Palestinian Blues

Reem Kelani, Palestinian multi-talent, sings traditional Palestinian Songs, as well as Jazz and Blues. Although she's got a doctorate in Coastal Marine Biology, she always wanted to be a singer. A portrait by Martina Sabra

Reem Kelani (photo: Russ Escritt/
Reem Kelani: "Although good female singers are revered in the Arab world, people would rather see their neighbours' daughter become a singer than their own"

​​For Reem Kelani, the turning point was a film: 'Latcho Drome' by Tony Gatlif. "When a female character said 'I envy your dogs', and the Gypsy women started singing, I just totally forgot where I was. I was weeping and screaming. The rest of the audience must have thought I'd gone completely gaga. But at that moment, it became clear to me: the gitanos sing the same blues as we do – we, the Palestinians. And every summer since then, I've travelled to Jerez de la Frontera."

The multitalented Reem Kelani

She sings Palestinian Cante Jondo, as well as jazz standards and Lili Marleen in Arabic; she can perform Persian "chah-chahi-bulbuli" sequences; she composes, writes and teaches; and she even produces successful radio programmes, such as the six-part series "Distant Chords" for BBC Radio 4. Reem Kelani, born in Manchester in 1964 and brought up in Kuwait, can apparently do almost anything.

British jazz critics heaped praise on her performance on "Exile", the latest CD by the Israeli saxophonist Gilad Atzmon, while the BBC nominated the recording for the World Music Award 2003. And yet Reem Kelani has never released an album of her own; why not?

"It wasn't because of my asthma", smiles Reem. "The best medicine for that is swimming and singing, and I practice both intensively." Instead, she says, her cultural background played a role. "I'm still coming to terms with my decision to become a singer; as I'm Palestinian, my family is very important to me."

In 1991, Reem Kelani abandoned work on her doctorate in Coastal Marine Biology – and her parents refused to speak to her for years. Reem explains: "Although good female singers are revered in the Arab world, people would rather see their neighbours' daughter become a singer than their own. When a grown woman sings in Arabic, it's much more sensual than in European music. Arabic song makes little use of resonance; one sings directly from the body. It's like exposing the most intimate part of oneself. For an Arab audience, the effect is extremely sexy; and for a woman who presents herself in public in such a way, it will be almost impossible to find a man who'll marry her. And a Palestinian family will find this very hard to accept."

Studies – the Koran – jazz standards

Reem first sang in public at the age of four, at the primary school in Kuwait, where her family had moved two years previously. Her mother came from Nazareth; her father, a Palestinian from Jenin and member of a respected Sufi family, had studied medicine in England and could afford to send his children to international schools.

For Reem, the coexistence of European and Arabic culture was part of her everyday life: she learned to play the piano with a Dutch teacher, recited the Koran from beginning to end, and could sing Gershwin standards at the age of seven.

"At a recent rehearsal, I even managed to surprise the trumpeter Guy Barker with a wonderful song by Gershwin. Guy Barker had never heard it before, but we already had the record in the Sixties – in Kuwait!"

"I preferred listening to Joan Baez..."

Reem Kelani

​​For all their worldliness, the Kelanis also cultivated their rural Palestinian traditions – including the conservative attitude to women. Reem remembers: "My mother conserved balls of dried yoghurt in olive oil, or filled vine leaves with rice, while singing the old wedding songs. Meanwhile, my father would tell us stories of how the Palestinians were driven out of their land in 1948. He always used to tell me I wasn't a real girl, but like a man without a moustache. I would have preferred it if he'd called me a strong woman!"

In the multicultural atmosphere of Kuwait, Reem felt like a citizen of the world. "I didn't like Arabic music at all", she admits. "Fairuz, the Lebanese singer; she was OK. But I found Umm Kulthum's songs terribly long and monotonous. I preferred listening to Joan Baez and Bob Dylan."

Kelani was 13 before really becoming aware that she was part of a Palestinian diaspora. It happened at a traditional Palestinian wedding, during one of the regular yearly visits to her mother's family in Nazareth:

"Suddenly, I felt proud. I saw the women dancing, and I thought: this music, these rituals – that's our culture. We're there, we have our place on the map. At this wedding, some of the women weren't wearing veils, and some were – but that didn't stop them expressing their femininity through the music. Even the big fat mamas with breasts that reach down to their waists, these Palestinian women who make that high-pitched warbling mouth music – I was suddenly proud of them, and proud to be a Palestinian. At that moment, it became clear to me that I would become a musician, and that I would someday pursue research into all these traditions."

Studies versus jazz clubs

Nonetheless, after doing her A-levels, Reem succumbed to the pressure from her parents and began studying Coastal Marine Biology in Kuwait. Looking back, Reem now feels that it wasn't all in vain: "Rather than studying shrimps and fish, I now study world music and traditional Palestinian songs, as well as interviewing the 'big mamas' in the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon. The methodical approach, the discipline and the curiosity I brought with me from the study of biology – that all certainly helps me as a musicologist and singer."

While studying, Reem also worked as a singer in the international clubs in Kuwait – against the will of her parents, who would have preferred to see Reem safely married. But it was only after the first Gulf War of 1990-1991 that Reem made her final decision to pursue a musical career:

"I was already in England to do my PhD, and my family was stuck in Kuwait after the Iraqis invaded. For five months, I didn't know whether they were alive or dead. It was dreadful. Afterwards, one thing was clear to me: from now on, I'm only going to do what I really want to do. Life is simply too short for compromises."

Exploring Palestinian music

Reem resumed her training as a singer, and performed in public many times; but it took a little longer before the breakthrough came. She had been serving soup for the Salvation Army, but a more lucrative source of income were the music workshops for children and adults she led at the British Museum.

At the same time, this job taught her what it can mean to "come out" as a Palestinian: one child asked her, "How many Israelis have you killed?", while others remarked: "You're so beautiful – and we always thought Palestinians were ugly people!" Still, Reem carried on working. Besides running her music workshops, she wrote satirical essays for BBC Radio, describing life from a female immigrant's point of view.

In 1996, she travelled to the refugee camps in Lebanon, in order to pursue research into traditional Palestinian music. It is mainly the woman who still sing these songs.

"I've learned some wonderful old songs there, and I've collected a great deal of material, some of which I use in my workshops on Arab and Palestinian music. But the project is still far from completed. These traditions are transmitted only orally, and if they're not documented soon, they'll be lost forever."

The encounter with Gilad Atzmon

On top of all this, Reem began composing: her own songs, as well as music for films on a fairly regular basis. And it was a film that eventually brought Reem Kelani together with Gilad Atzmon and the Orient House Ensemble. The South African director Jenny Morgan was making a documentary about the battle for the Jenin refugee camp in spring 2002, and she asked both the Palestinian Kelani and the Israeli Atzmon to provide music for her film.

Gilad Atzmon is well-known both as a top-flight musician and as a vehement anti-Zionist; since 1995, he has been living in London. Aztmon was highly impressed by Reem's voice, and he invited her to record two songs for his new CD, "Exile", which was already almost completed. It was no small matter for Reem, a Palestinian, to work with an Israeli Jew; yet she finally said yes, convinced that "peace is only possible when Israelis and Palestinians work together creatively."

The CD was released in England in 2002 – and the critics were in raptures. Since then, Reem Kelani has performed live with Gilad Atzmon and the Orient House Ensemble all over Europe, with great success.

Nonetheless, it's unclear whether the musical partnership between Atzmon and Kelani will continue in the longer term; at the moment, Gilad Atzmon is more interested in tango, while Reem is increasingly in demand as a solo artist. Moreover, she is reluctant to be exploited for political ends:

"I don't want politics to obscure my artistic message", she says. "The music has to be able to survive on its own. My identities as a Palestinian and as a singer are closely interconnected; my music is a kind of Palestinian Blues. But I also want to be able to sing love songs and jazz numbers, and to be taken seriously when I do so."

Martina Sabra

© 2004

CD (plus Bonus Video Track): Gilad Atzmon & The Orient House Ensemble Featuring Reem Kelani & Dhafer Youssef. ENJA Records