Reem Kelani

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Reem Kelani is a British Palestinian musician, born in Manchester, England. Initially influenced by the jazz music her father played on his record player, her interest in Palestinian music was sparked by the music at a family wedding in her maternal home in Galilee in the 1970s.


Kelani was born in Manchester, England, the daughter of Yousef Zaid Kelani (1925- ), a physician and endocrinologist from Yabad near Jenin in the West Bank, and Yusra Sharif Zu’bi (1931-2004), a homemaker from Nazareth in the Galilee.

Kelani is a maternal cousin of Haneen Zoabi, the first Palestinian Israeli woman to be elected to the Knesset, a relative of Shawkat Kelani,[1] a prominent doctor and co-founder of An-Najah University in Nablus, and the great niece of Wajih al-Kaylani, Shaykh al-Islam of the Philippines.[2]


Kelani started singing at the age of four, and she recalls it as one of the most profound experiences of her life.[3] She continued singing as an amateur and semi-professional singer until she went professional in 1990. She studied piano as a child, and this helped expose her to Western classical music, of which her father was an avid listener. Her father’s early fascination with Fred Astaire’s black-and-white films introduced Kelani to the music of George Gershwin and Irving Berlin, the Jazz elements of which can be heard in her own music and in her choice of a band based around a Jazz rhythm section, alongside traditional Arabic instruments.

Kelani has spoken publicly about a turning point when, as a teenager attending a family wedding in the village of Nein outside Nazareth, she became interested in Palestinian[4] and Arabic music.

In Kuwait in 1988, Kelani organised and led a major fundraising show called "I Got Rhythm" for the British charity Medical Aid for Palestinians, MAP, the organisation which employed Dr Pauline Cutting O.B.E. and Dr Swee Chai Ang in Bourj al-Barajneh camp in Beirut. The Arab Times commented thus:

"The show packs a real emotional wallop that is rarely found in amateur productions. This is partly due to Reem's stunning voice, but she also has a backing choir of 57 kids from almost as many nationalities, singing songs like 'Let It Be', 'We Are the World' and 'The Greatest Love'. It's a very potent combination that brings a definite lump to the throat. One of the unexpected marvels of the show is little Reza Mohammed, a ten year old pianist, who had the adult musicians goggling with amazement and envy.

From the opening song, 'I Got Rhythm', you know you're in for a great evening. Reem mixes pop songs with some powerful Palestinian folk songs and lots of standards like 'Georgia On My Mind', 'Stormy Weather' and 'New York, New York'. She manages to switch effortlessly from the cabaret sophistication of Fred Astaire's 'Top Hat' to the haunting 'When the Horsemen Ride By' and back to a bustling 'Chattanooga Choo Choo'." [5]

In 2003, Kelani performed alongside Guy Barker and his band on the BBC World Service's World Cafe.[6] For the programme, Kelani performed her own unique blending of George Gershwin's "The Half of It, Dearie' Blues" with traditional Palestinian singing.[7]

Kelani's release in 2006 of her solo album "Sprinting Gazelle - Palestinian Songs from the Motherland and the Diaspora" represented the culmination of many years of research and preparation, which she has discussed in various media interviews.

In January 2007, Kelani led a major tour of Syria, performing twice at the Opera House in Damascus and once at the Directorate of Culture in Aleppo. Organised by the British Council, Reem brought together for the tour a bespoke line-up comprising 3 of her UK musicians and 3 from Syria: Amir Qara Jouli (violin), [Basel Rajoub] (saxophones) and Simon Mreach (percussion). Kelani's performances attracted high praise from the critics:

"I was one of many stunned members of the audience who recently attended a concert, organised by the British Council, by Palestinian singer Reem Kelani at the Syrian Opera House in Damascus. This was not only because we witnessed a style of singing which is so against the current trend, but also because of the richness and multifarious talents in view in one personality.

What I found here was more than just mere singing. I saw the amazing presence of this singer, her towering stance and appearance on stage, her interaction with the band and with the audience. It all reflected Kelani’s many talents: aside from singing and composing, Kelani is a freelance broadcaster and a passionate folk dancer. And nor did she conceal her acting abilities during this performance." Rashid Issa, Al-Safir.[8]

"We face a dilemma of whether we can have confidence in our Arabic cultural identity as one capable of developing and contributing to the world around it.

The British-born Palestinian singer and musician Reem Kelani’s experience is an excellent example to follow. In her recent concerts in Damascus, Kelani stunned her audience with a potent blend of Arabic and Western music, which was at once faithful to the Palestinian cultural identity whilst at the same time enriching it with the music of the ‘other’.

Kelani evokes elements of Jazz which are redolent with the pain of the Palestinians, and in so doing, she expands the Palestinian narrative beyond the realms of folklore and takes us to an understanding of true universal human suffering." Assaf Ibrahim, al-Ba'ath.[9]

Kelani also undertook in 2007 a commission from the Manchester International Festival to compose a 30 minute piece for performance at the Festival with the Beating Wing Orchestra comprising refugee musicians.[10] The resulting work "Paradise in Strangers" explored universal themes such as migration, suffering, parting, reunion and celebration.[11] It featured poetry and prose written by Reem and members of the orchestra, as well as verses by Robert Burns (A Slave's Lament) and Salma Khadra Jayyusi (Rootless).

"The true test of the music is whether the detail - provided by, among others, second-generation British Pakistani tabla player Azhar Nasir, Chinese opera singer Haili Heaton, Iranian tar player Arrash Fayyazi, drummer Pat Mackela from the Congo, singer Emmanuela Machozi Yogolelo (ditto) - adds up to a coherent artistic statement. The danger is that it curdles in a formless multicultural pudding.

If anyone can do it, that person is Reem Kelani. She has a genius for finding the universal in the particular. Her album, Sprinting Gazelle, introduced jazz musicians to Middle Eastern modes and was pure and profound. The 'f' word ('fusion') doesn't even apply." Mike Butler, Manchester Metro

In May 2008, Kelani produced and performed with Gaelic singer, Catriona Watt, a unique arrangement of traditional Gaelic and Palestinian songs[12] for A’ Gharaids, a series of programmes looking at the state of Gaelic music. A’ Gharaids was made for BBC Alba, the Gaelic television channel and presented by Mary Ann Kennedy (Scottish singer). The series was subsequently nominated for the Media Award in the MG ALBA Traditional Music Awards 2009.[13]

In October 2008, Kelani collaborated with the Portuguese Fado singer, Liana,[14] on a special commission for Musicport Festival, Whitby, entitled "From Palestine to Portugal".[15] The project was funded by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation and Visiting Arts. It involved the mixing of Palestinian and Portuguese poetry, the verse of Mahmoud Darwish and Jose Saramago, and Arabic and Portuguese voices. The production was later reprised in a performance at the Tabernacle W11 in December 2009.

Kelani’s work has adopted a notable profile in Turkey. She first performed in Turkey in June 2005 at the Cemal Resit Rey Concert Hall, as part of Istanbul municipality’s conference on “Women from the Middle East”. This was followed, in November 2008, by her concert at the Babylon Club in Istanbul, on the occasion of the British Council’s visiting “Lure of the East” exhibition of Orientalist painting at the Pera Museum. For this concert, Kelani and her trio were joined by Selim Sesler, the legendary Turkish gypsy clarinetist, and they performed a range of songs from Kelani’s Palestinian and Egyptian repertoire.

Among the audience that day was Osman Kavala, the Turkish philanthropist and founder of Anadolu Kültür.[16] He saw a natural partnership between Kelani, with her representation of Palestinian culture, and Kardes Turkuler, which is one of the musical arms of the collective organization BGST.[17] And so Kelani performed as a special guest with Kardes Turkuler at their June 2009 concert in the Turkcell Kuruçeşme Arena, Istanbul.[18]

In October 2009, Kelani also performed with her Anglo-Syrian band at a major women’s festival in Nusaybin in south east Turkey.[19]

Kelani’s association with Kardes Turkuler continued in April 2014 with a joint concert at TIM Maslak in Istanbul [20] which attracted considerable interest in the Turkish media.[21][22][23]

Alongside her performances with her own musicians, Kelani is a member of The Anti-Capitalist Roadshow.[24] It is a collective of singers and songwriters comprising Frankie Armstrong, Roy Bailey (folk singer), Robb Johnson, Sandra Kerr, Grace Petrie,[25] Leon Rosselson, Janet Russell,[26] Peggy Seeger, Jim Woodland,[27] plus socialist magician, Ian Saville.

After release of her Sprinting Gazelle, Kelani began her next major project focussed on the Egyptian composer Sayyid Darwish. In her article for the Journal of Palestinian Refugee Studies, Kelani explained this decision.[28] The project will comprise the arrangement, performance and recording of a selection of Darwish's songs for a double album, plus the writing of two booklets in Arabic and in English about the composer and his songs.[29]

In May 2014, Kelani performed as a soloist with the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra in the Bergen National Opera's production of English composer, Orlando Gough's major work entitled "Stemmer".[30] In her review for the Financial Times,[31] Susan Nickalls described "Stemmer" as "An illuminating, often moving account of 200 years of the struggle for human rights" and added that "Reem Kelani’s haunting laments for Jaffa, the construction of the wall, the unstoppable intifada and the mounting dead were searingly beautiful." [32]


Kelani released her debut solo CD "Sprinting Gazelle – Palestinian Songs from the Motherland and the Diaspora" to critical acclaim in February 2006.[33] The album has received many reviews in the media, including:

- In Time Out in Feb 2006, John Lewis: "the ECM-ish production is exquisite, Kelani’s voice is an awesome instrument and her own compositions and arrangements swerve between delicate, joyous, trancey, austere, boisterous and beautiful". Subsequently, "Sprinting Gazelle" was judged the Time Out No 1 Critics’ Choice of Recent Albums.

- In The Telegraph in Feb 2006, Mark Hudson (author): "When a self-produced album by an unknown Palestinian singer gets as much attention and better reviews than the Arctic Monkeys in mainstream publications such as Time Out and London's Evening Standard, you know something significant is afoot." [34]

- In the Observer in Feb 2006, Caspar Llewellyn Smith: "Kelani has a voice of amazing power and intensity, but it’s always controlled, and there’s a moving vulnerability there too."

- In Subba-Cultcha in March 2006, Clare O'Brien: "This is no easy-listening crossover album; it's profound, often harrowing, and very beautiful."

- In The Times in March 2006, Michael Binyon: "More surprising is the almost rapturous welcome that British critics have given to another Arab woman singer, Reem Kelani."

- On Spin The Globe (USA) in April 2006, Scott Stevens: "In truth, Kelani has a voice of awesome strength and grace." [35]

- On Amazon in April 2006, RJ Moss: "Think Blues of the finest nuance and transpose its disposition first to Palestine and the contingent necessity for many of its natives to relocate. This music is party to the powerful response to a tragedy. That said, ‘Sprinting Gazelle’, by Reem Kelani, is one of the most exhilarating musical experiences I've encountered. So brilliantly performed, it's impossible to believe that this is a debut effort. The rating system is inadequate to do it justice. Her singing is up there with Alim Qasimov, Dimi Mint Abba, and Aster Aweke." [36]

- In the Oxford Times in June 2006, Paul Medley:"If you want to be shaken out of your daily existence play this with an open mind on a damp British day or any day."

- In the BBC Music magazine in June 2006, Michael Church gave the album a 5-star rating: "Her timbre is exceptionally firm, making her occasional forays into melisma all the more effective: she can sound irresistibly seductive, but her default mode is a sacramental seriousness."[37]

- On World Music Central (USA) in July 2006, TJ Nelson: "For a debut CD, Reem Kelani’s music rains down pleasure, but it’s her voice that must surely be a force of nature." [38]

- On Rootsworld (USA) in July 2006, Peggy Latkovich: "Elegant and poetic, Reem Kelani's debut CD speaks to the woe and joy of Palestinian life. She has a voice of such power and passion that if it were one degree more intense, it would burst." [39]

- In B-Ritmos (Spain) in Dec 2006, Brigitte Vasallo: "Sprinting gazelle es como el tapiz que imita su portada: hecho con las manos y a pequeñas puntadas, absolutamente personal, intimo y profundamente emocionante. Uno de esos discos que te caen encima como un rayo y que te llevan a preguntarte cómo pudiste vivir sin el" (or ' Sprinting Gazelle is like a carpet acting as its gateway: handmade, with little stitches, utterly personal, intimate and profoundly emotional. It is one of those records which strikes you from above like a ray of light and which begs the question as to how you can live without it.'[40]

- On (Germany) in Dec 2006, Lewis Gropp: "Kelani's debut album proves not only that she has the ability, as producer and arranger, to successfully bring her ideas to fruition, but also that she is well able to maintain her artistic independence. No label manager has been permitted to compromise her ideas, nor any slick PR man to talk her round to a more commercial marketing strategy." [41]

- In Perceptive Travel (New Zealand) in Dec 2006: " This is an extraordinary album, full of poetic lyrics (in translation in the handsome booklet), heart-grabbing emotion and thrilling music. Nominations for World Music album of the year start here. [42]

- In Global Rhythm (USA) in Mar 2007, Bruce Miller: "The debut album from this Palestinian singer/percussionist, as much a researcher of Palestinian music as a performer, is breathtaking."[43]

- In The Metro in Oct 2007, Mike Butler: "To listen to track one of Sprinting Gazelle (As Nazarene Women Crossed The Meadow), a soaring incantation above a bass drone, is to be aware that one is in the presence of greatness. Kelani possesses a gravitas beyond the reach of the best. The sensuality is hair-raising. As she is fond of saying, she’s all for the Passion, it’s the Crucifixion she doesn’t like."

To mark the 25th anniversary of Amos Trust[44] in 2010, a group of artists from around the world recorded "Under the Influence - The Garth Hewitt Songbook Volume 1". To this end, Reem contributed her rendition of Garth's "Oh Palestine".[45]

In 2012, Kelani contributed two songs to a compilation album "Celebrating Subversion - The Anti-Capitalist Roadshow". In one song, she sang a duet with Leon Rosselson his "Song of the Olive Tree". Kelani's second song was a powerful Tunisian anthem "Babour Zammar". Also known as The Migration Anthem, this Tunisian song was written in the 1970s, inspired by the students’ revolution in France. ‘Amm El-Mouldi Zalilah, a champion of colloquial poetry, worked as a sweeper for the Tunisian Rail Company. El-Hédi Guella, the composer and original performer of this song, was a leading political singer. “The only difference between the émigrés and the cattle,” the song concludes, “is the passport!”[46] The album was reviewed by Raymond Deane in the Irish Left Review,[47] and by Robin Denselow in the Guardian.[48]


Kelani is a regular broadcaster on BBC Radio Four.

In 1995, Kelani co-presented "A Day in the Life of a Palestinian Woman" for the BBC World Service. The programme was produced by Sara Bradshaw.[49]

In 1997, Kelani performed traditional Palestinian songs for "Your Land is My Land", a documentary series for Radio Four to mark the 50th anniversary of the expulsion of the Palestinians, on the creation of the state of Israel. The series was presented by Tim Llewellyn and produced by Vanessa Harrison.

Also for Radio Four Kelani wrote and presented Distant Chords (2001-2003)[50] featuring the music of migrant communities in the UK. The documentaries comprised:

  1. "Can you stop the Birds Singing" on the Afghan community.[51]
  2. "Yemeni Echoes in a Northern Town" on the Yemeni community.[52]
  3. "Songs on a Mountain Wind" on the Kurdish community.[53]
  4. "My Book, My Mountain, Myself" on the Armenian community. It was made Pick of the Day by the Guardian[54][55]
  5. "Islands Here, Islands There" on the Micronesian community.[56]
  6. "A Strange way of life (Estranha forma de vida)" on the Portuguese community.[57][58]

In 2004, Kelani played Scheherazade in BBC Radio Four's programme entitled "A Thousand and One"(a series about the influence of The Arabian Nights on western culture). Writing in the Times Literary Supplement on 4 June 2004, Jane Jakeman noted:

The most compelling voice throughout the series was, of course, that of Scheherazade herself, ethereally present in spellbinding extracts beautifully read by Reem Kelani.

Also in 2004, Kelani appeared as a guest of Sandi Toksvig on BBC Radio Four's Excess Baggage, alongside Sir James Galway and singer-songwriter Glenn Tilbrook.[59]

In 2006, Kelani was featured as a guest on BBC Radio Four's Woman's Hour.[60]

In 2007, Kelani explored Salome's Dance of the Seven Veils on BBC Radio Four.[61][62][63]

In 2012, Kelani wrote and presented "Songs for Tahrir" on BBC Radio Four[64] about her experiences of music in the uprising in Egypt in 2011. She also relates more of her experiences in her programme blog.[65] In her review of the programme for Egypt Independent, Naira Antoun commented:

Kelani’s work stands out for putting art and music into a context that includes all kinds of resistance and political discussion. It collapses artificial distinctions between art and politics, as she describes the way singing sustained protest. Interweaving the sounds of Cairo's streets with chants and song, she gives music a privileged place not apart from the ordinary, but emerging from and returning to the daily sounds that make up our lives. While recognizing the novelty and creativity of much of the music, she simultaneously ties it to music from the past that also emerged from a collective rage.[66]

In December 2012, Kelani contributed in interview and with songs to the BBC World Service's Lullabies in the Arab World.[67][68]

In January 2013, Kelani's music was used in BBC Radio Four's dramatisation "The Brick", written by the Palestinian writer Selma Dabbagh. Writing in The Electronic Intifada, Sarah Irving commented:

Almost as important to the feel of The Brick as the dialogue and plot is the music, composed and performed by British-born Palestinian singer and ethnomusicologist Reem Kelani.

The songs, taken from Kelani’s 2006 debut album Sprinting Gazelle, open the play and underpin the speech, creating an atmosphere which is Palestinian without stooping to generic oriental tones.

Kelani’s music and Dabbagh’s play are an effective match. Kelani’s music, with its intelligent blend of tradition and innovation, mirrors Rasha’s journey through stories of the past — both personal and national — and the freedom she perhaps could attain when her myths are fractured and re-patterned by unlooked-for new truths.[69]

Film & Television[edit]

For BBC 2's Everyman series in 1992, Kelani wrote original music for See No Evil on the Sabra and Shatila massacre in Beirut in 1982.[70] The film was produced by Stephen Walker.[71] Kelani also did simultaneous interpreting and sub-titling.

In 1998, Kelani worked as Associate Producer for a series of films as part of Channel Four's 'Israel 50' season entitled The Unholy Land.[72] She also provided Arabic vocals in the theme music composed by Howard Davidson. The series director was Colin Luke.[73]

Kelani wrote and performed the title music for the film Les Chebabs de Yarmouk which was released in 2013.[74] Produced by the French film-maker Axel Salvatori-Sinz, it follows a group of young men and women in the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk outside Damascus.[75] For the title track, Iyad Hayatleh, the Glasgow-based Palestinian poet and son of Yarmouk wrote the verse, which Kelani then set to music.

Awards and nominations[edit]

Year Work Award Category Result
2005 Glastonbury Festival Glastonbury unsigned bands Finalist[76]
2007 Paul Hamlyn Foundation Breakthrough Fund Nominated
2008 Arab-British Culture and Society Award Special commendation for “notable contribution to our knowledge and understanding of the life, society and culture of the Arab people” Nominated[77]
2009 Scottish Traditional Music Awards BBC Alba’s A’Gharaids series, featuring a special collaboration by Reem Kelani and Gaelic singer Catriona Watt Nominated
2012 Forum of Creative Arab Women Kelani was selected to represent Palestine and to deliver a presentation at this prestigious Arab women's conference Nominated
2013 Arab British Centre Award for Culture Special commendation for “notable contribution to our knowledge and understanding of the life, society and culture of the Arab people” Shortlisted[78]
2013 Field training and research followed by workshops in UK schools Arts Council of England Grants for the Arts Awarded


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  48. ^ Denselow, Robin (29 November 2012). "The Anti-Capitalist Roadshow: Celebrating Subversion – review". The Guardian (London). 
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  64. ^ "Songs for Tahrir". BBC Radio 4. 18 January 2013. Retrieved 21 January 2013. 
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  68. ^ "The universal language of lullabies". BBC News. 21 January 2013. 
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  75. ^ Yarmouk Camp
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External links[edit]