The first CD release by Norient and Outhere Records focuses on a young generation of musicians from Beirut that is tired of war, fed up with politics, sick of religious madness, and angry about Euro-American exoticism.
These 12 songs on this compilation look at the Arab World through a new pair of glasses: Beirut’s underground. The CD focuses on a young generation that is tired of war, fed up with politics, sick of religious madness, and angry about Euro-American exoticism. It is keeping itself alive with electro beats, raw aggressive hip hop or in-your-face indie rock. Together these musicians show a new picture of this war- shaken city and region and show a different Beirut.
«The Israelis just bombed our city», one musician joked in 2006, «because Beirut was suddenly cooler and hipper than Tel Aviv». With lots of irony and black humour, Beirutis often try to neglect the fact that the city still is full of problems, conflicts and contradictions. The Beirut alternative music circuit does not get the same media attention the commercial pan-Arabic satellite-TV Pop-Industry does, but is closely linked to the civil society networks that are of great importance in the ongoing revolutions in the Arab World in 2011. These artists show a new, open-minded city reminiscent in its open mindedness in a way of the Golden Beirut of the 60ies and 70ies only updated. In those «golden» years before the Lebanese civil war (1975-1990) Beirut had a name as a hub between orient and occident. Lebanese psychedelic rock bands entertained an international crowd in hip Beiruti clubs. Life felt like in Paris or London. The cities reputation was shot to pieces during the civil war.
Golden Beirut brings together some of the most important voices in the alternative music scenes of Beirut whose music has nothing to do with propaganda, traditionalism and commercialism: Zeid Hamdan and his projects Shift Z and Soap Kills mix minimalist electronic sounds with soft Arab singing. The Indie-Rock, Post-Punk and Electro-Pop bands Scrambled Eggs, The New Government and Lumi still know how to sweat on stage and create catchy songs. Hip- Hop MC Lix aka Malikah, one of the best Lebanese female MCs, attacks stereotypes with full force. Katibe 5 rap about the Palestinian refugee camp they grew up in, and rapper Rayess Bek discusses life between Lebanon and France. Oud player und charismatic singer Ziad Sahhab opposes the strong connections between musicians, music and politics in Lebanon, while Praed and The Incompetents experiment with Wedding Music and Lullabies. Last but not least this CD features the upcoming satirical Folk Rock band Mashrou’ Leila. They are the first to slowly rise from underground hype to reaching wider audiences.
Golden Beirut was compiled by ethnomusicologist and journalist Thomas Burkhalter, founder of the music network and magazine norient.com. The photos in the booklet were shot by Tanya Traboulsi, an Austrian- Lebanese photographer living in Beirut.
1. Russian Roulette / Scrambled Eggs
2. Intikhabeit 2009 / Malikah feat. Zoog
3. Raksit Layla / Mashrou Leila
4. Ahwak / Shift Z feat. Hiba el Mansouri
5. Morr /Katibe 5
6. The New Government / The New Government
7. Don't F*** with my Cat /Lumi
8. Herzan /Soap Kills
9. Rocket (Sarookh) /Praed
10. Keskonatten /Rayess Bek
11. Rawak / Ziyad Sahhab
12. Disposable Valentine /The Incompetents
Buy the CD or MP3-tracks via Outhere Records.
by Thomas Burkhalter
«The Israelis bombed our cities, because Beirut was suddenly cooler and hipper than Tel Aviv - they couldn’t stand that», a musician told me in 2006. Just before the war started, «Time Out Beirut» had been launched with a big party - a sure indicator of an up-and-coming tourist destination. The magazine was discontinued immediately, of course. Today, however, it is on sale again.
Beirut is one big world of wonders. How many people fell in love with this city? In the years before and after the July war of 2006 between Israel and Hizbullah, but also in the «golden» 1960s, the years before the civil war (1975-1990). Skiing in the beautiful mountains, swimming in the azure Mediterranean Sea, enjoying Lebanese mezze (or sushi, for a change), sipping Mojitos in the cool clubs and bars of Hamra and Ashrafiye. And it all comes complete with a soundtrack: the local bands from the alternative music scenes are getting better by the year. On Thursday, a concert with Zeid Hamdan: minimalist electronics with soft Arab singing. On Friday, indie-rock or post-punk - with bands that still know how to sweat on stage. And on Saturday, hip-hop at an upscale beach club, or in some derelict factory space. Jazz, free improvised music or electro-acoustic experiments (and noise) in a gallery on Sunday - or in your face electro-pop by Lumi. And on Monday listen to well-known leftist protest songs – or subtle ballads by Ziad Sahhab and his band.
All these musicians from Beirut own their own small laptops. They use various programs to record, edit, manipulate, convert, analyze or mix audio files. Their hard disks are full of Middle Eastern sound files and video-clips, and also contain sounds and noises from niche genres worldwide. The local material includes random phenomena such as Grendizer: the adventures of the Japanese manga super-robot were translated into Arabic and broadcast during the Lebanese civil war. For many musicians, children at the time, Grendizer was the big hero. Japanese manga, samurai movies and Public Enemy: the hard disks of many Lebanese rappers are full of them. Others collect records of the local psychedelic rock music of the 1970s – there were rumoured to be more than 200 psych rock bands in Beirut alone.
There was a lively rock music scene even during the years of the civil war. These musicians laid the foundations for today’s active scene, even though many of them gave up music or left the country. Other collector’s items are the wonderfully kitschy pseudo-oriental sounds from the casinos and nightclubs of the 1950s and 1960s. And, finally, «New Wave Dabkeh» is getting some attention: distributed on old-fashioned cassettes, contemporary dabkeh musicians control their synthesizers with small MIDI-boxes. They create the typical Arab quartertones and imitate the shrill sounds of the double pipe oboe mijwiz, the traditional dabkeh instrument. Thanks to the Syrian singer Omar Souleyman and his releases on the US indie label Sublime Frequencies, «New Wave Dabkeh» started to conquer the international blogospheres. What is missing on the computers of these musicians – or is hidden from the foreign journalists – are Fairuz, the «Holy Mary» of Lebanese song (and her contemporary rival, the scandalous Sabah) and the leftist protest music of the Lebanese civil war (Marcel Khalife for example). Today’s generation does not want to complain about injustice and fate with emotional poetry. The musicians prefer irony, sarcasm and black humor. Straightforwardness, patchwork aesthetics and catchy songs are hip: it’s better for a track to be successful today than wait for tomorrow. Who knows what tomorrow brings? Typically Beirut? Maybe.
Anyone who stays longer in Beirut will find the city reveals a little more of itself each day. This miracle world of wonders is both reality and fake. Suppressing the traumas of the past and worries about the future is a daily routine. The musicians and their fans are constantly creating their own Beirut – and this Beirut exists parallel to the many other, real Beiruts, in an air bubble, so to speak.
Most of these musicians come from upper-class families. One finds Sunni, Shia, Maronites, Druzes, Christian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, Armenians, Palestinians and members of other groups. Many of the musicians were educated at the international universities in Beirut, or at art schools like ALBA (Académie Libanaise des Beaux-Arts). Most of these musicians do not believe in any of the regional politicians and clan leaders. In a highly radicalized and commercialized country like Lebanon, their political approach lies in their focus on musical quality and value. These artists can thus be considered as «alternative» or «counter-cultural» in relation to the dominant «commercial» pan-Arabic pop scene that is constantly reproduced by Saudi satellite TV stations. All of them are part of what the sociologist Theodor Hanf calls the «Skeptical Nation». They decided to stay in Beirut, and not to leave, like a big part of the generation of musicians before them did. Their aim is to work in small steps towards a culturally vibrant Lebanon that is open to the world. They try to reach local and international niche audiences. Their dream is that these niche cultures start influencing the mainstream culture. At the same time, they are more and more skeptical about their future in this country.
All of them organize their own small concerts for an «insider» audience. Their music is mainly self-produced in small (home) studios, released on small record labels often owned by the musicians themselves, and distributed through various channels, mainly via the internet. These upcoming artists and bands are covered on websites and platforms like Lebanese Underground, the radio show «Ruptured Sessions», the distributor and online shop «Forward Music», or in events organized by the NGO «Acousmatik System» or «Kaotik System». Online distribution allows these musicians to sell their albums in small quantities into different countries. Selling in small quantities offers a lot of possibilities: The Lebanese censorship authorities are not too much interested in those niche products. And many of these small labels are not registered officially: «Officially we would not be allowed to sell our records. However, we sell them in small amounts at concerts, or via the internet internationally. So, no one cares», one Beiruti artist told me. Nevertheless, their CDs are important promotional tools - through them, the artists gain the interest of international journalists, producers, organizers, labels, arts councils, and scholars. They receive offers to perform concerts abroad, or to go on residencies in Switzerland, Germany or the US.
What the future brings, no one really knows. However, one thing is clear. These musicians offer exciting musical positions. They use local and global sounds, melodies, rhythm and noises to make themselves heard in various cultural, social and political circles, near and far.