Nigel Williamson speaks to the French-Lebanese multi-instrumentalist and composer about how his musical family helped set him in the right direction
Bachar Mar-Khalifé grew up “bathing in music,” his poetic way of describing a childhood spent listening and learning from his father, the Lebanese oud player Marcel Khalifé, whose Al Mayadeen Ensemble and songs of nationalism and revolution have earned legendary status across the Arabic world.
Taken on tour from an early age, there was never really any doubt that Bachar and older brother Rami were destined to follow in the family firm. Rami Khalifé has since made his name both as a composer and with the techno outfit Aufgang, while Bachar has just released his third wildly eclectic solo album, Ya Balad (Oh Homeland), a genre-defying kaleidoscope of memories of childhood and the paths of exile sung in Arabic as an open letter to the country of his birth.
His previous albums, Oil Slick (2010) and Who’s Gonna Get the Ball From Behind (2013) were well-received, but Ya Balad has the feel of a defining work. Blending piano, harpsichord, synthesizers and melodica with Arabic and Middle Eastern instruments, the result is a breathtaking global fusion of classical modes, electronica, jazz, trance, dub, world music and much else besides, expansively drawing on influences ranging from Oum Kalthoum to Pink Floyd and mixing traditional Lebanese folk tunes and an extraordinary setting of the liturgical ‘Kyrie Eleison’ with his own dazzlingly original compositions.
At 32, his musical history is already rich and varied. After the Khalifé family emigrated from war-torn Lebanon to France at the end of the 1980s, he studied at the Conservatoire National in Paris under the conductors Lorin Maazel and James Gaffigan. Piano is his first instrument but he’s also a virtuoso percussionist.
“When I was growing up I was always fascinated by the percussionists who played with my father,” he says. His CV includes working with the Orchestre National de France and the Ensemble Intercontemporain and collaborations with a diverse range of artists from the Serbian jazz pianist Bojan Z to Detroit techno DJ Carl Craig via the Mexican electronica auteur Murcof.
“The two musicians who matter most to me are my father and my brother,” he says. “But it was the moment I stepped out of the family circle that I realised the immensity of the musical world.” Yet despite the exploratory path his music has taken and a fierce independence of spirit, family ties remain adamantine.
At the Beirut Festival in 2011 he performed with his father and brother as a trio on a set of compositions for oud, piano and percussion, layered with electronic effects. On his latest album the influence of both his parents is strong; ‘Madonna’, a prayer by the Iraqi poet Saadi Yousef, is heard in a setting by his father and the hypnotic Lebanese folk tune ‘Lemon’ is a collaboration with his mother, Yolla Khalifé. “She has a very different approach to music to my father who was determined that my brother and I would study at the Conservatoire,” he says. “For her music is about singing in the morning while making coffee and I think her zest for life saved me.”
He now divides his time between France and Lebanon and wrote the lyrics for Ya Balad “by night across the bars of Beirut.” His appearance at Rich Mix on November 19 promises to be one of the highlights of this year’s EFG London Jazz Festival.
+ DATE Bachar Mar-Khalifé performs at Rich Mix on November 19 as part of the EFG London Jazz Festival