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Arab British Center raises its cultural profile
Susannah Tarbush
Published in The Saudi Gazette on 24 - 10 - 2010

A concert by the Palestinian singer, musician and broadcaster Reem Kelani organized recently in London by the Arab British Center (ABC) signaled the Center's determination to increase the British public's understanding of the Arab region through culture.
The Center's cultural program has grown to encompass lectures, displays of work by contemporary artists and photographers, and classes in Arabic language, calligraphy and cookery. But Kelani's concert, held in the Brunei Gallery of the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at London University, was the first concert it has organized.
Kelani, supported by five musicians, entranced the audience with a program primarily of Palestinian and Egyptian songs, with a few touches of Turkish and Iranian music. The audience was highly responsive, clapping along to songs and singing choruses. The mood of the songs ranged from exuberant to tender, and from melancholy to comic, and the varied musical styles included jazz and Arabic folk and classical. After a standing ovation from the elated audience, Reem and her musicians performed two encores.
The Center's chairman, former Conservative MP Nick St. Aubyn, told Saudi Gazette, “The Arab British Center was delighted that our first concert packed the hall at the Brunei Gallery, which says much for the qualities of Reem Kelani, to whom we are profoundly grateful for her support of our cultural program.”
He added: “We were also pleased with how many (members) of the audience signed up to our on-line ‘culture feed', one of the ways we use to raise awareness of Arab culture in Britain.” The ‘culture feed' sends subscribers e-mails with news of Arab-related cultural events in London and beyond.
The Arab British Center was founded in 1975 and registered as a charity in 1989. It aims to promote friendship, understanding and cooperation between Britain and the Arab world under the slogan ‘The Arab World Brought Closer'.
The Center performs an essential function in accommodating and subsidizing a family of organizations with goals similar to its own. It moved some years ago from the South Kensington area of central London to a large house in historic Gough Square (where Dr. Samuel Johnson's restored house is also located), near Fleet Street. The organizations housed in the Center include the Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU), Friends of Birzeit University (FoBZU), Banipal – the magazine and book publisher of modern Arab literature in English translation – and the Offscreen Education Program and its sister organization Edge of Arabia, which promotes contemporary Saudi art and artists.
The Center is governed by a board of Arab and British trustees and is run by the dynamic duo of executive director Noreen Abu Oun, a SOAS graduate and former accountant, and projects manager Imogen Ware, who has a degree in Arabic from Oxford. As part of its cultural thrust the Center has been developing its library, which includes one of the few British collections of Arab literature translated into English and also has a wide range of non-fiction on Arab culture, society and history.
St. Aubyn told the audience at the concert: “We have evolved from an institution which supported like-minded organizations into our own active role, with our classes, our talks, our exhibitions and now our first concert.” The evening marked “a coming of age of the new, active Arab British Center.”
He added: “In recognition of the work she has done to promote Arab culture here in the UK, Reem Kelani was specially commended in our 2008 Arab British Culture and Society Awards.” In addition, a London listings magazine had warmly recommended the Brunei Gallery concert by the “always impressive British-born, Kuwaiti-raised Palestinian singer.”
REEM was born to Palestinian parents in the northern English city of Manchester, where her doctor father was practicing medicine. While growing up in Kuwait, where she first started performing in public, she was exposed to a wide range of Arab and Western musical influences. Since settling in London some 20 years ago she has constantly performed and toured in the UK and abroad, and has presented, or participated in, broadcasts on BBC radio. She has also taught Arab and Palestinian music in schools and other venues, starting with workshops at the British Museum.
In 2006, she released her debut CD “Sprinting Gazelle: Palestinian Songs from the Motherland and the Diaspora”, a wholly independent production, to much critical acclaim. Her second album, due for release in mid-2011, is a tribute to the great Egyptian composer Sayyid Darwish (1892 -1923). She has been working on this project over the past seven years, making field trips to Egypt, Syria and Turkey as part of her research.
Kelani described Darwish to her audience as “a counterculture figure”. She considers his equivalent, in terms of narrative rather than musicology, to be the American folk singer, songwriter and anti-oppression campaigner Woody Guthrie.
Kelani said she has been “working with some of the best jazz and classical music musicians in this country for six years introducing them to Arabic music and learning a bit of jazz from them.” She was accompanied on stage by pianist Bruno Heinen, double bassist Ollie Hayhurst, Ian Edge on clarinet, saxophone and flute, Portuguese percussionist Pedro Segundo, and Fariborz Kiani on various Iranian drums.
THE program interspersed songs from “Sprinting Gazelle”, such as “Galilean Lullaby”, “Il Hamdillah” and “A Baker's Dozen” (Arabic title “Habl al-Ghiwa”), with numbers from the forthcoming Sayyid Darwish album. The evening got off to a rousing start with what Kelani termed “an electrical cultural shock” in the form of a rollicking Sayyid Darwish song, with lyrics by Badi' Khairy. The song, dubbed “The Preachers' Anthem”, is in the voice of a sheikh reacting humorously to news of the 1918 Armistice ending the First World War. Khairy was also the lyricist for another song on the program, “The Porters' Anthem”. In “The Nubian Anthem”, with lyrics by Egyptian-French playwright Amin Sidqi (father of actress Lola Sidqi) Kelani played the tanbour lyre.
The year 1932 was a seminal year for music in the Arabic world, with the holding in Cairo of the first conference on Arabic music in Cairo. Kelani marked the event in the composition “1932: (for Sayyid Darwish)”. She noted that the British authorities and the Egyptian king issued a decree attempting to exclude discussion of the late Darwish from the proceedings.
Darwish's musical education included studying Iranian and Turkish music, and the title of the muwashah “Beautiful Color” is taken from an ancient Persian 17/8 time rhythmic pattern. The lyricist is Amin Al-Jundi, a Syrian from Homs. The final encore of the evening was one of Darwish's most famous songs, “Zourouni Kul Sana Marra”.
Reem has in recent years performed with Turkish musicians, including the Roma clarinetist Selim Sesler and the collective Karde? Türküler (“Songs of Fraternity”). She is working with the latter on the music of the Arab minority in Anatolia.
In the concert she performed a new arrangement, made in partnership with Karde? Türküler, based on a Palestinian song traditionally performed when a baby gets its first tooth, and on the famous Turkish lullaby “Dandini Dandini Dastana”. She invited a young Turkish woman from the audience up on stage to sing with her. After the resounding success of its first-ever concert, one looks forward to seeing what cultural goodies the Arab British Center has in store for the future. n


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