Live performance is at it its best when it surprises. What was I expecting when – a week last Tuesday – I attended a concert at Sheffield University by Anglo-Palestinian singer Reem Kelani? Well perhaps it was the somewhat formal publicity photo. Or the description of her voice by the London Evening Standard as “…holy…like a call to prayer.” Whatever it was, despite the concert billing as “Music of the Egyptian Revolution” somehow I wasn’t expecting to be leaving Firth Hall having witnessed one of the most spontaneously joyous and uplifting musical performances of my whole life. The first surprise – on a Tuesday evening – was that the hall was packed. The second was the extraordinary music of Egyptian composer Sayyid Darwish (1892-1923) that Reem was showcasing alongside her own material. In his short life Darwish wrote music that made the journey between traditional Arab, western music hall and jazz, and penned genuinely moving calls to rise up against the British during the 1919 revolution at the same time as hilarious songs seeing life from the viewpoint of cigarette smokers and even cocaine addicts.
But the main surprise was Reem herself – about as far from the ethereal world of religious mysticism that I had been expecting that it is possible to get. After a deceptively quiet start the woman on stage seemed to become possessed by some collective energy and by the second half of the set had transformed into a cross between dervish and shaman, almost literally making the music come alive, throwing its crazed rhythms out among us like sparks from some ritual fire. The final surprise was when I got home and found that on her way to becoming an acclaimed singer, musicologist and broadcaster, this Manchester-born Palestinian activist had been an accomplished marine biologist. Like my hero Belzoni, that is some career. And like him, I know she is going to be a continuing inspiration.