Celtic Connections

Reem Kelani

Old Fruitmarket, Glasgow

Rob Adams


Reem Kelani doesn’t hang around. The Manchester-born Palestinian singer was renewing her Scottish connections – her father studied in Glasgow and she has entertaining memories of her own experiences of Millport bars – and she wasn’t to be hindered by formalities like waiting for the sound engineer’s thumb’s up.

Her off-mic introduction turned out to be an endearingly apt overture to a performance in which she combined restless energy with vigorous political engagement, persuasive audience involvement and an illustrated, impressively far-reaching musicological dissertation.

Visiting Celtic Connections as the headline attraction in a Burns Night celebration staged by the festival in conjunction with BEMIS, the organisation that empowers Scotland’s ethnic and cultural minority communities, Kelani took care to include her own Burns tribute, The Slave’s Lament, delivered as a deeply-felt blues, as did the previous participants.

So we had a raw, rugged Tibbie Dunbar from grooving Govanhill collective E Karika Djal’s violinist-guitarist, a slightly awkward-sounding Now Westlin’ Winds paired with Punjabi praise singing by Sarah Hayes and Sara Kazmi, and a rather lovely Auld Lang Syne from Syrian Maya Youssef, whose playing of the zither-like kanun employs an array of techniques to coax sounds and emotions from the strings.

Kelani’s frank emotional engagement with her material could easily tumble into complete chaos but she has her performance under her own kind of control and the way she works with her highly schooled quartet and her songs’ exacting arrangements is mesmerising. One song was taken from village square to conservatoire in a primal to baroque adventure and another, with the audience’s participation, brought harmony to the Middle East. If only political leaders could find such healing charm.