BOOK Review: “Untitled Tracks: On Alternative Music in Beirut”.

This image is property of Tanya Traboulsi.

“Untitled Tracks: On Alternative Music in Beirut”.

Photographs by Tanya Traboulsi.

Edited by Ziad Nawfal and Ghalya Saadawi.

I don’t usually do book reviews, but I’ll give it a go.

 Maybe this is just because I have quite the loose grip on the French language, but English is THE language to know no matter what country you live in or how old you are. Whoever knows neither English nor French must at least know Arabic. So, publishing it in English and Arabic: Good move.

 The fact that this is a look at the alternative music scene in Beirut in a certain time-frame, focusing on certain acts, not meticulously attempting to catalogue or archive is among the issues cleared up in Ghalya Saadawi’s introductory text. It also brings up some interesting details such as certain musicians’ work with other artistic mediums (ie. visuals, film), and the factor a post-war environment plays.

 Ziad Nawfal’s contribution is a historical narrative from his personal viewpoint. Out of anyone’s viewpoint, his is one I could trust, for he was there, and was a prominent player who helped several acts get established. I understand the fact that this is the evolution of the scene through his eyes, according to his experiences, but this was a rare opportunity to speak directly to the oblivious public, and it would have been better to tell the full story. Enlighten them on some of the pre-SoapKills acts that may have not been what we today consider “alternative”, but took the first steps in that direction. Munir Khauli with his early Arabic rock experiments. Even the iconic (yet somehow completely forgotten) Bendaly Family who occasionally would tap into rock for their pop songs (I’m not deeply immersed in their whole body of work, but this, with its English lyrics being sung in a Middle-Eastern scale and the shift to 70s rock mid-song, you can’t say that wasn’t at least semi-alternative in its day).

 When you are given the opportunity to show people the history of something, you might as well tell its full story. People may assume there’s nothing more to the scene than what Nawfal happened to be present for. I’m certain he himself knows of all the obscurities I’m referencing and even more that I could never hope to be familiar with (because I was not even born yet…), and that just makes disregarding them the more wasteful. Similarly is the exclusion of some contemporary activities that were going on in parallel with the ones mentioned, such as the heavy metal boom of the 90s. Just saying “there were several metal bands operating in that period, but I was not really involved in that genre of music” would have been sufficient. I understand that personalizing it was a choice, not due to unawareness of certain genres and artists. Regardless of this factor, what was mentioned was pretty accurate, in a convenient chronological order, and several genres were covered. Anyone who’s never heard of these bands would greatly benefit from reading this one text.

 Following that was Walid Sadek’s text, actually, a prelude to the next text. Sadek introduces us to a fellow by the name of Nizar Mroueh. Apparently, Mroueh was a highly revered music critic and commentator in the 60s. See, this is what I was expecting from Nawfal’s text: a look back into obscurity; interesting people and concepts existing ahead of their times. I never knew about Mroueh before reading this text. This was highly intriguing. Sadek hypes the man by elaborating on a particular view he held, putting us in perspective to read:

 A text by Mroueh himself. I won’t go into too many details, but he elaborates on the definition of music and what separates it from noise. The man knows what he’s talking about too.

 Seth Ayyaz offers a look into the free-improvisation scene, giving a brief history and also linking a social element to it, concluding with an abstract pseudo-poem.

 Experimental musicians, their medium-hopping ways, and the trickiness of their music to comprehend are the subjects of Kaelen Wilson Goldie’s text. Honestly, most of the issues presented here had occurred in preceding texts in one way or another, however, the text elaborated on the works of Tarek Atoui, Mazen Kerbaj, and others.

 Rayya Badran speaks of SoapKills and delves into the causes of the duo’s popularity in that particular timeframe, as well as the concept of melancholic music in general. I for one appreciate the inclusion of this particular text, since Tanya Traboulsi had not yet begun her local photographic endeavors at the time SoapKills were dominating the scene. So to make up for visual absence, a written mention is more than enough.

 Finally, we come to Serge Abiaad who had a story to tell involving one of Traboulsi’s photos, and uses it to make a point on photographs, the messages they are capable of sending, and the different interpretations we may each have of a single visual representation.

 I have a problem with texts 3 to 6. “Between music and noise “,” Improvisation”, and “Experimentalism” all fall under the same category to me: “Unstructured music”. I would have preferred more diversity, instead of a particular theme dominating. Once again, I know this is a very personal project and doesn’t have to abide by any rules, but I felt a slight bias toward improvisation and experimentalism, and not enough coverage of more standard genres.

 As for the photos, they are incredible. I liked how both photos we had all become familiar with from Traboulsi’s website, as well as previously unpublished material were featured, all spanning several genres. Although I felt that certain left-out photos could have appeared if having multiple pictures of the same artist was cut to a minimum.

 Finally, we are left with some poetry by Charbel Haber, which you can download then listen to here, and two images of him and his setup of pedals.

 I consider this book a big landmark for the scene. To anyone willing to discover local alterative music, I would advise reading this book, then going online and doing a lot of Google searches…

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Show Review: The Last Crate Session @ Walimat Wardeh (December 29, 2009)

Visual by Youmna Saba

It all started on August the 25th with Zeid Hamdan, bringing with him his latest collaborative partner, vocalist Hiba el Mansouri, and Arabic rapper RGB. It was the first concept of its kind in Beirut. It went on for about 4 months. It had a variety of artists spanning numerous genres from rock to classical to hip hop to free-improvisation. It had one single 12 watt amplifier that everyone, no exceptions, used for their performance, no matter what instrument, from guitar to laptop to microphone capturing the sound of a trumpet being blown into with a hookah hose, no matter what genre. Yes, it must be: The Crate Sessions.

 The Crate Sessions is the brainchild of Serge Yared, Incompetents frontman and DJ at the restaurant Walimat Wardeh. It is basically a more productive (not to mention culturally enriching and entertaining) way of passing the time until the restaurant is scheduled to be demolished and move to a new location. Quite simply, there is this amp, the Crate, a CA15. It has certain specifications (12 watts power, 2 inputs, etc…). So the catch is: Each week, a local artist will be invited to play a set, but he/she can only use the amp at hand, which as you may have deduced has its limitations (two inputs allow for a limited number of individuals for example). They can bring their own instruments though. I attended the first three, then came a long absence due to school (some I was really tearing myself up to see mind you), but I managed to make a comeback for the second-to-last one and of course, this one, the very last one.

 They had really gone all-out for this one. First of all, the lineup looked very promising. They had familiar faces making comebacks (Zeid Hamdan, Youmna Saba, The Incompetents, etc…), as well as newcomers to the Crate Sessions (Abdallah el Mashnouk & Rayya Badran, Fareeq el Atrash, White Trees, etc…). But wait, there’s a catch tonight too. No, they weren’t forced to abide by the usual rules of the Crate. It would be electric, though acoustic was still an option. The catch is: they have to play covers. Fadi Tabbal had brought instruments from his studio, Tunefork, and set up the sound system and everything. In conclusion, it would be a three to four hour non-stop ear-orgy… Well actually, there’s supposed to be a break, so it’s not exactly non-stop… wait no, there would be DJ’ing by The Playmobiles (Basile Ghosn and Margot Hivernel). Shit, guess it was non-stop then… Oh and, all proceeds would go to “Oumnia”, an association that aims to provide children suffering from serious illnesses with psychological and medical care.

 -Before the Show: They said they would start at 7:30 sharp; They SO did not start 7:30 sharp. I paid the ticket price of 20,000 L.L which was quite reasonable, since you’d get to see more than 10 artists perform in one night, plus it’s for charity.

 Most of the artists from the first half were there already. I was glad to find Zeid Hamdan there, who had been abroad in Europe for a long time now, as well as the Fareeq el Atrash crew (sans FZ) who were one of the acts I was really looking forward to seeing, and of course Serge Yared, the man behind it all.

 I noticed something I wasn’t happy with. On Halloween, the restaurant played host to a big costume party, and one of the things that I didn’t like was the “performance-area”. It was this room where tables and chairs would usually be found, but those were cleared out and replaced with a drum set, amplifiers, and other musical equipment. But the thing is, the room is open and everything, but only through a door and a huge gaping window thing. This: http://photos-h.ak.fbcdn.net/hphotos-ak-snc3/hs197.snc3/20435_371095310004_614085004_10181244_2442568_n.jpg. The point is, as I’ve personally experienced it on October 31st, you can either see what’s going on from the doorway, or the big opening. The pillar in the middle obstructs the perfect viewpoint, the literal middle, where you could switch from left to right by rotating your head. But I see they had nothing else they could do, since it’s the only sectioned off room in the place. If they did it where the previous performances took place, you’d have the crowd blocking entry to diners to that particular room that they used. But you have to keep in mind that the place wasn’t built with live music in mind, however, the new location will be. I came up with a practical solution later on, but it depended on that beam not serving any particular purpose apart from an aesthetic one. Since the place is going to be torn down in a couple of days, why not just start early… with that pillar as the first casualty. But if it wasn’t just a decorative pillar, let’s just say there would have been more than one casualty…

 There was a fairly large crowd. Not THAT large, but it was good nonetheless. Ziad Nawfal would be the announcer for this night. He introduced the head of Oumnia who gave a speech before the performances began. She basically talked about the organization and its goals. She finished off by thanking Walimat Wardeh, Ziad Nawfal, Serge Yared, and all the musicians involved.

 Now onwards to the performances…

 -The Show: Sima Itayim was to start. She had been featured before as part of the Crate Sessions and is now making her comeback. She covered “Everybody Wants to Be a Cat” from the Disney movie “The Aristocats” as covered by the band Psapp (This would be the first appearance of a song from a Disney movie). Good that it wasn’t just the same old songs we’re used to hear covered. It was just her on acoustic guitar. The piece was quite jazzy and she performed it quite well though if I remember right it was here where the cracks in the sound setup began to appear. The noisy diners and crowd members didn’t help either. I was briefly one of them… (My apologies, Mr. Nawfal).

 Between each act, a couple of minutes of DJing while the artists got ready.

 Following her was Elyas, who first made his debut on the 96.2 FM “Modern Music Contest” CD and appeared as part of the Crate Sessions as well. He sings in French, and I’m not biased against the French language or anything, but it rarely does it for me. He was on acoustic guitar and was joined by Phillipe (I think) from Intensive Care on keyboard. They covered a French song (which didn’t surprise me) and there were some technical difficulties that didn’t help it appeal to me. Then he covered another French song on his own. I don’t know how much I have to keep saying that I’m not prejudiced against French, but I really don’t find pleasure in listening to it, because I have a mediocre grasp on it, yes, I openly admit it; Sue me, but do it in English please. In some cases, no matter what language the song is in, the music would make up for the unfamiliarity of the tongue. For example, I can’t tolerate Rayess Bek for a while when he raps in French. Now back to Elyas, his style isn’t really my cup of tea. It’s too… soft? I dunno.

 After that was a new act, the duo of Eva Madsen, which consisted of Basile Ghosn and Tad Catranis, joined by Vladimir Kurumilian and Serge Yared. Eva Madsen covered a song by the Violent Femmes. Basile was on vocals and Tad on acoustic guitar and backing vocals. They were quite confident, and though Basile didn’t have that spectacular a voice, it was good enough. Afterwards, they were joined by Vladimir and Serge, with Vladimir on keyboard and Serge providing vocals. I don’t know what they covered honestly, but I was glad to hear Serge take the mic for a while. He has the voice for it.

 Ramzi Hibri cancelled…

 I had heard cristobal’s music before and met him many times but never actually saw the man perform. Now I would get my chance. The people had gotten quite noisy again. Chyno of Fareeq el Atrash did his part by unleashing some epic “shush”s on the crowd, leading a “shush” revolution that was to an extent quite effective. Cristobal, not one to ignore such favors, showed his gratitude with a “shhhhukran”. He had some special guests too. He was on acoustic guitar and vocals, Sima made a comeback on backing vocals, Fareeq’s own Goo and Edd, Goo on guitar, and Edd making his musical debut playing keyboard (“playin’ da keys!”  *grins*).  John Imad Nasr joined in too on bass for this one if I remember right. They performed a cover I am not familiar with. The more obscure the better I say. Following that was another cover, this one without Sima. It was a slower more soulful acoustic rendition of Fareeq el Atrash’s “Shou Kamish?. Is it still a cover if the original artist partakes in it? Eh who cares, this is one fine collaboration right here, cheating or not.

 Following that, the new-to-me (and to others as well I believe), Abdallah el Machnouk and Rayya Badran. I had no prior expectations and was surprised with Abdallah’s instrument of choice: The underrated, underestimated, undersized… ukulele! They covered a song, with Abdallah on ukulele as previously mentioned, and Rayya providing vocals. She was quite good. I didn’t mention this for the previous artists, but it still applies to them: I’m not a big fan of covers, because I see no original input in them. However, when you cover something with an instrument that it was not originally meant for, or with any kind of twist or alteration, that is where the creativity is showcased. There were definitely some twists present in what had been presented. For their second cover, they covered The Incompetents’ own “Bullets Gently Flying Over My Head”. Yared was quite pleased. They did pull it off very well. Bravo on your peculiar instrumentation, vocal delivery, and song choice you two.

 The space-visibility problem was still a factor by the way, and the sound wasn’t holding up too well.

 Next up were one of the acts I was particularly looking forward to seeing, Fareeq el Atrash. They have not appeared before for a Crate Session, so this was their Walimat debut. The lineup this night consisted of Edd and Chyno MC’ing, John Imad Nasr on bass and Goo on guitar. Their beatboxer, FZ, was abroad, so they recruited a drummer, right there on the spot. It just happened that Nadim M of Intensive Care was there for them to lay down some beats on the drums. I’ve learned this long ago, but it was demonstrated once again this night. Rappers are demanding. They thrive off crowd interaction. You don’t a rapper rapping at a café, you see a jazz band or something, because jazz you can just get lost in, but rap is different, rap requires intellectual commitment, an open mind, concentration, attention, etc… So Edd had to get the crowd fired up. He wanted them to cheer. Some cheered. He wanted them to cheer again. Some more cheered, the rest were chatting, eating, or doing nothing at all. Yalla, good enough. They started with “Beat It” I think (the first Micheal Jackson tribute of the night), but it was that song musically, but lyrically, Chyno took it in a completely different direction, substituting his own English raps in the place of the original lyrics. The bass riff was the same, and the impromptu drumming was effective. Following that was a more obscure reworked classic: “Brothers on the Slide” by Cymande. The bass riff was the same also kept intact and the drums were improvised, while the lyrics were altered, but I was familiar with them still. Before they started, Edd asked the crowd to shout “Walimat!” when he asks “Wen ittijehak?” (Where you going?). The lyrics in question were the lyrics of Fareeq’s own song “Lawen”. How do you cover in hip hop? You sample! They sampled… live. They’re as clever as their lyrics… There was an on/off response to that “Wen ittijehak?” thing. Sometimes people went along with it, other times, nada, zip, zilch. They concluded with their song “Bti2wa Ma3 L’Zikra”, which already samples Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight”. Technical difficulties did not hesitate to announce their presence. Edd and Chyno had to swap mics every now and then.

 After them was Zeid Hamdan, who was joined by RGB, but not Hiba (who just got a big record deal from MTV (the local channel, not “Music Television”. If you’re gonna rip off another TV channel, at least steal the name of a less recognizable one…) He had a drum machine with him, and he programmed a drumbeat on-the-spot, grabbed the bass, and proceeded to cover a song by Portishead. I would like to announce that after that night, I became a big fan of Portishead, mostly because I love trip hop, and I hadn’t heard any in a while, so they kind of rekindled that flame, so yeah. The mic was capturing the sound all distorted which was kind of cool actually. Following that, Zeid altered the drumbeat on the drum machine and performed the second Micheal Jackson cover of the night: Billy Jean. Not a big MJ fan myself, but I was happy to see people still paying tribute to him, despite being dead for quite a long time now, his impact can still be felt. Same goes for the other artists, who I assume cover songs by artists that mean a lot to them or have greatly influenced them as musicians. Then, rapper RGB joined him. They performed RGB’s song “Awwast L’Sherif”. Well… it’s not exactly a cover, as Zeid always plays it with RGB, and I don’t think RGB performs it without Zeid, but it does reference Bob Marley’s “I Shot the Sheriff”, and translates it to Arabic. Does that count? Either way, nobody really cared whether or not they would be hearing covers that night or original music. Then another song with RGB: “Ma3na L’Rap”. You know, these are the only two songs they do together, and as I mentioned earlier, Zeid was abroad, so you can’t really expect something different on such short notice. The crowd was very dense now…

 A 20 minute break followed. I stayed a while then stepped out for 5 minutes.

 I came back, and succeeded in losing my spot. I was pretty tired too.

 Part 2 of the night started, with me occupying a slightly worse spot. But is there really a perfect spot? Not with this set-up.

 Youmna Saba covered two Arabic songs. Covering is nothing new to her, as she covered a Sabah song in her own Crate Session. She played acoustic guitar and derbakkeh and was joined by violinist Layale Chaker, who has appeared during a past Crate Session, and her frequent collaborator Fadi Tabbal. The variety in instruments was nice.

 Following her, Mazen and Maher Mardini, formerly of the band Roswell I believe. They covered a song by Porcupine Tree, Archive, and David Gilmour. I believe one was on acoustic guitar and the other on keyboard.

 Afterwards came Nadim M and Phillipe M from the band Intensive Care who operate in Canada. Phillipe was on keyboard, and Nadim, who played drums for Fareeq el Utrush earlier, was on electric guitar. They first covered a song I was not familiar with, but after that, another Disney movie song. That song was “Under The Sea” from “The Little Mermaid”. The people ate it up, and they were very energetic, Nadim was at least, as I couldn’t quite see Phillipe that well, you know, the whole location issue mentioned in the beginning.

 Now it was The Incompetents’ turn. Tonight they consisted of the main duo, Serge Yared and Fadi Tabbal. Serge was handling the vocals and Fadi was playing acoustic guitar and harmonica at one point. They covered a song by the name of “After Hours”, but I am not familiar with its original performer. Following that, their recorded covers, Daniel Johnston’s “Bloody Rainbow” and Tom Waits’ “God’s Away On Business”. Both were presented very well, but I must address this now: Tom Waits’ original version sucks. The rescued that song, trust me on this one. As usual, very energetic. Though they only presented one completely original cover, out of the blue that is, I had never heard them play “Bloody Rainbow” live, and it was acoustic too, and though I had heard them play “God’s Away On Business” live prior to that, this time it was acoustic, so I guess it wasn’t all the same.

 They had performed earlier that Sunday at The Basement accompanying Scrambled Eggs and Canadian producer and musician Radwan Moumneh’s band, Jerusalem In My Heart. Radwan was there.

 Now this was the show-stealer. I know White Trees as the duo of PT and Carl Gerges, who play mellow acoustic melodies that comprise of acoustic guitar and minimalistic drums. They were supposed to play at the second-to-last Crate Session, but were not able to for one reason or another. Their soundcheck would obliterate almost all notions I had of them. Carl Gerges was drumming pretty energetically… P T was testing out his… trumpet… Ibrahim Badr was playing bass… They announced that they would be covering a Radiohead song. Carl drummed energetically indeed, PT played trumpet and delivered the lyrics, while Ibrahim added the bass. Magically, the sound was crystal clear. I don’t know where the song ended exactly, but at one point Ibrahim and Carl were left playing on their own while PT enthusiastically grabbed some drumsticks and lent Carl a helping hand by tapping along to the beat on a cymbal. He grabbed an electric guitar later on and played some very blues-rock-ish tunes. Ibrahim began fiddling with a touchpad-device (not a Mini KP) where he would scratch a vocal sample. They played that cover, but 3/4of what I just described was them randomly jamming. I COULD be all snarky now… but what the hell, it was utterly brilliant! After wrapping up, they distributed one of the two CDs they’ve released (you can find them at La CD-Theque). Unfortunately, they don’t know whether or not to record this sound of theirs. Guys, if you’re reading: DO. IT.

 Finally, concluding the evening, Scrambled Eggs. They played their Abba cover, “Lay All Your Love” from their CD “Dedicated to Foes Celebrating Friends”. Not really new… Then they admitted that they don’t know that many covers, so they just played “Russian Roulette” and had it segue into another song of theirs. They were good, but nothing was different from the last time I saw them. I mean, all the artists that I’ve seen at least once before had something fresh about their performances tonight. Could have been different guys…

 -After the Show: It was very late into the night, something I was not at all happy about. The lack of a solid schedule pisses me off, not just here, everywhere, every single time.

  It was indeed a crate, errr, great farewell to this beloved weekly tradition. They definitely delivered the quantity, and the quality was ok. Not spectacular, as some were just ok, others were great, and a few were awesome. My top three would be: 1- White Trees, 2- Fareeq el Atrash, and 3- I have no number three…

 Hopefully Walimat Wardeh’s new incarnation will play host to future live musical concepts and will be built with musical performances in mind.

 

For more information on the Crate Sessions: http://www.facebook.com/home.php?ref=home#/group.php?gid=118734329783&ref=ts

Read Jackson Allers’ article on the Crate Sessions (featuring an interview with Yared): http://jacksonallers.wordpress.com/2010/01/02/bye-bye-crate-sessions-a-talk-with-serge-yared/

 

-Photos:

*Personal: http://www.facebook.com/home.php?ref=home#/album.php?aid=368356&id=842365214

 *by Tanya Traboulsi:

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