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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,

‘A glance at Beirut’s contemporary alternative musical scene’ was written for the magazine ELLE ORIENT.

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

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This album marks the first foray into musical territory by talented Lebanese photographer Joanna Andraos. The young artist has spent several years studying classical piano, and has taken this knowledge to some strange, unexpected places on this sophomore album, released on Beirut’s Incognito Records. The record dexterously assembles classical strands and influences with modern, computer-generated sound constructions. The end result is reminiscent of Brian Eno’s Ambient Music series, tempered with a Middle Eastern edge and spiked with wandering electronics. The latter come courtesy of Jawad Nawfal aka Munma, who appears on several tracks, and whose unmistakable clicks and glitches make for some highly dramatic intrusions.

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Audio 1: Chorouq

Audio 2: Abyss (Aequo Remix)

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Following an intense year performing live in Lebanon and abroad, Munma return to the studio in 2007 to deliver the 2nd volume of what is rumored to be a trilogy, hovering around the Lebanese-Israeli war of July 2006. The band’s familiar layers of synthesized sounds are augmented with a formidable array of processed bleeps and glitches, excerpts from radio speeches and political discourses, as well as expertly diverted samples of traditional Arabic instruments. The only live electronics band of its kind in Lebanon has managed to deliver yet another haunting masterpiece, a record that seems to defy any possible categorization and labeling, posed somewhere between ambient soundscapes, moody electronica, and weary world music.

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Audio 1: Pluie D’ete

Audio 2: IRM

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[Article written for PRIME JORDAN MAGAZINE]

Despite the traces and scars of numerous battles and confrontations, the city of Beirut manages to this day, as the song goes, to “shake itself up, dust itself off, and start all over again”… This constant state of rejuvenation is found in various walks of Lebanese life, but more so in the fields of art, and especially that of music.

The city of Beirut and its neighborhoods are alive with the sounds, sonorities and tunes of hundreds of musicians, moving at ease between different styles and categories, from traditional workouts to oriental jazz, from rap to punk, and from dance-floor electro to more nuanced strands of electronica…

In a city famous from its happy blending of cultures and influences, Lebanese bands also operate a mixture of genres: Soapkills’ explosive cocktail of traditional Arabic music and electro has made them the best-known duo of the Middle Eastern Underground, and one of its finest exports. Their first album, Bater, features outstanding contributions from local jazz musicians Rabih Mroué (flute) and Walid Sadek (trumpet).

The Soapkills’ main man, Zeid Hamdan, is also a towering presence on the rock scene, as guitar player with the New Government. The latter are the true dandies of the Lebanese rock scene. Coming from different musical backgrounds, the perfect synergy these five musicians create has already resulted in the New Government Strikes album, which combines great melodies and subtlety with punk energy and style. Flashes of British ‘60s psychedelia (Kinks, Small Faces) abound, interspersed with modern flourishes.

In another corner of the rock ‘front’, stand the Scrambled Eggs. By far one of the most interesting alternative rock bands operating in Beirut today, the Scrambled Eggs’ music is dark, strange and fascinating, and provides the perfect soundtrack to post-war Beirut.
Over the course of 3 albums, and then some, the band has managed to create its own distinctive sound, a fine mesh of guitars and noises, pushing to the extreme the search for harmony in chaos.

Jawad Nawfal knows a great deal about the fine line(s) between harmony and chaos. Not content with his status as Beirut’s first and foremost Drum&Bass/HardTech DJ, he has created an alter-ego for his more ‘restrained’ musical ventures, under the moniker Munma. The band’s first release, 34 Days, is a set of 6 electro-ambient tracks, featuring minimal beats, ominous vocal samples, and a rich tapestry of interlocking, layered sounds. 34 Days recalls the ethereal, hushed moods of Warp label artists such as Boards of Canada and Aphex Twin at their ambient best; with an oriental twist, added for good measure.

Last but not least, Beirut’s rap scene is filled with various luminaries: Ashekman, RGB, Kitayoun, Katibe Khamse, and of course Rayess Bek… Wael Kodeih (aka Rayess Bek) single-handedly created the Lebanese rap scene in the ‘90s with his band Aks’ser. They’ve been growing ever since, and released their first full-fledged album on major label EMI in 2006. Wael’s solo project Rayess Bek has allowed him to deal with more serious issues; he raps about social, economical and political problems: the corrupt government of his country, a society on the brink of collapse, and disoriented youth.

Ziad Nawfal

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In July 2006, as another edition of the Lebanese-Israeli war raged around them, Lebanese rockers Scrambled Eggs went into the studio to mark down on record their most abrasive and violent set yet. Gone are the moody and introspective ramblings of their 3 previous albums, as the Eggs aim straight for the jugular in this short set (5 tracks) of angry and scorching punk nuggets, which bring to mind both the recent experimentations of Sonic Youth and the rash energy of early Pil and Cure.

The album also includes a remix of the track ‘Bleeding Nun’ by Lebanese electronica artist Munma.

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Audio 1: Bleeding Nun

Audio 2: Johnny Anti-Christ

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[Photo ©Ghadi Smat/grand-ecart.com]

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Although this is his first CD release on the Lebanese market, Jawad Nawfal has been active on the local dance scene for a solid number of years, under a variety of guises (AEX, Ae_quo, etc.). ’34 Days’ is a set of 6 electro-ambient tracks, featuring minimal beats, ominous vocal samples, and a rich tapestry of interlocking, layered sounds.

The album was recorded during Israel’s attacks on Lebanon in the summer of 2006, which explains to some extent the overall sombre and introspective mood of the tracks. At times, ’34 Days’ recalls the ethereal, hushed moods of Warp label artists such as Boards of Canada and Aphex Twin at his ambient best; with an oriental twist, added for good measure.

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Audio 1: Yaqiin

Audio 2: Qana

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