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Guitarist Sharif Sehnaoui is the head of Irtijal, a festival for experimental music in Beirut. Dave Stelfox for The National
Guitarist Sharif Sehnaoui is the head of Irtijal, a festival for experimental music in Beirut. Dave Stelfox for The National

Improvisational sounds run free in Beirut

Sharif Sehnaoui has brought the ideas of free jazz and improvisation into Beirut's music scene, through is record label and the forthcoming Irtijal festival of unusual music-making.

"We had some worries before we started playing in Beirut," says Sharif Sehnaoui. "We thought that our work would end up getting us into trouble … you know, people accusing us of destroying music, of being crooks who were just pretending that we knew what we were doing. Eventually, those fears did come true, but most often we were just told that we should go back to school and learn how to play properly."

Watching a live show at Cafe Oto in East London, a venue widely viewed as the UK's foremost centre for avant-garde and experimental music, it is hard to imagine anyone having such negative reactions. From a single electric guitar, Sehnaoui coaxes strange and wonderful sounds. Simple strumming bleeds into a plastic ruler squealing against its strings and frets, then come intricate, metallic patterns picked out in the manner of a hammered dulcimer. Underpinned by deep drones made by bending the body and neck almost to breaking point, one 25-minute piece accompanied by the French soprano saxophonist Stephane Rives and the drummer Roger Turner builds to an orchestral intensity, its creator hunched over his instrument, eyes closed, lost in spontaneous composition.

"Still, if you look back into the history of free jazz, you learn that kind of reaction is quite normal. There was a time when people got together to beat up Ornette Coleman after his concerts," Sehnaoui says, referring to the pioneering musician's time at the Five Spot club in Greenwich Village - a six-week residency in 1959 that both outraged jazz purists and laid the groundwork for some of the genre's most adventurous and rewarding recordings. "My main worry was that, this being Lebanon, any attacks that might happen could be a little more violent than they might have been in New York back then. I'm sure some people probably feel the same way about what I do now; I just don't hear so much about it these days."

The most likely reason for this is that he is far too busy. In addition to playing live shows around the world, recording and running the critically acclaimed Al Maslakh (The Slaughterhouse) record label, 36-year-old Sehnaoui is the director of one of the Lebanese capital's most noteworthy cultural events. Now in its 13th year, Irtijal (which translates simply as Improvisation) is an aptly named annual showcase of forward-thinking music co-founded with the cartoonist and trumpeter Mazen Kerbaj.

"Mazen and I met in the mid-1990s, just as I was starting to think that all the things I had learnt about music were actually a problem," Sehnaoui recalls. "I had studied classical piano from the age of five and moved on to other instruments, but wanted to forget everything and play completely differently. I tried to do that with people who had the same training as me, but it didn't really work. Then I came up with the idea that it might be better to work with others who had not learnt to play in a conventional way. I started to encourage people I knew to just pick up an instrument and do whatever they wanted with it. Most of them tried a few times and gave up, but some kept going. They included Mazen, who I gave a very old and bad Yamaha trumpet to at first, and my wife at the time, Christine Abdelnour, who now plays alto saxophone. It may sound like a funny thing to say, but I was basically trying to create musicians from scratch, using my friends."

Haphazard as they may sound, these informal sessions planted the seeds of a creative community and provided a space to explore the possibilities of music unencumbered by historic association and cultural baggage. Initially inspired by the free jazz of Coleman, Cecil Taylor and Albert Ayler, Sehnaoui and his friends dug down deeper. It wasn't far to go from the Art Ensemble of Chicago to the European response: on the one hand, figures such as the German saxophonist Peter Brötzmann, whose work maintained strong links with jazz tradition, and on the other, British artists including the saxophonist Evan Parker and guitarist Derek Bailey, who were both heading into completely uncharted territory.

"At first, we got really into the British approach because it was so different to the American free jazz that we knew," Sehnaoui explains. "All that experimentation … that was exactly where we wanted to go. When I fell in love with jazz, I knew I wanted to become a musician, but the idea of becoming a jazzman from Beirut really troubled me. Jazz is connected to a very specific history, but when I stumbled into free improvisation, I felt that I had found something that was not. When I first heard Derek Bailey, although I knew he was English, it was impossible to tell from his music. He could have been American, from somewhere else in Europe, from South America. It was a style of music that was free from identity, but at the same time one that you could make your own.

"Speaking to my friends at the time, it became very clear to me that, as people from this country, many of us felt that we were between different worlds … we had influences from the East and from the West, from the past and the present. People from Lebanon have lived all over the world and come back, and people have come here from other countries. There is a little bit of everything here and all of that makes us who we are. The idea of not repeating things that already existed and, instead, creating music that was totally new and reflected who we were was very appealing to us."

This ethos can certainly be seen in the work of Praed, who follow Sehnaoui on to the stage. Combining bursts of improvised clarinet with fragments of Arabic chaabi and dabke, the Lebanese/Swiss duo of Raed Yassin and Paed Conca whip up a sonic storm. It is random and rough-edged, yet conceptually sophisticated. Most strikingly, it is also very funny. Throughout the show Yassin bounces up and down behind his laptop, larks about on the microphone, takes telephone calls and, as a grand finale, steps out to perform a karaoke-style parody duet with a recording by the Egyptian popstar Mahmoud El Husseiny.

Yassin is also one of Sehnaoui's partners in Annihaya, a second record label, that "seeks to distort boundaries of popular music". In many ways, this mission statement could equally apply to this year's instalment of Irtijal. Taking place over four days and three venues, the event's programme focuses heavily on artists with roots in Lebanon and the wider region - from the guitar duo of Charbel Haber and Fadi Tabbal to a collaboration between the British-Iraqi multi-instrumentalist Khyam Allami on oud and the Egyptian electronic musician Maurice Louca.

As ever, though, Irtijal casts a wide net. After years as a free-improv percussionist, the Dutch artist Gert-Jan Prins now specialises in "producing and manipulating white and pink noise". Meanwhile, the Hungarian drummer Balázs Pándi and Matt Whittaker, one half of the crepuscular British duo Demdike Stare, will perform separate electronic sets. It's the kind of line-up one would struggle to find anywhere else in the world: diverse yet cohesively curated, uncompromising yet just accessible enough. Somehow, though, Sehnaoui and Kerbaj have managed to create an environment where that now seems like business as usual.

Irtijal runs from April 3 to 6. For tickets and further details, visit www.irtijal.org.

Dave Stelfox is a regular contributor to The Review.

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