Revisiting the Third Rail: Arab rappers negotiate revolution

this was the one and only episode of an interview series featured on World hip hop Market in March, 2013. this exclusive interview was with syrian-american producer Ahmed khouja who produced the arab rap compilation ‘khat thaleth’ (Third rail), released worldwide in the spring of 2013. It was unfortunately a short-lived project that reflected a greater discord in the ranks of the rappers involved in the wake of the arab revolutions. the interview still reflects an important time in the development of the greater phenomenon of arab rap in the historical levant.

Arab MCs [left] Al Sayyed Darwish (Syria) and El Rass (Lebanon) performing at a Khat Thaleth show in Beirut (Photo Credit: Jackson Allers©)
Arab MCs [left] Al Sayyed Darwish (Syria) and El Rass (Lebanon) performing at a Khat Thaleth show in Beirut (Photo Credit: Jackson Allers©)

BEIRUT – Syrian-American producer dub Snakkr is the founder of the San Francisco-based record label Stronghold Sound. The interview was conducted before the worldwide release of a massive 23-track Arab rap compilation called Khat Thaleth or The Third Rail. dub Snakkr was the main architect behind Khat Thaleth, which came one year after Stronghold Sound’s release of the critically acclaimed Guinean hip-hop reggae compilation Sembeh Ma Fa Fe – which Snakkr also produced.

In the interview, Allers and dub Snakkr discuss the meaning of the album’s subtitle, ‘The Initative for the Elevation of Public Awareness,” the future of Arab rap, and why young Arab rappers are so keen calling Arab hip-hop by a new name!

On the Real Interview series – dub Snakkr (Stronghold Sound) from World Hop Hop Market on Vimeo.

Khat Thaleth is a rap compilation with no precedent in the Arab world. 12 MCs. 5 producers. 2 turntablists. 5 instrumentalists – all hailing from the Arab world. 8 Arab countries in total with the presence of only one MC from the Arab rap Diaspora.

While there have been other Arab rap compilations in the past 4-5 years  – notably the Nomadic Wax album Thawra and the two DJ Lethal Skillz albums New World Disorder and Karmageddon – none has had the power and indigenous resonance of Khat Thaleth  – from both a production standpoint and a lyrical one.

Khat Thaleth is direct in its lyrical approach – creating a juggernaut of incendiary diatribes and stories related to the Arab uprisings. As well, the poetic possibilities of the Arabic language are on full display in Khat Thaleth with rappers in top lyrical form – spitting about their anger, and their grief, and their general mistrust at the various ways the revolutions in the Arab world are being manipulated.


I’m afraid to work for the revolution and turn out to be working against myself

From the  song “The New Middle East”

I remember the neighbor’s voice shouting at her children, shutting her doors because the war had neared/  Listen – I’m not telling you a story to amuse you/  I’m stating a reality to wake your conscience./  I left the circle of death and I lost my face./  I know where it is. I hid it with them. 

From the song “Ya Deeb (the wolf)”


Khat Thaleth has emerged during an unprecedented time – where artistic expression in the Arab world is both exploding and being suppressed in new ways, and producer dub Snakkr was aware that the window for this freedom could close as abruptly as it had opened:

“To me – my initial reaction to the revolutions was that we have to grab as much of the space that was carved out by others as we can…the artistic space that was sacrificed for! And that is particularly important for those who feel silenced now or feel threatened – a renewed threat. It’s simple – if we lose that artistic space then it will really feel as if what has happened in the Arab world (these past 3-years) was in vain.”


The entire album is in Arabic with an online link to a meticulously translated lyric sheet (Arabic to English) – a monumental undertaking considering the complexity of flow and content that is on the album.

Khat Thaleth iconography

One interesting note about the symbolism of Khat Thaleth, the album is also a reference to the “Hejaz railroad” that used to connect much of the Arab world in the early 20th century – a time when the borders were being imposed on Arab populations by the colonial West.

Khat Thaleth is at the end of the day a suggestion that the borders come down first artistically.

dub Snakkr (Photo credit: Alan Gignoux©)
dub Snakkr (Photo credit: Alan Gignoux©)


JACKSON ALLERS (ja): I want to start with the subtitle of the album, which is “The Initiative for the Elevation of Public Awareness.” Who is the public in this phrase, and what does the “third rail” imply?

dub Snakkr: Well let’s start with the Third Rail – it’s kind of a response to the climate in the Arab world that has been building for two, three years even more – where before you could say there was one path – or one line – and you know you could take it or leave it. That’s what was going on. There were regimes in place and nobody could really do anything about it.

Then once the Arab awakenings began – over the past near three years – an opposition emerged and there was a second line or a second path for expression and for thought. And you know that caused a lot of conflict and a lot of polarisation in general in Arab society. We really started to see that that polarity – that kind of opposition between the two sides – you’re either with or your against – and so on – was really not helping to move things forward.

There was a lot of justified criticism in both directions. Obviously I think in the end it’s still unfair to equate a regime with people who are trying to organise and create an opposition. Still, there were subtleties and criticism that should be spoken about.

And so that’s where the idea of a third line or a third rail came in – an unaligned position to sort of criticise both perspectives and maybe suggest a line of thinking that is more subtle and maybe goes between them.

ja: Discuss your motivations for managing this whole project?

dub Snakkr: One was that we saw in several cases – from Tunis to Libya to Egypt – that regardless of what you may have considered regarding the aftermath of the changes that happened and with the regimes that were falling – a definite and clear result was an increased ability of people to express themselves -to criticise, to protest and to feel like their voice had more weight than it had before, and more freedom than it had before.

To me – my initial reaction was that we have to grab that. We have to grab as much of the space that was carved out by others that sacrificed for that. Maybe others who now feel silenced or feel threatened – a renewed threat. We have to take as much of that – occupy as much of that as possible so that regardless of what happens next, at least we’re not going to lose that. Because if we lose that then it will really feel as if what has happened in the Arab world (these past 3-years) was in vain. In every location that it happened. If you lose that – sa7it ta ta’beer – that space of expression then we’re going backwards and that’s a real shame.


ja: As Arab rap has been developing over the last ten years, the production palettes of Arab hip-hop producers has also gotten so rich – like the rest of the world. So tell me a little more about the direction of the album musically and what separates it from other Arab hip- hop offerings.

dub Snakkr: There’s really not one perspective of what makes a hip-hop beat…I think it strongly has an urban feel because there’s a mix of a few different rhythms, tempos. You have things that start to resemble a reggae feel – not in an obvious way.

I’ll be honest, I’d say I’m more in a reggae camp than I would be in a hip-hop camp. But my name is the Snakkr because I kind of mix everything together and I take bits and pieces from all over the place.

Me myself – the beats I was working on, I was really pulling from a lot of different things. I was pulling from old Arab records – Ta’rab records. Sampling everything from Um Kulthoum, to Abdel Wahab. So all of that kind of mixed together. That’s been happening already. It definitely happened on this album, but it’s been happening in many other artists’ music.

It was interesting for me and exciting for me because I’ve always found there to be an interesting connection between folkloric music or very specific cultural dance movement from different places, and how many of the rhythm sections are similar. In my opinion I see a kind of connection between dancehall reggae and Huwara dabke music (*local folk music to Lebanon, Syria and Palestine) and Punjabi bangra music. There’s a similar tradition even between bangra and Huwara and how the type of drum and how it’s played and so forth. So it’s kind of interesting for me to explore that and innovate along it.

There’s other examples of the traditions – if you’re talking organically as to what its referencing in Arab culture – its not just a new thing to have poetry on top of rhythm.

ja: Zajal is a 13th century battle poetry session…

dub Snakkr: Yeah it’s kind of an old school, very organic form of battle poetry. You have people with a full-band behind them kind of saying a verse and another one kind of responding and the crowd kind of oohing and ahhing as they kind of one-up the other.

ja: Head-cutting in hip-hop terms…

dub Snakkr: Exactly!

MC's Naserdayn from the Bekaa Valley (Lebanon) crew Touffar (left) and El Rass (Lebanon) performing at Khat Thaleth concert. (Photo credit: Jackson Allers©)


dub Snakkr: Well El Rass (Lebanese MC) has a good perspective on this – and I think many other artists would agree as well. It’s a little odd to use a term for the art form that you’re doing when the term itself has letters in it that you can’t pronounce in your language.

In Arabic – there is no “p.” There’s a “b”

ja: (pronouncing the word rap) “Rab”

dub Snakkr: So you end up doing this bastardisation of the word where it’s “Rab” or “Hib Hob.” And you know rap I think comes off a little easier than “hib hob.” But it’s funny! And you can understand their wanting to innovate. And even Syrian rapper Al Sayyed Darwish who teaches classes to Syrian refugees in the Beirut Palestinian refugee camp Shatilla, They began telling us – “We don’t want to call it hip-hop.” And so they started thinking of different names they could call it.

I think they – yeah they ended up calling in “Shiiq.” They called it Shiq because it’s shaar – which is poetry – and iqaa3which is beats. They took the first half of each word and so in Arabic – they took the “sh” from shaar and the “Iq” from iqaa3 and they said it was “Shiiq” – Shiekh.

And we both had a blast with how they got it on a certain level that …It’s yours! Do what you will with it. And I don’t think any kind of really self-respecting rapper from any part of the world would not understand that.

ja: When we’re speaking about the future of Arab rap or whatever they might want to call it…

dub Snakkr: Shiiq! (laughing)

ja: The idea is that this is kind of what happens with the movement of this cultural form as it goes from place to place.

dub Snakkr: I think it’s an honour – and the ultimate respect to hop-hop for a culture to want to take it on – to really innovate it in their own way, and not to just do a formulaic application and stay within the same sounds – you know to really contribute something.

In the larger scheme of things, I hope that the compilation and the work in general that everyone is doing gets placed so that we can look back and say this is where art and thought and action came together at the time it was needed!





Al Sayyed Darwish (Syria) (Photo Credit: Jackson Allers ©
Al Sayyed Darwish (Syria) (Photo Credit: Jackson Allers ©

Back with a Vengeance: Lazzy Lung!

After the 2010 release of Lebanese indie rock band Lazzy Lung’s debut album Strange Places, I featured an interview in umen magazine with the band’s frontman – Allan Chaaraoui.  Shortly thereafter the band blew up, winning a legion of regional accolades that included the Rolling Stone Magazine ME’s ‘Battle of the Band’ contest in 2011; the 2011 ‘Musicians of the Year’ award in Esquire Middle East; and the 2012 Ray-Ban/ “Homegrown to Hollywood” contest and a trip to record at Capitol Records, Los Angeles in Studio A with legendary engineer Charlie Paakkari.  Nearly 4-years after their debut release, Lazzy Lung is preparing for the official May launch of their sophomore album Sailor’s Delight. i sat down with allan to discover what went into this album – a raucous, free-wheeling, hard-driving, kick-ass rock-n-roll ode to the seductive nature of Beirut.
page 1
page 1


page 2
page 2

“Beirut’s charm is a cruel diamond – a treasure that’s got decadence and decorum all rolled into one. We live here in this glitzy, seedy metropolis. Salty and twisted in a romance filled with bars and bedrooms and uninhibited late night howls – each day a reckless experiment in survival with no idea of what’s around the corner. We drown out the war drums with our own waves of sound. We know the future is stormy, but she offers a promise for the high-life that excites like no other city in the world. There is no morning for us – and no safety nets where we’re going – say your farewells – a sailor’s delight.”


CD baby Cover



Chico and the Man: reviving the vinyl tradition in Beirut!

Diran Mardirian is the owner of Video Chico, a dvd shop that was established as a record store in 1964 by his father Katchik. It was once a mecca for vinyl collectors that continued to sell vinyl up until 1982 when the shop “shook off the dust of the Israeli invasion and switched to videos.” Now, after more than 30-years of serving the video renting community, Chico is aiming to once again be the mecca for vinyl sales in the region. Beats and Breath caught up with Diran, the man behind Chico’s success, on the eve of an interior renovation that would transform the place into a proper record store. (*Note: This was published in November 2013.)

Page 1 - photo credit: Jackson Allers© with Diran Mardirian (left) and DJ/producer Nickodemus checkin' the stacks at Chico in September 2013.
Page 1 – photo credit: Jackson Allers© with Diran Mardirian (left) and DJ/producer Nickodemus checkin’ the stacks at Chico in September 2013.
page 2 - photo credit: Jackson Allers© - shots at Chico
page 2 – photo credit: Jackson Allers© – shots at Chico


The crates at Chico - Photo credit: Jackson Allers©
The crates at Chico


NYC-based producer/DJ Nickodemus - diggin' at Chico's in Beirut. Photo credit: Jackson Allers©
NYC-based producer/DJ Nickodemus – diggin’ at Chico’s in Beirut. Photo credit: Jackson Allers©


The man behind Chico - Diran Mardirian (left) and DJ/producer Nickodemus.
The man behind Chico – Diran Mardirian (left) and DJ/producer Nickodemus.

The PERCs’ perks – Production Equipment Rental Companies in Lebanon

Beats and Breath features this huge profile written for Communicate Levant magazine (*affiliated with Advertising Age) on the real engine that makes the region’s Television Commercial Industry run – the Production Equipment Rental Houses or PERCs as I termed them. massive thanks to Joseph Al Kadamani (Gamma Engineering SARL), Chant Etyemezian (Platform Studios), and Samer Dadanian (Final Cut) for their candidness about the in’s-and-out’s of their businesses.


Communicate Levant PERC story-jpeg_Page_1

Communicate Levant PERC story-jpeg_Page_2

Communicate Levant PERC story-jpeg_Page_3

Communicate Levant PERC story-jpeg_Page_5Communicate Levant PERC story-jpeg_Page_7

Launch of Red Bull Music Academy Radio show: Quarter Tone Frequency Vol. 01

In October, 2013, Red Bull Music Academy Radio launched Quarter Tone Frequency. This was the first episode of season 1 – with eleven (11) monthly episodes following. 4 hosts from Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan and the UAE were tapped to help bring the vibrations of the independent music community from across the Middle East to wider audiences – regionally and internationally. Beats and Breath founder, Jackson Allers, anchors the Lebanon segment.
QTF logo

Welcome to Quarter Tone Frequency, an exploration of authentic oriental sounds, tracking the vibrations of the independent music community across the Middle East. Quarter Tone Frequency broadcasts an hour-long show every month, combining some of the Middle East’s best alternative sounds. Split into four segments of 15 minutes each, the show will transport listeners to the vibrant underground of Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan and the UAE, each segment hosted by local voices providing insights into each scene. In the UAE, we’re guided to new sounds by radio host and DJ James Locksmith, while veteran presenter and all-round musician Safi takes us through the cultural hotspots of Egypt. Music lover and personality of the Jordan airwaves Tamer Gargour delivers the finest new tracks from the Hashemite Kingdom, and finally, crate-digger, broadcaster and music journalist Jackson Allers serves up what’s good from across Lebanon. It’s the sound from the Middle East underground.

Volume 1 – click image below to go to RBMA Radio page

click to go to RBMA Radio Page
click to go to RBMA Radio Page


Video: “History has found me” – Oak featuring Julia from Postcards (Lebanon)

Beats and Breath spent a day with two filmmakers (director/editor Tony H. Khoury & producer/director Karim Koleilat) and two extremely talented songwriters – Allen Seif known as Oak – and Julia Sabra from the Beirut Indy band Postcards. The result was the video for the song “History has found me” – shot and recorded on-location in the West Bekaa Valley of Lebanon. Below the video is a little description I wrote up detailing the magic we all felt on that day.

Video Directed/Edited by Tony H. Khoury – Additional Camerawork by Karim Koleilat and Jackson Allers

By Jackson Allers

Our goal was a simple one – take a small team of filmmakers and trek to the West Bekaa valley to shoot a live video song-session with solo artist Oak and Julia Sabra from the group Postcards. The song – “History has found me” – was one of Oak’s compositions, and was now a duet.

As we made our way out of the city towards the West Bekaa valley on the Chtaura/Damascus highway, it began to sink in that this was an important day for everyone involved.

We left the pollution that hung like a brown pall over Beirut, and as the air got more fresh, the windows in the car remained open. It was more than an analogy: we began to breathe deeper and everyone in the car got more relaxed.

All of us enjoyed the beauty of the ride particularly when we caught the first glimpses of the valley below us.

Our search for a location ended in an expansive green field of new wheat between Hauch ed Dibs and Sahret el Qach – a short ways from the Aammiq wetlands, and a few kilometres from Chtaura.

The Syrian border was in walking distance. We were surrounded by the snow covered peaks of the Anti-Lebanon mountain range on one side, and the closer foothills of the Lebanon mountain range on the other.

The wind stirred up the wheat in water like waves, and the occasional tractor or pick-up truck filled with workers rolled by our little encampment; there were no sounds of the war nearby.

What filled us up that day was song and the company we kept. Julia’s shaker. Their harmonies. Oak’s guitar. The late winter sun. The clean northern air. The bedouin families bedded down along the highway nearby tending their flocks.

We smelled the first stages of spring, and the dampness of old snow.

“Cause home is where I am free
And where I am free is here, near you
This mountain climb, this moment in time”

When it was finished, and all the b-roll was shot and the last note was sung – as the sun quickly vanished behind the Lebanon range – we packed up our equipment and walked euphorically to our car.

I think I speak for everyone when I say that we all felt lighter; more fulfilled. For a brief moment we got to put aside our cares and exist in a utopian musical and filmic moment.

Beirut felt different when we returned.

Oak video still 1


“History Has Found Me”
History has found me why has she
Images behind me,
will I ever know where I am gonna be

Washing of the water can you wake me
Current of this river could you take me down to the sea

Cause my heart is where I am free
And where I am free is here, near you
This mountain climb, this moment in time
Hey, sail my thoughts sail
, I see myself in you

History has found me why has she
Images behind me,
will I ever know where I am gonna be

Shimmer of the morning waken my heart
Velvet of this evening don’t let us part before we start

Cause home is where I am free
And where I am free is here, near you
This mountain climb, this moment in time

Ohh, flow river flow, I see myself in you
Grow baby grow, I see myself in you

Sing nightingale sing, I see myself in you
When you smile lover smile, I see myself in you

History has found me why has she
Images behind me will I ever know where I am gonna be

Beirut’s own: The Wanton Bishops Unchained, Part 1

Raymond Gemayel's photo of the Bishops at legendary bar Torino Express in Beirut
Raymond Gemayel’s photo of the Bishops at legendary bar Torino Express in Beirut

dummy jpg


An exclusive interview with the Beirut-based blues-rock-revival band The Wanton Bishops and Beats and Breath founder Jackson Allers. It’s Part 1 of an interview THAT WAS released in early 2013, and was conducted in december 2012 right before the launch of their first album – sleep with the lights on.

Voice-over introduction : “A musical anathema from Beirut rises like a sweaty, humid late August day in Biloxi, Mississippi or Houston, Lake Charles, New Orleans, Gulfport, or Huntsville. Stomping music. Real humid. Real raw. Two musicians. Two guitars. A Gibson Epiphone. A Fender Telecaster. One harmonica. Effects pedals. One banjo. They are The Wanton Bishops. Bred in Beirut. Established in 2011. They’ve crafted a powerful underground following in Lebanon….”

Produced/Interviewed by: Jackson Allers
Thanks to: Nader Mansour, Eddy Ghossein, Fadi Tabal, Tune Fork Studios, & Tico Tico shawerma stand

Beirut’s blues-rock revival – The Wanton Bishops

IN DECEMBER OF 2012 – beats and breath sat down with what has turned out to be Beirut’s hottest musical export, the blues-rock revival duo The Wanton Bishops – NADER MANSOUR AND EDDY GHOSSEIN. the interview was conducted right before the official launch of their first album – sleep with the lights on. as i retroactively publish this feature – the boys are preparing for a stop in my home state for the south by southwest music festival (*march 2014). they’ve since repeated much of what was contained in this interview for other sources – but I think this article and podcast represents the first (*significant) candid interview with the Bishops. thanks to nader and eddy for the time! Good luck in texas fellas!

The Wanton Bishops Unchained: Part 1 – interview with Jackson Allers by Jackson Allers on Mixcloud


wanton bishops page 1 umen wanton bishops page 2 umen


Interview with SHARE Foundation’s Vladan Joler and Filip Milošević

For nearly three months between the end of July and the first week of October, a group of Serbian digital activists known as the SHARE Foundation planted themselves in Beirut, and with Beirut-based digital rights activists, cultural producers, production and media companies, and other civic stakeholders staged a wholly unique conference aimed at promoting the tools of freedom in a digital age. The conference – known as SHARE BEIRUT – proved to be a mind-blowing weekend for the more than 3,000 people from the Middle East, and North Africa who attended the event from October 5-7, 2012. The production was on a grass-roots scale the likes of which are rarely experienced in Beirut.
The following are excerpts of an exclusive interview conducted by Beats and Breath| with SHARE Foundation organizers Vladan Joler and Filip Milošević at online/cafe – Radio Beirut in the lead-up to the event.
SHARE organizers Vladan Joler (left) and Filip Milošević
Screenshot from below video – SHARE Foundation organizers Vladan Joler (left) and Filip Milošević

BEIRUT – Modelled on the SHARE Conference that began in 2011 in the Serbian capital Belgrade, SHARE BEIRUT Conference was a free, non-commercial hybrid event that blended Internet culture and technology-related daytime conference events with a dynamic cutting-edge music festival by night. SHARE BEIRUT brought together Lebanese organisers and paired them with dozens of individual bloggers, tech geeks, alternative artists, musicians and cultural producers in order to facilitate a massive exchange of ideas, knowledge and creativity.

At the conference, some 200 lectures and workshops were delivered by leading internet development figures from around the world including Ji Lee (Communication Designer for Facebook), Thom Cummings (Soundcloud), Michelle Thorne (Mozilla/Creative Commons), Stanfard University’s Elizabeth Stark, Rebecca Bowe (Electronic Frontier Foundation) and Peter Sunde (Flattr).

These new technology and internet luminaries where joined by other international social media activists and regional bloggers like Lebanon’s Maya Zankoul, and Nasri Atallah, Egypt’s Wael Abbas and Sarrah Abdelrahman, and Tunisia’s Wafa Ben Hassine and Sami Ben Gharbia – among many others. (For a complete list of musicians, artists, speakers and participants go to the SHARE BEIRUT website.)

While the reverberations of the event are still being felt and won’t be know for some time, it was clearly a 72-hour period that showed Beirut and the Arab world what was possible when a passionate group of 21st century cultural creatives get together to have fun.

The following is the interview shot on location at Radio Beirut – edited transcript of the video interview below:

BEATS AND BREATH: What does the SHARE conference mean?

VLADAN JOLER: That’s a very tough question. I always wanted to do something – to create an impact on society. And somehow when we (the SHARE organisers) really looked at the world today – we realised that the internet and internet culture were really important to all of us. So we thought it was important to develop something to help protect the internet as an open, neutral, decentralised place for communication, and a place to exchange things. We wanted a tool that could help bring us somewhere else.

You see we’re surrounded by things in society – media – that is closed or controlled by our governments or the corporate sector. These are things we cannot approach anymore as human beings. So SHARE was a way of creating a safe outlet to do something as an alternative to this phenomenon.

FILIP Milošević: SHARE conference for me is mostly about using new media and the internet for social impact – for social change. There’s are lots of good examples around the world of people doing this – and many people heading these things are the speakers that have been coming to our conferences (the last two years in Serbia). They share their experience and knowledge to lots of young people that come to the conference, who then get inspired by their work – and hopefully they begin thinking about how to change things in their own societies.

SHARE is concerned with the impact of digital communications on everyday lives and human rights, the goal of the Share Foundation is to fight for the public interest in every critical battle affecting digital rights, in the areas of privacy, free speech, government transparency and efficiency, surveillance and human rights.”

BEATS AND BREATH: Tell me a little about the social quotient of the conference. How will you incorporate the social activist side of things in this conference here in Beirut?

VLADAN: We are taking this social activist side of things from a really wide angle – because social activism as a profession is misused by the ngo (non-governmental organisation) sector. From this perspective social activism is something that you need to do as an organisation and you end up turning it into some kind of business model or some kind of industrialised model.

What we are trying to do is to find activism somewhere else; to find activism in some kind of real grassroots movements – like people who are doing activism in their homes for example. Perhaps by fighting barriers that exist around them. It could be activism as some kind of distribution of music or distribution of information. It can be lots of different points of activist methods – it doesn’t have to be visible in a way – like let’s gather on the street and make protest banners etc.

We’re trying to explore some kind of basic grassroots activism and then try to connect all of these people – first we try to bring all of these people together in one place so that they see that they are not alone, and that there are lots of people around them that are doing similar stuff. And then we try to connect them to introduce the local activists to other activists that are doing similar work around the world – to that it’s some kind of platform or live social networking platform.

BEATS AND BREATH: Social activism as a means of change in the Arab world or a tool for change in the Arab world – clearly SHARE has a relation to that kind of reasoning – even though many in the Arab world feel that internet activism has been a mixed bag. But why choose Lebanon – country that has clearly avoided so much of the revolutionary change?

Vladan: This Arab Spring and idea of the social media revolution is a bit hyped as a term. In a way it has been misused. I am not really fond of calling revolution of any kind recently as a Facebook revolution because Facebook is one company – a private company So how could such a company be considered part of revolution really? And it’s also a bit scary to see a corporate sector of being part of some social resistance.

Then on the other side of this analysis is the media sphere and how really what we’re talking about is that the media sphere has been decentralised. It’s not that I’m having one TV station and I’m putting on a program that is brainwashing the masses. No – the process is decentralised that can be shifted to a lot of different points of media.

In this way there is a big shift in communication that allowed us to easier gather and act on some issues or problems. But still the position of Twitter and other companies like Facebook is too high as some kind of model of resistance. Then you have this phenomenon on Facebook of the number of likes that doesn’t mean anything really that doesn’t appear in its physical manifestation.

FILIP: Actually prior the first SHARE Conference in Belgrade we were thinking of naming it Belgrade Spring- and it predated the Arab Spring – so somehow the politics between the first and second SHARE conferences were often related to these happenings around the world. And also around the world there were other things happening in the areas of internet and social activism. And there are all these different kinds of lower revolutions – if you want to call them lower – the revolutions that are happening that aren’t always in the news or that fly under the radar of the media. They are happening no matter what – cultural revolutions or music revolutions or any other things that are helping to change things in society over time.

For me one of the things that drew me into Beirut was that I found it very similar to Belgrade – especially when it comes to the diversity here – both cities in both countries have gone through some very volatile histories in the last two decades. And both cities you can see this manifested in the music scene – both are the hubs for the whole region for the alternative and the underground scene.

BELOW are a few videos from participants at the SHARE BEIRUT Conference held in Beirut October 5-7, 2012. The entire line up of amazing participants can be found on the SHARE BEIRUT website at this link:

DJ Rupture

He’s performed in over 25 countries, released records on Soul Jazz & Tigerbeat6, DJ’ed in a band with Norah Jones, done two John Peel Sessions, and was turntable soloist with the 80-member Barcelona Symphony Orchestra. Rupture’s fans include that hot person you saw on the street yesterday but were afraid to talk to. Jace Clayton is an interdisciplinary artist living in Brooklyn. Clayton’s practice has evolved out of his work as a DJ, built around core concerns for how sound, technology use in low-income communities, and public space interact, with an emphasis on Latin America, Africa, and the Arab world. Clayton is currently developing Sufi Plug Ins, a free suite of audio software tools based on non-western/poetic conceptions of sound and alternative interfaces. In winter 2013 he will debut The Julius Eastman Memorial Dinner, a performance piece that restages three Eastman compositions using pianos and boomboxes, accompanied by a new libretto about the job search for a Julius Eastman impersonator in New York City.



Ushahidi (Swahili for “testimony” or “witness”) uses the concept of crowdsourcing for social activism and public accountability, serving as an initial model for what has been coined as ‘activist mapping’ – the combination of social activism, citizen journalism and geospatial information. Ushahidi offers products that enable local observers to submit reports using their mobile phones or the Internet, while simultaneously creating a temporal and geospatial archive of events. It all began five years ago when Ushahidi created a website in the aftermath of Kenya’s disputed 2007 presidential election that collected eyewitness reports of violence sent in by email and text-message and placed them on a Google map. Henry is a software developer and Java instructor living in Accra, Ghana. He is passionate about open technologies and has been instrumental in the evangelism and advocacy of the use of Free and Open Source Software in Ghana.

SHARE Beirut Talk: Henry Addo from SHARE Conference on Vimeo.



Covering topics ranging from pollution, electricity cuts, real estate pricing, to politics and social taboos, Maya Zankoul illustrates everyday life through the Lebanese webcomic blog, Maya’s Amalgam.>Her depictions of daily happenings, largely in English and Arabic in Latin lettering, resonate with segments of the Lebanese population, allowing for cathartic entertainment and engagement with social critique through humor.

SHARE Beirut Talk: Maya Zankoul from SHARE Conference on Vimeo.

Interview with Lebanese filmmaker Wissam Charaf

Beats and Breath presents this interview with Lebanese filmmaker Wissam Charaf soon after the Lebanese premiere of his documentary film It’s all in Lebanon. With a chronological view of the Lebanese psyche from the end of the Civil War to the present, Charaf’s film is a romp through the competing media narratives of the country’s three H’s – the pop lust culture of Lebanon’s video world represented by mega-sex kitten pop star Haifa Wehbe; the media gamesmanship of the slain prime minister and billionaire (Rafik) Hariri and his enduring empire after his death; and the power of the propaganda coming from the Lebanese resistance – Hezbollah – as typified by the media stardom of its leader Sayed Hassan Nasrallah.
Official poster for It's all in Lebanon
Official poster for It’s all in Lebanon

BEIRUT –  “The politicians in Lebanon terrify me. They terrify me with their irresponsibility and their inability to achieve any real progress,” says Wissam Charaf, director of It’s all in Lebanon. “You know I don’t think we need to count on this generation of well-paid warlords to achieve something for Lebanon.”

Never one to mince words, Charaf is a thirty-something post-war generation filmmaker that is compelled to ask existential questions about why Lebanon and its people continue to run on a treadmill of internecine antagonisms – political, religious, and economic.

It’s all in Lebanon, is an hour long assault of pop music video clips, Hezbollah video anthems, and fascinating social commentary, is uniquely Charaf’s take on the ills of his generation and their inability to deal with the memory of the Civil War 1975-1990 that claimed upwards of 300,000 lives and did inestimable societal damage beyond that. It’s a problem he says his peers have inherited and passed on through video culture specifically.

“In this film I put the finger in a very simplified manner on the questions that we Lebanese don’t like to ask because of our amnesia,” he explains from Paris, “It points to my generation’s failure to transmit to the following generation that they have the right to think for themselves. And they have the right to put the nation above the ethnic, religious, tribal, familial belongings.”

Charaf’s sense of nationalism is not extremist, as he stays, it’s just a first step to seeing what dosage of nationalism would be right. It obviously implies that all of the 18 confessions that make up Lebanon have to, like the esteemed Lebanese historian Kamal Salibi says, come up with a common version of Lebanese history – particularly where the civil war is concerned.

I’ve known the filmmaker for nearly 5 years, and unequivocally I see in Charaf a consummate journeyman and alpha multi-media story-teller who is literally a one-man production crew for his day job as a reporter for Arte. What’s more, when he’s not reporting he’s making films, and balancing with that a life as father of two. In fact, it is his job as a reporter -in an increasingly devalued profession I might add -that keeps him bounding back and forth from his home-base in Paris to Beirut -and many hot spots in between: Libya, Syria, Yemen, Egypt and of course Lebanon during the 34-day Israeli offensive in the summer of 2006, the Nahar al Bared Palestinian camp seige in 2007 and the fierce street fighting in 2008.

It is why he of all people is uniquely qualified to bring a fair and balanced look at Lebanon’s media propaganda war. Charaf explains, “I’ve been covering stories in Lebanon as a journalist since 1998. So there was the 2000 Israeli withdraw from South Lebanon and there was the 2006 War with Israel. And between those events there was a lot of propaganda that I was able to watch on Hezbollah TV – Al Manar. And I found this propaganda fascinating. It was unique,” and it was the inspiration for the film.

It’s all in Lebanon is a study on the collective amnesia fostered by Lebanon’s monolithic pop culture video clip market with its flesh driven, apolitical flights of aesthetic decadence that has served to wash away the post-traumatic stress of the war generation and their heirs.

When you add that to a barrage of images and archival footage shot over the last 25 plus years, and then spice it up with well shot footage of two separate groups of men sitting in Beirut cafes providing commentary about Lebanese society, and about video stars like Haifa and Nancy Ajram  – you  realize the added ingredients that make It’s all in Lebanon a gem of a film whose timing couldn’t be more perfect.  [Note* – I liken these two groups of men to the Greek Chorus in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. The characters ML (Paul Benjamin), Coconut Sid (Frankie Faison) and Sweet Dick Willie (Robin Harris) giving all the right touches to the street perspectives that are on the block.]

My one major criticism of the film are the sequences in which Charaf is sitting in his living room controlling the TV – and thereby the narrative – with his remote control. The scene acts as a vehicle to advance the story, but the production values here cheapen the film when viewed in comparison to the film’s precious archival footage, well shot street and cafe sequences, solid interview segments, and slick editing. I understand the intent behind the living room footage here – I just don’t think Charaf pulls it off to the benefit of the film.

The following was an interview conducted with Charaf from his home in Paris via Skype on the eve of his films screening at the Frontline Club in London.

Director Wissam Charaf
Director Wissam Charaf

JACKSON: So triple H rules Lebanon. That would have been a great name for the film. But I have to say that It’s all in Lebanon is an incredible name for a film. How did you come up with that?

WISSAM; I hijacked that. It’s all in Lebanon is the official slogan of the Ministry of Tourism in Lebanon. They use it in their videos to say, you know, it’s all in Lebanon – the mountains, the sea, the water skiing and the snow skiing. The mosques and the churches. It’s all in Lebanon. They describe the mix of the cosmopolitan aspect – the multicultural Lebanon. And I hijacked it just to say that, “Yeah. We’re multicultural. But we’re also multicultural in our catastrophes. We’re multicultural in our opposing philosophies.” And in fact we’re too multicultural. We’re so multicultural that we can’t come up with a common idea. That’s our problem.

Some countries have an excess of nationalism. We have a lack of nation. At least let us get a nation, and then we can see how good the dosage of nationalism is.

JACKSON: Talk to me about about amnesia and tell me how your film relates to the concept of amnesia.

WISSAM: The problem with Lebanon is…listen I come from a generation that witnessed the war and that had many aspirations after the war. One of them was the idea that there would be accountability, that we would punish, at last, the people who were responsible for all of our suffering. And after the war we noticed that nothing like this was done. We saw with horror – my generation of conscious people – you know of people who gave a small thought – we saw with horror the same faces of war taking power again and sharing the cake. Then telling us “War is over.” Point. Forget it. Do something with your lives. Live normally, as if nothing had happened.

JACKSON: Tell me about how you developed the critique of the use of propaganda and media by Hezbollah.

WISSAM: By opposition to how the pop music has become propaganda, the propaganda of Hezbollah has become pop music in the minds of the Hezbollah supporters. You know when you see those girls and those young boys in a Hezbollah gathering singing songs of war and acting as if John Lennon was on stage, you can measure the scope of the impact on the youth of Hezbollah.

JACKSON: “It’s all in Lebanon” is quite prophetic with questions like “who was responsible for the Civil War,” and “how can one prevent it from happening again?” What do you want by asking these questions?

WISSAM: If I can bring the viewers to open their eyes up to these questions and to take a step back from the massive amounts of propaganda that they absorb everyday, then maybe the film can achieve something.

I want the audience to ask themselves, “What do I want as a citizen? Not as my master’s voice or my political leaders voice? And what’s good for my country and not just for me and my political and/or religious affiliation?” Only then will this film be really useful.

But I think we have to start back from the base and educate every Lebanese how to be a responsible citizen. Counting on the politicians won’t do. They have had enough time and enough salary to prove that they were useful people, and unfortunately they’re not. What’s happening today proves that they have failed dramatically.

The pdf of the original article as it appeared in UMEN Magazine
The pdf of the original article as it appeared in UMEN Magazine

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.


‘Life from the BBC’ – has its NYC premiere

BEATS AND BREATH is proud to announce that our documentary "Life from the BBC" is an official selection of the HBO New York International Latino Film Festival.


I-Voice in Burj al Barajneh Palestinian refugee Camp - Image by Laith Majali
I-Voice in Burj al Barajneh Palestinian refugee Camp – Image by Laith Majali


By: Jackson Allers
Co-director/DOP: Siska
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 film is also playing with these other SPECTRUM: SHORT FILMS 

screens with…

Arab Raps Theoretical Unification

Beats and Breath’s interview with Egyptian rapper Mohammed el Deeb aka Deeb released in June 2011 contended that the uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa had a galvanizing effect with Arab hip-hop heads worldwide. But has this been the spark for a Pan-Arab hip-hop movement? I put this piece out there in the context of the rap contributions to the current revolution(s).
Palestinian crew I-Voice at Masrah al Madina in Beirut 2009. Lens: Tanya Traboulsi©
Palestinian crew I-Voice at Masrah al Madina in Beirut 2009. Lens: Tanya Traboulsi©

BEIRUT – In the nearly 5 years that I’ve been writing about and documenting hip-hop in the Arab world, it has become something of a personal maxim to say that Arab hip-hop has managed to develop the trappings of a scene but that it most certainly has not created a “movement” despite hip-hop’s arrival in the Maghreb more than 20-years ago.

Like a scratched up 45, I’ve been dogmatic in writing about the fact that there was (and is still) no rap industry in the Arab world – no labels, no viable record/cd markets, no corporate radio airplay, few credible managers or agents, and except for an elite group of sponsors, no real systemic infrastructure to support the growth of Arabic hip-hop or the top-notch talent emerging.

Of course it’s a contention that has been met with legitimate objections over the years, particularly from artists who are as entrenched in this hip-hop thing as I am:

What about the collective efforts of ARAP, the now defunct Arab Summit (with rappers Omar Offendum, Ragtop, The Narcycist and Excentrik) and the massive crew, Arab League, that counts as members the heavyweight LA-based Palestinian-American producer FredWreck, Egypt’s MC Amin, Deeb and Arabian Knightz with more than 20 rapper and producer affiliates that span the bulk of the Middle-East, North Africa and Diaspora?

Are they not symbols of an Arab hip-hop movement?

I guess the simple answer is, “Yes.” They’re all furthering the idea of what is possible in Arab rap with strong messages and ever more sophisticated production palettes. But scratch the surface and there is nothing that would lead me to think there is a Pan-Arab hip-hop sensibility that is guiding some kind of formal movement within global hip-hop culture.

One is reminded of the Pan-Arab nationalist movement that emanated from Egypt – a movement that has been mythologized and in the larger historical analysis was ??? nominally successful in some areas and massive failures elsewhere, its legacy nonetheless leads me to ask: could the Arab uprisings be the spark to create a larger sense of what Arab hip-hop as a movement could be united under – banners or maxims the likes of the Black Panther movement in the US – a sort of 10-point plan?

Merging political and social reform concepts that have become tenets of the MENA uprisings are certainly places for an Arab hip-hop “nation” to start – philosophically and some could argue artistically. Certainly, the youth-driven Arab uprisings have made that a possibility if in fact Arab hip-hop heads choose to see it in this light. And it’s not like there weren’t precursors to draw from with regards to identity politics and their connections to societal and cultural upheaval.

RBG (left), the author and Ramcess (right) at the first Immortal Entertainment sponsored ‘Brooklyn Beats to Beirut Streets’ event with Omar Offendum, Ragtop, and Mark Gonzalez joining a gangload of local 961 MCs (lens: Tanya Traboulsi©)

Before the uprisings, the unifying themes behind Arab hip-hop were a sort of de facto endorsement of Palestinian self-determination or varyingly, a challenge to the Western wholesale stereotypes of Arabs as terrorists and Islamists – with the the video of the song “Meen Erhabi” (‘Who’s the terrorist?’) by the Palestinian rap group DAM being the online viral totem (well over 1 million views) of this revolt against occidental stereotyping at the time of its release in 2001.

And while neither one of these messages has lost their potency -particularly in the last 11 years with the rise and fall of the Second Intifada, the September 11 attacks (London, Spain and Mumbai as well) and the subsequent US-led invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, what I’ve concluded, more than anything else, is that the Arab uprisings have, in the very least managed to break some of the chains of invisibility the movement has experienced over the last 15 years. The uprisings have let people know that there is a thing called Arab hip-hop, particularly in the West that has shown such astonishment at the intensity of the uprisings, in what writer Arian Faribouz says is the West’s lack of acknowledgment of the “deep-seated dissatisfaction felt by Arab civil society.”

As with the Arab hip-hop movement, Faribouz acknowledges this is “particularly true for the younger generation, which has so vehemently rebelled against the suppression of free speech and artistic freedom as well as against the social hardships and the lack of job opportunities in their countries. And this didn’t just come about yesterday.”

In November 2007, I wrote an article that to date is still the only definitive history of Lebanese hip-hop in which the region’s premiere Arab turntablist, DJ Lethal Skillz, directed the message for his first album, New World Disorder (2007/2008) at a western audience. (NOTE: that history has been disputed by members of the Lebanese hip-hop massive – but I stand by that story and its recollection of Lebanese hip-hop history.) It was a move that I questioned at the time, but a strategy that I could not argue against then. (In hindsight I would have advised against it.)

Skillz on the corner. Rendition courtesy of SkyLinked

The album contained a smorgasbord of local and regional talent each distilling their rejection of the rampant corruption and social neglect inherent within their societies in witty metaphorical turns of phrase and in very grave tones, lyrically. Lebanese rappers MC Moe and Malikah (961 Underground), Rayess Bek (Aksser), RGB and Siska (Kita3 Beyrouthe), Chyno and El Edd (Fareeq al Atrash), Omarz (Dezert Dragons), Grandsunn and MC Zoog, as well as Ramallah Underground (Boikutt, Stormtrap & Aswaat) from the West Bank – all presaged the messages that were echoed by the demonstrators that took down the Tunisian and Egyptian regimes and now threatens the regimes in Bahrain, Syria, Yemen and Libya.

But as DJ Lethal Skillz acknowledged at the time, because Arab hip-hop had no real local market, New World Disorder was made almost exclusively for export. Since that 2007 article things have changed drastically and the creative efforts of Arab hip-hop purveyors living in the Arab world like Boikutt and Stormtrap of Ramallah Underground, Deeb, MC.Amin and Arabian Knightz in Egypt, Palestinian rapper Sam Zaki in Jordan, and Taffar, Ramcess, Rayess Bek and Fareeq al Atrash in Lebanon are all turning inward to stoke domestic musical fires in order to attract larger numbers of local followers – from the inside out and not the other way around. (Note: There are many other rappers I’ve missed in Lebanon, but there will be more articles dealing with these newly emerging talents as I get to know them more.)

As it stands, the only impression that exists of hip-hop for young Arabs is the hip-hop mainstream strewn all over the foreign owned corporate radio stations and satellite music channels. If you don’t have access to those sources, then what could Arab hip-hop possibly mean to you if you’re an Arab who has not been exposed to the genre?

The Arab revolutions have, thus, exposed hundreds of thousands of young Arab brothers and sisters to a new soundtrack they might not have known was theirs before – and this is the most significant thing I can point to when discussing the revolutions affects on Arab hip-hop.

Take for example the first hip-hop salvos that came from Tunisia – the origin point of the uprisings. Tunisian rapper Hamada Ben Amor aka El Général rose from relative obscurity within an already marginalized Maghreb hip-hop scene competing with “more prolific” rap scenes in Morocco and France to upload a song in November 2010 on Facebook called Rayess Le Bled (Head of State).

My president, your people are dying
People eat garbage
Look at what is happening
Misery everywhere, Mr. President
I talk with no fear
I’m speaking for the people who suffer
Although I know I’ll get only trouble
I see injustice everywhere.

While I can say El General was not nearly as talented as other veterans of the Tunisian hip-hop scene like Balti, Lak3y, or Psyco M, Andy Morgan of The Observer wrote that his song had “within hours lit up the bleak and fearful horizon like an incendiary bomb. Before being banned, it was picked up by local TV station Tunivision and al-Jazeera.”

He added, “El Général’s MySpace was closed down, his mobile cut off. But it was too late. The shock waves were felt across the country and then throughout the Arab world. That was the power of protesting in Arabic, albeit a locally spiced dialect of Arabic. El Général’s bold invective broke frontiers and went viral from Casablanca to Cairo and beyond.”

El Général went even further releasing a second song called Tounes Bladna (Tunisia, Our Country), and on January 6 at five o’clock in the morning, some 30 state security agents showed up at his family’s house to arrest him – “on the orders of President Ben Ali himself.”

The rapper was held in a Tunisian jail for three days before his release – shaken but more resolute than ever to speak out against the excesses of the Tunisian government, particularly after 26-year old Tunisian street-vendor Mohamed Bouazizi’s act of self-immolation was further cementing the demise of Ben Ali’s regime. (He too was greeted as a celebrity in his home town of Sfax.)

And while the more professionally produced, lyrically diverse catalogs of veteran rappers in the Arab world and Diaspora like MC Bigg from Morocco, Canadian-Iraqi MC The Narcycist, LA-based Omar Offendum, UK-based Lebanese-Syrian rapper Eslam Jawaad, and Wu Tang affiliated Dutch-Moroccan rapper Saleh Edin have all managed to garner fan bases in their adopted countries in the West, none it seems has had the impact musically that El Général has had with the Arab street.

In this sense, El Général’s message set a precedent, and Rayess le Bled inspired Arab youth from Tahrir Square in Cairo to the capital Manama in Bahrain where the mostly Shia opposition have experienced the most brutal crackdown at the hands of the minority Suni royal family and the security forces of their Saudi Arabian and Qatari Gulf Cooperation Council allies.

While El Général’s Rayess le Bled has made it to Bahrain, in Libya, songs from 16-year old producer and composer Imad Abbar and his 22-year old rapper partner Hamza Sisi are on heavy rotation in the cars of rebel fighters trying to battle their way westward to Tripoli to end Muammar Gadhafi’s 42-year rule.

The two-man crew from the rebel capital Benghazi in east Libya admitted to AFP that they were no where near the levels of production they wanted to be, forced to record songs in Sisi’s home, in a small amateur studio equipped with a keyboard and a computer -a rudimentary set-up that perhaps has best defined the conditions of early hip-hop artists – producers, DJs and MC’s –worldwide for the last 30 years, what Candadian-Iraqi MC The Narcycist calls “the permeability of the creative process.”

“All you really need is a microphone and a pair of headphones to record, and then a good engineer to mix it. So, it doesn’t really take much to create it,” Narcy said in a Democracy Now! interview in March. In fact, it is the immediacy of the message of hip-hop and the accessibility of production that has made it such a powerful force for the Arab youth in these revolutions.

But a more concrete Pan-Arab hip-hop movement cannot emerge as long as there are gaps of inequality between the hip-hop movement in the Arab world and the hip-hop movement in the Arab Diaspora, despite innovators like Palestinian producer Damar in Jordan, and Tashweesh who are pushing production values to their ultimate limits, rivaling near anything coming out of the West. That means until the means of production “permeates” an increasing number of disenfranchised Arab youth communities, the idea of a Pan-Arab hip-hop movement will remain a theoretical fantasy.

‘Intro’ by Tashweesh from Tashweesh on Vimeo.

Fortunately, I feel optimistic that the gaps in production and infrastructure will continue to lessen and that the Arab hip-hop being produced in the Diaspora will ultimately have to reflect back to the audiences in the Arab world to gain credibility. The standard bearers for future production in Arab hip-hop will come from the Middle East and not from the West – and new rhyme styles will emerge from the Arabic world versus coming from Arabs in the West.

What is certain is that the Arab revolutions are certainly focusing attention on the Arab hip-hop artists living in the Middle East and North Africa in ways that have never happened before, and that by all accounts is the best thing that could ever happen for the young Arab MCs, producers and Djs living in the region – youth who are passionate and serious about what they are doing in their attempts to further the evolution of Arab hip-hop that has so far avoided the trappings of the corporate system that will certainly battle for the soul of the emerging culture.

Independent Lebanese musician Zeid Hamdan arrested over song – “General Suleiman”

ARTICLE BELOW: Blogger and music scholar Angie Nassar writes on the Beirut-based website NOWLebanon about the government detention and subsequent release of Zeid Hamdan – the self-described “gardener” of the independent music scene in Lebanon, co-founder of the electro-Arab fusion act Soap Kills and his most recent musical venture Zeid and the Wings. (We featured Zeid in a Beats and Breath article in March 2010.)

Hamdan was arrested for his song “General Suleiman” which the Lebanese government found was a direct condemnation of Lebanon’s president. It’s a law clearly enforced in a selective manner considering the amount of slander bandied about by politicians and political parties in Lebanon on a daily basis.

Although I’m not in the habit of re-posting other people’s articles on Beats and Breath, this article is poignant when considering a panel discussion on Alternative Music in Lebanese Culture hosted on Friday, July 29 by AltCity (a media/tech/social impact collaboration space (launching this fall) and organized in collaboration with over 15 community partners) and moderated by local music blogger/musician Omar al Fil.

The panel included Nassar, MC Chyno from Lebanon’s live hip-hop crew Fareeq al Atrash, Mohamad Hodeib a.k.a Walad (guitarist, vocalist, and main songwriter of local band Wled el Balad), writer and urbanist-scholar Jad Baaklini, and Zeid Hamdan in his first public appearance since being released from jail.

Among the things we discussed: “personal” definitions of what “alternative music” means, and further what it means in the Lebanese and Arab contexts; concepts of censorship – both governmental and self-styled censorship; the fact that musicians in the Arab world and in Lebanon will face increasing encroachment by corporate labels and the commercial market as their music takes on more prominence.

Enjoy the article.

Zeid Hamdan sings with his band, “Zeid and the Wings.” (Photo by Tanya Traboulsi via

Though his song, “General Suleiman,” was released nearly a year ago, Lebanese musician and producer Zeid Hamdan was arrested over the track and charged with insulting the president on Wednesday.

After a huge outpouring of support from fans, friends and activists, the charge was dropped and he was released later that evening.

This morning I spoke on the phone with Hamdan who talked about the implications of his arrest and the boundaries of free speech in Lebanon.

“This is a big issue, but it’s not about me. It’s about what’s allowed and what’s forbidden in this country… Are we not allowed to go further than this song? This is crazy. This song is so innocent. And if I saw the president today, I would say the same. I truly believe that military power should not interfere with political power. They are two separate institutions. It is essential that we learn that if we want to build a democracy.” (Read more about the song and its lyrics here.)

“If you fear something, express it. Trigger a debate. But don’t be afraid of standing for your ideas. Just look around you. Look at Syria, look at Egypt, look at Tunisia, look at the whole Arab world. People are dying for their ideas,” he added.

Hamdan said he was asked to go to the Justice Ministry for questioning twice last week. He received a third call to return to the ministry on Wednesday.

“I thought it would be more questions. They told me I was going to meet with the judge and that he would decide whether to press charges. I didn’t meet the judge. They just said I was arrested and they put me in handcuffs directly.”

Hamdan said authorities found out about the song after Italian filmmaker Gigi Roccati, who directed the music video for “General Suleiman,” mailed his show reel to Lebanese ad agency Leo Burnett. The DVD never made it to the agency. It was picked up by someone from Lebanese Customs.

“I don’t even think he [President Sleiman] was aware I was arrested, personally, because this is not good publicity for him.”

“I have a feeling that all this is just a mistake. Someone wanting to do good with the president but not being clever or someone wanting to harm the president and give him a bad image. I don’t know, it’s so stupid, you know. This whole thing is too much.”

Despite his detention, Hamdan says he’ll continue making music and spreading his message to anyone who will listen.  “I write with inspiration from inside to face something I feel it. As long as I don’t attack someone in an unfair way and I don’t give my music to any political party… I’m trying to say this music is for everyone. This song is for everyone. In Egypt they sing it. In all the Arab country’s where they have issues with the military, they sing it.”

“I won’t be more political or less political. I’m not changing anything,” he said.

Hamdan expressed gratitude to everyone who rallied for his release on Wednesday: “ I want them to know that they played a role in setting me free so that they have a role to play in the country as a voice, even if they’re alone they count.”

He also relayed this message: “I want [the people] to feel free to express or fight for their ideas, whatever they are. And so I just want to tell the people not to be afraid and not to feel lonely because we all want the same things and will all fight together for the same things.”

“I hope any musician will keep on spreading good messages, positive messages for the country or the region.”

Hamdan and his band, Zeid and the Wings, just launched their self-titled album last week.

Zeid also heads up the Lebanese Underground, a collective of artists from the country’s alternative music scene.

Follow Zeid Hamdan on Facebook.


Article originally published on the website NOWLebanon. All rights reserved ©

Radio Documentary “Rhymes to Revolution – Soundtrack to the Arab Awakenings” airs July 4

In anticipation of the on-air date for my radio documentary “Rhymes to Revolution: A Soundtrack to the Arab Awakenings,” Beats and Breath will release articles in the next two days to preview some of the amazing material that will be covered during the 30-min feature. In the days following the July 4 air date, Beats and Breath will feature transcriptions of the longer format interviews conducted with members of the Arab hip-hop community, some not included in the documentary, as well as analysis by scholars and analysts on the political implications of the latest developments in the region.

The documentary which is a Free Speech Radio News production with editor Shannon Young and technical producer Rose Ketabchi, will be aired on more than 150 stations in the United States and worldwide. The documentary was funded through the community media fundraising site Thanks to David Cohn at for his continued support. And Beats and Breath particularly wants to thank all the friends and supporters who donated their time and money to help fund and promote this documentary, and the valuable work being done by all the members of this burgeoning artistic movement. A longer list of credits will follow the actual posting of the documentary on this site.

An image for the Sami Matar produced song #Jan25 featuring Omar Offendum, The Narcicyst, Ayah, Amir Sulaiman & Freeway
The so-called “Arab Spring” uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa have been driven by a largely disaffected youth demographic aged 18 to 30 that dominates the populations of every affected country. In Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan, the youth have demanded an end to the rampant corruption, unemployment, lack of democratic rights, and government policies that stifle freedom of expression and freedom of speech. Echoing these demands have been the representatives of the Arabic hip-hop movement living in both the Arab world and in the Diaspora.
This documentary will examine the rise of Arab hip-hop as a soundtrack to the revolution from its beginnings with Tunisian El General’s song “Rayess La Bled (Head of State)” until today. It will include the voices of rappers in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and the Diaspora including the creators (Omar Offendum/The Narcycist) of the YouTube viral video #jan25  (pictured above) and the creators of the Egyptian rap video  “Rebel” (Arabian Knightz)
Interviews will be balanced with testimony from relevant political commentators, photographers, producers and voices from the Arab street in order to discuss how Arab hip-hop contributed to revolution and how it is still inspiring artists and protest movements in the US, and demonstrators in Libya, Bahrain, Yemen and Lebanon – who are still blasting Arab hip-hop anthems from their boomboxes as they fight Gadhafi’s forces in Libya, the security forces in Bahrain and Yemen and the Sectarian state in Lebanon.

Arab hip-hop’s Don of the Bass – exclusive interview with Johnny Damascus of Fareeq al Atrash

I interviewed John Imad Nasr aka Johnny Damascus -co-founder of Lebanon’s live hip-hop crew Fareeq al Atrash – one month after the release of their self-titled debut album on the Forward Music label last July, 2010.  This abreviated interview appeared in the Jordan-based men’s magazine UMen, and is being re-published after the debut of the Merass Sadek-directed music video featuring the Jazz at Lincoln Center hip-hop ambassador’s The Lo Frequency family with members of Fareeq al Atrash after a one-month workshop with The Lo and Lebanon’s hip-hop community last November in Beirut.

Mad respect to John for the time. Beats and Breath will soon release the writer’s edit of  The National article on Fareeq al Atrash’s debut album with interviews with the rest of the band in the weeks to follow.

In his Beirut studio – Johnny Nasr on his Fender (lens: Tanya Traboulsi)

BEIRUT – Johnny D has to be about the most humble figure in the Lebanese hip-hop scene. He’s a veteran of the 961 old-school and one of the architects of the burgeoning new Arab hip-hop sound. And…I’ve never seen John front; dude’s never been anything but kind and welcoming to both fans and critics.

John has witnessed hip-hop scenes come and go over the last 10 years in Beirut, and perhaps it is because of this transience that John has no delusions about Rap 3rabi and its place in the minds of the masses. In a sense Lebanese hip-hop and Johnny D have grown up together, and he’s taken the knocks and bruises and come out better for it.

That’s what makes the debut album of Fareeq al Atrash so special. Up until now, there’s been no real permanence to speak of musically. No real sense of history or continuity with the hip-hop scene here. With the exception of a few heads, Johnny D is showing the youngsters coming up that there is at least one musical forbearer.

The original version of Fareeq al Atrash – “the band name being a pun on famed Arabic singer Fareed Al Atrache” – was a purely funk-driven jam band that had its heyday between 2002 and 2004. Although it was a hint at what was to come, the band – and Johnny – went through some serious soul-searching after the death of percussionist, beat-maker and group co-founder Issam Raad in 2004.

A few months before the 2006 Israel-Lebanon war, inspiration struck when Johnny D met local MC, Edouard Abbas aka (El) Edd – who I called the MF DOOM of the Arab world in a November 2007 magazine article. The two struck up an instant friendship and spent the war building the foundations, both lyrically and musically, for Fareeq al Atrash’s current sound.

Now the group includes the band’s original guitarist Ghassan Khayyat aka Goo, two of the scenes strongest lyrical rap talents, Edd and Nasser Shorbaji aka Chyno – and Lebanon’s most gifted beatboxer Fayez Zouheiry aka FZ.

Of course, the unspoken story of Fareeq al Atrash’s debut album release is the backing of Forward Music, the Beirut-based label that features the visionary efforts of co-founder Ghazi Abdel Baki who is more well known for producing musicians like Charbel Rouhana (Oud) and Suffi singer Mustafa Said in what one local critic called “diverse, layered, genre-fusing world music.” (Baki also composed and arranged the horn section on Farreeq al Atrash’s debut album.)

Talking with Johnny D at his apartment in Beirut, he told me that Fareeq al Atrash was respecting Arabic and hip-hop musical traditions by signing with Forward Music.

Fareeq al Atrash in studio (left to right: Edd, Goo, Johnny D, Chyno, FZ) [lens: Tanya Traboulsi)

BEATS AND BREATH: Let’s talk about something that is key for the growth of any music genre or scene – entrepreneurial risk-taking – I’m talking about label support. There’s your label Forward Music – and another one called Eka3 Records – that represents at least two risk takers. There’s certainly not an Arab hip-hop label. So tell me about Forward?

JONNY D: Let me just mention a record label that is now defunct but that did a lot of good work over the years.

B&B: Incognito?

JOHNNY D: Yeah, Incognito. They did a lot of good work over the years.

B&B: But Incognito was not a real label in the sense that they didn’t give their artists much backing or promotion, they produced, recorded and manufactured limited copies, but it was up to the artist to promote themselves. That’s not a real label.

JONNY D: Sure. It was run out of a CD shop. But the thing with Forward – to put it into context – they are celebrating their 10 year anniversary. In the Arab world, that’s impressive in and of itself.

Everybody at Forward is pretty much veterans from the music scene during the Civil War here and beyond. One of their musicians – Charbel Rouhana –  is like an idol to me. When I was 15 (now 30 years old) I went to one of his concerts just randomly and I was blown away.

His bass player, Aboud Saadi, who I think is one of the founders of Forward Music – he still works closely with them. Wow. For me to be part of a continuity with that musical history, I really felt like it was important for me to get signed with them.

B&B: Well that’s really rare. You don’t hear musicians talking about a label like this.

JOHNNY D: No you don’t. There not your typical kind of label. They really do embody a spirit of independence in a place where it’s hard to navigate. And they’re really trailblazers and go for the gusto. They really couldn’t give a shit for what’s established.

When Ghazi (Abdel Baki) started Forward Music, he’s said it was his mission to get Arabic music or even the pop music phenomenon out of the corn-ball phase that it was in at the time (and is still in to today). He wanted to make authentic, beautiful Arabic music again with totally organic instruments – and with classical arrangements.

I think about his work with Ghada Shbeir and his work with Soumaya Baalbaki. And Forward’s incredible work with Mustafa Said, the visionary Sufi singer. All those records are bold.

It was really flattering for them to consider us as a group. We’re the first hip-hop group they’ve ever signed. Our type of music appeals to a much younger audience than they’re used to – with the exception of Ziad Sahab (a local oud virtuoso).

If authenticity is a part of what makes hip-hop what it is – as Afrika Baambata would say – then I feel like we’re part of a very authentic scene here – of musicians and of like-minded, independent free-thinking people.

B&B: Do you think you’ll end up incorporating more of the T’arab or Arab musical influences into your funk stylings?

JOHNNY D: We actually have experimented with Arab musical strains. And we’re totally open to it. But the only reason we’ve shied away from it is because we kind of fear the gimmicky sound to it. Like as soon as you put some Oud into it or some Takasin (Johnny hums the melody.) Then you’re screwed. I just turn that shit off as soon as I hear it – no offense to anybody out there doing that.

For me Track 4 – Tighla Ma’ezzita – embodies a look to what could be a future sound.

(We listen to the track.)

What you might notice from this track is in a typical 4/4 beat, but it’s syncopated in a way that denotes a dabke (dance style) beat – without suggesting to people immediately that “Oh this is Dabke,” or this is very Lebanese. Somebody from anywhere can still listen to this and be like, “This is straight up hip-hop.”

But this is probably the most “oriental” track of the album – “oriental” with quotation marks of course. It combines funk and hip-hop and a local flavor and our local language.

Fareeq al Atrash in John’s Studio. [Lens: Tanya Traboulsi
B&B: Translate the song

JOHNNY D: It means it gets dearer to me, and becomes more important to me with memory – it weighs on my mind more heavily with time.

This song I’m really proud of and it’s “Middle Eastern” enough. I’ll definitely want to include for the future, artists from Forward Music on future records. But it wasn’t in the cards for the songs we chose.

We didn’t want this album to be a gimmick, and we didn’t want to throw it in there to satisfy anybody. We stuck to pretty much what we were best at, and the inclusion of horn arrangements on our album is pretty much an update for our sound I think.

B&B: I see that you pull from all sorts of rare-groove, and jazz elements for the backbone of Fareeq’s music. You pull from guys like Roy Ayers, Miles Davis, Funkadelic…name some other artists you’re pulling from.

JOHNNY D:  Man…Fela Kuti is one of the biggest influences both in terms of the music itself and in terms of music being political activism that’s real and can make a difference. I know we haven’t made much of a difference yet, but it’s my dream to be able to be part of a movement to emancipate and empower my people here.

B&B: And with respect to your people here at some point as you gain power and influence with your music, you’re inevitably going to come up against the powers that be. Especially if your lyrics are political – as they clearly are. Are you prepared for that – and what could happen in regards to things like censorship or jail time?

JOHNNY D: I am actually worried right now because a lot of lyrics on this record are not entirely acceptable to polite society. Although it’s important to note that there is no cursing on the record. But there’s just a lot of controversy and a lot of content that could offend certain people of certain preoccupations.

So I’m still waiting to see what happens…or are they just going to ignore us?

B&B: Ignore or censor? Perhaps ignoring is the greater of the two in this case?

JOHNNY D: Well trivialization is a very powerful weapon of any establishment. And as it stands, I don’t know if we are being ignored or aren’t being noticed yet. I don’t know.

Not sure if I should say this honestly or not, but we get a lot of attention from media outlets that we openly criticize on our record. I honestly think it’s either very big of them to continue to do stories on us even though we slam them, or I’m not sure if they’ve actually noticed yet.

B&B: You’ve said Philadelphia’s rap heroes – the live hip-hop crew The Roots, consciously inspired you and that you’re trying to be an extension of the certain musical traditions.

JOHNNY D: They were pretty much THE catalyst for what got me listening to hip-hop very seriously as a genre around 1996. I was more of a jazz or funk dude who also loved hip-hop. To me that was kind of like what my elitist, hipster, bourgeois understanding of music was all about.

Hip-hop – I guess it goes without saying – is just an extension of those traditions.

B&B: That’s a clear reference that you’re trying to make?

JOHNNY D: For sure. Even in our music, we try to introduce that continuity locally to our audience. A lot of people here don’t draw that conclusion. People here don’t see this music as an expression of Black American music past. They don’t see it as an extension of the music because they might not like hip-hop or maybe they don’t relate to it. Or the media spins it in a way that gives them a bad impression or a superficial understanding of what hip-hop is in a way.

B&B: But do you think people really care about these linkages at the end of the day?

JOHNNY D: (laughing) No I don’t. I think my job is to make them care, and to make them feel that this type of music is just that — it’s music. And we’re trying to pay our dues to the culture ourselves.

However, if you listen to the first song of the record – Njoom ‘Am Te’rab – during the last 3rd of the song is basically us reinterpreting the Sugar Hill Gang’s ‘Rapper’s Delight.’

This is where it started and it – ‘Rappers Delight’- was the first song to break radio airwaves in the United States, and we hope that this song will kind of break ground like that as well.

Album cover to Fareeq al Atrash’s self-titled debut album on Forward Music

Laith Majali: Visiting I-Voice in the Burj Al-Barajneh Camp

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.

TNT & Yaseen of I-Voice
Mohammed aka TNT (left) and Yassin aka YaSeen of the the crew I-Voice

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.

Shadia Mansour, Lowkey, TNT, The Last Skeptik & Yassin
Shadia Mansour, Lowkey, TNT, The Last Skeptik & Yassin

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.

Pigeons over the Burj Al-Barajneh camp
Pigeons over the Burj Al-Barajneh camp

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.

A view of the camp from the roof of I-Voice’s studio

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.

Thanks y’all for a great experience.

Peep the original post on Immortal Entertainment’s blog

Profile on Zeid Hamdan: “A musician without vision is no use!”

Beats and Breath features this exclusive interview with Beirut-based musician, producer, composer, and arranger Zeid Hamdan, the pioneer of Lebanon’s alternative music scene. (Editor’s note: In the 2 years since this was published – it is still a relevant discussion of the future of alternative music in Lebanon.)

Zeid Hamdan (center) and his group – The New Government. ©Tanya Traboulsi


BEIRUT – Sitting in the confines of Torino (Express) – the bohemian stalwart of a bar in the east-Beirut, SoHo-like Gemayze district – I go through a mental preparation of what to ask Zeid Hamdan, the self-styled gardener of the Lebanese underground music scene.

For me, however, any preparation to interview Zeid Hamdan is less a technical exercise (“Who are your influences?” etc.), and more of a mutual exchange with questions drawn from the near 3 years I’ve known him and seen him work.

I remember the now legendary Mooz Records show (record label headed by Zeid at the time) at Luna park on Beirut’s seaside Corniche on May 22, 2006 – less than two months before the devastating 34-day Israeli onslaught of Lebanon.

I remember how thoroughly impressed I was by the talent (post-punk group Scrambled Eggs, rappers Rayess Bek, RGB, Siska, The New Government, and others), and I remember the air of euphoria at the possibilities of Lebanon’s burgeoning independent music scene. (Of course the 2006 war changed all of that.)

An 18-year veteran on the independent music scene in Beirut, Zeid has a mystique about him within the Lebanese cultural milieu.

Soap Kills

He’s one half of Soap Kills, the seminal electro-Arabic fusion act who’s other half Yasmine Hamdan was the voice of an entire generation of post-civil war youth in Beirut.

And while Soap Kills is technically defunct, with Yasmine Hamdan moving to Paris to reincarnate herself as Y.A.S. with French producer Mirwais (Madonna, Taxi Girl), Zeid has continued to cultivate alternative talent and support a wide range of artists from multiple musical genres – hip-hop (Katibe 5, RGB), alt rock (The New Government, Lumi, Scrambled Eggs), African artists from Guinea (Kandijha Kouyate, Macky Sow), and the Arabic electro-fusion project with Heba al Mansoury.

Since 2006, however, I’ve watched the independent music scene in Lebanon go through terrible growing pains – a music scene that Zeid Hamdan has never abandoned despite the assassinations, street battles, economic depression and general lack of understanding for independent music.

I caught up with Zeid in the lead up to a series of shows in the United States with his trio The New Government, and asked him about his current projects and what he expected from a revived underground music scene that is nurturing new talents like live hip-hop crew FareeQ al Atrash and the Arabic-fusion prog-rock act Mashrou3 Leila.


Zeid with his project the 3 Pigs ©

UMEN: Trace the evolution of the independent music scene here in Lebanon. When did it start?

ZEID HAMDAN: It started when the people started to have space in their mind for something else other than survival. When the city seemed to go into an era of peace. Let’s say 1993 or 1994. Then people started searching behind the ruins for something. A spirit. A vibe. Asking themselves: what is Lebanon today?

This is when the microscopic audience started to search, and an interest for something else other than what they were used to – the mainstream Arabic music that they had always listened to. So we can say that in the 90’s the Lebanese underground music started.

UMEN: Your own discovery of the alternative vibe musically – outside of this normal Arabic musical faire of Fairuz, and more alternatively Ziad Rahbani – all innovators in their own right, but your own personal exposure to the alternative music that you’ve cultivated here – when did you decide to start doing this?

ZEID: I grew up in Lebanon and when the civil war got really intense, our parents took us out of Lebanon – to France (Paris). I came back from France to Lebanon having grown up during my teenage years in France, influenced by European music.

So when I came back to Lebanon I wanted to do something Lebanese. I was proud in France that my specificity was Lebanese. And when I landed on Lebanese ground, I thought this is my specificity that I have been abroad and have been influenced by these Western acts.

As soon as I felt music and what I could share with the people I wanted it to be a new blend.

UMEN:  Was your first independent expedition into this idea of a musical hybrid – was that Soap Kills or was there a band or something that preceded it?

ZEID: There was one band before Soap Kills – it was a 7-piece band called Lombrix, and we did a CD. But it was a very cheaply produced album, and I was a teenager. So it wasn’t so good, but it had this blend of an Arabic and a touristic feel – and in English. And Yasmine Hamdan sang on this CD for like 30 secs. I had just met her.

The CD had such an impact locally because it was the first music offering of its kind.

UMEN: When was that?

ZEID: 1994. (Zeid came back in 1992 from France). It was like people were so hungry. ‘Oh a new band.’ ‘Oh. Hope!’ All the journalists got so excited because it was like some calling card – ‘Oh. Lebanon is back!’ And I felt like, ‘Oh my god. People love it! Maybe I should push it more.’

Ultimately, it was a bluff. You should hear the CD. Anyone abroad – people would hear it and just throw the CD in your face. But because of the situation here in Lebanon, I was encouraged to continue.

The musicians in this band Lombrix, they stopped. It wasn’t their career choice. But Yasmine and I wanted this as our career. So we formed Soap Kills – from this little EP by Lombrix.

UMEN: So that was 1994-1995?

ZEID: Yeah, 94-95′. And in 1996, we started seriously working on our music and in 1998 we got produced by Jihad Murr, who was/is the owner of Murr TV in Lebanon. And it was how the first step of Soap Kills began.

UMEN:  Fast forwarding. Soap Kills had a huge impact on an entire generation of independent music heads in Lebanon. As I came to Lebanon in 2006, it was Soap Kills’ albums that were first handed to me as a sort of offering from people I was meeting saying it was this group I needed to be listening to if was going to understand the alternative music scene and how it evolved here in Lebanon. Soap Kills went through an entire evolution as a group and affected people beyond this scene. Did you see that or did you know it was going to be so impacting?

ZEID: 10 years later I still don’t know what kind of impact we have had because locally, we are really unknown. It’s a certain circle of educated people that know us and for who we perform.

Soap Kills first started getting noticed because of video clips on M(urr)TV. But as soon as we started to make our music sound more Arabic, we were just kicked out of the media. We became really underground. The radio stations would say, ‘No we can’t play it. It doesn’t resemble anything.’

So no. Soap Kills doesn’t have the impact that you think it has. But throughout the years, it has spread. It is a music that people are now discovering and it is having a certain impact. They are surprised that it’s old. They are now tolerant to it.

I’ heard Soap Kills recently on Radio One here in Beirut. Imagine that ten years later?

UMEN: Why do you think there’s a lack of entrepreneurial backing for this alternative music scene? Why haven’t more independent labels sprung up to break new ground? Let’s not talk about Icognito – the label you were associated with…elsewhere I mean?

ZEID: It’s very normal. The equation is simple: a society opens up to art when it has cleared many of its own issues. Then while the society finds time, it starts feeding from knowledge.

Lebanon is not at that stage. It thinks it’s out of conflict. And so people are more tolerant and they’ve started to look and see and search. They have a sense of curiosity. And this is only for Lebanon, but the whole Middle East.

We are in a very conflicted space here – a very unstable environment. This is not the ground for curiosity and tolerance. Societies that have known peace for more than 2 or 3 decades open up to the treasures of their own society.

That’s not the case here. We’re still struggling, but people are saying now that we are in what appears to be a temporary peaceful era – and their first inclination is to make quick, easy money. Easy money. Easy food. Easy culture. Easy everything.

At a certain point this will fall, and people will look for the particulars of their society and they will find US and the other artists that are particular – artistically. This is where they will find inspiration and money.

UMEN: Let’s talk about Zeid’s personal projects. You have the punk/prog-rock group The New Government – but give us an overview of the things you’re doing.

ZEID: Well, let me deal with it like this. I’m like a gardener. I know how to grow some particular vegetables, and each kind has a tempo and a certain environment to grow in.

The New Government is something I’ve worked a lot on throughout the years. And it has triggered something now – a great opportunity. But it’s difficult because two of the three members are elsewhere (in France). But each time we reunite something big happens for us.

So it’s a project that I’m developing with Timothée and Jeremie Regnier. It’s a project I believe in. It is rock but it is very melodic. It has an edge and is reminiscent of elements of The Beatles, Beach Boys and the Pixies. But it is really original at the same time. It feeds me and is my inspiration so I go for it.

The New Government just signed with a publisher in the US in January. State One – the publisher of Bob Marley, Sheryl Crow, Evanescence, the list goes on.

So this will help us step forward. We worked well here in Beirut and in Paris we blew up. And now it puts us somewhere else…again.

Then there is my Arabic fusion work. Yasmine Hamdan opened my ears to Arabic music. And living in Beirut, I always feel there is nothing for the Arab youth. So I feel a calling to translate this Arabic music to a more contemporary setting. I have to do it.

So I wrote some songs and adapted some classics with a young Lebanese singer – Hiba – that was really untypical as a singer. People said not to work with her. But for two years I developed something with her until Jihad al Murr signed her. So now there’s some new Arabic music that can be exposed, but it doesn’t take away all of my time – even though I produce Hiba and work with her – I still have time to tend to the other elements of my garden – if you like.

I work with African artists, and this is based on the fact that there’s not enough collaboration, not enough color with the music. And I had great opportunities to play in Africa and to meet African artists.

Zeid with Guinean musician Kandjha Kouyate

I produced one called Kandjha (Kouyate) and I signed to management another one called Maki – from Guinea. Now Kandjha is touring France and we’re doing great. And Maki got signed by Ibrahim Maulouf, a great Lebanese-French artist, and he’s going to tour with him in France.

We are booked for Montreal with Kanjia, and we are trying to bring him here to Lebanon. This is my main goal – that we are trying to have these Lebanese artists see these African artists.

Then a third thing I am doing here – because a lot of musicians are encouraging me to do my own music and are encouraging me to sing – I always collaborate with artists and push their singers. Everyone is telling me – do your own songs and sing – hence the group, Zeid and The Wings was born.

I did a Facebook announcement for open try-outs for back vocals. We did 10 days of auditions and met incredible artists. I selected two singers – that are the wings. It’s spreading now and other artists are helping me form a band. It will end up as a big band because there’s not this big band feel here.

I’m going to harvest this in the fall, but there’s always a sense of trying to get Yasmine Hamdan back. It’s hard because she’s searching her own way. We’re all searching our own way. But Soap Kills is growing, as I said, and with time I’m sure she’ll be convinced that there’ll be something to continue here in Beirut.

UMEN: I guess Yasmine left because of the lack of ‘space’ – as we were saying earlier – the lack of opportunities here in Beirut in the past. Do you see that space is opening up for artists that have been abroad to come back?

ZEID: It’s cheaper here to work. There’s all the equipment. Beirut is a nice place to develop, although it’s not a nice place to show the world because it is very narrow and small. But it’s a very beautiful playground here. You can experiment with the music. Arrange it. Think. It’s a small society.

So I encourage my musicians that have gone abroad, to come back and work because I am showing them that I am working. There is space there is work. There just needs to be faith in it and a vision because a musician without a vision is no use.

“Turntablism” comes to Lebanon’s Palestinian refugee camps

Danish DJs teach Palestinian youth to work the decks

now lebanon banner

By Jackson Allers, November 8, 2009 for NOW LEBANON

Palestinian youth on the decks (© Andreas Johnsen)

“Turntables are in fact musical instruments,” Danish turntablist Martin Jakobsen explains at his Gemmayze flat the night before the start of a series of DJ workshops for Palestinian youth called: “Turntables in the Camps.”

“This is our first time in Lebanon, and Den Sorte Skole – the three-man DJ crew that I’m repping – we want to introduce the idea that there is this global DJ culture that Palestinian youth can take part in; a culture that doesn’t exclude them in the ways that they are excluded from Lebanese society, and that through turntablism, we can teach them to use sounds from their own lives to create music.”

Jakobsen told NOW Lebanon he was not sure what to expect out of the process, but he said, “I am realistic – I know that it’s not going to save anyone – but these workshops are a way of saying to them – ‘Hey, everyone can be a DJ – and, ‘You don’t need all this fancy shit’ – especially if we’re investing the equipment for them to come and experiment on from time to time.”

Jakobsen’s compatriot, Simon Dokkedal, the crew’s scratch specialist, waxes a little more street on the matter. “We training the next generation of sound pirates!” adding, “Hopefully we’ll plant the seeds here, and from this we can create a new generation of hip-hop DJ’s here in the camps.”

Den Sorte Skole, aka The Black School, or L’Ecole Noir, are not quite a household name in Denmark, but telling by the number of Danes, Swedes and Norwegians present at their showcase club gig on Thursday night in Beirut, their cult following is legion.

The DJ trio – who work their magic on six turntables – were named Denmark’s best hip-hop DJs in 2006 and best overall DJs in 2009. Jakobsen says this has given the group the ability to cherry pick the festivals and concerts they’ve played at in the last 3 years, including playing for fifty-plus thousand people at the prestigious Roskilde fest in Denmark in 2009.

This success also gave Jakobsen enough clout to approach the Danish Centre for Cultural Development in Beirut for the “Turntables in Camps” seed money.

The project itself was the brainchild of Jakobsen, who has lived the past year in Lebanon with his wife. While traveling to meet his two cohorts at DJ gigs throughout Europe and finishing a master’s degree in political science, he figured that he had to start bringing this DJ experiment into marginalized communities in Lebanon.

In this case, he wanted to venture into perhaps the most neglected youth sectors in Lebanon – ultimately making contact with five Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon: Bourj al Barajneh, Mar Elias, and Sabra & Chatilla in Beirut, and Nahr al Bared near Tripoli, the Palestinian refugee camp leveled by the Lebanese army in the summer of 2007.

Simon teaches Palestinian youth wassup with scratching. (© Andreas Johnsen)


As Jakobsen explained, the objectives of the “Turntables in Camps” project were pretty straightforward: breakdown barriers wherever they exist by providing “a space for creativity and musical dialog”.

Certainly, Den Sorte Skole are building on the traditions of the hip-hop DJs that spawned the term “turntablist” before them. DJs like Cut Chemist, D-Styles, Z-Trip, Madlib, and Beat Junkies members like DJ Babu and J-Rocc, to name a core list who have literally become the modern vinyl archivists of the black soul music traditions from the Americas to Africa. And it is this musical tradition that contributed to the group’s namesake.

During the first day of a two-day workshop held at the Sunflower theatre in southeast Beirut on Thursday, about 30 Palestinian youth from Sabra and Chatilla, Mar Elias and Bourj al Barajneh soaked up the sounds of the breakbeat drumming coming from Den Sorte Skole’s stacks of records.

“We want you to look and listen to what we do. It’s hard, what we’re doing, but you have to understand that anybody can be a DJ,” Jakobsen told the rapt audience before separating the youth into boys and girls groups – a move that was not a cultural issue according to Jakobsen. Nonetheless, the female DJ duo, Ladybox, an increasingly popular club DJ crew also from Denmark, was tasked with teaching DJ skills to the girls. “The boys just dominate in such situations,” Jakobsen said.

Ironically, it was the girls who dominated the first stage of the workshops this week – clamoring for the DJ equipment, bobbing their heads in unison and dancing to the sounds of hip-hop classics like Tribe Called Quest’s “Bonita Applebum,” Kurtis Blow’s “These are the Breaks” and House of Pain’s “Jump Around” – songs they had never heard before.

Rita Biza, aka DJ Rita Blue, said she was surprised by the girls’ openness. “They seemed quite shy at first, but we introduced them to the equipment and showed them what was possible, they were fighting to get on the decks and having such a good time. That’s exactly what we wanted. So they’re really hungry to learn.”

According to Rita’s partner Lei Miriam Foo, aka Sista Lei, “If I didn’t know where these kids were coming from, then I would never have known how hard their lives were. With this DJ equipment in their hands, it was like the world opened up to them and they were laughing and having a great time.”

Aya, 14, and Mina, 20, two workshop participants from Mar Elias told NOW Lebanon that the workshops were “cool”, but they definitely weren’t expecting a new army of female DJ’s to emerge.

“If you tell your father you want to be a DJ. What’s he going to say? What is that – a DJ?” Aya said.

The two seemed to agree that being a DJ was somewhat more acceptable because DJ’s “are behind” the decks, as opposed to scantily clad Arab pop singers out in front of the stage. They even questioned Lebanon’s only seasoned female MC, Malikah – seen regularly on Rotana Musika TV’s underground music show, “Shababiyat.”

Mina explained, “A lot of Arab culture is resistant to the idea of a girl or a boy being a DJ simply because they don’t see it as a ‘normal’ job. But if a girl started to earn good money as a DJ, they might reconsider. They certainly might just be silent on the issue if someone were making a living at it.”

Indeed, a law passed in 1995 prevents Palestinians from working in over 70 jobs in Lebanon. Palestinians cannot be doctors, lawyers or public-sector workers, but there are no Lebanese laws barring Palestinians from working as DJs.

Den Sorte Skole’s third crew-member, Martin Hojland, said that while he didn’t expect miracles from the workshops, he did hope that the participants would see turntablism as bigger than a musical genre. “There is definitely an art to deejaying and using turntables as instruments. In this way, we hope they take their own sounds as the foundations for some homegrown interpretations of turntablism.”

Adds Jakobsoen, “Hopefully, as we bring in a DJ instructor to continue the project (in the months to come), these kids will do the turntablism thing in a Bourj al Barajneh kind of way or a Chatilla kind of way. I don’t give a damn what they call it, as long as they make it their own. That’s what turntablism is all about anyway.”

Quoting from the underground hip-hop crew Dead Prez out of New York, Jakobsen extols – this project, “It’s bigger than hip-hop”.

This article first appeared in NOW Lebanon

%d bloggers like this: