LIFE FROM THE BBC
By: Jackson Allers
Editor: Wissam Charaf
Run time: 16 min. | Palestine/Lebanon
This documentary follows two MC’s, Yaseen (20) and TNT (19) of the Palestinian rap group I-Voice (Invincible Voice) from the Bourj al Barajneh Refugee Camp (BBC) in south Beirut, facing constant electricity cuts in their small camp recording studio.
Yaseen and TNT write lyrics by the lights of their cell phones and produce beats to a growing fan base – wracking up an impressive catalogue of music that has earned them a remarkable reputation within the local and international Arab hip-hop scenes. The film follows them as they break out of the confines of refugee life, it is a story about their search for power.
This post was written by documentary photographer and filmmaker Laith Majali – a partner in the Amman-based production company – Immortal Entertainment. This story took place during a visit he paid to the Burj al Barajneh Palestinian Refugee camp South of Beirut to the homes of Yassin Qasem and Mohammad Turk – aka YaSeen and TNT of the rap group I-Voice (Invincible Voice). Editor’s note: In the years since this article was published the group has dispersed with YaSeen and TNT leaving Lebanon and their camp life there. They still love “the cause” and they LOVE hip-hop – producing music individually with an ocean and several countries in between. Enjoy Laith’s write-up as it really does touch something special in this culture of hip-hop.
By Laith Majali
This must have been my sixth visit to the Burj al Barajneh. Over the past couple of years i’ve come to this camp to document the life and art of two young Arab hip hop artists, Yaseen and TNT of I-Voice. (Invincible Voice)
I’ve felt that they represent one of the most important story lines in my visual documentation of the Arab hip hop movement. They were inspired by Palestinian hip hop groups at a young age and took to the mic to voice their opinions and thoughts on how it is to be living as a refugee.
Over the past two years I’ve seen them grow, I’ve seen their work improve while still working under the toughest conditions. I can’t remember a time where I visited their home studio in the camp and not had the electricity cut off on us.
This time around I wasn’t alone in my visit. Shadia Mansour , Lowkey and Dj The Last Skeptik were visiting I-Voice to collaborate on a track together. I made sure I got some portraits on the roof of Yaseen’s house as the sun was starting to set. Pigeons were flying all over the place and the view was beautiful as you can see.
For the next three days we were in the studio working on a track produced by I-Voice, all the artists were inspired by these birds that took to flight but always returned to their homes. I have to say, the beat that Yaseen produced is beautiful, i’m glad I was there to document some of the writing and recording process.
Very soon a part of their story is going to get seen at one of the world’s biggest music festivals, South by Southwest in Austin, Texas. “Life from the BBC” a short documentary directed by Jackson Allers about their search for a power generator will be screened at the festival . Too bad they won’t be with us there.
Hopefully I’ll be posting some videos soon from this trip, once i get a chance to edit something together.
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: