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Donna Khalifé: On The Silent Wings Of Hope

Ian Patterson By

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Even before her studies in Paris were complete, Khalifé realized that classical music was not to be her career path. "In the last year I understood that conducting is a really big, big responsibility. I also discovered that I am not passionate about all the classical repertoire, and you have to be super passionate," she recognizes.

"I realized that if I wanted to conduct anything it would be something like a jazz ensemble, or a small orchestra with some arrangements of my own. I really like arranging for orchestras, so it's an added tool to have, but I wanted to be in jazz. Conducting a jazz orchestra, or something like that, would suit me more than conducting Schumann, for example," Khalifé affirms.

The jazz scene in Beirut is, of course, much smaller than that in Paris, and much more conservative to boot. For many years jazz in Beirut jazz simply meant entertainment, and Khalifé admits that there is still an element of that. "There is this entertainment thing, it's true. Sometimes you have a gig, and nobody cares. You feel people are just there for entertainment and to drink."

However, Khalifé is optimistic that Beirut audiences' expectations of jazz are changing. "When I talk with people around me who go to jazz, and even sometimes among my students, they don't like anymore this idea that jazz is for entertainment with a nice-looking singer in front. I think this idea is changing a little bit, because audiences get bored when it's always the same thing and they don't come anymore. The scene has changed a little in the last ten years. Some groups are trying to push the music, to do something else. But it takes a while for things to get to another place. You have to think that twenty years ago there was no jazz here."

Things in Beirut have been challenging for musicians since the revolution began in October 2019, but Khalifé is positive about the future of her country.

"I really feel for the first time that there is something...there is hope," Khalifé says. "We have seen that something is changing. Before people were closing their eyes to some things. Now no more. They will not accept what was going on and what is still going on—the corruption that we see. Now the people are insulting the politicians, and this never happened before. It's incredible for me. Now, hell, they don't care!" exclaims Khalifé.

"There is hope because people for the first time are unified. Of course, I'm not going to say that everybody is unified or that a miracle is going to happen, but the majority of people who weren't having this discourse before, now they are having it. People are just more awake now and that's great. Since the revolution started it's the first time that I really feel content in my country," Khalifé adds. "We will never go back to where we were, that's for sure. So, for me, of course, there is hope."

In this changing socio-political climate, a change in Beirut's social fabric no less—no matter how small the baby steps—Khalifé feels that there is an audience for adventurous jazz such as her own.

"I think as long as you are true to yourself and it comes from your heart the audience is here. They are so open, I believe. I know that there are people who come to the gigs who are really happy when we are playing some of the things from the album. My audience is everybody who is willing to listen."

Photo: Courtesy of Donna Khalifé

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