Born in Manchester, raised in Kuwait and, musically, a citizen of the world, Reem Kelani is a singer who brings a new sensibility and drama to the sounds of her ancestral Palestine. Sprinting Gazelle is the long-awaited album from a musician who, often a guest on other peoples’ jazz-based projects, is overdue decent media exposure. The ten songs on Sprinting Gazelle are a mixture of traditional Palestinian songs – many gathered from refugee camps – and Kelani’s own arrangements for lyrics and protest songs by such prominent writers as Mahmoud Dawrish and Salma Khadra Jayyusi. Once past some of the titles – ‘The Cameleer Tormented My Heart’ does have a certain pungency about it – you’re in the heart of something remarkable.
Buoyed up by a small band led by piano and clarinet duo Zoe and Idris Rahman, Kelani’s power over both her traditional, often acapella, songs and personal settings is emotive. It’s difficult to see how the personal and political in this material can be separated. On songs like ‘Yufa’, she has voice and drama to rival the mighty Diamanda Galas. The softly jazzy ‘A Galilean Lullaby’ is a beautifully set song, and a lament as much as it is a comfort to the singer. The cavalier percussion and string glissandi that make ‘A Baker’s Dozen’ so exciting also lead us in to a song in which the singer awaits her beloved, as well as mourns the loss of her home. Overall, Sprinting Gazelle is more interested in celebration; much of it is powered by handclaps and little drumbeats. It is a powerful music that dances its own path.Louise Gray