Bachar Mar-Khalifé // Live Review

Rich Mix – November 19th

Rather than let thoughts of too-recent horrors hang in the air, Lebanon-born, Paris-based Bachar Mar-Khalifé wasted no time at Rich Mix last Thursday. “This song is a prayer for all the little angels, gone too soon,” whispered the musician at the very outset, “in Beirut… in Paris.” So began ‘Madonna’, a brooding Lebanese ballad, at first played as a solo synth-piece by Mar-Khalifé, before his two young bandmates slowly upped the decibels on bass and drums. Then, as Mar-Kahlifé turned to his upright piano and his backers struck up the lilting dubby rhythms of love song ‘Layla’ – green-lighting an enthralling set of disparate styles and moods – it was clear that these performers were determined to define the evening by their own powerful, atmospheric musicianship.

Suffused with Middle-Eastern melody and dexterous percussiveness, the trio wove Mar-Khalifé’s Arabic vocals through a fusion of the traditional and the today, drawing out passages of exploratory prog, free jazz, bawdy rai-style folk and enough avant-garde electronica to explain why Warp saw fit to get involved. There was woozy, pulsing oriental reggae (‘Balcoon’); a maelstrom of distorted bass and bewildering syncopation dedicated to refugees; and a solo prelude expressing Mar-Khalifé’s nostalgia for an imaginary homeland (‘Distance’). Despite the songs’ range, all were cinematic compositions, although immersing oneself in their exoticism was occasionally hindered by Rich Mix’s role as a multi-use venue: a handful of excited cinema-goers queuing on the mezzanine for the new Hunger Games will soon snap you out of your reverie.

It was perhaps as well, then, that the trio weren’t shy in breaking up any moments of repose themselves, smashing aside spells of melodic tinkerings with tumultuous rhythm. Prior to the incendiary crescendo of ‘Kyrie Eleison’, Mar-Khalifé reached inside his instrument to deaden the strings, thus widening the contrast with its second act. The sensual ‘Laya Yabnaya’ was also exceptional: the force with which Mar-Khalifé’s lower-octave pummelling locked on to his drummer’s expressive stick-work struck like blows to the gut.

The London Jazz Festival audience was certainly appreciative, though surely less animated than this band were used to. “This is our last chance to make you dance,” joked Mar-Khalifé, before climaxing the set with ‘Lemon’, a whirling Arabic trance that eventually proved a triumph of irresistible force over immovable object. When called back for an encore, the band played an abridged version of the same track; this time the crowd knew what to do and was on its feet. “Assalam u alaikum” (“peace be upon you”) bode Mar-Khalifé in closing a night whose rousing musical rendering of identity, anger, passion and lust, of what it is to be human, had seldom felt more necessary.

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Listen: Bachar Mar-Khalifé – Ya Balard