Keeping it in the family: Why Marcel Khalife and his son are embarking on a bold new musical direction

The legendary singer and his composer son are showcasing jazzy and bold new takes of old classics

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates- Marcel Khalife performing at Hay Festival at Atrium, Manaarat Saadiyat.  Leslie Pableo for The National
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Fans should savour Marcel Khalife's upcoming performance at Sharjah's Al Majaz Amphitheatre. It's one of the last "regular" gigs he plans to give for the rest of the year, as he embarks on a new kind of live concert experience.

Concert-goers in the capital got a taste of this last month when he was joined by his son, Bachar Mar-Khalife, as part of a Hay Festival Abu Dhabi gig showcasing jazzy and bold new takes of old classics. It is an avenue he plans to explore further later in the year.

For now, at his Sharjah show, he'll be supported by a more traditional oriental backing band. "It is not down to me getting sick of a particular method of playing," Khalife says. "For those who follow my work, they know that I've always tried new things from performing with small groups to large symphony orchestras. I am just following my creative impulse."

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates- Marcel Khalife performing at Hay Festival at Atrium, Manaarat Saadiyat.  Leslie Pableo for The National

It's an impetus triggered by Mar-Khalife, who has built his own career as an exciting composer and jazz pianist. To celebrate his father's 70 birthday – which falls on Wednesday, June 10 – he wanted to perform with him, but introduce him to a new audience.

"I wanted to challenge him creatively, the same way he always did with me. He is turning 70 and I wanted him to do something that he never did," Mar-Khalife says. "While my father has a lot of fans, there are even more people out there who don't know him and should listen. My father's work is very important."

Born in the Lebanese coastal town of Amchit, Khalife learnt oud composition at the Beirut National Academy of Music and gained a cult following in Lebanon with a series of oriental bands.

However, it was with his Al Mayadeen Ensemble that Khalife became a regional star – mainly because his adventurous compositions found the perfect foil in the lyrics supplied by his friend, the late Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish.

It remains one of the region's most celebrated and enduring creative relationships of the past five decades. Darwish may have died in 2008, but Khalife continues to use his poetry as a muse, helping him to write stirring songs that examine the nature of independence, nationalism and family.

These are all universal themes, Mar-Khalife explains, and they need to be heard outside the region. Hence he began creating a new concept for his father, which included giving these treasured songs a modern make-over while adding a new visual element with translated selections of Darwish's words beamed on to a backing screen.

After re-writing more than a dozen songs, Mar-Khalife remembers sitting down with his dad and going through them over a space of two weeks. And what did Khalife think of his son adding burbling electronic beats to classics such as Ya Beirut and zippy Balkan jazz stylings to Birds of Galilee? Like his songs, Mar-Khalife says, his father's acceptance of the new direction was slow-burning. "He was worried at first," Mar-Khalife says, with a chuckle. "But the way my father works is that once he understands and believes in the mission then he will want more. He is crazy like that, he was pushing me to go further in that direction."

But that was more down to ­fatherly, rather than creative, instincts.

While Khalife is obviously proud to work and perform with his son, what gives him greater satisfaction is the relentless curiosity that powers Mar-Khalife's professional and personal life. It is an aspect of his character he always encourages.

“And this is really what an appreciation of the arts give you,” Khalife says. “It is something we should always pass down to the next generation. Being involved in the arts or creative pursuits is not a hobby. It needs to be viewed as essential. Without appreciating or being involved in the arts, a human being will be ultimately lacking.”

And if a piece of art is done well, Khalife adds, then it can transcend language and cultures. It is for this reason he is looking forward to taking his new show abroad. With Mar-Khalife leading the band, the trek will hopefully include a few performances at jazz festivals in the United States.

“I look forward to the reception,” he muses. “Playing to different audiences never phases me. I believe in every concert there will be people who will come because they are fans or because they are familiar with the music. As well as that, they are also those people who will come just because they are curious to hear something new. I make sure I cater to all types of audiences and so far it has been going well.”

Marcel Khalife performs at the Al Majaz Amphitheatre in Sharjah on Friday, March 13. Tickets from Dh80 are available at