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…

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.




Check out Tanya’s work here:

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