The Singular Talent of Israeli-Palestinian Singer Amal Murkus

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Amal Murkus.
Amal Murkus. Credit: Ilan Basor

What differentiates a good, even excellent, singer from a great one? A possible answer to that question bursts forth at a certain point in the new album “Fattah’ al Ward” (“The Roses Bloomed”), by Palestinian-Israeli singer Amal Murkus. It happens in the transition between the sixth song, “Entazerha” (“Wait for Her”), and the seventh, “Ya Maq’ad” (“The Lonely White Chair”).

“Wait for Her” is a well-known poem by the iconic Palestinian writer Mahmoud Darwish, set to music here by Mahran Mur’ab (whose superb melodies have graced previous Murkus albums). The result is an extraordinarily complex six-minute song that seems to draw its inspiration from both Arabic music and the classical lieder (German art songs). To an ear attuned to Western pop, it might sound like a UFO. Its musical sentences flow and wind and spill into new channels, almost without repeating themselves. It is very fluid and abstract, highly charged but not contained – like the expectation of the person in the song for his beloved.

If this were performed by a singer lacking Murkus’ voice, this complex but open flow might lead nowhere and dissolve in a cloud of excess information without leaving a residue. In Murkus’ rendition, it leaves plenty.

In the next song, “Ya Maq’ad,” the opposite happens. It’s a simple song of small dimensions. It contains none of the epic complexity and open-endedness of the previous song; it flows within a small circle. Again, performed by a singer lacking Murkus’ qualities, it would have remained that way – small. Maybe too small. But Murkus’ voice and singing expand the song’s range of expression and emotion, injecting a sense of the ineffable into its basic directness.

The song evokes the memory of Murkus’ late father through an object associated with him: the white chair he sat in every day in his garden in the Galilee village of Kafr Yasif after tending to his plants. I know this from the English translation of the song, which appears in the booklet that comes with the album. But even before I read it, it was apparent just from Murkus’ rendition that this is a small song fraught with large emotions.

These two songs, then, suggest the possible definition of a great singer: one who’s capable of bringing complex songs down to earth and making them accessible, but who is also able to lift very simple songs to new heights. How many female singers are there like that in Israel today? You can count them on the fingers of one hand.

Murkus’ previous CD, “Baghanni” (2011), was one of the most beautiful albums released in Israel in recent years. It made it abundantly clear that she’s in the top league of Israeli singers. “Fattah’ al Ward,” while not quite in the same category, is nevertheless an extremely impressive artistic achievement and consolidates her place among the highest ranks of 
female singers in Israel.

Together with her vibrant musicality and the distinctive fusion of clarity and darker elements in her voice, Murkus also has something of the actress within her – the storyteller, to be more accurate. As a whole, the new album develops along a particular plot axis, not necessarily in terms of content (I am able to form only a very partial impression of that), but in regard to the tone of the songs and the dynamics between the two main strands in Murkus’ work: the artistic-poetic in contrast to the popular-folkloric.

Murkus is fond of interfusing these two strands – that’s one of her strengths. Still, in some songs the emphasis is on the complex and the contemplative, while others are more direct and simple in tone. Overall, the first half of the album segues from the straightforward to the complexities of the poetic. The title song is a lovely interplay of both modes of expression (the melody is by Nessim Dakwar). Thereafter, the album flows, via melodies set to works by the Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet and the Egyptian lyricist Salah Jahin, to its height of complexity in the aforementioned Mahmoud Darwish poem.

This is followed by a countermovement to the more direct form of expression: from the song about the white chair to the powerful a capella of “Ou’lenoha” (“Declare”), which Murkus sings with fists clenched, and ending on a mischievous note with “Moghannawati” (“The Artist”).

The album is deeply engaged with pain and loss, both private and political, but Murkus has chosen to conclude it with a song that gleams and dances. Still, it also speaks of tears 
and long nights. A bit of the blues spiced with lots of rhythm
– a splendid conclusion to a 
splendid album.

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