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