Marcel Khalifé had just finished his first song at Berklee Performance Center Saturday night when the aisles filled with late-coming fans. Khalifé, a celebrated oud master, singer, and composer, watched as ticket-holders roamed through the hall, groping in the dark to find and fill their seats. It went on and on, and Khalifé waited: dressed in black, elegant silver hair framed by a turquoise scarf, the picture of patience.
“Turn on the lights, and let them sit,” he finally suggested in Arabic, getting a big laugh.
All night, the deep connection between Khalifé and his audience was palpable. That’s because he is far more than a musical icon. Born into a Lebanese Christian family, Khalifé is renowned throughout the Arab world for songs of yearning, love, struggle, and the desire for peace and justice, and some of his compositions based on the words of the late Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish have attained the status of anthems. For his efforts, Khalifé has seen his music banned in Tunisia, has been prosecuted for blasphemy in Lebanon, and has been named a UNESCO Artist for Peace. Saturday night’s concert was titled “Fall of the Moon: An Homage to Palestinian Poet Mahmoud Darwish, and a Salute to the Arab Spring.”
Throughout the evening, fans joined in on melodies they knew by heart. Sometimes all it took was the first plucked notes from Khalifé’s oud for them to burst into song with the force of a soccer-match crowd. “The ones in the back have stronger voices than the ones in the front,” Khalifé noted wryly in Arabic after one chorus. (A translator left most of his ad-hoc remarks unaddressed.)
Often the music’s mood offered a striking contrast to the words. For “The Violins,” a song of al-Andalus, or medieval Muslim Spain, Omar Guey’s rollicking, Gypsy-flavored violin and Julien Labro’s lively accordion set the pace for a clapping, singing crowd. It sounded like a party, but Darwish’s words were an elegy for a lost homeland: “The violins weep with the Gypsies heading for al-Andalus/ The violins cry over the Arabs departing al-Andalus.”
Khalifé has been hailed as the Bob Dylan of the Middle East, but that description cannot fully suggest his musical range. Khalifé’s instrumentation — performed Saturday night by the superb Al Mayadine Ensemble — can be cinematic in its delicacy and imagination. And with his “Tango for My Lover’s Eyes,” we might have been listening to Astor Piazzolla.
Then there was “Passport,” a wistful setting of Darwish’s words: “I am naked, without name or belonging/ on a soil I nurtured with my hand/… All the hearts of the people are my identity/ So take away my passport!” Here a prolonged free-jazz solo from pianist Rami Khalifé, the composer’s son, seemed to suggest a wandering, landless soul, leading to a furious climax.
By the end of the concert, as the band played “O Fishermen, Haila, Haila,” drummer Aleksandar Petrov was standing, pounding parade-style. Fans whistled and yipped. A man in the audience prodded the two young boys with him to rise, and they danced, side to side across the aisle, arms interlocked, proclaiming with their bodies their solidarity, their kinship, their joy.