If you think kitsch Arab singers are the representatives of Lebanon’s musical scene, Stop right here. Forget Nancy and Haïfa and discover the emerging alternative Lebanese scene…
They’re called Scrambled Eggs, Soap Kills or Sabanou, they are young, creative, full of talent and represent what we can call the New Lebanese Musical scene.
These bands are the mirror of the Post Civil War Lebanese Society: a mix of Western and Eastern influences, of Old traditional songs or instruments combined with the latest electro touch, a whole new universe where the ‘oud meets the computer. You’ll be able to find just about anything for everyone’s taste: thus, while bands like Scrambled Eggs might remind you of Radiohead, the sweet and sensual voice of Yasmin Hamdan, singer of Soap Kills, will leave you somewhere between Portishead and Fairuz.
These young people usually come from the Beirut middle class, still live in Lebanon but have traveled a lot, met at school or at University and have in common their deep passion for music, coupled with their will to revive Lebanon’s artistic scene. They grew up listening to Fairuz and traditional Arab musicians and can tell you everything about Marcel Khalife but they’ll have no trouble debating the quality of the Electro Scene. When jazz musician Toufic Farroukh dedicates one of his jazz songs to Fairuz in a concert in Geneva by saying “the world would be a better place if there were more Fairuz don’t you think?” he clearly makes the link between old and new and perfectly illustrates of a will to marry the traditional voices of the Lebanese art scene with new sounds and new influences.
Lost somewhere amid the plethora of over made up manufactured Arab singers and Western bands, part of the Lebanese youth couldn’t really relate to neither of them and felt the need to express themselves in a Lebanese way that would reflect their identity and love for music. The movement started slowly, with the odd concert here and there in Beirut’s abandoned buildings ( some of them still in ruins), concerts to which only close friends and family would go, to then evolve and spread widely afterwards. Nowadays, Scrambled Eggs or Soap Kills albums are awaited, and part of the hip Lebanese youngsters are eager to attend their concerts. Now such events take place during festivals like Lebanon’s Jazz Festival or in Universities. The phenomenon is now spreading so much that the sensuous and magical voice of Yasmin Hamdan is now the other half of the new duet Y.A.S, the other half being Mirwaïs. Go on, you remember Mirwaïs. Yes, that’s him, Madonna’s favorite DJ. That’s the one. Miss Hamdan is thus whispering on their new album, Arabölogy. In Arabic. Other bands like Lumi are now touring Europe and recoding in Germany, while their video is being directed by young director Sary Sehnaoui.
Sehnaoui is a good example of the richness and resourcefulness of the “Young Turks” of the Lebanese art scene. A movie and clip director, Sehnaoui, aka DJ HEAR is also a permanent DJ at the Beirut club the Basement. This ability to multitasking ensure a freshness and a certain talent to mix different influences and different art fields.
This new alternative scene often goes beyond music to become an integral part of a wider contemporary art scene. This isn’t about only music anymore, this is about performance. And performance you’ll see, with artists such as Mazen Kerbaj, whose experimental work can be hard to grasp but at least show a will to make the revolution happen in the art field in Lebanon. This stream has expanded to such an extent that Beirut now hosts the Irtijal Festival, an International festival of free improvisation and experimental music, which attracts contemporary artists from the world over and offers a strong Lebanese participation. If you still have any doubt about the new Lebanese Art scene vivid activity, just visit the Al Maslakh (the slaughterhouse) website, which self proclaimed itself the “ufo created to publish the unpublishable in the Lebanese artistic scene”.
Music, performance art, experimental art… Beirut has always been known as the most important cultural platform in the Middle East: this was true before the Civil War, and this is still true nowadays. Although experimental art can be both shocking for some and have an elitist side, it is good to know that such movements can still happen in the Middle East and offer a means for some people to express themselves. Lebanese may have suffered a lot over the last decades, they may have traveled a lot, left their home country, but they still take their homeland with them wherever they go. The outcome of all those changes and blends is a bubbling cosmopolitan cultural life that just needs to be (re)discovered.