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Remembering Egypt and Palestine with Reem Kelani at the Ealing Jazz Festival

Reem Kelani [Twitter]
Reem Kelani [Twitter]

"Many people ask me, how come you like jazz and you're an Arab? And I tell them it's because I'm an Arab" Reem teases, laughing at her own joke. She's referring to the make-up of her band; it's unusual to see an Arabic singer with British jazz musicians.

In the South tent of the Ealing Jazz festival this Saturday, Palestinian singer Reem Kelani goes on to describe similarities between Arabic music and jazz. As her voice thunders out Reem's lyrics are in full harmony with her band, leaving the audience wondering what other rhythm her words could possibly blend so well with.

It's not just the nature of the music that is curious but Reem herself. With a mother from Nazareth in Galilee and a father from Ya'bad near Jenin, Reem was actually born in Manchester and grew up in Kuwait. She has a striking appearance with blonde hair, a loose black tunic with embroidered pink edges, high-wedged shoes and a voice to match.

Not entirely content with belting out each song for listeners to digest, she stops in between to address the audience. There is an unmistakable element of story-telling to her music, one that is easy to relate to as the songs unfold in a mixture of Arabic and English. Many of Reem's songs are laced with nostalgia, a way of remembering the past or educating people about the Middle East.

One of Reem's passions is the Egyptian composer Sayyid Darwish (1892 – 1923). Describing an experience she had on Qasr el Nile Bridge, Egypt amongst the tear gas of the 2011 revolution she introduces her next song, originally by him.

"At that very minute when we were on the bridge Mubarak's regime cut off telephone lines, the internet, everything, and the revolutionaries were isolated… in the 1919 revolt in Egypt against British rule… it was the revolutionaries who cut off the telegrams and the telephone lines to isolate Cairo from London, to be able to make sure that the revolution worked… I was thinking of that song walking on the bridge."

Ironically, here were two revolutions one hundred years apart, with the Internet and phone lines down, purposefully cut only for completely different reasons.

If Egypt is one of Reem's connections to Arabic music, Palestine certainly provides another. Reem tells us how great it was to watch Palestine in the Olympic procession, of her support for stateless countries. Her pride and positivism is uplifting throughout her performance.

"I will take you back to where I originally come from, Palestine… people talk about destruction. We're going to talk about construction. This is a song that people sing when they're building homes in Palestine, it only revolves around one word. Alhamdulillah."

As the last song finishes, amongst the clapping and dancing a lady in the audience all dressed in pink with a Palestinian keffiyeh wrapped around her shoulders, gives a standing ovation. Reem is back for another Sayyid Darwish song.

Follow Amelia on Twitter: @amyinthedesert

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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