Good morning, Rima Khcheich! Good evening, Rima Kamel! – Sneak Peak at the Breakfast Club (3) / Premiere at the Kammerspiele

After last season’s Ode to Joy (1), Rabih Mroué’s first repertoire piece at the Münchner Kammerspiele, the Kammerspiele dedicate a (mid-career) retrospective of theatre performances and lectures and a new repertoire commissioning - an auto-biographical performance, based on the personal archive of the Lebanese singer Rima Khcheich, formerly known as Rima Kamel.

Rima Khcheich, a friend of Mroué (2), enters the stage as he would do; she explains what the audience is about to see and why she is doing this in the first place. Rima, born in rural Lebanon in 1976, happens to be blessed with a magnificent voice; becoming a star of classical Arabic music as a kid –the subject of expectations (as she was assumed to be the next Umm Kulthum) and the object of propaganda. A performance about personal and artistic emancipation.

In spite of her stardom in that scene, Rima Khcheich is nowadays primarily interested in Jazz, and sought after by concert bookers all around Europe and the Middle East. Then again, she keeps being haunted in her dreams by Rima Kamel; which brings her and Mroué to make a performance that tells that story. ‘Rimal Kamel‘ shows Khcheich’s memories and things of the past; old TV-recordings dating back to 1986, and a suitcase full of clothes. It is a bold move to drag the own past into the light and agree to talk about it for a year, over and over – can’t wait to see that last performance at the end of the season.

Aesthetically, this performance appears somewhat like a TED talk. The presenter/performer shows stills and videos, asks the technician to stop at certain moments as she recalls memories referring to that moment. She talks about some very private moments, e.g. life during war in Lebanon (and the urge of the people to maintain some level of cultural life quality), her life as a little girl with a men-only orchestra, and learning on the job what a conductor does, her encounter with Mohamed Abdel Wahab (who gave her the stage name and endorsed her career), growing older and emancipating as a woman, as a musician, and finally understanding what all these love songs mean. Most importantly, she sings in several styles demonstrating her wonderful vocal capabilities.

‘Rima Kamel’ is also a piece about classical Arabic music. Mroué shows his ability to contribute even in that type of format, injecting media related discourses and highlighting the political and historical context in which the story of Rima Kamel is embedded in. The VHS tapes show performance recordings and TV interviews with a kid that is totally lost in complicated questions and her lonesome gaze while singing songs she barely could understand. They also show how Rima was instrumentalized by Lebanese anti-Israel propaganda, in interviews.

The VHS tapes reveal, among other things, the powerlessness of music (and musicians) to avoid direct or indirect involvement in political propaganda– thus, highlighting the inherent potential of music to be interpreted in sometimes diametrical directions, regardless of the political orientation. What the fading sound and image quality of these old VHS tapes also revealed, is the inability of that type of equipment to fully “capture” or preserve the voice of a prolific singer – this is wonderfully exemplified by Rima singings “against” her younger (projected) self. There, Mroué inevitably – intentionally or unintentionally – unmasks the inherent illusion that a medium like VHS (CD & co.) could never fully capture reality; especially the quality of a live performance. That reminds us of the past are just some fading VHS tapes, Polaroids or cassettes to account for some crucial moments of the past.

There should have been more of that magnificent voice as there was too little singing for a music evening and, in addition, some echoing when she performed songs. Whether it was an ill-advised feature or a technical issue … it might be hopefully fixed already.

Furthermore, the duo was unable to show that magnitude of expectations, which Rima carried on her shoulders, to a Western audience that usually misses a background on classical Arabic music. Mohamed Abdel Wahab’s influence – a composer, singer, the grandmaster who ennobled her and the composer of the anthems of Libya and the Emirates – could be compared to that influence of Richard Strauss, in central European culture in the pre-WWII era. And Umm Kulthum, who performed in 1967 at the “Olympia” in Paris, could be compared to that Maria Callas type of famous diva.

Perhaps Mroué and Khcheich did not consider it a necessity to explain something which comes very naturally to them – as we would not bother to explain what e.g. David Bowie is to Europeans (esp. in the seventies), since Bowie cannot be reduced to his music, or to his style, or to his fame, or to his cultural impact within the western culture. This might be more of a theoretical discussion about “rigid designators”, but also a challenge that can or should be tackled in a performance such as that.

It is a humbling moment to realize one’s lack of knowledge of that variety, richness, and nuances of music that ‘Rima Kamel’ vaguely resembles – a genre familiar to at least half a billion people in Arab world. Yet it is to be seen as an appetizer; an educational invitation to rethink and extend our own repertoire of taste. It is the merit of Matthias Lilienthal and his team to invite Mroué’s hybrid format of “music evening” (and storytelling paired with reflection) that caresses a natural habitat in other arts and culture venues – and thus, in passing by, discussing what theater can do or be nowadays.


(1) 'Ode to Joy' was already reviewed by Veseli on Reflektor M. Read more here

(2) A 2010 co-performance can be found here.

(3) The Breakfast Club is by no means a private society. It is an association of people with common interests. Everyone who wants to know what will happen next at the Kammerspiele is invited to participate. Which premiers, concerts or guest performances are scheduled, what are the discussions that evolve around these events? And: under which conditions are all these events conceptualized and realized? Join us for a (second) breakfast, while dramaturges, directors, and actors offer inside views. Coffee and croissants will be available. There is no admission fee.

Next date: March 26, 2017
Regarding “The virgin Suicides” and the freischwimmer festival feat. Susanne Kennedy (director), Yana Thönees (Freelancer), Johanna Höhmann, Christoph Gurk (dramaturgy) and members of the ensemble.

IMAGE WAR MACHINE – WERKSCHAU RABIH MROUÉ / 09. – 15. Februar 2017