The Perfect Storm: Beirut’s Alt Music Scene

In early July, this article appeared in Red Bull Music Academy’s Online Magazine. Beats and Breath would like to thank James Singleton, Lisa Blanning, and Davide Bartot of RBMA for the opportunity. More articles to come with RBMA – a great publication.

Tarek Attoui (right) and France’s Uriel Barthélémi -a composer, drummer and electro-acoustic musician at the Irtijal experimental music festival (Image – Tanya Traboulsi)

Lebanon is a complicated place. Historical antagonisms, both internal and external, have shaped its political and social landscape. Its diversity, ethnic and religious, is unmatched in the Arab world, and since the 1950s, its capital city Beirut has become the fulcrum between oriental and occidental, creating the ‘perfect storm’ of influences that has made it the mecca for progressive musical trends in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).

The diva Fairuz, her politically charged composer son Ziad Rahbani, oud player and composer Marcel Khalife, and singer-composer Zaki Nassif have all pushed the conventions of traditional Tarab and Dabke (popular folk music forms) over the last 50 years. Less known are the efforts of Beirut-based musicians who, since the devastating Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990), continue to forge new Arabic musical directions outside of bubblegum Arab pop, modern Dabke twists or the patriotic anthems of the Lebanese resistance, Hezbollah.

Mazen el Sayed (aka El Rass) is a poet, musician, journalist and upstart MC whose debut album Kachf El Mahjoub (Unveiling The Hidden) (2012) on the Beirut-based Ruptured label signifies the unchartered musical territory that is being forged as the Arab world reels from the unprecedented change that has occurred in the last 18 months.

“This phenomenon [of change] is happening on all levels in the Arab world – including on the musical level and artistic level,” El Rass explains. “There’s a dialogue going on without any rules besides the artistic rule – which is to do great things that touch people, enlighten people and give people more awareness towards how they experience what they’re living and their surroundings.”

El Rass (left) and Munma

El Rass (left) and Munma (Image – Tanya Traboulsi)

El Rass’s production partner for Unveiling The Hidden is Jawad Nawfal – aka Munma, the brother of Ruptured label founder Ziad Nawfal – whose main body of work began in the aftermath of Israel’s war on Lebanon. Six years on, Munma has become synonymous with Beirut’s avant-garde musical community that counts names like neo-futurist composerTarek Attoui and trumpeter Mazen Kerbaj among its ilk. On the album, Munma demonstrates his uncanny sensibility for elaborate broken beat, ambient synth musical layers – think the Anticon label, Shabazz Palaces, Aesop Rock – and traditional musical underbeds as a perfect compliment to El Rass’s provocative wordplay. With images of turtles running on treadmills and cocaine-addicted politicians given power solely by birthright, El Rass’s flow cuts directly into the political and social inequities of Beirut life.

While Munma fashions himself as part of the sonic dissonance of a post-war Lebanese society, El Rass is a musical cog working in tandem with the youth-driven political and social movements elsewhere in the Arab world. But more than anything else, the album is a testament to years of development within Beirut’s underground scene, which has produced the most iconic Arab alternative musical acts of the last 15 years.

The Evolution Of The Underground

Amidst the apocalyptic, Mad Maxlandscape of post-war Beirut, there was in fact a vacuum that needed to be filled, and around 1993, peace began to feel like a possibility for the first generation of post-war youth eager for something beyond the ruins. Tracing the evolution of what can be considered the birth of the post-civil war underground scene in Lebanon, and arguably the birth of the contemporary alternative music in the region, Zeid Hamdan, the underground’s self-styled ‘gardener’ and the front man for numerous musical outfits since the mid-1990s says, “People began asking themselves, ‘What is Lebanon today?’ There became interest for something else other than what they were used to: the mainstream Arabic music that they had always listened to.”

Prior to that bands like Force and Amnesia joined the progressive Oriental musical stylings of Rahbani and Charbel Rouhana, to become what local music journalist Muhammed Haamdar says were “the trendsetters for Beirut’s civil war alt musical legacy,” that all but faded from view in the initial post-war years as Beirut society focused on vapid pop music to wash away their war weariness. This was the time when a microscopic western-influenced audience, who had been raised equally on Fairuz as with Led Zeppelin and Kraftwerk, rejected the sexually charged ‘habibi’ love songs flooding the radio airwaves, and instead raided black market cassette shops and CD stores in a search for punk, electro, alternative rock and hip hop.

Zeid Hamdan at the venue Democratic Republic of Music in West Beirut. (Image: Jackson Allers)

Hamdan returned from the war in the early 90s filled with western sounds in his head – The Pixies for one – and co-founded the seminal electro-Arabic fusion act Soap Kills withYasmine Hamdan (no relation), considered the voice of an entire generation of post-civil war youth in Beirut. Soap Kills self-produced four albums between 1997 and 2005. Their sound was derived from the production influences of Massive Attack and Portishead, and featured Yasmine’s contemporary, if not uninflected, interpretations of classic Arab songs like “Ya Habibi Taala Lhaeni” (“My Love, Come Chase Me”). It was a bold new approach and took more from the classical Arabic repertoire of their parents’ generation than the nominally popular Lebanese rock acts of the 1990s and early 2000s did.

Ultimately, their second album Bater sold 5,000 copies in the Lebanese market, which was unheard of at a time when there was no reliable internet commerce or a viable music industry to speak of. But none of the albums received radio airplay, and as Beirut-based cultural writer Kaelin Wilson-Goldie observed, “For nearly a decade, Soap Kills was held up as the next big thing. It was a band that served as an unprecedented artistic hothouse for live experimentation and studio innovation, a band that was always on the verge of a major record deal but never quite made it happen.” Seven years after their last release and nearly as long since their disbandment (2005), Soap Kills is ironically seeing more airplay now than they ever did during their heyday.

For his part, Zeid Hamdan never left his underground roots, having co-founded his own short-lived independent label Mooz Records (2003-2006) with musician and film composer Khaled Mouzzanar. At its peak, Mooz counted practically the entire alternative music scene as part of its roster, and in May of 2006 Mooz held the Beirut Luna Park Music Festival. It was the largest festival of its kind, but it became a symbol of Beirut’s propensity for false promises. Most of the cultural elite that constituted the alternative scene, and certainly most of the roughly 1,500 festival attendees, were looking haphazardly to the future, ignoring the country’s fragilities and external political actors. Articles at the time reflected the country’s optimism, but on July 12th, Israel invaded. 33 days of bombing later, huge swaths of Beirut and south Lebanon were destroyed. Irreparable damage was also done to Beirut’s alternative music scene, and according to Zeid, Mooz records was forced to close.

The two subsequent years of violence and political instability that followed continued to wreak havoc. Scrambled Eggs was one of the groups that suffered the most. From 1997 to outbreak of war in 2006, the four music geeks that founded the group wore their musical sensibilities on their wrinkled button-up shirts and tight jeans, hammering out smart, hard-hitting post-punk that appealed to a burgeoning fanbase. But they banked on the false promises of peace like nearly everyone else in the alt scene – and in the possibilities of an active, independent, then up-and-coming music industry that had enjoyed roughly six years of peace.

After the war and at the beginning of the group’s denouement in 2007, the unofficial spokesperson Charbel Haber, a talented experimental musician in his own right, was glib when talking to the press, exhibiting a fuck-you attitude that, like so many of his peers from the post-civil war generation, showed open contempt of religion and politics. In a2007 Time Magazine article, Haber extolled, “We do everything as if the world is going to end tomorrow. The Syrians might come back, Israel might attack, Hezbollah might start another war. In a situation like this, you do a lot of self-destructive things,” adding, “At the end of the day, sex, drugs and rock’n’roll means freedom.”

Despite their appearance at South By Southwest in 2008, Scrambled Eggs’ slide into inactivity inevitably opened the door for other groups to join the alt music fray. Between 2000 and 2008, grunge unit Blend signed briefly to EMI, and rock band Meen – alongside electro-pop group Lumi – courted the vestiges of break-out fame afforded to very few of Beirut’s independents. Meen released their last LP 3arouset Bkeseen in 2011, and sing mostly in a Lebanese Arabic dialect, often about mordant subject matter – a marked contrast to the pure pop sensibilities that Lumi represent.

A duo composed of guitarist Marc Codsi (Scrambled Eggs, Zeid & The Wings) and singer Mayaline Hage, Lumi entered the scene in late 2005 and quickly rose in popularity, due in no small part to their 2006 single “Don’t F With My Cat”, which helped them land a major record deal with EMI/Virgin for their second album Two Tears In Water (2008). Like Scrambled Eggs before them, Lumi’s approach was a contrast to the doldrums of Lebanon’s volatile political reality. Embodying the “glamour and chaotic dynamic of Beirut,” Hage told the local paper The Daily Star in 2008, “We wanted to do something popular but intelligent – intense and happy,” while bandmate Codsi saw Lumi’s pop sensibility as a challenge to “do something that could be heard and felt by everybody.”

It’s likely that the most influential regional alternative group to come out of Beirut in the last decade is the seven-member indie rock act Mashrou’ Leila (which translates to ‘Overnight Project’). Formed in 2008 as part of a music workshop at the American University of Beirut, there is little to compare them to musically. With tinges of Armenian folk music mixed with Arab punk guitar riffs, DJ samples, hard-hitting break-beats, gongs and Arabic folk rhythms, Mashrou’ Leila have relied on their original student fanbase, spreading their musical message to college campuses throughout the Arab world through the now familiar, but highly effective use of social media platforms and internet distribution methods. As a result, they’ve managed to expand their influence almost exponentially in the last three years to include not only the Middle East but cities as far afield as Paris, Amsterdam and Prague. They’re a musical phenomenon with unabashedly risqué lyrics that are satirical masks held up to the face of Lebanese society. Both their self-titled debut album (2009) and their EP El Hal Romancy (2011) are tomes to the possibilities of future independent Arabic music.

Rap And Rebellion

While Mashrou’ Leila’s fanbase within the more rock-oriented orientalist circles is growing, their political sentiments and their sample-friendly approach have also gained audience crossover from the alt music scene that has emerged most prominently as the soundtrack to the Arab revolutions: Arab hip hop.

“The revolutions definitely inspired the youth to write about what was going on in their own countries,” John Imad Nasr, aka Johnny Damascus – bassist and longtime fixture of the Beirut hip hop scene – explains. Based in Brooklyn now, Damascus adds, “Cats in Lebanon were writing about what was going on (on the streets) before the revolutions. And during and after,” just like the heads in Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, Jordan and Palestinian Territories.

Right now, that political reality in Lebanon is looking increasingly grim with the situation in Syria a constant threat to sectarian antagonisms here. But that has only added fuel to the fire with the hip hop community in Beirut, who are consistently organising and producing events in spite of the potential for violence – with voices that stand in clear opposition to the veneer of the notoriously insipid party scene that brings in artists like Flo Rida and Wiz Khalifa, but has no room for homegrown Arab hip hop talent. But according to the Middle East’s premiere turntablist Hussein Mao Atwi, aka DJ Lethal Skillz, “Used to be the only references to hip hop in Lebanese hip hop circles were the corporate acts. But now the young heads are beginning to realise they are their own destinies.

DJ Lethal Skillz (left) with The Lo Frequency

DJ Lethal Skillz (left) with The Lo Frequency (Image Tanya Traboulsi)

“There’s constant political instability always hanging over your head here in Beirut,” Skillz continues. “Only in the last five years or so are there people you can turn to and say ‘Hey, those are the veterans.’ There was no real historical record in the late 1990s [digitally], so people don’t even remember the [1995] DMC DJ World Championships were held in Lebanon, with heavyweights like DJ QBert and DJ Noise, or that Lebanon’s first turntablist Sweet Lil’ DJ was competing on an international level with the best of them – rest in peace.” (Sweet Lil’ DJ died of a car accident in 1999.)

Skillz has also lent considerable production to dozens of pan-Arab hip hop recordings, and his 2012 sophomore release Karmageddon is a who’s who of the global Arab hip hop movement. With some of Beirut’s best MCs, it includes the lyrical satirist Omar Zeneiddine aka MC Dee; the understated yet highly politically charged writer Edouard Abbas aka (El) Edd of Lebanon’s most well-known hip hop group Fareeq al Atrash; and lyrical savant Ramcess L’Hamorabi, whose self-released, self-produced albumL’Hamorabi was among the best international hip hop offerings in 2011.


Above: Aks’ser w/DJ Lethal Skillz “Safeit bi 3akss el Seir” (1998, perhaps the first Lebanese hip-hop video)

Beyond their solo work, these MCs have taken to frequent collaborations with other rappers from Egypt, Jordan, Palestinian Territories and Syria. The previously mentioned El Rass, Osloob – an MC with the raucous Palestinian crew Katibe 5 (‘Batallion’ 5) from the Bourj al Barajneh refugee camp south of Beirut – and MCs Jaafar and Nasserdyn from the Bekaa Valley’s crew Touffar – a name that literally translates to ‘outlaw’ – represent a new breed of Lebanese hip hop talent.

Touffar: Nasserdyn (left) and Jaafar

Touffar: Nasserdyn (left) and Jaafar (Image – Hani Naim)

Osloob’s newest self-produced release “Fasl” (“Separation”) (2012) includes MCs from Jordan, the West Bank, Gaza, Lebanon and Syria, who all lay down revolutionary verses on one continuous track that Osloob spent months composing. And Touffar, who spit about the AK-47 lifestyle in the Bekaa Valley and their unapologetic antagonisms towards the absentee Lebanese government, is busy at work delivering new tracks for an upcoming pan-Arab hip hop compilation about new perspectives on revolution called Khat Thaleth(Third Rail) with Syrian-American producer Ahmad Khouja aka Munaqresh/Dub Snakkr.

And with nearly unlimited access to music from the net and plenty of sources for cracked sound-editing software, many Beiruti MCs carry that hyphenated rapper-producer credit de facto. Throw in some warped 808 effects with the wealth of sampling material at their disposal – from the decades of classical Arabic record production coming from Lebanon and Egypt – and you begin to understand why Beirut’s hip hop stalwarts are helping to change the very underbed of sound production in Arab hip hop. And increasingly these heads are catering more to their local audiences than to the world at large. This local scene has provided its supporters with their own socially aware soundtrack since the late 1990s with groups like Aks’ser and the crew Kita3 Beirut both rhyming about the realities of urban Beirut life and about social inequity – not in French, as was the case in the Maghreb during that period, but in their native Lebanese dialect.

Labels And Legacy

Despite the problems that surround Lebanon politically and economically, there are some bright spots within the local alternative music market, namely where independent labels and artistic representation is concerned. Zeid Hamdan’s Lebanese Underground and the regional music agency Eka3 are two of the most active where independent music is concerned, and combined represent the majority of alternative musicians in the region. While they certainly don’t have mass appeal, Forward Music label and Ziad Nawfal’s Ruptured label are two examples of independent record companies with business models that are geared towards preserving catalogues and funnelling their artists towards live shows – the bread and butter of any musician these days.

From 2006 to 2010, the label that was the driving force in Beirut’s alternative music scene was Incognito. Nawfal spent two years with Incognito before forming his Ruptured label, and for the better part of 20 years has been charting the evolution of Beirut’s more western-influenced alternative music scene on the state-sponsored radio station Radio Lebanon.

Untitled Tracks On Alternative Music In Beirut book cover

Untitled Tracks On Alternative Music In Beirut book cover

In 2009, Nawfal also co-edited a book with photos by Lebanese-Austrian photographer Tanya Traboulsi called Untitled Tracks On Alternative Music In Beirut that captured a moment in time with Lebanon’s emerging alternative music scene. All of the artists featured in the book have made it on his weekly radio show Ruptured Sessions, and four of Nawfal’s eight albums released on Ruptured were based on live sessions during his radio show. Nawfal’s ninth album will reveal his own proclivity towards Beirut’s exploding electronica scene.

With a mission to elevate Arabic music beyond its pop confines, veteran musician-producer Ghazi Abdel Baki started the Forward Music label in 2001. While Forward Music has assured the increasing relevance of contemporary interpretations of oriental traditions it has also championed hip hop talents like Fareeq al Atrash, former Aks’ser front man Rayess Bek and DJ Lethal Skillz. And luckily, when Icognito folded, Baki kept the discography alive; a sign that perhaps whatever you throw at Beirut’s alternative music scene – civil war, political assassination, socio-economic depravity – it is destined to go on.

In Arabic, the word samidoun comes to mind – literally translated it means ‘steadfastness’. That’s what the scene has going for it. Somehow, somewhere, even in the dusty bins of some backwater garage, you’ll find Beirut’s musical heritage surviving, at least according to the all-vinyl funk, soul, rare groove DJ Ernesto Chahoud, aka DJ Spindle, himself a pioneer in the scene currently working on a film about underground 1980s disco belly-dance recordings.

Ernesto Chahoud aka DJ Spindle (left) and Rami Obeid – founders of The Beirut Groove Collective

Ernesto Chahoud aka DJ Spindle (left) and Rami Obeid – founders of The Beirut Groove Collective (Image – Manal Abu Shaheen)

“For me, the alternative scene in Beirut is like a bunch of outcasts accepted by hardly anyone,” Chahoud says. “The political powers or political players in and outside the government don’t acknowledge them. So, when you have these outcast musicians – or DJs, or artists – that are expressing themselves and nothing but themselves, without care for anything, this is Beirut’s alternative scene. And it is what makes Beirut an underground trendsetter in the region.”

Of course Beirut’s musical history is often subsumed by civil war and post-civil war narratives, but a quick survey of the music coming from Beirut over the past 60 years reveals, as Chahoud says, a vibrancy affected by war and political turmoil with a cadre of musicians “that have always searched for the ‘alternative’ to what was going on,” in both traditional and non-traditional terms.

“My relationship with music has always been like this,” posits the poet-MC El Rass. “I want to synthesise and absorb the cumulative experience of the culture I belong to on a musical and artistic level and be a continuation of this culture. This is what is happening in the Arab world. Now it’s prime time and it’s at some sort of peak. I know I’m not alone when I say this, but I always see myself as trying to create something that’s going to be perceived as traditional music a century from now.”

Other Notable Mentions:

Rayess Bek – A veteran of the hip hop scene, Aks’ser’s former frontman has collaborated as an MC/producer with worldclass talent (RZA, Niles Rogers, Miles Copeland), composed for TV and has released three solo albums – the last, Khartech Aa Zamn (The Leftist Man), with his multimedia musical experiment The Rayess Bek Orchestra.

Lazzy Lung – With one album to their credit (Strange Places, 2010) they won the the 2011 Rolling Stone Magazine Middle East‘s Battle of the Bands contest and a 2012 Ray Ban sponsored trip to Capitol Records Los Angeles last April.

Slutterhouse – The electo-pop duo was formed in 2006 by singer songwriter Raibih Salloum and veteran Beirut producer Nabil Saliba (aka Trash Inc). Their three releases have spawned two European tours and a growing fan base in France and the UK that includes the likes of Duran Duran’s Andy Taylor.

Zeid And The Wings – Hamdan’s newest project.

Rima Khcheich – Her recent tribute album to the legendary Lebanese singer and actress Sabah is less of a reinterpretation of the ‘pioneer of popular tarab’ than a revival of a song tradition.

The Kordz – A veteran alt-rock band that has a wickedly loyal fanbase and have opened for the likes of international acts like Placebo, Deep Purple and Robert Plant.

La Gale – Swiss-Lebanese MC who splits her time between Lausanne and Beirut – her lyrics are bombastic threats against the system.

The Incompetents – Fronted by non-musician Serge Yared in collaboration with multi-instrumentalist Fadi Tabbal, Yared’s off-key voice and awkward arrangements betray the honest artistic intent behind the music.

Irtijal – Experimental music pioneers in Beirut guitarist Sharif Sehnaoui and horn player Mazen Kerbaj began the Irtijal music festival 12 years ago to serve an emerging niche of music improvisation in the later 90s.

Acousmatik System – Non-profit cultural organisation founded by electronica promoter and DJ Hadi Saleh – you can find the best of Beirut’s electronica roster on their website.

Extra Inclusion from filmmaker Merass Sadek – who offers a video recap chronicling the Red Bull Music Academy’s 2012 Bass Camp in Beirut

The RBMA Base Camp in Beirut this year brought together a handful of leading musicians, producers, DJs and vocalists from around the Middle East gathered for three days to collaborate in bedroom studios, perform in the city’s best clubs and music venues, and listen to inspiring lectures from DJ Zinc, Jay-Z’s in-house producer Young Guru, composer Ibrahim Maalouf and local underground legend Fadi Tabbal.

 

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