It seems like British-Palestinian singer Reem Kelani ought to be on her fourth or fifth album, such is the intensity of her artistic vision. But no, this is only her second, following a 10-year gap since Sprinting Gazelle. That doesn’t seem right for a singer and performer who is hugely accomplished and hard-working. Then again, Kelani’s power is in her live performance, so it is fitting maybe that this is a live album.
And when I say ‘live album’, it really means that, complete with the concert presenter’s introduction, audience singalong, and Kelani’s inimitable, fault-free, funny, touching and informative talks between songs. The concert was presented as part of London’s Nour Festival of Arabic Arts produced by the London Borough of Kensignton and Chelsea, Royal no less, and the photos in the (!) 56-page booklet are all from that one night at the Tabernacle in Notting Hill. A live album with a vengeance.
It’s a brave decision for an artist to so faithfully capture and release a concert experience as a second album. You can’t easily use tracks for radio play, and you might think that it would appeal mainly to existing fans who have been to one of Kelani’s shows. But this is to misunderstand the nature of her artistry. She is not so much a singer as a performer and communicator, utterly charismatic, both in the contemporary sense of magnetic, and in the original sense of gifted, dare I say, with the gift of the gab. Her art, her lifestyle, is to share emotion, experience and the stories of Palestinian people, whether from the past, present, from the middle east or from Manchester, where she was born, and it doesn’t much matter whether this is in song on stage or chatting over a drink after the show. You may not put this album on as background music during dinner, but this is the album to get the full Reem Kelani treatment; if you love middle eastern music with unique contemporary jazz interpretations; if you think a recording should capture the untweaked raw talent of an artist.
The concert kicks in with percussion and claps and Reem’s voice declaring ‘Let us in!’ It’s a wedding song that’s sung as the groom’s family approaches the bride’s house, reminding me of the tradition in Ethiopia where there is a contrived scuffle as the groom and friends have to barge their way in to the bride’s house. A suitable opening and metaphor maybe of many things, of the Palesinian voice, of a talented musician fighting to get a hearing in the media. It is, as most of the songs on the album, a traditional song from before 1948.
The second song is from Nazareth, her mother’s home town, set to Kelani’s own music. A solo piano introduces Kelani’s voice and then the band. It’s harmonically smooth with Middle Eastern inflections, settling into a piano groove that evokes Maurice el Medioni, whilst a simple melody reminiscent of Souad Massi with many words sung on intense declaratory single notes ends in a singalong as magical as a reverently worshipful pentecostal church service.
Kelani’s charisma continues in introductions, where she can mix humour with intimate emotion. Her immaculate and articulate English is kind of disorientating at first, though she would probably give me a thump for being so Orientalist about expecting an Arab accent. Mancunians generally don’t have Arab accents. But it is lovely to hear the part of the Arabic texts spoken before being sung.
We get the back story for the next track Sprinting Gazelle from her previous album. A dark story sung at weddings, in “messed up” Palestinian style. The oud solo goes into a charged instrumental groove. It’s well-recorded so you feel the angry buzz of the oud strings.
Songs of Parting begins with a recitative bass solo over a drone, the voice takes over and eventually the meoldy tentatively emerges. It’s a Turkish song. Arabic gives way to Turkish, with a Turkish Kurdish singer joining in and the melody taken up by the violin of Turkish musician Cahit Baylav, who at the end admits he joined in completely impromptu and had never actually met Reem before. It’s completely rough, ready and live – and all the better for it. This track gets the most claps. It’s not very common for Arab singers to reach into Turkish repertoire, even though they are so closely related, but Kelani has a real understanding of the culture and music, and references the late great Turkish clarinettist, Selim Sesler.
The Porters Anthem takes an interesting turn. The jazz piano intro hints at oriental Elington and has playful little figures that remind me of Milhaud’s Le Boeuf Sur Le Toit. I wonder how Reem’s music plays in the Arab world and I recall Fairuz’s to me excellent jazz-influenced phase. I may be wrong but seems one doesn’t hear so much of this kind of musical belnding from the Arab world these days. And this all adds to the uniqueness that is Reem Kelani.