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Archive for the ‘WRITINGS’ Category

Last June, my musician and writer friend Joseph Ghosn spent a few days in Beirut. We met on a couple of occasions, spoke about the abandoned grand piano in his neighbor’s house in the Lebanese mountains and the CD compilation I was planning to release later in August, with a track of his recorded in Radio Lebanon for Ruptures. He also gave me this tape. “You’re the one to get it,” he said. Joe has a fetish for tapes, and he knows I do too. “What is it,” I exclaimed, trying to refrain my enthusiasm. “Oh, just a little thing Charbel and I recorded in one week, a few years back. Listen to it.”

I have listened to it many times since then. Between Birthdays is Joe Ghosn’s first tape release for his Discipline musical persona; it consists of one elongated drone, a musical dialogue between Ghosn and guitar player-extraordinaire Charbel Haber, incorporating fuzzy swathes of guitar and discreet layers of glitchy synthesizers. It’s difficult to tell who’s doing what. The piece meanders wonderfully, veers from instrumental post-rock to ambient electronica, recalls Oneohtrix Point Never on some occasions, opts for pure noise on other occasions… A shadowy voice speaks a few detached words, a synth line recalls Discipline’s soundtrack for the film “Beyrouth”… And the drone fades into oblivion once, twice, before picking up again. The stuff that dreams are made of (for).

For more on Joseph Ghosn, click here. He’s also got a wonderful blog on WordPress.

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As one third of Sun City Girls, Alan Bishop is one of the towering figures of the American musical underground of the last 30 years, and his musical output knows very few boundaries, whether in his solo guise as Alvarius B., or through the global releases of the Sublime Frequencies label, which he’s operated since 2003. Sam Shalabi is a key musician in Montreal’s experimental scene, with Egyptian roots and a decisively warped approach to music-making. He is best known as a founding member of the Shalabi Effect quartet, and appears regularly in various free improv and avant-rock ensembles. Shalabi recently founded Land Of Kush, an intriguing orchestra inspired by the Egyptian big-bands of the 60’s and 70’s, which has released two records to date.

Sam Shalabi and Alan Bishop are old friends, but their delirious piece for Plot for a Biennial, the music section of Sharjah’s 10th Biennial, saw them collaborating for the first time. Prior to this evening’s performance, the two musicians had spent several weeks in Sharjah in order to record ambient soundscapes and impregnate themselves with the mood of the city. The resulting performance integrated pre-recorded sound fragments, live playing (Shalabi on electric guitar and oud, Bishop on amplified acoustic guitar), and Bishop’s inevitable and riotous ranting and raving.

Bishop spent the first few minutes of the set walking among the seated audience, hiding his face behind a scarf and sporting a colorful umbrella, while Shalabi triggered the electronic soundscapes and improvised on guitar. Bishop eventually climbed on stage, at which point proceedings took on a more dramatic turn — in the Shakespearean sense of the word. Standing behind a cluttered table, he relied on various objects (a torchlight, a portable radio, menus for local restaurants, artist catalogues, to name but these) to deliver a captivating spoken-word “routine”, adeptly mixing deadpan humor, vaudeville, and hilarious assessments of the Sharjah milieu. T-shirts decorated with the sentence “E = Tahrir Square” were blasted towards the audience; dog yelps and various animal sounds were emitted; and Stevie Wonder, playing on the same night in neighboring Abu Dhabi, was saluted sarcastically. The two men ended their hour-long performance with a magnificent improvised duet of oud and acoustic guitar.

[Photos by Ziad Nawfal]

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One would not expect a performance consisting of live drawing and guitar soloing to be so physical. Sharif Sehnaoui is bent over his acoustic guitar, placed horizontally on his knees, his body contorting at times, erect at others, eyes closed in extreme concentration, while he strikes, pounds and hammers the instrument with mallets and sticks. Mazen Kerbaj, on the other hand (or side, in this instance), is surrounded by a panoply of paint tubes, bottles of suspicious-looking liquids, saucers, brushes, window wipers, and other less identifiable apparatus. One wonders how he is able to pass these objects through airport customs, given the state of high vigilance enforced in these charmless places nowadays. At the end of the performance, he will inevitably be covered head to toe with blotches of paint, ink and solvent.

Wormholes is an ongoing audio-visual project by Mazen Kerbaj and Sharif Sehnaoui, two Lebanese free improvising musicians who have been working and playing together since the late 1990’s. In 2008, Kerbaj devised an ingenious set-up which allows him to draw in a live setting, using a luminous glass panel coated with acetate, an overhead projector, and a reversed camera. While he draws miscellaneous shapes and forms, sometimes precise, oftentimes blurred, and augments them with plastic add-ons and random effects (such as blowing on the panel with a pipe), Sehnaoui operates his guitar percussively, with lines that are heavy and forceful in places, and sparse and muted in others. Although the two men start the piece in unison, not much correspondence occurs at later stages of the performance, between the music and the drawing. Points of interference are accidental, and much is left to the audience’s imagination.

Prior to taking the stage at Sharjah Biennial’s March Meeting, on March 14, 2011, Sehnaoui humorously recalled an instance of ‘Wormholes’ at a performance festival in Belgium. At the end of the set, Spanish body artist Esther Ferrer walked up to the guitarist and congratulated him, remarking that the divergence between his playing and Kerbaj’s drawing was in fact one the most successful elements of the piece. The March Meeting’s performance was a success as well, with the two musicians in fine form, finding new points of both convergence and divergence, and leading their audience on a haunting, melancholic voyage.

[Photos by Ziad Nawfal]

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I stumbled on an archive of old photographs (well, not that old, as they are all digital) while going through my PC desktop at home. Local bands and musicians, foreign musicians playing in Lebanon, etc. Some interesting, most of them serving archival purposes, more than anything else.  I will be posting a selection of those photographs in the coming weeks.

In the meantime, here are some that my friend Salim took during Jeff Martin‘s concert at The Basement, last August. Jeff Martin used to sing with Canadian rockers The Tea Party, sometime during the 1990’s. Quite successfully, I might add; I have fond (listening) memories of a particular album entitled ‘The Edges of Twilight’…

A bit of a surprise, then, that a large part of Martin’s repertoire that night in Beirut consisted of covers, hovering over a large palette of the musical board: Massive Attack, Dead Can Dance, Nine Inch Nails, Joy Division, Led Zeppelin, The Doors, Keane (!), and of course Daniel Lanois…

[Photographs by Salim Hbeiliny]

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A few hours ago, I caught myself trying to remember the first time I watched Scrambled Eggs perform live, here in Beirut or elsewhere. I couldn’t. Either my memory has started to fail me, or I’ve seen Charbel & co perform so often, and under so many guises, that the performances have merged into one gigantic, noisy blur in my head. Which makes these CD releases that much more vital, and evidently indispensable.

Both of these albums were released in April 2010, during the 10th edition of the Irtijal Festival. They are the product of a new label, equipped with a fabulously sleazy logo (see below), entitled ‘Johnny Kafta’s Kids Menu‘. The records mark an intense bout of activity for Scrambled Eggs (a trio of Charbel Haber -guitar-, Tony Elieh -bass-, and Malek Rizkallah -drums-), beginning towards the end of 2008, and extending early into 2009. The tracks were completed in Fadi Tabbal’s Tunefork Studio.

The first of the CD’s consists of sessions recorded with the ‘A’ Trio (Mazen Kerbaj -trumpet-, Sharif Sehnaoui -guitar-, and Raed Yassin -double bass-), comprising two long tracks, epic, dissonant, and sinuous, and a third, shorter, “rockier” ditty, a tribute of sorts to early Japanese animé “Grendizer”. Interesting to hear Yassin, Kerbaj and Elieh scream Arabic insults over noisy, distorted accompaniment. And highly recommended. Also recommended is local Lebanese producer Diamond Setter‘s remix of the title track, “Beach Party at Mirna el Chalouhi”. You can listen to that one here:

http://soundcloud.com/diamond-setter/scrambled-eggs-a-trio-beach-party-at-mirna-el-chalouhi-diamond-setters-whatever-you-want-rework

The 2nd album, “Scrambled Eggs & Friends”, was recorded with various musicians hailing from Beirut’s (and Paris’) experimental scenes, namely Joe Ghosn (laptop & electronics), Abdallah Ko (guitar & electronics), Stéphane Rives (saxophone), Fadi Tabbal (guitar), as well as the aforementioned Kerbaj and Sehnaoui. Here, Scrambled Eggs indulge in newfound musical directions and tangents, far from the regular rock format, and marrying with grand ease experimentation, improvisation, and noise. I love the stuff. And the visuals too (these are by Mazen Kerbaj). Ya 3akarit.

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eggs-friendsSCRAMBLED EGGS:

Dedicated To Foes Celebrating Friends (Incognito, 2009)

Hot on the heels of the haunted soundtrack they’ve created for the Joreige/Hadjithomas film ‘Je Veux Voir’, Lebanese punk icons Scrambled Eggs end their busy year with this “modest” 2-song release, which does however hold a host of surprises.

The year 2008 saw the Eggs part ways with their guitarist, Marc Codsi, an active contributor to the band’s sound since 2001. Codsi’s tumultuous departure, in addition to the wealth of experience gathered from working with various musicians throughout the year, infiltrate the tracks featured here, and lend them a primal, DIY quality. The sophistication of the ‘Je Veux Voir’ soundtrack is eschewed in favor of a raw, abrasive sound, harking back to the punk aesthetic of the ‘Happy Together Filthy Forever’ EP, released in 2006.

The single was recorded with little budget, in lo-fi conditions that seep through the music and lyrics. The band, reduced to the core trio of Haber on guitar and vocals, Elieh on bass, and Rizkallah on drums, displays a frantic desire to land back on its feet after a period of artistic self-doubt, and succeeds in doing so admirably. Of the six or seven songs that the Eggs wrote and tested on the road in September 2008, 2 were selected for this single release, and a third, a furious cover of Abba’s ‘Lay All Your Love On Me’, is hidden at the far end of the CD. Also hidden away at the far reaches of this release are a selection of musical snippets and oddities, selected by band-leader Charbel Haber with able help from Tunefork Studio’s maestro Fadi Tabbal.

This basic, back-to-the-roots package is a masterful way to end a difficult year, and an able return to form from one of the most revered band on Beirut’s alternative music scene.

Ziad Nawfal.

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MUNMA: UNHOLY REPUBLIC (Incognito, 2009)

The third official release by Lebanese electronic artist Jawad Nawfal sees him revisiting familiar themes and musical landscapes, while displaying the possibility for some radical departures in the near future. ‘Unholy Republic’ is the third installment of what is commonly referred to as the “Fate trilogy”, one that saw the day in the aftermath of the war waged by Israel on Lebanon in summer 2006. The first two releases, ‘34 Days’ and ‘Black Tuesday’, were marked by ominous moods and atmospheres, sets of menacing clicks and glitches, and a random selection of radio samples and speeches that conveyed brilliantly the mind-set and feelings of the artist, regarding the crisis at hand.

‘Unholy Republic’ picks up where ‘Black Tuesday’ left, with a rambling, brooding track haunted by static, radio noise, and some politician’s vehement preaching. This is followed by two tracks of subdued electronica, reminiscent of Munma’s previous releases. ‘Engram’, in particular, nods prominently towards South American musician Murcof’s output for the Leaf label. The rest of the album is more surprising, as Munma’s recent partner-in-crime, Nabil Saliba aka Trash Inc, enters the fray, and contributes his supple synth-enhanced melodies to ‘Broken Chime’ and ‘Deep Down Inside’. These show a different facet of Munma’s talent, and serve as a timely reminder that Jawad Nawfal is equally at ease devising ambient landscapes and dancefloor “stompers”. ‘Unholy Republic’ concludes on a short, ambient postcard entitled ‘Exodus’, signalling in the process the end of the “Fate trilogy”, and prefiguring realms of possibilities for Munma’s subsequent works.

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LISTEN

Audio 1: Engram

Audio 2: Deep Down

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eggs-friends

[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]

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©Ghadi Smat/Grand-ecart.com

 

I have mixed feelings about this night. First of all, there is the slightly egocentric issue of having to mix the entire first part of the evening hidden behind a large, white drape, situated behind the band. While it made sense for Jose to play in front of a drape, it made much less sense for me to be covered by such a sundry item BEFORE the concert. Most of my friends who were there went, hey, was that you playing that night? We did not see you. Indeed.

But then, these (feelings of visual bereavement) went away when Jose Gonzalez and his two-piece band took the stage. Or rather, when he did, as he played solo at first. He strolled down shyly from the infamous VIP area at the Basement, sat on one of the three wooden chairs disposed for him, and played a couple of songs, accompanied by guitar and occasional guitar-tapping percussion. His voice was, is, well, sublime. Yes, just like the records. After a couple of songs taken from the ‘In our nature’ and ‘Veneer’ albums, he was joined onstage by a Viking-looking percussionist, and another female musician, who played a variety of miniature instruments. And alternately, hand-clapped.

©Rajwat/Grand-ecart.com

 

Their two voices (his and hers) soared in unison (yes, it was that good) as they ripped through most of the songs on the two albums. The most notable feature of Jose’s set was his intense charisma, his way of delivering his songs as if he was playing them for the first time, right there and then, as well as his emotional guitar-playing and mastery of his instrument. Here were moments of acoustic loveliness, easily carried by the man’s incandescent voice.

I have rarely experienced such joy in an acoustic concert, such gentle beauty. Memories of Beth Gibbons playing with Rustin Man in Paris, of Martin Stephenson and Jim White alone on stage in London, sprang to mind. The crowd was subdued, which is something of an anomaly in the Basement, and allowed itself to be carried by the enchantment of Gonzalez’s small and charming ditties.

A shame, then, that the concert was so short. 40, maybe 50 minutes at most? A real shame. The beauty of the musicianship on display, not to mention the slightly high price of admission, kind of left me yearning for more. The concert ended with a beautiful re-interpretation of the Bronski Beat classic-of-sorts, “Smalltown boy”. Pretty, emotional stuff.

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Munma & Trash Inc. Live at B018 (19/09/08)

 

Neither Jawad Nawfal (aka Munma) or Nabil Saliba (aka Trash Inc) are new to live venues or performing in front of a crowded audience. Jawad has taken his AEX and Munma formations to various venues in Lebanon (the Basement, Club Social, the Byblos Festival…), as well as abroad, while Nabil Saliba’s previous drumming duties with Franco-Lebanese rock band New Government also induced its fair share of live performing… but neither one of them was quite ready for this.

The atmosphere at B018 that night was quite different from anything the boys had witnessed before, or anything this famed dance venue had come to present its audience. As it slowly filled up, there was a general feeling of anticipation, of eager expectation, good humored and friendly, regarding this live electronic/dance concert, these two bands’ first in B018 . And those patient enough to wait for them to take the stage at 3am, were not disappointed.

Djette Caroline (Jawad’s wife) started warming the crowd at 2am, and had a hard time getting a grip on the venue’s rugged equipment, seeing that the available CD players had presumably been taken to hell and back by previous hard-hitting hordes of DJ’s, both local and foreign. She played a decent set, consisting mostly of breaks and electro-house, until Munma and Trash Inc. were urged to take the stage by an impatient crowd. From the beginning, they established the tone of the proceedings: an insistent, pumping electronic beat filtered through the speakers, giving them free rein to layer swathes of intricate loops and sounds. Nabil on synths and laptop-operated machinery, Jawad on yet another set up of computers and machines (I believe he brought out his new Pad for the occasion…) meshed and mingled a vast array of sounds, ranging from house-ish beats, minimal glitches and clicks, to synthesized, farting riffs straight out of 80’s and 90’s early dance productions. They even threw in some vocals in the mix, to the general delighted disbelief of their fans and friends, now filling B018 to the brim.

As their set proceeded, the boys scaled some unexpected heights, even for those of us who had become habituated to their oblique musical directions. They created a dense, compact core of beat-based reverberation, allowing them to geneerate a vast array of intricate sounds, which were then looped back and forth, then layered again to create a bright, shining sound-mass hovering between breaks, electro, and hard hitting tech-house.

Fine stuff, indeed.

You can now listen to a full section of the concert, by clicking on the following link:

munma-trash-inc-live-b018

 

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