A Cinemix/Concert by XEFM: Man with a Movie Camera

On February 6, 2009, Lebanese experimental rock band XEFM will take to the stage at The Basement, in Beirut, and create a new soundtrack to famed Russian art-house film Man with a Movie Camera.

XEFM are no strangers to the Cinemix tradition, as they have already contributed a short piece of music to a Lebanese silent film shown recently at the ‘Né à Beirut’ festival. On this occasion, however, they will tackle an altogether grander task; that of providing a live musical accompaniment to a full-length, celebrated feature.

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Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera was created in 1929. This controversial film is an extraordinary piece of film-making, a montage of urban Russian life, showing the people of the city at work and at play, and the machines that keep the city (Odessa and others) going. Shooting shops, traffic, children, coal miners, workers, human bodies, and nature, Vertov creates visual rhymes and graphic portraits of the structure of life and the explosion of perception.

It was Vertov’s first full-length film, and he used all the cinematic techniques at his disposal – dissolves, double exposure, fast and slow motion,  freeze-frames, jump cuts, split screens, extreme close-ups, tracking shots, footage played backwards, and animations – to produce a work that is exhilarating and intellectually brilliant, a sublimely fluid vision of man, machine, and society.

The XEFM quartet of Charbel Haber (electric guitar), Tony Elieh (bass), Fadi Tabbal (electric guitar), and Abdallah Ko (guitar and electronics), created on their 1st release from 2008, a superb tapestry of sounds, hovering between ambient electronica and outlandish noise. It should be fascinating to hear them transpose their sound, one that is suffused with Beirut’s urban maze, into 1930’s Russian art-house cinema.

(2011 end-of-year lists) – CHARBEL HABER

I asked some of my favorite musicians from Beirut and beyond, to tell me what their favorite records of 2011 were…

Charbel Haber: musician (Scrambled Eggs, Johnny Kafta’s Anti-Vegetarian Orchestra, XEFM)

1- Tim Hecker: Ravedeath, 1972
2- Mike Cooper: Radio Paradise
3- Gil Scott Heron & Jamie xx: We’re New Here
4- M83: Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming
5- The Fall: Erstaz GB
6- Gang Gang Dance: Eye Contact
7- Wilco: The Whole Love
8- Jim O’Rourke: Old News # 5
9- Thurston Moore: Demolished Thoughts
10- PJ Harvey: Let England Shake

(2011 end-of-year lists) – FADI TABBAL

I asked some of my favorite musicians from Beirut and beyond, to tell me what their favorite records of 2011 were…

Fadi Tabbal: producer, sound engineer, musician (The Incompetents, Under The Carpet, XEFM, Robert Polson)

– Tim Hecker: Ravedeath, 1972
– Fleet Foxes: Helplessness Blues
– Bon Iver: Self-titled
– Destroyer: Kaputt
– James Blake: Self-titled
– M83: Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming
– Tom Waits: Bad As Me
– The Weeknd: House Of Balloons
– Wilco: The Whole Love
– WU LYF: Go Tell Fire To The Mountain
and of course,
– The Beach Boys: The Smile Sessions (boxset)

Scrambled Eggs & Friends, Tunefork Studios, Nov 08

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[From left to right, clockwise: Haber, Elieh, Rizkallah; Tabbal; Sehnaoui; Ko; Kerbaj; Haber; Elieh; Rizkallah]

Charbel Haber, singer, guitarist and composer with Lebanese rock band Scrambled Eggs, told me a few days ago that he had been planning for these sessions for three years, and the end result was ‘a dream come true’, for him. I find absolutely no reason to disagree with the latter statement. I was indeed privy to some highly intense and magical musical, during these sessions.
The actors and circumstances: on November 8, the three remaining Scrambled Eggs (second guitarist Marc Codsi left the band after the summer of 2008, in order to concentrate on his dancefloor project Lumi) enter Tunefork Recording Studio with the firm intent of recording several hours’ worth of new music, accompanied by a host of likely-minded musical cohorts, under the cool guidance of sound engineer Fadi Tabbal. With barely any time devoted to rehearsing, and a focus on loose improvisation instead, the sessions are scheduled for four consecutive days, and intended for release early in 2009.

The first of the sessions integrated the found sounds and electronics of Lebanese-born, French-based musician Joseph Ghosn, who doubles as the reviews editor for French musical magazine Les Inrockuptibles. Joining him and the Scrambled Eggs in the studio that day was Abdallah Ko (who plays guitar and laptop with the XEFM collective). Unfortunately, being tied down by previous engagements, I could not make it to this first session, which apparently yielded some impressive results, especially from the rhythm section of Tony Elieh and Malek Rizkallah.

For the second of these sessions, free improvisers Mazen Kerbaj and Sharif Sehnaoui (on prepared trumpet and acoustic guitar, respectively) were invited to join Haber & co. Kerbaj and Sehnaoui are the founding members of Irtijal, a surprising, Lebanese-based Festival of free improvised music which takes place in Beirut every year, and invites both local and foreign musicians to showcase their skills over several days and venues. Unfettered by the change of scenery and musical idiom that these Scrambled sessions represented, Sehnaoui and Kerbaj espoused their friends’ ‘rock’ ideals quite easily. The result was a furious maelstrom of sound, as the Eggs built an impressive, distortion-heavy wall of sound against the repeated, concentrated strumming of Sehnaoui, and the free-form eruptions of Kerbaj. In addition to his effects-laden trumpet, the latter also relied on a miked balloon to fence the repeated attacks of Haber’s pedal-relayed guitar, Elieh’s effects-laced bass, and Rizkallah’s discreet drumming. I gazed and listened in amazement as the music built and rose towards ever more violent crescendos, displaying little tolerance for compromise or reflection. These were 5 musicians at their very best, opposing and finding common ground for distant musical equations.

The November 9 session added French saxophone player Stéphane Rives to the above. Rives hails from the same improv background as Kerbaj and Sehnaoui, who found in the process an impromptu ally. The balance tilted in their favor this time, as the slow, meandering tracks tended towards reflective and calmer passages. Rives also displayed a somewhat different sensibility from that of his Lebanese fellows, edging the musical proceedings in favor of melody-oriented streams of sound, at least in the initial half. The final gasps of this session saw the musicians revert to more disrupted and disjointed playing, with a final, maddening rush of freeform blowing, stroking and banging. Little wonder that the studio’s recording computer eventually succumbed and went into crash mode!…

For the final installment of the sessions, the musicians invited by Scrambled Eggs were Fadi Tabbal on guitar (the owner and chief engineer of Tunefork Studios, and founder of psych-rock group The Incompetents) and Abdallah Ko. I found this session quite stimulating, especially due to the contribution of these two musicians. Sitting on opposite sides of the room, Tabbal on a tiny, constricting chair and Ko on the rug-covered floor, they provided some fine guitar lines and treatments to the ever-escalating wall of sound induced by Haber, Elieh and co. The ubiquitous Sehnaoui blended wonderfully amidst this compact, densely generated upsurge.

The material recorded during these sessions exceeds by far the length of an ‘official’ release, of course. The most appealing and accessible moments will be selected in order to constitute the CD release; and as such, I felt supremely fortunate and privileged to be a witness to these fine moments of improvisation.

[Photos by Ziad Nawfal]

Bio + Contact

Ziad Nawfal started playing records in Beirut’s government radio station, Radio Liban, in 1992. Early on, his eclectic music programming took in such different genres as indie rock, alternative pop, 60’s and 70’s psychedelia, dance music and electronica, with little care for political correctness or ‘proper’ merging of styles. Nawfal’s thirst for sharing musical oddities and discoveries saw him branch out from the confines of radio waves, and he started deejaying in the late 1990’s in local Beirut bars, restaurants and clubs, as well as large-scale musical events.

In addition to his regular duties as DJ and radio host, Nawfal worked for a number of years in Beirut’s top-notch alternative record store, La CD-Thèque, and its sister label Incognito. Nawfal’s post as music buyer allowed him to introduce the Lebanese public to a constellation of underground, revered leftfield artists, and to come in contact with various musicians from Beirut’s alternative music scene.

In 2006, Nawfal started working in music production and management, producing albums for Lebanese rock trio Scrambled Eggs and electronica outfit, Munma, as well as concerts for both bands, locally and abroad. Between 2007 and 2010, Nawfal produced three more albums for Munma.

In 2008, in collaboration with sound engineer and music producer Fadi Tabbal from Tunefork Studios, Nawfal started hosting “live” shows on Radio Liban, which featured interviews and live performances by local Lebanese bands and performers, encompassing such various genres as folk, rock, electronic, noise, and freeform experimentation. These “Ruptured” sessions were subsequently edited and compiled onto CD form, with the first volume being released in April 2009.

In 2009, Nawfal launched a series of live events in various venues in Beirut, including famed Lebanese club The Basement and art-house cinema Metropolis; first among these events were two cine-concerts by Lebanese experimental band XEFM, set to Russian art-house film ‘Man with a Movie Camera’ and early German animation feature ‘The Adventures of Prince Achmed’. These were followed by successful concerts by several Lebanese groups, including funk/hip hop collective Fareeq el Atrash, dubstep duo Index/Left, and rock bands Scrambled Eggs and The Incompetents.

In March 2010, in collaboration with photographer Tanya Traboulsi and co-editor Ghalya Saadawi, Nawfal published a book documenting Beirut’s alternative music scene, entitled ‘Untitled Tracks: On Alternative Music in Beirut’ (Amers Editions).

In 2019, the Ruptured label still releases music on a regular basis, with a strong focus on Lebanese alternative artists.

Beirut’s Alternative Musical Scene (Version 2)

[“A glance at Beirut’s contemporary alternative musical scene” was written for & published by ELLE ORIENT MAGAZINE in 2008]

To this day, I am not entirely sure what the initial spark was. I keep going through different scenarios and different events in my head, but I’m still unsure as to what started it all. It could have been Yasmine Hamdan’s tremulous voice, when the Soapkills took their first steps on a makeshift stage in a restaurant named Babylone, on the upper confines of Monot Street.  Or the vision of Jawad Nawfal and Victor Bresse laying complex rhythms on their electronic machines in Beirut’s Dome; or, closer still in time, the edgy voice of Charbel Haber as he professed eternal love and unavoidable damnation behind the wall of noise emitted by the Scrambled Eggs band…

Whichever the case, the actual beginnings of the Lebanese alternative musical scene escape me today. But this scene is so fertile, so diversified, so gloriously messy yet ultimately enchanting, that the details of its inception are irrelevant today. Much more important are its many actors, their numerous projects, and plans for a gloriously baffling future.

Yasmine Hamdan, the by-now legendary velvety voice of Soapkills, left Lebanon and her partner Zeid Hamdan’s barrage of rhythms, and exiled herself in France to work with famed electronic Mirwais (a mainstay of the French New Wave scene of the 80’s with his band Taxi Girl). The results of his collaboration with Yasmine Hamdan should be released imminently.

Zeid Hamdan, one of the most hyperactive musicians in Beirut’s alternative scene, has fronted a myriad bands in the last few years, excelling in various genres: punk/pop with the New Government (two releases on Lebanese independent label Incognito), Control/Shift Z (a dance project with Arab inflections), 3Arab (a fine blend of rock and dub), and countless others. Zeid is also hard at work scouting for new talent, and his efforts in that field have paved the way for the release of products from local Rap acts, including Katibe 5, Kita3youn, Kitaa Beirut, etc. Among these, the Katibe 5 crew stands ahead of the competition, and its debut album (also released by Incognito) is an infectious mixture of Arab rapping and hard-edged beats.

Jawad Nawfal and his Art.Core ensemble were among the first Lebanese artists to organize large-scale events gathering deejaying, live music, interactive video projections and photography. Some of these elements are still found in Jawad’s work today, as he fronts Electronica project Munma, a band that incorporates Middle and Far Eastern influences with its resolutely Westernized Electronic Ambient schemes. Munma’s first two EP’s were released on Incognito Records.  Jawad’s musical cohort of choice is ex-drummer Nabil Saliba, who performs on stage with Munma as synth-driven Trash Inc.

Electronic dance music’s Lebanese ambassadors of choice would be Lumi, a duo consisting of Marc Codsi (machines) and Mayaline Hage (vocals), whose jumpy electro-rock has earned them a successful commercial release with multinational label EMI records. 2008 saw them hard at work touring their debut album “Two Tears in Water”.

Whether bouncing on and off stage with local rock heroes Scrambled Eggs, improvising with experimental outfit XEFM, or interpreting his plaintive compositions alone on stage, Charbel Haber is an iconic figure in the contemporary Lebanese music scene, and feels perfectly at ease operating in this wide range of musical settings. Scrambled Eggs have released a handful of albums and EP’s, of consistently superior musical quality. 2008 also saw the release of a solo album by Haber, as well as collaborations with XEFM and U.S.-based bass player Miles Jay.

Among recent newcomers, let me point out The Incompetents, 4 young men hard at work creating an unreasonable mixture of Syd Barrett and Beach Boys influences, and more modern British pop trends. During their rare live appearances, they succeed in creating an extravagantly joyous shambles, while the release of their debut album will undoubtedly figure as a highlight of the year 2009.

Although less prominently ‘alternative’, the musical endeavors of singers such as Rima Khcheich and Tania Saleh hold a special place in the Lebanese contemporary panorama, as they mine a rich vein of Oriental Jazz and pop sensibilities.

The ongoing adventures of Beirut’s alternative music scene would not be possible without the staunch support of a stubborn group of individuals, active so-to-speak behind the scenes: promoters and festival organizers (Libanjazz’s Karim Ghattas, The Basement’s Jad Souaid, Byblos Festival’s Naji Baz…), producers (Incognito’s Tony Sfeir, Forward Productions’ Ghazi Abdelbaki), radio hosts (hailing mostly from the government-supported Radio Lebanon), whose efforts and relentless risk-taking surely play a vital part in ensuring the survival of this ebullient, diversified scene.

A full report on those bands that consistently set ablaze this writer’s enthusiasm would necessitate an obscenely large number of words and pages. At best, one can barely scratch the surface of this musical compendium, which regenerates itself constantly, and holds endless surprises for the patient and avid listener.

Ziad Nawfal

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[Photo of Malek Rizkallah, drummer with Scrambled Eggs, by Ziad Nawfal]