“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…