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.

 

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

As Lebanese independent music pioneer Zeid Hamdan prepares for a long-awaited performance with African Harpist/Kora player, Kandjha Kouyate (Guinea) in Beirut on May 17, met Lebanese producer Zeid Hamdan, Beats and Breath has chosen to reblog this post that, while four years old, is equally relevant to discussions of the future of the independent Arab music scene – particularly as the Arab uprisings have opened up an unprecedented space for artistic expression in the Middle East and North Africa. Enjoy!

Jackson Allers

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.)

By JACKSON ALLERS

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…

View original post 2,193 more words

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 hansharling.blogspot.com)

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.

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

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

By JACKSON ALLERS

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.

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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.