This is the unedited story written for the Beirut-based NOW Lebanon (Dec 22)- which I feel captures more of the spirit of the Crate Sessions and the editorial philosophy of Beats and Breath. This is a story about the special nature of a Beirut musical experiment that was started by Serge Yared in August of this year. Over 25 Tuesday night sessions devoted to simplicity. Respect due to all the musicians that submitted to the process! (Disclaimer: The submission of this article to NOW Lebanon does not represent the author’s support of any political alliances the website may have.)
BEIRUT – Horace Tapscott, the patriarch of Los Angeles jazz from the mid-1960’s until his death in 1999, used to tell the legendary members of his 40 piece Pan Afrikan People’s (Jazz) Orchestra that “music was meant to be contributive rather than competitive.”
Tapscott’s message was a simple one derived from his own experiences as a recording artist and community leader in South Central Los Angeles and Watts. In essence, he meant musicians had a responsibility to look after one another.
Talking with Serge Yared, it’s easy to see that Tapscotts message is a universal one. Yared has been a harbinger of musical humble pie, and the creator of Crate Sessions, a now mythic Tuesday night concert series hosted at the quaint lefty restaurant-bar Walimat Wardeh in Hamra (West Beirut), which is due to have its last session on December 29.
For many who have attended the last 18 consecutive Tuesday nights, it is indeed the curious death of a successful musical experiment with an almost cult-like following. As Yared explains, “Crate Sessions was a very encompassing project. It involved all manner of genres, musically. And they (the musicians) were all constrained by the means of production. It was a sort of musical socialization that made everyone equal in a way.”
Yared, whose day job is with his family’s heater sales business, set the night up to be portable, and low cost – for the artist, the venue, and the fans (5,000LL) – while forcing all the musicians to use a single amp as their source of sound – a Crate, series 15 Cimarron amp that “delivered 12 watts of pure musical power,” according to Cimarron’s own technical rider.
From the 1940’s to the present, the portable amp has become a ubiquitous symbol with blues guitarists and with buskers pan-handling for change in the streets, train stations and parks around the world. Yared, himself the leader of the locally described “psychedelic folk/pop” act The Incompetents, knew this and saw a sense of deliverance in his Series 15 Cimarron amp. “At some point I realized – with two inputs and outputs – I could carry the whole sound system with me. I could carry around a mic, a guitar on my back, and my amp. So I didn’t need anything else.”
Describing the Sessions to NOW Lebanon, he explains, “We showcased an equal degree of known and unknown talent. Some were outstanding. Some were ok. The point is there was no cost, because we had a very minimal set up. So it was something that was built up with our own hands in an environment that was actually open to that kind of experimentation. Very quickly we saw that there was a demand for what we offered.”
The demand, it turns out, was not just from the audience but from musicians as well. Well-known local indy music scions like Charbel Harber, the lead singer of the post-punk group the Scrambled Eggs, and Zeid Hamdan, Beirut’s original indy music icon and leader of The New Government, were among the list of musicians that played sets within the Crate Sessions’ technical requirements.
And while the one amp set-up would logically favour a solo-guitar performance because “that’s what the amp was made for,” Yared said that in reality, imagination and song writing abilities were the biggest limitations to the technical constraints.
“The Crate Sessions were in the end about the real songwriters. If it was a good song it succeeded with the audience. Good songs are good songs. Period. And with one amp, there’s not any heavy bass or an overpowering rhythm section to cover up the inadequate elements of a song. You are just there, almost naked trying to play what you wrote.”
By all accounts, there were some brilliant moments at the Crate Sessions. Ziad Saad’s experimental pop project – Pop will Save Us – made ample use of the minimal set up. Stephane Rives came with his laptop and according to Yared “gave a devastating show. It was amazing.”
Hamdan, whose band The New Government was scheduled to head to the biggest record-industry music festival in the world in Austin, Texas this March – South by Southwest – showcased a reggae-influenced pop-dub set featuring local MC, RGB and Indy Arabic-pop singer Hiba that was the inaugural concert of Crate Sessions.
“The experimental music of Mazen Kerbaj and Sharif Sehnaoui was surprisingly well-received,” Yared said, adding that a lesser-known group like Lazy Lung were pleasant surprises.
“It’s a pity that not many people came to see them. But it was one of the best concerts at Crate sessions. They were extremely tight and you could feel the joy they felt playing together. As well, they played by the rules.”
Still, many Crate Session heads point to Harbel’s paired down acoustic performance of his Scrambled Eggs set as a particular highlight. Yared explains, “He came with his acoustic guitar, and he played their music, and to date it was the most moving Crate Session. To see that other light on their songs and their stories. Especially if you know Charbel, having this proximity with the artist was rare for their fans.”
Is Yared sad to see Crate Sessions end? Not in the least. “Because,” he said, “I view it as a thing with a finite lifespan. And as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle told readers when he killed off Sherlock Holmes, ‘You’ve got to leave the with a sense of deprivation rather than of excess.’ So we want the audience to want more, because that points to the next step.”
Indeed, Crate Sessions developed an insanely loyal following over the last 4 months, helped in no small part by what Yared called “modern promotional tools” such as social networking sites like Facebook. “I don’t think we would have had the kind of success we’ve had without a device like Facebook. It would have been too exhausting for me to go and print and distribute the promotions and communicate things. And it would have been extremely expensive.”
As well, Yared said that social networking sites like Facebook are helping to create immediate memory because of the participation of other local artists like local music-photographer Tanya Traboulsi, “who created so many posts with her pictures giving people from around the world the chance to come and remember who played there.”
“So now we are having a kind of spontaneous collection and preservation of what is being done now. That was not happening even 5 and 10 years ago,” Yared adds.
Crate Sessions’ last three concerts will continue to push the boundaries representing genre’s Yared had been unable to program until now. On the 22nd (tonight) Crate Sessions welcomes the two-man hip-hop crew from the Palestinian refugee camp Bourj al Barajneh in south Beirut, I-Voice (Invincible Voice) featuring 20-year old MC and beat making wonderkid Yassin al Qasem aka Yaseen, and his power-hitting lyrical partner, Mohammed Turk, aka TNT.
The last Tuesday night Crate Session on December 29 will be a fundraiser for “OUMNIA” a local charity group specialized in providing psychological and medical care for children suffering from cancer. It will feature an all-star line-up of past guests and acts that haven’t performed before, including the Roots-like live hip-hop band Faree3 al Atrash, and the two-main purveyors of the hugely underestimated world of Lebanese Metal, Maher and Mazen Mandini. (List of performers below.)
As for the what’s next, Yared,says Walimat is closing its doors to the public, the victim of a buyout to a developer that will likely build a monstrous high rise apartment building where the historic house stands now. But, Yared said the management for the Hamra landmark is moving into a venue some 10 meters away in what was the Pickwick pub and he’s been asked to continue programming music for them.
“Of course, it is useless to recreate an atmosphere that would duplicate what was done at Walimat. It will be different. A better soundsystem. It will be better ventilated. And change is good.
“The thing for me is that there’s not room for being nostalgic in this music game. But, whatever we do we’ll keep the same line of action. Doing something affordable, approachable and with direct contact between the audience and the artist.”
The mighty ZIAD NAWFAL has gracefully accepted to make the presentations between each of the following acts:
5- ABDALLAH EL MASHNOUK
6- YOUMNA SABA Feat. FADI & LAYALE
7- ZEID HAMDAN Feat. HIBA & RGB
————- ENTRACTE ————-
1- MAHER & MAZEN MARDINI
2- NADIM & PHILIPPE from “INTENSIVE CARE” Feat. FADI TABBAL
3- THE INCOMPETENTS
4- THE WHITE TREES
5- FAREEK EL ATRASH
6- THE SCRAMBLED EGGS