SHE’S a Mancunian/Palestinian, born in Manchester in 1964 to a mother from Nazareth and a doctor father from a village in Jenin.
During a girlhood in Kuwait she began singing when she was four and studied piano from an early age.
Reem Kelani had no early affinity to Arabic music. “I didn’t like it until I was in my teens,” she admits.
“Then I saw a group of women singing at a wedding outside of my maternal hometown of Nazareth in 1974. I thought: ‘Gosh, this is good’.”
She has been performing Palestinian songs since 1988 and has toured the Arab world many times over.
Live at the Tabernacle is her new album, recorded during the 2012 Nour Festival of Arts, at a concert at The Tabernacle in Notting Hill when she sang not only the songs of Palestine, but others from Egypt, Turkey, Syria and Tunisia.
Her fellow musicians too were powerfully cosmopolitan, with the British-US pianist Bruno Heinen, the Palestinian oud virtuoso Tamer Abu Ghazaleh, the Cornish bassist Ryan Trebilcock and Antonio Fusco from Italy on drums and bindir.
Led by Kelani’s soulful and groovingly beautiful voice, all five of them constantly show that more than a little jazz runs through their blood and spirit.
As soon as the stomping percussion of the traditional Palestinian song Hawwilouna! (Let Us In!) begins and Kelani’s voice resonates demanding admission to a wedding, you can sense defiance is afoot.
A Galilean Lullaby follows, full of sadness for relatives who have gone into exile.
It’s a lament, with an earthy melancholy and some tender piano from Heinen, but ending with lines born out of optimism and struggle: “For anyone hardship never lasts forever / Never lasts forever.”
Sprinting Gazelle is another Palestinian wedding song with some brilliant oud playing by Abu Ghazala, as if he were strumming and picking his strings at some Palestinian crossroads, so full of his own singular blues is he with the rampant hope in Kelani’s voice beside him.
The two Songs of Parting begins with a compelling solo from Trebilcock’s bass.
He plays with huge depth, but in his tone is also a sense of Charlie Haden’s intense breadth, as if each note were stretching from Gaza to the Jordan.
“Oh, my eye, stop crying!: sings Kelani, “My tears pour forth without relent / At those who stole my birthright.”
In the second song she is joined spontaneously by two Turkish musicians — the violinist Cahit Baylav and the Kurdish singer Cihan Ademhan, and a beautiful unity is born.
The song by the Egyptian Sayyid Darwish, The Porters’ Anthem, tells of the 1919 revolt by Egyptians against British rule and the leading role of the impoverished porters.
Heinen’s stomping notes surge the musicians onward in a truculent ensemble.
Another song from the same era, The Preachers’ Anthem, celebrates the end of war in 1918 and satirises the false promises made by the Western powers to the Egyptian people.
Heinen’s piano rolls out the theme, Kelani’s voice is fiery and Fusco’s drums underline the scintillating lyrics — set out in the beautiful hardback sleeve booklet.
1932 is Kelani’s tune dedicated to both Sayyid Darwish and Gaza, which puts the Mu’in Bseiso poem The Vinegar Cup to music.
The piano and oud duo of Heinen and Ghazaleh exudes poignancy and Kelani’s singing of the poem’s final lines is a lovesong in itself: “How would you be born in my heart? / How would I be born in your heart? / Oh, my people!” From Gaza to Tunisia, and Babour Zammar (The Ship Sounded its Horn) is a song of migration, never so apt as now when the Aegean Sea fills with shattered humanity.
Kelani sings for all times and for all peoples, and the waves of her voice match the seas of escape and the landfalls of freedom.
Yarmouk is a cry for the homeland, the lyrics a poem by the Glasgow-based Palestinian poet Iyad Hayatleh, the title the name of a Palestinian refugee camp near Damascus.
The lives of two displaced and war-agonied peoples coalesce in this song as the five musicians absorb and express the now-times of their lives; improvising, loving and creating anew.