Meet the region's most exciting underground music scene on Golden Beirut
Thanks to its unique blend of openness and edginess, Beirut is home to the Middle East's most exciting underground music scene.
It's a bizarre twist of fate for the war-torn city, now luxuriating in designer labels, posh hotels and hip bars, one being celebrated with the release of the new CD compilation Golden Beirut: New Sounds from Lebanon on the German label Outhere Records.
In the late 1990s, two seminal bands - the Arab electronica duo Soapkills and the Levantine grunge combo Scrambled Eggs - kick-started a trend among the well-travelled youth of central Beirut for sub-radar DIY music making.
Thomas Burkhalter, the Swiss PhD guru of digitalisation and globalisation behind the Golden Beirut compilation, says the roots of the Beirut scene go much deeper back in time, to the Lebanese psychedelic rock boom of the 1960s, when upwards of 200 bands jostled for attention in the city.
Beirut is now a funhouse of grunge, electro, glam, experimental, free-jazz and hip-hop bands who put on gigs at venues such as BO18, The Basement, EMChill, Monot Theatre, Medina Theatre and the Art Lounge. Over the past decade, a steady stream of CDs have been released on labels such as Incognito (defunct), Ruptured and Those Kids Must Choke, with covers that would sit proudly in any cutting-edge CD emporium in the world. There's even an annual free-improv-electro-jazz festival called Irtijal. It's all very unexpected and very thrilling.
"There's more liberty here than in the rest of the Arab world," explains Charbel Haber, the lead guitarist of Scrambled Eggs and a prime mover behind other local projects. "The Lebanese are always looking for an identity. We're forever teenagers. In other Arab countries you have more of a very dominant national identity. There's not much room for soul searching, and the majority breaks you down. In Lebanon you can breathe more easily."
"Maybe it's because the Lebanese have always travelled a lot thanks to the various precarious situations in the country," muses Ziad Nawfal, a local producer and presenter of Ruptures, a programme on the national Radio Liban 96.2FM that is the listening post of the alt Beirut scene.
"Kids studied or lived abroad during the war. They listened to grunge and alternative music and brought it back. A lot of people here identified with grunge, with Kurt Cobain, and this whole idea of translating your angst through music. And the fact that Beirut has always been very cosmopolitan makes it interesting for musicians to play here."
It almost seems as though war can be good for music - a question Haber has been often asked.
"At the end of the day, war is a human experience like any other. It makes you use different colours in your music. It changes your palette," he says.
Nawfal explains that the first three albums by Munma, an intriguing experimental Beirut band led by Nawfal's brother Jawad, were a direct reaction to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 2006, and the bombing of Beirut that took place that year.
In fact, it isn't war itself that injects fire into the bellies of Beirut's left-field musical pioneers; it's the uncertainty that's an inevitable part of war.
"It's not a sense of despair, but a sense of 'this is the album I'm supposed to make right now and I'll put all of my angst into it because maybe I won't have the chance to make another'. With a lot of these albums, you get the feeling they're definitive statements," Nawfal explains.
"This state of mind doesn't only come from the last war, it comes from the country's history," Haber adds. "Lebanon is an unstable atom, it always changes, geopolitically. I think our brains work in a hell of a crazy way to deal with it."
The Beirut scene produces music far outweighing the size of the scene itself, both in terms of artistic quality and quantity. Nawfal reckons it encompasses 30 musicians, huddled together in the downtown districts of Achrafiyeh and Hamra, jumping in and out of each other's projects like some musical version of free love.
Most of them are sufficiently well off to make music that the glitzy Arabic pop mainstream is happy to ignore. There are exceptions, including the Nietzsche-quoting rap crew Katibe 5, who were born and raised in the squalor of the Burj El Barajneh Palestinian refugee camp in southern Beirut.
Apart from the Balkan-salsa pop mash-up band Mashrou3 Leila - who have bridged the gap between the underground and the mainstream, playing regularly to audiences of 5,000 all over the Arab world - a typical Beirut alternative gig won't sell more than 200 tickets.
Then again, there is a precedent: amazing music emerging from a tiny scene battling against obscurity in some eccentric city off the musical map.
The Beirut sound is resolutely cosmopolitan, a fact that disturbs some nostalgics of mellifluous Arab scales, but has the advantage of making the world its oyster.
"The Lebanese are more like citizens of the world. If anyone out there has an idea of what a Lebanese band should sound like, I would love to talk to them," says Haber. "Because, personally, I have no idea at all."
Golden Beirut: New Sounds from Lebanon is out now on the German label Outhere Records
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Updated: November 15, 2011 04:00 AM