A new compilation of contemporary Lebanese music reveals a vibrant and diverse soundtrack.
Golden Beirut: Broad sweep of styles and influences
According to a commonly heard Levantine proverb, "Es-sukut akhul -rada" ("Silence is the brother of agreement"). It is unlikely, though, that any of the artists featured on a new compilation of contemporary Lebanese music would agree with this time-honoured pearl of wisdom. Curated by the German ethnomusicologist Thomas Burkhalter, Golden Beirut focuses on the output of a small but growing network of proudly outspoken musicians working in one of the main cultural centres of the Middle East.
Much like modern Beirut itself, the album's content takes in a broad sweep of styles and influences, from east to west and further afield. Including skinny-jeaned indie rock and traditional folk music, regional hip-hop and throbbing electro-punk, it aims to offer an introduction, not just to the soundtrack of young people in a frequently misunderstood corner of the globe, but some insight into their lives and concerns, too.
In both respects, it does an admirable job. Although the title makes knowing reference to the city's past - the pre-civil war "golden years" of the 1960s - the content is resolutely of the present day. Delivered in the global linguistic palette of generations forced to relocate around the world for reasons of both conflict and economics, its dozen-strong tracklisting is dominated by political themes; from Lebanon's continued growth and commercialisation to issues of gender, identity and the many perceived failings of the nation's legislative system.
By and large, however, the artists it highlights shy away from propagandist stances, opting instead for nuanced, personal perspectives and, in many cases, a fine line in dark humour. Nowhere is this more evident than in The New Government's eponymous contribution. Backed by swirling synths and spiky guitars, the lyrics paint a bleakly comic picture of political life in Lebanon, filled with thinly veiled references to the assassinations of figures such as Rafiq Hariri and the newspaper editor Gebran Tueni: "I killed the prime minister, I killed a famous journalist ... I blew his car in the daytime, I blew his car in the crowd."
As a city with a nascent but increasingly influential hip-hop culture, it comes as no surprise that this genre is well represented, nor to find that it also offers many of the album's best observations. On Intikhabeit 2009, the rapper and TV host Malikah tackles the conflicts and tensions attendant to that year's general election. Her Arabic-language rhymes encourage people to "vote for your rights, vote to have your voice heard, not just because people come from your sect or religion". Meanwhile, guest rapper Zoog calls for a city in which "different movements" do more than merely coexist and instead actively work together; a charge that many of these acts are fulfilling, both artistically and in a much wider sense.
The reality of fruitful cross-fertilisation shines through in Wael Kodeih's Rayess Bek, an orchestral hip-hop group that fuses typical Middle Eastern instrumentation such as the oud and ney flute with undulating synthetic beats and intricately wrought lyrics delivered in a mix of Arabic and French. Similarly, Ziyad Sahhab's sublime Rawak could only have been written by a man with a deep knowledge of Arabic popular song - think Um Kalsoum and Mohammed Abdel Wahhab - and an abiding love of western songcraft, from Jacques Brel to Leonard Cohen. The singer, instrumentalist and songwriter Zeid Hamdan, represented by two of his projects, blends minimal electronics with fragile song structures that, while modest in their arrangement, still link back to the opulent torch songs popularised by the first lady of Lebanese music, Fairuz. Of the two, this canonical inspiration is most immediately apparent in Ahwak by ShiftZ and Hiba el Mansouri, which drapes plaintive female vocals over a bed of faintly flamenco-influenced acoustic guitars. Yet even on Soapkills's Herzan, an endearing slice of Casio-keyboard reggae, the ghosts of classic Lebanese music haunt the spaces between the beats, like an Arabic St Etienne.
In many ways, the informal, polyglot approach taken to the production of much of this music is mirrored in the way it circulates. With the exception of Mashrou' Leila, a seven-member folk-fusion group that can command audiences in the thousands, the artists featured on Golden Beirut are most accurately classified as "alternative" or, at best, of niche interest. Accordingly, their work is distributed on limited pressings sold at live performances in the domestic market and made accessible to interested parties in the rest of the world via the internet (a key portal for further exploration being the web imprint and music store forwardmusic.net).
Far from being a handicap, this small-scale, independent status is positive in at least a couple of senses. Firstly, a certain lack of visibility generally allows these musicians the freedom to say what they want without running afoul of Lebanon's notoriously tricky censorship laws - but not always: Hamdan was briefly detained earlier this year for writing and performing a song deemed insulting to the president, Michel Suleiman - and the lack of major-label budgets forces most artists to adopt an idiosyncratic and appealingly rough-hewn DIY aesthetic.
Such is the charm of the punk-dance duo Lumi, who contribute an unprintably titled track that matches the best of Le Tigre and Chicks on Speed in terms of both attitude and sheer volume. Also see Serge Yared and Fadi Tabbal, who form the core of the gloriously aptly named Incompetents. Although both men are probably quite talented, it is actually difficult to tell, thanks to the company they choose to keep. The Incompetents' central MO is to rope in anyone who happens to be anywhere near them to play instruments and bang things, irrespective of their suitability to do so. This eventually leads to tracks such as Disposable Valentine, a fractured and shambolically unvarnished improvisation sure to tug at the heartstrings of outsider music fans.
Given that this is an album focused on a spirited, developing scene, a few missteps are also inevitable. In addition to being one of the worst-named bands in the history of rock music, Scrambled Eggs offer up three minutes of lyrical banality and ill-advised interpolation on Russian Roulette. It's a curious choice of opening track, given that rather than nodding to The Stooges and The Strokes, this trio make the mistake of clinging to their influences like awestruck teenage groupies. Meanwhile, the crystalline production and strident Arabic flows of Katibe 5, a firebrand rap crew from the Palestinian refugee camp of Bourj el Barajneh, are almost entirely undermined by a closing verse that caricatures Jamaican dancehall toasting in the most reductive and unflattering way possible.
However, these minor misgivings are easily forgotten, especially by the time one gets to Praed, an intriguing outfit that got its start a short while back when a musician from Lebanon and one from Switzerland met at Irtijal, Beirut's annual festival of experimental sounds. In their work, Raed Yassin uses found objects and effects pedals to manipulate a double bass, while Paed Conca deploys modified guitars, clarinets and an array of "open-source electronics". Given these methods, it is tempting to expect an impenetrable tangle of abrasive feedback and skronking free-jazz instrumentation. Not a bit of it.
Rocket reworks a song by the Egyptian shaabi star Mahmoud el Husseini, taken from the 2008 movie Al Farah, into a scorching, 21st-century take on the genre. While significantly more polished than the vernacular wedding recordings that catapulted the Syrian dabke singer Omar Souleyman to widespread acclaim, this is no less visceral, jack-knifing corroded cassette samples and ad-libbed chants into the original track's roiling percussion and propulsive vocals.
Really, there's no better illustration of Beirut's infectious energy and the way its young people are forging their own distinct identity by looking to the future and drawing from the rich heritage of their hometown. It's a combination of forces that deserves a wider audience and sets a sterling example for other nations in the region to follow. After all, even if the city's musical scene may not be quite ready to take over the world, it's well on its way to significantly altering one particular corner of it - and much for the better, too.
Dave Stelfox is a freelance journalist and photographer from London. His work has appeared in The Guardian, The Independent, The Daily Telegraph and a number of other publications around the world.