-son trio presented a high-energy intermingling of the oud, piano and percussion, shrouded within the frisson of electronic synthesizers and korg keyboards.
The debut of Marcel, Rami & Bachar Khalife's at the Beirut Music & Art Festival 2011 concert sent shock waves through Beirut, with many commentators championing the collaborative performance as 'a revolution in music'. The two-hour concert was broadcast on MTV.
They came together through music. Through their fondness for innovation and their desire to transcend boundaries. They came together through an awareness, surrounded by hazards. They bonded in world’s of musicality and humanity, resonating between poles of attraction and contention, between, love and opposition. They are inspired by the freedom to choose and experiment; to travel, carrying their memories, to new places resplendent with the colors of life and humanity. Marcel, Rami, and Bachar Khalife are engaged today in a new journey of togetherness and joint artistic work that began in the year 2000 when both Rami and Bachar joined Al Mayadine Ensemble that Marcel established in the late 1970s.
It has been a rich journey, one that’s allowed both Rami and Bachar Khalife to draw, both, inspiration and an artistic identity from this rich musical reservoir. While receiving they gave, both Rami and Bachar have left an indelible imprint on their father’s work. Today’s work is a distinct creative work marking a milestone along this path, as it bears compositions by Bachar, Rami and Marcel in a new garb fashioned by all three, who participated in the design, execution, and performance – singing, playing, and artistic expression. The oud, piano, and percussion engage in a conversation of melody, playfulness, noisemaking, or love – elements that the three artists have long explored – traversing their entire range of dynamic extremes, from shouting to whispering, from an outpouring of passion to a diffident reserve . . . to the last note" – Marcel, Rami and Bachar Khalife.
In 2005, Marcel Khalife told the media that his music and songs have been banned in Tunisia by the state-controlled radio and TV stations. He might have angered the Tunisian authorities during a concert in Carthage in August when he dedicated one of his songs to Arabs imprisoned in Israel and Arab countries. He also expressed support for the rights of political activists who went on hunger strike before and during the World Summit on Information Society in Tunis in November 2005.
In July 2009, Khalife returned to Tunisia to perform on the stage of the Roman amphitheatre to a full house, as part of the 45th International Festival of Carthage. Speaking to the audience, Khalife opened the concert by stating:
People of Tunisia, good evening. This night, like all nights in Tunisia, has a special taste. In spite of all the collapses and defeats around the world, Tunisians are still the kind of people who have a special taste and love. They do not broadcast my songs and concerts on TV, but I know that my public keeps on listening to me.
Khalife later dedicated a song to the "revolutionary leader Che Guevara".
Ana Yousef, ya Abi case
Three times (1996, 1999 and 2003), he faced criminal prosecution for his song I am Joseph, O Father, written by the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish. Khalife was accused of insulting religious values by including a two-line verse from a chapter of the Qur'an.
Khalife recorded the song in his 1995 album "The Arabic Coffee Pot" that was based on a 1992 poem of the prominent Palestinian poet, Mahmoud Darwish. The poem adapted this verse from the story of Yousef (Joseph) in the Qur'an: "O my father, I saw eleven stars and the sun and the moon bowing before me in homage." It tells the story of how Joseph's brothers were jealous of him because he was handsome and kind, his brothers don't like him. The story reflected the suffering of the Palestinian people.
In 1999, the case was brought to court by the newly appointed investigating judge, Abdel Rahman Shihab, who reproached Marcel of "insulting religious values by using a verse from the chapter of Joseph from the Qur'an in a song." Marcel faced six months to three years imprisonment for publicly insulting religion (article 474 of the Lebanon's penal code, six months to three years in prison) and blasphemy (article 473 of the penal code, one month to one year in prison).
Senior Sunni Muslim clerics in Lebanon ruled that singing verses from the Qur'an was "absolutely banned and not accepted." The highest Sunni Muslim religious authority in Lebanon, Grand Mufti Sheikh Muhamed Rashid Qabbani, has maintained repeatedly that Khalife is guilty of blasphemy for singing a verse from the Qur'an. Sheikh Qabbani said: "There is a limit to freedom of expression. One limit is that it should not infringe on people's religious beliefs."
Demonstrations of solidarity came from many sides, intellectuals, human rights organisations and ordinary people. A meeting was held in Beirut where 2000 people sang altogether the song in trial. Marcel Khalife even received the support of Sheikh Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah, a Shi'ite theologist. The famous Lebanese writer Elias Khoury harshly criticized the trial, as did Mahmoud Darwish, who said:
Fundamentalism is in the process of stifling culture and creation in the Arab world, I say it is shameful. I am ashamed. We should all be ashamed. If Marcel Khalife is found guilty, it will be an insult to culture.
Ghada Abu Karrum, the judge, rejected the demand of the prosecutor, and found Khalife innocent of the charge of degrading Islam. As stated in the judgment:
[...] Although, in the first place, it is not for this court in any circumstance to indulge in discussing whether the action of the defendant mentioned above constitutes a deviation from Islamic tradition and its prohibitions, it is necessary to note that human societies have always known – since the advent of religions until this day – forms of behavior that touched the various aspects of life while not always observing all religious rules or abiding by them without that necessarily forming a desecration of the religious sanctity of the texts from which these rules have emerged.
[...] Hence, it is clear from listening to the tape and CD at hand that the defendant has chanted the poem in gravity and composure that reveal a deep perception of the humanism expressed in the poem ornamented with the holy phrase. [He is] committed in his expression – in form and content – to a performance that bears no infringement on the holiness of the Qur'anic text, or offense to it or its content, nor reveal any intent to incite disparagement of it explicitly or implicitly, neither by words, meaning, nor music.
Khalife lives in Amchit, Lebanon, with his wife, Yolla Khalife. Yolla Khalife is a singer and songwriter.
His eldest son, Juilliard School graduate Rami Khalife, is a virtuoso pianist and an accomplished composer. Rami Khalife has been hailed as one of the most exciting composers of his generation. In October 2011, the Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra, under the conductorship of James Gaffigan, premiered Khalife's 'Chaos', for orchestra and piano, with Khalife at the helm as a soloist. In February 2013, Rami Khalife's Arab Spring-inspired 'Requiem' was premiered, within the same program as Marcel Khalife's suite "Oriental", to great critical acclaim.
His younger son Bachar Khalife, is an accomplished composer, percussionist, pianist, singer, poet and an unconventional artist.
His nephew Sari Khalife is a cellist.
The composer wrote in 1982 a six-part Anthology of Studying the Oud. The purpose of his writing works is to rationalize musical traditions, an attempt to develop Arabic musical traditions.
"We Arabs have no history of our music. In my judgment, we have linked music to singing, and it is time to write down the history of music, not just song."
His further writing will be Jadal Oud Duo, which is:
"an attempt to find new methods of expressing the deeply-rooted spontaneity in Arabic music. It is at a level of artistry that departs from the past, presenting a new challenge to the composer and the musician. Jadal brings forth a unique richness in Arabic music through the search for a new law of aesthetics to replace the old. It is an openness toward an uncharted territory emanating from the familiar."
He also wrote Samaa.
- 2005.11.14: Lincoln Theatre Washington DC USA
- 2004.01.12: Kennedy Center Washington DC USA
- 2008.10.10: De Roma Borgerhout, Antwerp, Belgium
- 2011.03.13: Al-Bustan Concert Series, Philadelphia, PA, USA
- 2014.11.15: Al-Bustan Concert Series, Philadelphia, PA, USA
- 2016.12.18: Day for Night Festival, Houston, TX, USA
Marcel Khalife has composed soundtracks for films, documentaries and fictions, produced by Maroun Baghdadi, Oussama Mohammed, Sophi Sayhf Eddin and Sami Zikra. His music is also featured in the documentary Occupied Minds produced by Jamal Dajani and David Michaelis, As well his music featured in the documentary film Sons of Eilaboun by Hisham Zreiq.
In 2002, European television networks broadcast a documentary on Marcel Khalife. The documentary, entitled Voyageur, presents 33 selections from Khalife’s repertoire, which ranges from compositions for solo oud and vocal settings of Arabic poetry to orchestral compositions, film scores and ballets.
Le Luth Sacrilège is another documentary, directed by Pierre Dupouey, produced by Ognon Pictures and Mezzo. The documentary tells the story of the second trial Marcel Khalife faced in 1998 for his song Ana Yussef (I am Joseph).
In 2009, director Cherien Dabis ended her debut film Amreeka with Khalife's "Jawaz al-safar" ("Passport").
Marcel Khalife gave a talk on March 12, 2013, at the American University of Sharjah about his latest CD, The Fall of the Moon, and his longing towards the late Mahmoud Darwish. He also spoke about prospects of publishing his autobiography in two volumes.
In popular culture
- His rendition of the song "I am Joseph, O Father" (in Arabic Ana Yousef, ya Abi) was included in the 2010 album Listen to the Banned. The song had created controversy and brought about demands, by some Muslim groups who accused Khalife of insulting religious values by including a two-line verse from a chapter of the Qur'an in the song, that it be banned.