Writer Shirine Saad Deep-Dives into Beirut's Tiny, But Thriving Alternative Music Scene
By Shirine Saad
“Yesterday I dreamt Beirut was drowning under volcanic ash/ The people had turned to charcoal but Sky Bar [a posh club] was still lit up/Beirut suppressed the seed of the revolution, the one that sprouted/When our spirits were foiled from immobility/Within us Beirut moved/On the blood of our destruction, and the denial of our freedom of choice.”
Rapper and poet El Rass spits out these stabbing words in literary Arabic as a sampling of oriental nay (flute) melts into dense dubstep beats and atmospheric synth layers. The music is thick and cold. Mad percussions fire away as the MC raps heatedly, sometimes shouting words. This is Mazen el Sayed aka El Rass’s “The Volcano of Beirut,” part of his new collaboration with electronica wunderkind Jawad Nawfal aka Munma. The song is a metaphor for the city, its corrupt politicians, targeted assassinations, constant self-destruction, its nil past and present, poverty and excess. The recently released album, Unveiling the Hidden, is a brilliant mix of sound and poetry, provocative lyrics and dreamy compositions.
When everything else falls apart, artists continue to tell the truth. As the Syrian and Israeli-Palestinian conflicts thrive, the fate of Lebanon sinks into uncertainty and fear. More than ten years after the civil war that shattered the country from 1975 to 1990, Lebanon still struggles with dramatic internal and external pressures threatening its stability. Here, confessionalism thrives. Political and military factions spread incendiary propaganda. Palestinians without papers live in decrepit camps. Homosexuals and unmarried couples are still illegal, as is civil (nonreligious) marriage. The dysfunctional economy sends educated youths across the world seeking work. While most of the country drowns into poverty, the elite conspicuously flaunts their Porsches, Botox and Prada. The history of the war has disappeared into a blackout. There is no consensus in the country as to its identity and future. As El Rass raps, the country is a volcano, a bottomless crater. Since the end of the civil war, Beirut’s musicians continue to explore alternative narratives, creating novel musical experiences, lamenting the state of their alienated city.
Beirut’s best-known musicians came of age during the war; some of them emigrated and others stayed throughout the heavy fighting. Most grew up with commercial and alternative western music. Sometimes they were exposed to the revolutionary and nationalistic songs of Marcel Khalifé and Ziad el Rahbani; or the great singers of the Arab Nationalist era: Lebanese diva Fairuz, who sang nostalgic and patriotic songs before and during the civil war; Um Kalthoum, the outrageous Egyptian singer from the thirties and forties, and Abdel Halim Hafez, Egypt’s first romantic singer. During the war, rock and metal bands tried to play in shelters and bunkers, but the situation was too unstable and their music wasn’t readily accessible outside of their close entourage.
In the 90s, new bands started to emerge, beginning with Soap Kills, which mixed trip-hop and rock beats with folk Arabic songs. They laid the ground for a truly independent music scene in Lebanon, far from the kitsch clichés of mainstream Arabic pop. Soon there were punk (Scrambled Eggs, video below), electro-rock (Lumi, Slutterhouse, electronic (Munma, Liliane Chlela), free improvisation and experimental (Sharif Sehnaoui, Mazen Kerbaj, Raed Yassine, Tarek Atoui), rap and hip-hop (Fareeq al Atrash, Katibeh Khamse, Aksser, Malikah), folk rock (Mashrou’ Leila, The Incompetents) and pop-rock (The New Government, Zeid and the Wings, Lazzy Lung) bands. Some were ironic, some earnest; some were abrasive, others just wanted to play music. Starting out locally with small gigs, most of these bands have since toured internationally.
Hear Soap Kills’ “Herzan”
Because Beirut is at the crossroads between Europe, Asia and Africa, and because of the Lebanese’s own multicultural experiences and the constant influx of musicians from abroad, these bands’ sounds reflect the city’s multiplicity. Most musicians are torn between a longing for the freedom and modernity of the West, and their own cultural traditions. Their music draws from a variety of sources, from reggae to the sound of gunfire and classical music. Since support for the arts, private or public, is almost nil, a true underground has emerged, mostly sheltered from censorship because it only addresses the 300 Beirutis or so who are interested in alternative music – most of whom come from the more educated upper classes.
“It’s a political act to play non-mainstream music in Lebanon and to try to put the music on the international map,” says Thomas Burkhalter, a Swiss musicologist who is publishing a scholarly volume on Beirut’s alternative music scene at Routledge and who released the alternative compilation album Golden Beirut – New Sounds from Lebanon. “Because the musicians are surrounded by mainstream, by propaganda, by pressure, trying to find an individual voice is a political act. They are striving to find a kind of normality.”
While most musicians would deny that they are political, especially in comparison with war-period activists, their music — in a tension between the hyperlocal and the global collage — and their lyrics — which go from open satire to bitter deception — reflect Beirut’s current state of mind.
Creating music in the context of the city’s institutional void is also an act of courage. “The scene is operating under very different terms than in other cities,” explains Ziad Nawfal, who started playing local bands on his Ruptures radio show in 1992, is the publisher of the book Untitled Tracks: On Alternative Music in Beirut and now has a one-man record label, Ruptured. “There is no institutional or moral support. Musicians can’t live from the sales of their albums or concerts.”
There are very few labels and music venues in the city, and most bands self-produce their albums, some even distributing them by bike. Nawfal himself has produced eight albums and several concerts, including El Rass and Munma’s Unveiling the Hidden, by producing in the radio station’s studios or at his friend Fadi Tabbal’s Tunefork Studios, paying musicians from his own pockets and barely covering expenses. Apart from his show, few TV and radio stations in the region chose to play local bands, preferring safer blockbusters. “If we didn’t feel inspired to experiment,” he says, “if we weren’t inspired by what’s happening in the scene, we wouldn’t be doing it.”
Recently a slew of private promoters have opened music venues where local musicians and DJs can play and experiment, from Metro al Madina’s intimate cabaret space to Yukunkun, a soon-to-be launched massive concert venue.
Parallel to these private initiatives, the emergence of the digital realm has allowed more local musicians to create, produce and share their sounds. “The internet has sparked cultural exchanges and dialogues,” says Nawfal. “The openness of the cybernetic world has allowed unlimited exchanges among musicians. It has democratized music-making and allowed new artists to emerge. This is another reason why in Beirut we went from five or ten local bands to about sixty.”
It was a balmy summer night in Beirut. Whiffs of jasmine and gardenia filled the air. Tanned young women and men wore afros, cotton tunics and long skirts; they sipped vodka tonics and beer and chain-smoked on Babylon bar’s lush terrace. It must have been 1998. Beirut was hopeful. Zeid Hamdan and Yasmine Hamdan of Soap Kills were playing an intimate concert. Their music was everywhere, on television screens, radio stations, in bars and house parties. “Let’s get on a bus from Dora to the Museum, the Corniche/Come closer to the scents/Try the taste of my lips/Taste the watermelon, the termos (street snack), the corn on the cob,” sang Yasmine Hamdan, a sultry brunette in her early twenties, in colloquial Arabic. Her voice, languorous and soft, told stories of bucolic promenades, innocent days and Lebanon’s folk traditions. Just like Fairuz’s idealized homeland had comforted many Lebanese expats during the war, Yasmine Hamdan’s songs evoked a dream of a nostalgic Lebanon. Her Arabic singing seduced those who loved the great divas of the region, while Zeid Hamdan’s experimentation with trip-hop, mixing electronic and Arabic music samples, took the music to a whole new level.
“Soap Kills were the first ones in the region to mix Arabic lyrics with trip-hop,” says Nawfal. “They showed other musicians that this fusion was possible.”
“We described Beirut in its insolence,” says Zeid Hamdan, who has since started several bands including The New Government and Zeid and the Wings, and supports the local scene under the Lebanese Underground umbrella. “In its wild ways of rebuilding, its post colonial slavery, the general machismo. Soap Kills was the reflection of a modern Lebanon. We showed musicians that we were allowed to play.”
One of the bands that were inspired by this fusion of genres is Mashrou’ Leila, a group of seven twentysomethings that have managed to attract several thousands of listeners to their concerts with their mix of folksy Arabic lyrics and rock that’s sometimes mellow, sometimes harsh, with sometimes heavy with violin riffs reminiscent of Balkan music. The band’s lyrics address major social issues like materialism, inequality and the taboos surrounding homosexuality and sex. On “Ubwa,” the band reinterprets a folk children’s song with an explosive twist. The “tik tik tik” usually repeated in the song describes the sound of a bomb about to explode. This blend of folk, pop rock and political message is hugely appealing to young audiences around the world, who follow the band on social media and throughout live concerts.
While post-punk band Scrambled Eggs is equally caustic, their lyrics are far more violent. Charbel Haber, the tall, bony band leader, shouts bilious words into the mike on heavy guitar riffs. “I shoot you in the head you shoot me in the leg,” he sings in English on Russian Roulette. “Russian Roulette no safety net/I’ll stay in bed you go instead go/Don’t leave our host completely lost no/Love your dope and hope you choke.”
The band is inspired by the dark, alternative scenes of Manchester and Seattle, where musicians such as Joy Division, Nirvana and Pearl Jam sang about a certain malaise which could easily describe the post-war youth of Beirut. “The Scrambled Eggs have this punk, ironic attitude,” says Burkhalter. “It’s violent shock therapy.”
Parallel to the rock scene, which mostly operates in Beirut, a thriving hip-hop scene has grown across the country – with many artists emerging from remote areas such as Palestinian camps and the Bekaa Valley. “They’re actually unlike a lot of the rock talent,” says Jackson Allers, a music journalist whose hip-hop focused blog Beats and Breaths is a reference in the field. “Most of these hip hop crews don’t have the same desire to break into stardom. They’re rapping about what they know and their local situations; they simply want to do their music and want to appeal to the people where they’re from. The rap movement in the Arab world and in Lebanon is very socially conscious to say the least and the majority of their lyrics have to do with how they live.”
In this perspective, today’s Lebanese rappers are heirs to Lebanon’s legendary revolutionary musicians Mahmoud Darwish and Ziad Rahbani – and they are hugely appealing to leftist activists and social workers, says Allers. Working in the vein, El Rass’s rap is pregnant with social commentary – and his use of classical Arabic and his collaboration with Munma are setting him apart from other rappers. This groundbreaking album is representative of the bubbling creativity emanating from the Beirut music scene and the social revolutions throughout the region.
“The album’s name is ‘Unveiling the Hidden’,” explains Allers. “El Rass is joining a sort of momentum that’s been picking up in the Arab world, making sure that he’s holding up a window to what’s going on in the region, and Lebanon particularly.”
All Photos by Tanya Trabousli