Show Review: “Untitled Tracks” Book Launch

FI-NAL-LY! I’m back in the saddle! What can I say? Things had slowed down for everyone at the beginning of this year. Sure there has been activity on and off, and of course the still-getting-warmed-up Greedy Ears Sessions, but I’ve been busy with my own affairs and whenever I’m not, it happens that the event is going down too late into the night, for my schedule at least. But as luck would have it, along comes this perfect package of an event! The launching of local photographer Tanya Traboulsi’s photo-book “Untitled Tracks” with live music by some of the artists featured in the book itself, who would be Fareeq el Atrash, Youmna Saba, Scrambled Eggs, The Incompetents and a warm-up DJ set by DJ Lethal Skillz. The book features Traboulsi’s own photos of local musicians, along with text by several contributors among which is Ziad Nawfal, so you know this’ll be worth it. Why was it so convenient though? You don’t really need to know this at all, but I do like to add an autobiographical touch to these posts, so sue me. The starting time was 7:00 PM (though the live music portion didn’t come in until later), and the conclusion was set for 10:00 PM. Just to put things into perspective, the performances at The Greedy Ears Sessions START at 10:30 PM… Also, it was a book release, not a party per-se (fi sa2afe’ bil ossa).

 -Before the Show: The location was Gruen Eatery in the Gefinor center. Initially, there was some confusion concerning the exact location, but eventually I managed to locate it.

 One of the other allures of this particular shindig was that it was a “family reunion” of sorts. I attribute this aspect to Tanya. If she were to only photograph rappers, you’d find the place packed with MCs and b-boys, but no, with her photos she slices off a thick chunky piece of this cake we call Beirut’s alternative music scene, including many of the different layers that constitute it, icing, sprinkles, chocolate syrup… yes, the scene is certainly quite delectable, and that night everyone, both seasoned undergrounders and curious newbies, was about to get a taste of it. In non-culinary terms, Tanya’s photography spans a wide area of the scene from rock to electronic and it’s rare for the players of each specific genre to come together like this, but then again, it’s not everyday that a book on the music scene is released, let alone a photo-book.

 I kicked off the night by greeting familiar faces here and there. Some of these people I hadn’t seen in months… I eventually made my way to the back of the room where the photographer herself was seated at a table busily signing copies of the book to eager purchasers. Ziad Nawfal, seated besides her, suggested I browse the book first before I buy, so I did and I was quite pleased with it for a first glance. I coughed up the price of $30, which was fair taking into account that it’s a photo-book, not an issue of Samandal… (which costs around 5,000 L.L).

 The mainstream media made its presence evident. Here and there cameramen were snapping away, shooting footage.

 The next hour or so was spent mingling, greeting, and mingling… I got to meet DJ Lethal Skillz for the first time. He’s the only locally operating turntablist I know of. There’s a difference between a DJ and a turntablist; A DJ plays music on the turntables. A turntablist makes music with the turntables. I’ll try elaborating on this obsession someday, but for now: it is, when a sound’s pitch is in rapid arbitrary fluctuation, being silenced at irregular intervals; it is, beauty.

 -The Show: Skillz packed up and Fareeq el Atrash were the ones who’d get the ball rolling. The performance area was almost perfect. Just an open space, no pillars or anything like the last show I had been to (Last Crate Session at Walimat Warde’) Fun fact: Fareeq el Atrash are the band I have seen live the most times up till this day, so I’ve come to get accustomed to their shows. As “Atrash Tradition” decrees, they must start off every gig with a bit I’ve dubbed “Introduction Song” (this one). It’s a nice little opener that features FZ doing his solo beatboxing and comical commentary skits that range from a soccer match to a formula 1 race, not to mention Edd explaining the circumstances under which they are here tonight (they change the location mentioned in the song and who invited them to play accordingly). The people were digging it. Following that was a song I believe I’ve heard before but am not exactly sure of its title. You see, l’Fareeq have yet to release any sort of track list, and the tracks on their pre-album (available for download right here) are rarely played, so we’re all really in the dark concerning their set lists at this point, but hopefully that will be cleared up when they release their album (for real) this summer. The crowd was into it and responded well to Edd and Chyno’s cues to repeat after him and clap to the tempo. The next song was one I actually did recognize and knew the name of. It was “L’Njoum 3am Te2rab” and it was played very well as usual. I’ve seen all of these played before, so there wasn’t much that was new to me to take notice of, however, they did extend the “Rapper’s Delight” part of that song and I had never heard that before (the song features a breakdown sampling the bassline from “Rapper’s Delight” by rap crew The Sugarhill Gang, a nod to the old-school hip hop that has a great influence in the band’s sound). Legend has it/ FZ told me, that they once extended that breakdown for about 15 minutes when they were playing at The Basement (either their own gig that went down last November or opening for Termanology), and at that show there was their trombonist and other musicians who joined in. For me, it was another great Fareeq el Atrash performance, for people who had never seen them before, it was hopefully their gateway into the funky world of l’Fareeq…

 Some music was put on while the next act got ready. I was getting thirsty. There was literally nothing but beer…

 Youmna Saba was getting started, playing acoustic guitar, accompanied by Fadi Tabbal on electric guitar. Unfortunately, I was at the far end of the room. As I made my way back to the performance area I managed to pick up on Youmna’s Arabic lyrics, layered over a moody blues tune. Then as soon as it began, it was over. Supposedly they were two pieces, but I only managed to catch three-fourths of a song… oh well.

 More transitional music followed… Still thirsty.

 Following Youmna were Scrambled Eggs. I was surprised by the lack of drum kit. That along with the setup that was slowly taking form before me led me to the conclusion that they will be playing some free improvised music, probably in order to get people psyched about the performance they will be giving as part of the “Prelude to Irtijal” this coming Tuesday at Masrah el Madina with fellow improv all-stars Mazen Kerbaj, Sharif Sehnaoui, and Raed Yassin. Malek Rizkakallah sat before a hi-hat with a snare drum on the floor. Tony Elieh laid his electric bass on a seat in front of him, its strings slackened, two metal plates/ bowls placed under them on different parts of the neck, a stick in each hand. Charbel Haber held his guitar in the traditional fashion, on a seat within reach he had a screwdriver, steel wool, and somekind of screwdriver-like tool with ridges along it, like a screw, and of course his plethora of pedals, blinking and flashing around his feet. Haber rapidly strummed his guitar, making one extended high pitched “birrrrr”. That was the first sound. I can’t recall the exact order of each bit played, but Haber went on to play his guitar with that screwdriver-like utensil mentioned earlier producing a spine scraping squealing sound reminiscent of some wounded animal. Elieh tapped the strings, then the plates, then alternating between the two creating a percussive rythm. I was very amazed by his ability to hold a tempo for that long, that gave the sound a mechanical feel. Later on he would pick up the bass, removing the bowls, and play it by swiftly slapping it. Rizkallah tapped on his hi-hat, he banged on his snare with big fuzzy drumsticks, and he slid the top half of his hi-hat up and down the steel rod between it to make a creaking scrapoing sound. And gradually it all came to a halt. It was the second time I ever saw improvised music live, and personally I prefer seeing it live over listening to it prerecorded. I’d like to further discuss this issue in the future.

 Music was played while the final act set up… Should I stop nagging about the thirst and how secluded the location was from any supermarket, mini-market, or dekkaneh? I met Mazen Kerbaj for the first time during this break. He means a lot to me both musically and visually.

 Wrapping up the night were The Incompetents! Some people had seen enough and left with their books (including the camera crews), so the place became less dense. They were with their current “full” lineup, which now consists of Serge Yared, Fadi Tabbal, and Abed Kobeissy. To start off the set they played “Bullets Gently Flying Over My Head” with Abed Kobeissy on melodica, Fadi Tabbal on acoustic guitar and harmonica, and Serge Yared on vocals. Following that was “Disposable Valentine”, infamously quite on the album, but energetic in live performances. Yared was on cowbell and vocals, Tabbal still on acoustic guitar and harmonica, and Kobeissy on electric guitar (slide guitar even!) After that came one of their more recent songs, a song which I refer to as “Footnotes”. Kobeissy borrowed Fareeq el Atrash bassist John Imad Nasr’s headstock-less bass guitar and set it to an effect making it sound like more of a retro synth, very quirky. Concluding the set was a cover of Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side” with Kobeissy now playing buzuk. Fun fact: The first time I heard this song was on the way to the venue in the cab that night. I kid you not. Overall, every single song I’d heard prior had something new added to it, which was good of course.

 -After the Show: The book had been more than a year in the making and it couldn’t have been released a moment too soon and under such convenient circumstances too. Also noteworthy is how it was one of the few events I have been to that actually ended on the agreed-upon time. I’ll be posting some brief thoughts on the book soon.

-Photos:

*Personal: http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=402002&id=842365214&saved

 

Check out Tanya’s work here: http://www.tanyatraboulsi.com/

See Scrambled Eggs make this kind of noise again (with some extra friends too) here: http://www.facebook.com/home.php?ref=home#!/event.php?eid=332661693033&ref=ts

Life Without A Drumbeat

Photo by: Tony Elieh

A couple of months ago, I saw Sharif Sehnaoui perform some improvised music live at Walimat Wardeh as part of the “Crate Sessions” concert series. It was my first ever exposure to the genre of improvisational music and it really touched me, how it was so free and psychologically stimulating.

So I eventually had to go back to school, and every year we have a theme, and this year the theme was: “Drumbeat of Life”. “Oooh! Musical!” I thought with glee.

One day, while my mind was drifting from one thought to another, it occured to me that comapring life to music isn’t something to be done so hastily. What they are doing is claiming that since life has a drumbeat, or tempo, then it must be analogous to music, which also has a drumbeat. For what is music without tempo, rythm, or melody?… Improvised, that’s what.

I proceeded to write an article on the subject, but looking to present somekind of “proof” or living-example of sorts, I contacted Sharif, told him about my idea and that I would like to ask him a couple questions to be included, and he graciously agreed to cooperate.

Today, the article was published in the school gazette, albeit a shortened version with some mistakes due to their own editing here and there. So here is the article in full:

“Our theme for this year is “Drumbeat of Life” and what could be inferred from this theme is that life, like music, has a certain drumbeat, or tempo to be more specific, which it progresses in accordance to. The speed of the drumbeat determines the speed of the music, the speed of life’s drumbeat determines its pace. But what most have failed to acknowledge is that life cannot be compared to music this easily, because music itself does not necessarily need a drumbeat, tempo, rhythm, or melody. These may seem like the barrier between music and noise, but I assure you, when you open your mind you can find beauty in the most unexpected of places.

 This summer, I attended a performance by a musician who plays an uncommon breed of music. Sharif Sehnaoui, born 1976, is a guitarist, but he is not your average guitarist. He plays improvisational music. His guitar across his lap, with metal rods strategically wedged in between strings here and there, he caresses the strings and tickles the rods with two thin wooden sticks to produce a barrage of aural oddities. Sounds that dance in your ear, sounds that echo deep within your soul, and sounds that implant themselves in your mind and linger on for hours. When one hears the kinds of sounds he is capable of producing, “guitar” would definitely not be the first word to come to mind. This is just one of his set-ups, as there is no limit to what one can do in this genre.

 Lebanon has an evolving improvisational music scene, and Sharif is one of its most prominent figures, along with the trumpet player and comic artist Mazen Kerbaj, who also founded his own improvisational music record label “Al Maslakh”, and double bass player Raed Yassin. The fact that such music exists has a very powerful impact on the theme we have adopted this year, as it challenges it and could lead some to reconsider the meaning behind it, and not be so hasty as to claim that “life is like music because all music has a drumbeat”. Life can be like music, but it doesn’t necessarily need to have a drumbeat (tempo, rhythm, melody). So, to better illustrate this matter, I had an online interview with Sharif:

 1-What is improvised music?
Improvised music is a process initiated in the 1960s by groups of musicians around the globe, mostly coming out of the free jazz movement. It consists of improvising sounds and music without any score or pre-established rules, even the basic elements of music (melody, harmony, rhythm) do not apply. Basically the improvising musician is free to choose any sound he/she wants at any given moment according to his/her own choices and desires. An improvising musician is usually bound to developing his own personal musical language, that he/she can perform solo, or with other musicians involved in the same improvising process.

 2-When did you first start playing music in general? Did you start out playing music traditionally?
After playing piano as a child, then drums and percussion, I settled for the guitar, first in rock and blues contexts, and then I went to jazz school in Paris. From jazz I moved on to free improvised music, this was around 1998.

3-When and how did you begin improvisation? How did it affect you as a musician and artist?
I was playing jazz in Paris and attending a maximum number of concerts, I thus got to hear musicians such as Max Roach, Herbie Hancock and Archie Shepp among many, many others. Sometimes the bands would play some free jazz pieces which sounded really strange to me but got me curious. At that time in France there was a major CD reissue of the whole “Impulse” label catalogue, including the late free jazz explorations of John Coltrane and Pharaoh Sanders. The music struck me as some of the most powerful and passionate stuff in history. Finally, I got to hear major figures of free improvised music (Evan Parker, Fred Frith, Fred Van Hove), the strength and power of their live performances fascinated me. I started to try some things out on the guitar as well, then quit jazz school, and began improvising as much as I could.

 4-What is the importance of learning to tolerate music with no drumbeat, rhythm, or melody?
I find it necessary to appreciate music with no melody/harmony/rhythm because it helps expand the possibilities of the mind-ears combination. If you take Pink Floyd for example, they managed to create some of the greatest albums in the history of rock because they heard a lot of improvised and experimental music early on in their career, such as AMM. Electronic music as we know it today was also made possible by the research of early pioneers such as Pierre Henry, Iannis Xenakis and many others who used the machines to create new and abstract types of sounds.
As a general rule, it is always good to have as many different experiences in life as possible. That includes listening to as many different kinds of music as you can, and that includes music without melody/harmony/rhythm.

 5-How is life similar to improvised music?
Improvisation is a pro-eminent part of our daily lives. When engaged in a conversation with family, friends, or perfect strangers, do you often know exactly what they will say? Do you often know exactly how to reply? Do you know what sounds you will be hearing? Life is full of surprises and unexpected events, to which you must adapt, sometimes improvising your reaction in less than a split second, sometimes making mistakes, while other times making the right decision. Playing composed music, you know exactly which sound, note, rhythm you will be playing at every single moment. Playing improvised music, you have to make those decisions yourself.

 6-What is “Irtijal”?
Irtijal is our annual festival created in 2000 by Mazen Kerbaj and myself. It is usually a few days long, presenting 10 to 20 concerts of both Lebanese and international artists, coming from various backgrounds of free jazz, post-rock, contemporary and improvised music mostly. We have been trying to introduce the Lebanese audience to new experiences in music, by setting up performances by musicians who are little known to the public here, but have great artistic value. In April 2010 we will be holding our 10th anniversary edition.

 7-How would you advise aspiring Lebanese musicians?
I would advise them to keep searching and learning for as long as they can, because the world is evolving and changing every day. We must not go on imitating the music of the past but rather move on and embrace change. It is much more important to create music that is unique and personal than to imitate great figures of the past.

 Sharif’s latest projects include preparing for the 10th Anniversary Edition of the Irtijal Festival, Irtijal 2010, and an album of improvisational music where he and fellow improvisers such as Mazen Kerbaj and Raed Yassin collaborate with the Lebanese post-punk band Scrambled Eggs, who themselves are also not strangers to improvisation. They will be referred to as “Scrambled Eggs and Friends” and the album will be released through a newly established label by the name of “Johnny Kafta’s Kids Menu”.  

 Thus, I hope you have been enlightened on one of the various diverse forms of music that the 21st Century has given birth to, realizing not to immediately attach a drumbeat to music and have seen that there is more to Lebanese music than plastic electro-pop and antiquated love songs.

 You can learn more about Lebanese improvisational music by visiting these websites:

www.irtijal.org (with dates and locations of the shows for this year’s festival)

www.almaslakh.org (Mazen Kerbaj’s label for improvisational music)

 Or look for these CDs in any record store that carries releases by the Lebanese alternative music label “Incognito”:

-Kerbaj, Sehanoui, Yassine Trio – “A”

BAO – “BAO”

 Or for any CD in the Al Maslakh catalog in any record store that carries its releases.

 Notes:

-Max Roach was an American jazz drummer, percussionist, and composer.

-Herbie Hancock is an American jazz pianist and composer.

-Archie Shepp is an American jazz saxophonist.

-“Impulse” was an American Jazz record label.

-John Coltrane was an American jazz saxophonist and composer.

-Pharaoh Sanders is an American jazz saxophonist.

-Evan Parker is a British improvisational saxophonist.

-Fred Frith is an English multi-instrumentalist, composer, and improviser, best known for his work on the guitar.

-Fred Van Hove is a Belgian jazz musician and improviser.

-AMM are an important British improvisational group.

-Pierre Henry is a composer who is considered a pioneer of the musique concrète genre of electronic music.

-Iannis Xenakis was a Greek composer, music theorist and architect commonly recognized as one of the most important post-war avant-garde composers, pioneering the use of mathematical models in music, and also an important influence on the development of electronic music.”

As a bonus for you, here is an editorial I was asked to write, but it turns out they had decided on one already. Here, I dismiss the very notion of life having a drumbeat in the first place:

“What is a drumbeat? A musician might tell you that it is a perpetually repeating set of sounds produced by a set of drums and percussion instruments. In reality, a drumbeat can be anything from a visual drumbeat (a pattern of shapes and colors), mental drumbeat (thinking at a certain rate), or social drumbeat (living one’s life at a certain pace). Yes, drumbeats are not exclusive to drums.

The underlying concept here is the existence of a tempo, pace, or rate, which plays in unison to one’s personal actions, or the whole of life itself. But how does such a phenomenon occur? Why would life need to have a drumbeat?

In nature, the seasons come and go annually and never fail to do so one year after the other. Every year, we cycle through the calendar from the first agreed-upon day till the last. The sun rises and sets, and does so again and again. Nature is well acquainted with the concept of the cycle that progresses at a constant or variable rate. We humans took notice of this aspect of our environment and decided to label certain patterns with our own specially-crafted little terms, such as “winter”, “summer”, “day”, “night”, “January”, “December”, and countless others, so that we may hear this silent drumbeat that nature plays for itself.

When you assign a beginning and an end to something, you establish finiteness, but at the same time, while doing this, we discovered that this finiteness gets blurred due to being in an infinite cyclical pattern. The finiteness is infinite; Paradoxical eh? Think of it like lining up 50 pencils one after the other in a big circle. If you follow the trail you’ll find yourself going around in literal circles invariably, and never will it occur to you that this endless thing before you is not actually as perpetual as it seems, until you pluck one pencil from the circle, and establish that one end is the writing end (its beginning) and the other an eraser (its end), creating the notion of finiteness, and then put it back in where you picked it out, and see that this never-ending circle is in fact merely a series of pencils, each with an end and a beginning, and if you were to mark the aforementioned pencil as “pencil 1” for instance, you could go on to count every single pencil, and eventually find yourself back at “pencil 1”.

Yes, we are the drummers of life. It is us that impose our drumbeats on life and upon ourselves. So why exactly do we ourselves set tempos for nature, our thoughts, actions, or lives then?

We do so because what is infinite is unpredictable and mysterious, what cannot be predicted is unknown, and what is unknown is feared by human beings. We need schedules, routines, rituals, traditions, etc, because without them we find the world is cluttered. To put ourselves at ease, we craft a routine to follow, a cycle to complete time and again, at a certain pace that may or may not vary, thus feeling certain of our future, that our goal for today is to go from the first to the final step of the process, and when reaching that final step, to find comfort in the knowledge that after having accomplished that, the next step is to start all over again, and all of this does not overwhelm us, as it comes at a certain predetermined rate that we set for ourselves, as individuals and as a whole society. Though this pace is variable, adaption comes quickly in most cases.

Without constructing patterns, planning actions, or organizing thoughts, we would simply be left to fend for ourselves in the haziness of an inscrutable existence. Life dances to no drumbeat, but in fear of its radical unpredictability, we do the psychological tango with it, taking the lead, convinced that she’s dancing to her own drumbeat and that we are simply following it, not giving birth to it, while in reality, it’s all in our heads.

We want there to be drumbeats, for we rely on them to get us through our day-to-day lives, but what we sometimes fail to see is that there is joy to be found in taking risks and living a life where one’s entire day is not preplanned in some meticulously crafted intricate up-to-the-second timetable; Living a deaf life. I hope we all go deaf to the drumbeats of advertising, politics, fashion, and the judgmental owl eyes of society, and just strut through life with our own steps, at our own pace, to our own drumbeats.

But for now, we shall continue to maintain a sound mind and a cool head by tidying up the mess that is the world, preferably each in one’s own special way, taking pleasure in the knowledge that with the certain guidance of a constant beating of the proverbial drum, all is in the right rhythm…”

I made it all “happy-sappy” near the end, but in reality it’s all just a big delusion in my opinion really…