WHO ARE YOU… Bachar Mar-Khalifé
Bachar Mar-Khalifé is a percussionist and a pianist. And he sings as well, mostly in Arabic. At 31, the Franco-Lebanese artist has already released two wildly successful, beautiful, organic and intimate albums that evoke his stage presence. Clique met up with him, accompanied by photographer Gabrielle Malewski.
Who is Bachar Mar-Khalifé?
That’s a difficult question. Is our artistic activity on stage, what we record, completely cut off from the “who are you” of everything else? I constantly ask myself this question. Sometimes it’s very difficult to be at home and not think about being on stage, and vice versa. Interlinking everything in that way is a choice based on sincerity.
Do you have any limits on stage?
When I’m on stage it’s impossible. When I’m on my own in the green room before each show, I wonder: “why I am doing this to myself?” I’m completely exposed! But after all, the show will go on – I have no other choice than to do what I have to do.
You talk about music like it’s an obligation.
An obligation? In a way, yes… It’s a necessity, at least. Music is what I do best, but it could have been something else in another context. My final goal is not necessarily happiness or comfort, but something linked to resistance in the literal sense. But it’s not my ultimate purpose per se. One day it will be something other than music.
What will you do afterwards?
Plant things, cut logs, look after animals. What we find in music is sacred, and we find it all the time in other things. I think that this commitment is just as present in eroticism or the freedom to walk around topless in the cold as it is in true politics. In art, the artist is fundamentally committed, he walks onto the stage. Of course, I’m talking about the non-commercial artist.
What does “non-commercial art” mean?
I have a burning hatred of money as a way of life, that’s all. I think that in a society like ours, where we could never imagine selling our children, it should be no different for something I’ve created. I do sell my albums, but I don’t impose them, as certain radio stations do today. If Man (with a capital “M”) sits in front of the TV and just endures, eats and drinks what people impose, there is a problem between commerce and art.
Tell us about your label
It’s called “InFiné”, it’s a small independent label with artistic demands. It sells, but in order to keep producing albums. Otherwise I don’t think they would have accepted me (laughs). I met them in 2009. My brother (Rami Khalifé, composer and pianist, Editor’s note) was already working for them with his band, Aufgang. I felt the need to record my first album, Oil Slick, which came out in 2010, but I never imagined I’d release it! With the label I was able to take the time I wanted. I never wanted to do tours or interviews, but I slowly started doing them.
Music is a big part of your family…
Well first there’s my father, who has a very French name – Marcel. He’s a composer and a singer. I don’t really like talking about my father, because I’m a fan of what he represents musically in the eyes of many people in the Arab world, in his musical and social struggle. He’s a benchmark for many people. He really didn’t like me listening to old songs, but what I loved the most was searching through the archives in his office, watching shows in unbelievable places in the 70s and 80s. In stadiums in Lebanon, during awful local festivals, with two microphones and terrible sound. I kind of absorbed all of that. It was a rather undercover education.
My mother sings. She has a very different approach to my father when it comes to music. For her, it’s about singing in the morning while making coffee. It’s an extremely simple approach, whereas my father was adamant that my brother and I would study at the Conservatoire. My mother’s zest for life saved me. Without her I think I’d have immediately done something else. The most important things are found in the unofficial, and not in titles awarded by a jury. Everything else is so much stronger, be it just a meeting of musicians in a gypsy neighbourhood in Macedonia, or a 90 year-old singer in Yemen.
You were born in Lebanon but you grew up in France. Why did you choose to sing mainly in Arabic?
It was a bit of a challenge actually. It’s my native language, and the one we spoke at home, but I was never educated in Arabic. My written Arabic is terrible, and I struggle to read. When I write songs in Arabic, I don’t have any of the established codes to hand. I haven’t been subjected to the mould of the Arabic language like I have with the French language. The more freedom we have with a language the better!
Your music is almost cinematic. Is that on purpose?
I don’t impose my music, nor what people think of it, nor what they might feel. I compose, I write, I sing, but the rest doesn’t belong to me. For my work in cinema, I’ve composed the music for three feature-length films, and I’m currently working on the fourth. The last one was called Fièvres (directed by Hicham Ayouch, released this year, Editor’s note). The one before was called Layla Fourie, a South African film which won an award at the Berlin International Film Festival in 2013. There is a strong link between cinema and music. The latter opens up doors the former often can’t.
I’ve finished recording my next album, which will come out in 2015. Between my second and third album, we’ve created a sort of musical fairy tale where I’m alone on stage. We’ve worked on the set design, the production, the video, it’s all very theatrical. It’s called “Le Paradis de Helki” and I’ll be playing in Paris at the Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord, on 26 January 2015.
Le Paradis de Helki
On 26 January 2015 at the Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord, as part of the “Beyond My Piano” Festival
Piano, Vocals, Electro: Bachar Mar-Khalifé / Production: Charif Ghattas / Set design, lighting, sound, video: Julien Peissel, Joachim Olaya, collectifscale
Photos © Gabrielle Malewski