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Itinéraires esthétiques et scènes culturelles au Proche-Orient

Nicolas Puig
Franck Mermier

III. Paysages musicaux

Mapping Out the Sound Memory of Beirut

A survey of the music of a war generation

Thomas Burkhalter

Entrées d'index

Mots clés :

guerre, musique

Géographique :


Texte intégral

“Musical analysis of popular music can help us make sense of the seemingly fragmented modern world; it can help us understand the thoughts and desires of many whose only politics are cultural politics.” (Walser 1993: 34)


  • 1  Appadurai 1998, 2003; Beck, Giddens and Lash 1996; Beck 2002; Bourdieu and Wacquant 1996; Friedman (...)
  • 2  See Enzensberger 2002 (1970); Horkheimer and Adorno 1971; Luhmann 2002.
  • 3  Binas 2002; Erlmann 1995; Guilbault 1995; Hall 1990, 1994; Melucci 1997; Said 1993, 1978; Stokes 2 (...)
  • 4  Conference “Negotiating diversity – challenges for cultural expression and policies in the corpora (...)
  • 5  By asking this question one has to keep in mind that the budget of the Ministry of Culture is very (...)

1Various social and cultural scientists1 propagate that research on cultural globalisation and localisation should focus on individuals and their thoughts and ideas, since the latter reflect theoretical concepts such as “identity”, “transnationality” and “hybridity”. My Ph.D. project “Significant Sounds – Beiruti Music between new artistic forms and local, global dependencies” focuses on music, as human ideas and visions are not expressed in words only. Musicians choose local and global forms and styles, sounds and beats to create meaning and to express their connection to different cultural, social and ideological settings. At the same time, music, as individualistic and revolutionary as it might be, is always produced, distributed and discussed within different -scapes (Appadurai 2003) of the outside world. It is produced and distributed in highly contesting finance-scapes between multinational companies, that aim to control global and local cultural markets, and independent networks, that benefit from new possibilities in music production and distribution given by multimedia and communication industries (techno-scapes). Global and local media-scapes influence music production by creating cultural tastes and standards2 and subsequently by constantly reproducing those standards with their choices. Steering happens as well through values and ideologies promoted by local and global governmental and non-governmental institutions and organisations (ideo-scapes) through funding decisions and sometimes censorship. Last but not least, in a country like Lebanon local and global ethno-scapes have an impact on musical creativity: the global world music market and the international funding bodies tend to favour local and transnational music that deals with its Arabic cultural heritage. Many authors have pointed out the concept of difference3 in their writings on cultural dialogue between the “East” and the “West”. Eng (in Shepherd and Wicke 1997: 98) even considers that “the racist love of a foreign country” [the love of difference] is strongly “linked to women and to music.” Inside Lebanon the different cultural representations of the various religious communities – from the popular, synthesised dabkeh songs praising Hezbollah or Amal leaders to the hymns for the Christian Lebanese Forces and Kataeb militias – were always a challenging factor for the national identity in this multi-confessional state. The Lebanese minister for culture, Dr. Tarek Mitri, stated in a conference on “Cultural Diversity”4 that Lebanon, on the one hand, is proud of its cultural diversity, however, on the other side this cultural diversity is a challenge for the national identity. He concluded by saying that the Ministry of Culture aims to build bridges between different artistic expressions. Does this mean that the Lebanese state and its institutions tend to favour artistic forms that melt the cultural diversities of Lebanon into one piece of art, over artistic expressions that focus on extreme positions?5 The creation of a “Lebanese music”, as I shall argue later, seems to underline this assumption.

  • 6  Kaden 1984; Middleton 1990; Moore 2003; Parzer 2004; Stokes 2003; Walser 2003.

2In my work I follow theoretical approaches by John Shepherd (1991, 1997), Peter Wicke (2002, 2003), Robert Walser (2003) and others6. While many musicologists analyse music without its context, and some anthropologists tend to focus on the discourse around music and not the music itself, the scholars mentioned try to analyse music as a social text. The analysis of music as a primary source yields significant data on the context and conditions musicians are living and working in. My work in Beirut is therefore first and foremost an ethnographical case study, that aims to promote the use of music analysis as a tool for the analysis of society in the context of cultural globalisation and localisation. I am aware that reading music as a social text is rather difficult and delicate. Walser (2003) states that it is important to contextualize each piece of music in time and space, and that it is therefore crucial to know all the references and quotations musicians use in their music. As a consequence I try to collect as much information about music and musical activity in Beirut and Lebanon as possible.

3This article aims at giving a first ethnographical overview about Beiruti musicians born during the war. At the same time, it is mapping out these musicians’ sound memories and draws first conclusion of how this sound memory is in interaction with today’s artistic expression.

Towards a sociology of sound

  • 7  As there is hardly any literature on music in contemporary Lebanon, my research relies heavily on (...)

4During my fieldwork7 I met and interviewed around eighty musicians, curators, producers, music journalists and musicologists who work within different musical fields in Beirut. I observed musical activity in numerous settings: from international music festivals in Baalbek, Beiteddine and Byblos, to club concerts in the trendy Beirut areas of Gemmayzeh and Hamra, to rehearsal sessions in small cellars or in big villas. With the help of musicians, musicologists, radio journalists, music lovers and organisations, I collected music that was produced in Lebanon since the early 20th century, plus sound and sonic material from Beirut from the last thirty years (radio and TV jingles and adds, melodies from soap operas, political songs and speeches by the different Lebanese militias, parties and their leaders, sounds from the Lebanese war). The idea is to create a sociology of sound in order to shed light on certain references the musicians are using in their music. As an additional research methodology I have conducted interviews with musicians querying them about their main musical influences and references. At the first glance, most of these influences come from outside of Lebanon; especially Pink Floyd was mentioned on numerous accounts. However, further discussions pointed out the importance of local influences.

“Superculture”, “Interculture”, “Subculture”

5The focus of my work, and of this article, comprises the generation of musicians who were born during or just before the Lebanese civil war (1975‑1990). These rappers, rock, death-metal, jazz, electro-acoustic musicians, free improvisers, Arabic singers, ‘oud-, qânûn- and riqq-players choose local and global sounds, rhythms, forms and noises to express their connection to their surroundings and to the world. Within the context of Lebanon, these artists can be considered as “alternative” or “subcultural” in relation to the dominant “commercial” pan-Arabic pop scene that is constantly reproduced by satellite TV stations. In this article, the term “subcultural” does not define musical qualities, but rather the relation between the music and its context. Marc Slobin positions the notions of “superculture”, “interculture” and “subculture” in music making within power structures. Following this logic, the Arab pop scene can be categorised as “superculture”; imported Western classical and popular music (such as Mozart and Madonna), and Lebanese music that is heard throughout the world (such as Feyrouz and Marcel Khalifeh) could be defined as “interculture”. Finally, the music played in small circles in Beirut can be regarded as “subculture”. As in Appadurai’s conception of “-scapes”, the borders between the different “-cultures” are not fixed and always in flux.

Before 1975: The production of a national music

  • 8  The National Conservatory (from 1929) and music associations like Association des musiciens amateu (...)
  • 9  See also Stone 2007, 2005, 2003/2004.
  • 10  Sahhab, interview with the author, Beirut, 2006.

6In order to establish the musical context, I would like to pinpoint a few key issues and key dates of Lebanese musical history of the 20th century. Marc-Henri Mainguy (1969) shows in La Musique au Liban, one of the few books about history of music in Lebanon, that the main institutions of music8 were heavily influenced by Western classical music and French teachers, such as Betrand Robillard. Arabic or Oriental music was often seen as primitive. In order to gain validity, it had to be harmonized, and played in big orchestras rather than small Arabic takht-ensembles. A new “Lebanese music” was created that melted the rural music of the region with Western classical music principles. Radio Levant (from 1940) and the music festival of Baalbek (since 1955), supported by the Chamoun and Chehab regimes9, and the Lebanese Ministries of Education, Finance and Tourism, were the thriving forces behind this idea. This Lebanese music was played at the main historical sites (Baalbek, Byblos, Beiteddine) of the still young Republic. Musicologists and composers from all over the world came to Lebanon to study this new approach between “Orient” and “Occident”. And they proposed workshops on earlier experiments with rural and urban music by Béla Bartok, Zoltan Kodaly, Bedrich Smetana, Jean Sibelius and others. Local composers and musicians such as ‘Assi and Mansour Rahbani with their singer Feyrouz, but also Zaki Nassif, Sabah, Wadi el-Safi, Philémon Wehbe and Nasri Chamseddine became well-known within this field. They created a new tradition that was not directly linked to the classical Arabic music and to the 20th century Egyptian composers, and singers such as Umm Kulthûm, Muhammad ‘Abd al-Wahhâb or Sayyid Darwîsh. The musicologist Victor Sahhab10 among others claims that the Lebanese music establishment always had a problem with accepting the Islamic influence on Arabic music. Most of the Lebanese singers did not sing in the tradition of sheikh, which is linked to Qur’an recitation. Therefore, these Lebanese composers and those who backed them up, created a new musical mix which had no direct impact on developments within the Arabic musical tradition. By corollary, this detachment has consequences for today’s generation of musicians. However, in Lebanon, reality is never black and white: while in 1966, the Egyptian diva Umm Kulthûm sang in Baalbek, one of the main voices in New Music, Karl-Heinz Stockhausen, gave workshops in Beirut, and crossed “Orient” and “Occident” through tape and electronic music.

1975-1990: War chaos and new sonic directions

7With the beginning of the Lebanese civil war (1975), the Baalbek festival became defunct. The main orchestras and bigger music ensembles could no longer afford to rehearse and perform in Lebanon, but occasionally performed abroad. Music in Lebanon took new directions. Forerunner Ziyad Rahbani, the son of ‘Assi Rahbani and Feyrouz, started to fill the gap between the elitist “Rahbani nation”, as Stone calls it, and the reality the majority of Lebanon’s population actually lived in. Ziyad Rahbani replaced the Western classical music with “popular” music – mainly jazz and funk – and wrote songs and musical theatre plays that dealt with urban life, rather than the rural traditions and folklore of the Lebanese mountains. Stone (2005) argues that Ziyad Rahbani started an artistic “war” against his family with his work Hotel of Happiness one year before the civil war began. It is not clear “whether or not this musical theatrical project can be implicated as a participant in the heating-up of ethnic identities that might have otherwise remained cool”, writes Stone (2005): “It is clear at least that the civil war exposed the sizeable cracks in the idealized Rahbani nation.”

  • 11  Mroué, interview with the author, Beirut, 2006.
  • 12  Fayad, interview with the author, Beirut, 2006.

8Ziyad Rahbani settled down in what was to become the Muslim dominated, albeit mixed area of West Beirut, while his family stayed in the Christian dominated Eastern parts of the city. He gathered musicians around him and created a scene that was mainly connected to leftist and communist parties and ideas. The singers Marcel Khalifeh and his Al Mayadeen Ensemble, Ahmad Kabour and Khaled el-Haber promoted the ideas of the communist party. The party members distributed and bought their cassettes and attended their concerts. Young ensembles covered their songs: the well-known Lebanese artist Rabih Mroué remembers going to play his flute with an ensemble at the green line to entertain the communist fighters during a cease-fire11. West-Beirut saw also jazz rock and rock bands like The Force and Exceed. The members of these bands – Emile Boustani (drums), Fouad Afra (drums), Aboud Saadi (bass) and others – still play in today’s jazz and fusion scene, or work as session musicians in the pop market. There was also a flourishing entertainment and party scene. Khaled Fayyad, DJ at the Midway Radio Station between 1984 and 1989, explains that nightclubs were always packed12. A lot of hashish and cocaine came into play. People wanted to dance, party and forget. Fayyad used to play his records there: Supertramp, The Police, Scorpions, Toto, Foreigner, Alan Parsons Project and others.

9East Beirut had a different music scene. Groups like the Ghassan Rahbani Group (GRG), Fugitive Entity (with today’s owner of Virgin Mega Store Beirut, Jihad Murr), ZED (with today’s pop music producer Hadi Sharara), Electric Warriors, Angel and others were mostly playing cover songs from the West: rock, heavy metal, death metal from bands like Whitesnake, Deep Purple and Rainbow. The main concert venues were situated in the Christian town of Jounieh, North of Beirut. Disco clubs could be found in Jounieh, in the ski resort Faraya, in places on Mount Lebanon like Broummana and, very few, in the Beiruti neighbourhood of Achrafiyeh. Most of the bands just wanted to escape the violence and difficulties of life in Beirut.

10Together these musicians in East Beirut and West Beirut created a tradition for popular music in Lebanon. Its division between mainly leftist musicians, who fused Arabic and Western styles, and small bands that played popular styles from the West, remains unchanged till today.

From a broad to a narrow media landscape

“The other night in the shelter we listened to Mozart on the radio between news flashes.” Jean Said Makdisi (1990: 219)

  • 13  Ad played on radio Voix du Liban in 1980.

11The musical ear of musicians born during the Lebanese war was shaped by the various radio stations that were constantly tuned into. Radio was the number one information media. “The radio is on constantly, of course, and tuned from station to station, it provides the latest reports. Casualty lists are mounting. The battles have spread. The south is ablaze and so is the north, the mountains and the city.” (Makdisi 1990: 44) The main stations during that time were Sawt Lubnân (Voice of Lebanon, representing the Christian-Maronite Phalange), Sawt al-watan (Voice of the Nation, of the Sunni Maqassed educational foundation), Sawt al-jabal (Voice of the Mountain, mouthpiece of Kamal Jumblatt’s Progressive Socialist Party), Sawt al-sha‘b (the Communist Party’sVoice of the People), and the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation founded by the Christian “Forces libanaises” (Al-Zubaidi 2005). But the range of bigger and smaller stations was much wider than that. “The various communities and warring factions, supported by an extremely well developed and sophisticated media – with their own broadcasting stations, newspapers, periodicals, pamphlets, slogans, symbols and motifs – competed in gaining access to potential recruits, clients, and converts.” (Khalaf 2003). The radio stations played all kinds of music and loads of jingles and ads – most of them composed by Elias Rahbani. A vast range of products were advertised with catchy, kitschy music mixtures between “Lebanese” music in the style of the Rahbanis, and rock’n’roll, rock, funk, big band jazz, reggae, French chanson, country and other styles of popular music. The sounds and the lyrics of these ads often stood in absurd contrast to the realities of the Lebanese citizens and fighters. “As you can see, I don’t spend much time sitting around”, a male American voice told the Lebanese listeners, “So I can’t always have time for a proper meal. That’s why I really go for Snickers. […] Snickers, it’s just what I need.13

  • 14  Sfeir, interview with the author, Beirut, 2006.

12The 1990s saw the reconstruction of Beirut and the commercialisation of pop culture via pan-Arab satellite media. In 1994 a new law for the audiovisual media introduced licensing for radio and TV stations in Lebanon. Only six out of fifty TV channels survived: Télé Liban, the state station; LBC, the station of the Christian “Lebanese Forces”; Future TV, the station of the Sunni Prime minister Rafic Hariri; NBN from Nabîh Berrî’s Shiite Amal movement; Al-Manar, the station of Hizbullah and MTV alias Murr-TV from the Greek Orthodox Michael and Gabriel Murr (Al-Zubaidi 2005). The pop industry gradually changed into a video clip industry. Pop singers started to sing not only in Lebanese but also in Egyptian and Gulf dialects in order to reach a bigger, pan-Arab audience. In Beirut the gap between high commercialised music culture and the “popular” music played in bars and pubs widened. Some of the musicians who had played during the war, started to earn their money as session musicians, arrangers or composers in the pop business. Others emigrated or stopped playing altogether. A new music scene, created by musicians born during the war, emerged. It stood in stark contrast to the highly commercialized pop industry. Tony Sfeir started a specialized music store called La CD-Thèque in the Mount Lebanon area. It then moved to Kaslik by the coast and then opened branches in Achrafiyeh and Hamra. La CD-Thèque became the most important CD store that sold jazz, classical and alternative music. Sfeir started to produce many of the talented young Beiruti artists. His goal is, till this day, to challenge the pop market.14

New Lebanese “rebels” and networks

  • 15  Omarz, interview with the author, 2005.

“The Arab youth is just so much into this commercial Arab bullshit music, it’s just bullshit, rubbish, that makes the person just dumber and dumber the more he listens to it. And they want it – the fourth branch of the government, that’s the media. Just look at Western music. […] Since Rock’n’roll and Jazz the music went through at least fifty evolutions. You’ve got happy hardcore now! And German techno! But Arab music is still caught up in that fucking bullshit ‘I love you and you love me’, and ‘the wind is whispering your name’ and all that bullshit. […] If we had a new Umm Kulthûm I would be the happiest man today. But you have singers like fucking Haifa Wehbe man, and George Wassouf.” (Omarz, Rapper15)

  • 16  Haber, interview with the author, 2005.

“We used to rebel against the machismo and religion in the Lebanese society, and against our parents. But still, whatever we did, our parents accepted us home, they gave us money and they took care of us. […] We are not real rebels.” (Charbel Haber, free improviser16)

13The musicians at the centre of this article were born between 1975 and 1983. Most of them stayed in Beirut with their families during the Lebanese war, some moved temporarily to their families’ second houses in the Lebanese country side, and a few left for France and other countries and returned after the war. Among these musicians one finds men and women, Sunni, Shi‘a, Maronites, Druzes, Christian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, Armenians, Palestinians and members of other confessional groups. Religion does not seem to play an important role for them: some groups and circles are mixed. Most of the musicians come from middle, upper middle or even upper class backgrounds – with a few exceptions. While some teach at the conservatory and in music or art schools, others play as session musicians in different jazz and Arabic ensembles to earn a living. Few can afford to focus entirely on their music because of their wealthy families. Contrary to the idea of alternative lifestyles and subcultural practises elsewhere, most of the musicians can afford to spend their nights in bars that would be above the budget of the average Lebanese.

Charbel Haber from Scrambled Eggs.

Charbel Haber from Scrambled Eggs.

Photo : Th. Burkhalter.

14With their music, these musicians create alternatives to the over-represented mainstream pop culture – or, as Beck, Giddens and Lash (1996) would say, they can afford to take the risk to choose alternative lifestyles, and to live biographies that are based on possibilities rather than on security. Most of the musicians studied art or business at the international universities of Beirut: the American universities AUB and LAU and the French Université Saint-Joseph. The others studied at the national conservatory or were educated at the Académie Libanaise des Beaux-Arts (ALBA), Holy Spirit University of Kaslik, Antonine University, Lebanese University or other Lebanese universities. Beck, Giddens and Lash would call these musicians “reflective actors”: they are situated in urban, intellectual, economically privileged social strata; working within transnational networks; well informed about cultural and political developments in the world, whilst criticising their own society in various ways. These Beiruti musicians produce their music in small studios with the latest sound software and good sound equipment. They create their own small record and production labels such as Those Kids Must Choke, The Slaughterhouse, Mooz Records and Chichprod, or they work with small independent labels in Beirut: Forward productions, Chill Islands or Incognito, the new label from La CD-Thèque. Some of them compose music for independent Lebanese feature, short or documentary films, others work as sound designers for films, TV ads, and Arabic pop videos. The musicians give concerts at art galleries like Espace SD, theatres like the Marignan or al-Madîna, cultural centres like Zico House, clubs and bars like Basement, Walima, Bar Louie, Club Social, or at beach-clubs and sometimes at venues specially created for a specific event, such as the Luna Park Festival in June 2006. The main areas for this “subcultural” concert life are the mixed commercial centres of Hamra and the trendy bar and club area in Gemmayzeh. Some concert venues, like the rock club Nova are located in the international hotel area in the Eastern suburbs. Spaces like Forum de Beyrouth and Art-Lounge opened near the Armenian neighbourhood Bourj Hammoud.

15Today the “subcultural” music scenes reach only a small audience. Concerts attract rarely more than five hundred people. The exception is the “rock”, “heavy metal” and “gothic” scene that plays at festivals like Rock Nation at the marina in Dbayeh in front of a crowd which can amount up to two thousand people. The musicians often advertise their concerts themselves, through emailing and text messages. Most of them design their own posters, which they spread mainly in Hamra and Achrafiyeh districts. The media coverage is limited to the French Agenda Culturel, the new Time Out Beirut, and the English daily The Daily Star. Occasionally, the French newspaper L’Orient Le jour and the Arabic papers Al-Nahâr and Al-Hayât cover concerts and review CDs. TV and radio stations show little interest. Financial support from Lebanese institutions is almost non-existent. The Lebanese Association for Plastic Arts, Ashkâl Alwân, supports sound installations or “musique concrete” projects. Limited grants come from international institutions, primarily the Centre Culturel Français, Goethe Institut, and occasionally from Swiss Arts Council “Pro Helvetia”, and the American embassy. The latter is active in the fields of “free improvised music” and jazz. Rock, rap and electronic music events find sponsors mainly in the alcohol and tobacco industry. Virgin Megastore supports the local death metal and gothic bands Weeping Willow and Arcane thanks to Virgin manager Jihad Murr, a former gothic and rock musician. Censorship doesn’t seem to play a major role: the musicians claim that they can produce and release whatever they want. But if they do so, they have to stick to their own channels of distribution and cannot rely on the established media. However, some musicians seem to provoke being censored in order to get media coverage as “censored artists” – a good advertisement!

The gothic band Arcane at the festival “Rock Nation”.

The gothic band Arcane at the festival “Rock Nation”.

Photo : Th. Burkhalter.

Rapper Wael Kodeih aka Rayess Bek.

Rapper Wael Kodeih aka Rayess Bek.

Photo : Th. Burkhalter.

16Outside of Lebanon, the exposure of these musicians seems to be growing. The “free improvised music” scene, especially Mazen Kerbaj, Raed Yassin, Charbel Haber and Sharif and Christine Sehnaoui (a couple that lives in France but spends a lot of time in Beirut) get reviews in internationally recognized music magazines such as The Wire, and are able to organise concert tours throughout Europe and the US. Zeid Hamdan and his Lebanese trip hop duo Soap Kills are regularly invited to Australia, North Africa, Paris and elsewhere. Hamdan’s new post rock band The New Government is still very much a local product. The musicians of the Arabic music scene do not perform abroad a lot. At times, they get invited to Egypt. The singer Rima Kcheich performs in Europe and the US with the US-based ‘oud player Simon Shaheen. The rap artist Rayess Bek performs in France. High air fares and visa difficulties make travelling difficult and often unaffordable.

From Sayyid Darwîsh to Black Sabbath

17The music styles these musicians play range from rap, jazz, rock to death metal and from electronic music to free improvisation to forms of crossover music inspired by music from Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Turkey, but also India and Africa. The references are diverse: Sayyid Darwîsh, Muhammad ‘Abd al-Wahhâb and Umm Kulthûm; Johann Sebastian Bach, Eric Dolphy and John Coltrane; Pink Floyd, Metallica, Black Sabbath and others. Half of the musicians play music without lyrics. The others sing or rap in English and/or Arabic, a few also in French.

18The “subcultural” scene can be grouped into five different categories: first, those who work in the field of “free improvised music”, and the ones who work within “sound design” and “musique concrete”; second, those who work in the field of “Arabic music” (the composers and musicians who play the songs of Egyptian composers, the musicians who fuse Jazz and Oriental music and the few who experiment with classical Arabic music in new fashions and with new instruments); third, the rock, heavy metal, death metal and gothic bands and fourth, the rap, electro, trip hop scene, that quite often uses oriental flavours to give its urban music a local touch. This scene is maybe closest to create a musical middle ground between the “superculture” and the “subcultures” in Lebanon. Last but not least, there is a small jazz scene to be found in Beirut.

19The different groups overlap and sometimes interact. In the Arabic and Oriental scene, musicians work as session musicians in different bands. The guitarist Charbel Haber and his group Scrambled Eggs play “noise” and “drone sounds” in the “free improvised scenes”, and rock in the urban music scene. The urban music scene is closely linked to electro DJs and producers, who cater to Beirut’s nightlife and beach parties. The monthly magazine Time Out Beirut promotes Beirut already as the future Ibiza. Rap artists, on the other hand, play with musicians like Fahed Riachi from the Arabic scene. While in the fields of oriental jazz and jazz one finds a mix of generations, the other circles are dominated by musicians born during the Lebanese war.

20In the following section, I will introduce the composer, ‘oud player and singer Ziyad Sahhab, and the trumpet player and free improviser Mazen Kerbaj: two opposite poles inhabiting today’s Beiruti soundscape.

Ziyad Sahhab – Between artistic freedom and leftist traditions

21Ziyad Sahhab was born in Beirut in 1982. His father, the musicologist Dr. Victor Sahhab, published books on the Egyptian musicians and composers Sayyid Darwîsh, Muhammad al-Qasabgî, Zakaryya Ahmad, Muhammad ‘Abd al-Wahhâb, Umm Kulthûm, Riyad al-Sunbatî and Asmahân, all of whom he considers to be the main agents in changing modern Arabic music. Today he is program director of Radio Liban and head of the Conseil international de la Musique du Liban. Ziyad’s uncle, Salim Sahhab, used to be the director and conductor of the important Arabic music orchestra, the Salim Sahhab orchestra, in Beirut. Now he works as a composer and conductor at the Opera house in Cairo. The family is from a Maronite Christian background. Contrary to the “Rahbani Nation”, Victor and Salim Sahhab always did care about the Islamic origins of Arabic music. Victor Sahhab emphasizes that all the good Arabic singers were trained in Qur’anic recitation (Sahhab, interview by the author, 2006).

22Ziyad Sahhab started playing the ‘oud when he was seven years old. His father gave him tapes with the great Egyptian singers and made him listen to Qur’anic recitation every day. Nevertheless, Ziyad Sahhab’s style of singing was more influenced by singers like Leonard Cohen and Roger Waters. Today, Sahhab is working as an ‘oud teacher in a private school. At the same time he is studying musicology at the Antonine University. Once a week he performs with his ensemble in the Walima bar in Hamra. They play songs from Muhammad ‘Abd al-Wahhâb, Sayyid Darwîsh, Ziyad Rahbani, Philémon Wehbe, and Feyrouz for a mixed audience that loves to sing along and dance. The musicians’ attire is casual (jeans, football shirts, sneakers), as is their behaviour (drinking beer, smoking cigarettes, making jokes).

23The members of the ensemble are considered leftists, both by in- and outsiders. Some of the musicians are indeed members of a leftist party; Ziyad Sahhab is not. He does not want to be a party member anymore, and dislikes the connection between music and politics: “During the Lebanese war many singers became singers by decision of a political party – a political not an artistic decision. Everyone in the party had to like ‘their’ singers and dislike the others. It’s awful. That’s why I don’t want to stick to one political party.” (Sahhab, interview by the author, Beirut, 2005). Escaping from political life is not easy for a politicised singer like Ziyad Sahhab. Sahhab received death threats from a Lebanese party after writing a column in a newspaper claiming that not every Jew is necessarily a Zionist. He encountered also problems in Bekaa valley, since Hizbullah did not approve of his music and his long hair. In his song I want to live calmly he speaks about the complex relationship between personal freedom and pressure from his surroundings.

I want to live calmly

By the way, I’m getting married, in order to get divorced.
In order not to repeat this mistake,
let me learn from my mistakes early enough
so I’ll have my time to recover calmly,
I like to live calmly

By the way, I’m making a revolution that will surely not succeed.
In order not to repeat this mistake,
let me learn from my mistakes early enough
so I’ll have my time to recover calmly,
I like to live calmly

It’s good to make a mistake, when we know it’s a mistake
It’s good to convince ourselves that leftists aren’t a joke,
That there’s no racism, everyone’s democratic.

Let me dream calmly, that I’ll learn calmly.
I like to live calmly

voc. + comp. Ziyad Sahhab

  • 17  Sahhab, interview by the author, Beirut, 2006.
  • 18  Sahhab, interview by the author, Beirut, 2006.

24As a singer with a leftist voice, Sahhab feels under pressure. “People always want to hear answers for today’s political situation. But so many times I don’t have the answers. I only have questions myself.”17 He sees himself as a musician, not a politician – even though he is very much interested in politics. As he says himself in his interview, he asks for just one thing: “Give me some time to find out my own positions. Allow me to make some mistakes, allow me to learn.” And, he continues: “I’m fed up with all the politics and therefore I’m basically fed up with who and what I am without being asked even.”18 This statement alludes to his familiar background as a member of a well-known family of musicians and leftists. Family background and family history still seem to count a lot in today’s Lebanon.

  • 19  Sahhab, interview by the author, Beirut, 2005.

25Ziyad Sahhab’s singing and the Lebanese lyrics of the song are influenced by French chansons or “text singers”, as Ziyad Sahhab calls them. Arabic sheikh singing is absent. “The way I try to express myself is influenced by French singers. Arabic songs do normally not speak about everyday life and social issues. Listen to Charles Aznavour – he is able to express so many important and beautiful things! I myself want to develop my music in this direction, without loosing my Arabic and Egyptian musical roots.19 The music is based on the Arabic maqâm scales Nahawand and ‘Ajam – two scales that are close to tempered Major and Minor scales. The melody lines, the technical approaches, the arrangement are, however, outside the maqâm tradition. The instrumentation is partly traditional takht – violin, ‘oud, and riqq –, but the guitar and the electric bass play along.

  • 20  Sahhab, interview by the author, Beirut, 2006.

26When listening to the song, it becomes evident that Ziyad Sahhab is knowledgeable about 20th century Arabic-Egyptian music, but tries to develop it into something personal. “I want to try to change the way of singing. I want to try to say there are other ways of singing in Arabic or Lebanese dialect. You can be deeply rooted in classical music and at the same time open towards other styles of music. It doesn’t make sense to make mixtures just for the mixture’s sake. I try to go deeper than that. You have to have a good foundation in your tradition first. Only then you can go anywhere.20

Mazen Kerbaj – free experimental music and sonic memories of childhood

  • 21  Kerbaj, interview by the author, Beirut, 2005.
  • 22  Kerbaj, interview by the author, Beirut, 2005.

27Mazen Kerbaj, born 1975 in the Beiruti neighbourhood of Achrafiyeh, chose a different path. He plays free improvised music and never really listened to Arabic music. His father is a well-known Lebanese actor and his mother a painter. They taught him individualism, he says. “I’m very grateful for that, because there is no individualism in Lebanon. In one way or the other, people are always controlled by their families.” Kerbaj studied fine arts in Beirut, and he established a reputation as a well-known cartoonist and comics writer. Nowadays, he teaches illustration at the American University (AUB). In 1997 he started playing the saxophone, together with the Paris-based Lebanese musicians Christine and Sharif Sehnaoui. “We were a bunch of ten friends who played very bad free jazz. I played the saxophone, because Sharif had one. We rehearsed every day. But only Christine, Sharif and I continued.” (Kerbaj, interview by the author, Beirut, 2005). The three formed a trio, attracted more musicians, and created MILLS, an organisation for free Improvisation in Lebanon. After that, they started to organize the international festival Irtijâl and launched their own label, Al Maslakh (the slaughterhouse), with the idea “to publish the un-publishable in Lebanon.21 They wanted to start a tradition for free music in Lebanon, Kerbaj remembers. “Someone has to start it. And once someone started it, there is always a chance that the music continues.22 Kerbaj made the conscious decision to work out of Beirut. He did not want to be one among thousands of free improvisers in the West, but chose to build up a scene and a community of practitioners in Beirut instead. Nevertheless, he aspires to gain international recognition, to be the best free trumpet player in Beirut is not enough.

  • 23  Kerbaj, interview by the author, Beirut, 2005.

28At first, French singers such as Serge Gainsbourg and Nino Ferrer influenced Kerbaj. Then he listened to Frank Zappa, Jimmy Hendrix and Pink Floyd. With the album Olé by John Coltrane he fell in love with instrumental music. He started to listen to Coltrane, Eric Dolphy, Albert Ayler and others. After that, his interest switched to the European Free scene: to Evan Parker and his circular breathing, Michel Doneda, Peter Kowald, Han Benning and others. The album Machine Gun by the German free improviser Peter Brötzmann became one of his favourites. For me this was the answer to the American Free jazz. It was a collective music that was heavily structured.23 Today Kerbaj listens mainly to trumpet players like Rajesh Mehta, Vinko Globokar, Axel Dörner, Franz Hautzinger and Greg Kelley. One finds all these CDs on a shelf in Kerbaj’s apartment in Sin el-Fil, an Eastern suburb of Beirut.

Sharif and Christine Sehnaoui, Fabrizio Spera and Mazen Kerbaj (from left to right) at the Irtijal-Festival 2006.

Sharif and Christine Sehnaoui, Fabrizio Spera and Mazen Kerbaj (from left to right) at the Irtijal-Festival 2006.

Photo : Th. Burkhalter.

  • 24  Kerbaj, interview by the author, Beirut, 2005.
  • 25  Kerbaj, interview by the author, Beirut, 2006.

29His latest solo album BRT VRT ZRT KRT shows that Kerbaj is heavily into experimenting with distinct trumpet techniques and sounds. His trumpet is “blubbering”, “jarring”, “clapping” from the deepest to the highest frequencies. In the track Blblb Flblb, his trumpet is filled with water and thus creates deep “bubbling” sounds, it whispers softly and airily, and screams in a high pitch. In Zrrrt he plays the trumpet with a tube. He sits on a chair, the tube around his neck and the trumpet between his legs. In Taga pf Daga he uses another tube that is 5 meters long. In Tagadagadaga he works with rhythmic patterns and does so very precisely. Kerbaj was able to build his own sound and technical vocabulary within the last couple of years. “It’s about how far you can go with the trumpet24, he says. Yet he feels that he still has to find his own and personal way to use his vocabulary in music. “I built the vocabulary. Now I have to find the language to use it.25

  • 26  Kerbaj, interview by the author, Beirut, 2005.
  • 27  Kerbaj, interview by the author, Beirut, 2006.

30It was the trumpet player Franz Hautzinger who told Kerbaj one day that his sounds sounded very much like helicopters and rifles. This made Kerbaj think about the relationship between the sounds of his childhood and youth, and the sounds that he likes and creates today. “I went back and asked myself why I liked the CD ‘machine gun’ and its cover. I’m sure there is a relation between this album, my music today and my sound memories of my childhood. But I don’t really know how these things are connected to each other.26 Asked about his sonic memories, Kerbaj’s eyes start to glow. He recalls precisely what the different weapons sounded like, and how he and his friends were able to tell if a shell was flying in or out. “It’s sad to say, but I’m nostalgic of this time – it sounds harsh. And I’m happy that the war is over. But when peace came I was 16 years old. I had spent my whole life in war. To me, war was normal and peace was an abstract concept.27He thinks about this time more and more often, he says. And these thoughts increasingly become part of his playing. In the beginning, his music making was very much about rebelling against classical trumpet playing; today it’s about finding out about himself.

Towards and alternative definition of “Locality” in Music

  • 28  Eid, interview by the author, Beirut, 2005.

31Mazen Kerbaj leads us to an important discussion, and to even more important questions. How are sounds that one heard during one’s childhood and youth translated into later artistic expression? To which extent does this translation happen unconsciously or consciously? To which extent is it a deep musical and psychological process? How much are these processes inherently part of one’s identity and to what extent are they part of one’s representational strategy? Answering these questions comprehensively lies beyond the scope of this article. Rather this article is aimed at providing an overview of Beiruti musicians born during the war, and their relation to their nearer and farer sound and cultural environment. The examples cited above show the dynamics and the rub between music, sound memory and society. However Kerbaj and Sahhab are only two examples among many. The sound artist and bass player Raed Yassin created the audiovisual piece Featuring Hind Rostan in which he uses radio jingles and adds, political speeches, songs and disco tunes from his childhood and youth. Yassin, Kerbaj, the rapper Omarz, the electronic music producer Ceasar K and many others say that they are heavily influenced by the soundtrack of the popular Japanese manga Grendizer which was translated into Arabic and shown on Télé Liban. The singer Yasemine Hamdan used to take old Arabic music tapes from her parents, and uses them today in her Arab beat duo Soap Kills. Nabil Saliba, electronic music producer and drummer in the band The New Government, is heavily influenced by the funky Lebanese TV jingles and adds from the 80s. The sound designer Rana Eid says that she has a very strong and powerful relationship to sound and music because of her experiences in war: “My mother used to tell me that I used to listen to music on my walkman just not to listen to the bombs anymore. After the war I refused to listen to music for a very long time because music was so much related to war. At University I started to listen more and more carefully to the sounds of the city and to the voices of people. I started to build a sound library of my surrounding that I use in sound design for many Lebanese films. With music as songs and instrumental pieces I still have some problems.28

The group Soap Kills with Zeid and Yasmine Hamdan.

The group Soap Kills with Zeid and Yasmine Hamdan.

Photo: Th. Burkhalter.

DJ Ceasar K from

DJ Ceasar K from

Photo : Th. Burkhalter.

32In my Ph.D. thesis I try to work out a deeper analysis of the above mentioned interactions. The idea is not to get stranded in psychoanalytical methodologies, but to map as many co-relations as possible between sound memory and musical output. Pioneer in musicology, Leonard B. Meyer stated that “while cultural contexts are of relevance to the forms and styles of different musical genres, they do not affect the central aesthetic core of music itself.”(Meyer 1956: 65) In other words: one could assume – as many do – that these Beiruti musicians just copy existing local and global music styles. I insist – following Meyer – that it is important to analyze more profoundly how these musicians work within these styles. How does a musician develop his/her melodic lines, how does he/she improvise and play solos? How does he/she deal with the “clash” between Arabic scales and tempered harmonies? Answers to these and other questions lead us to the “core of music itself”, as Meyer puts it. It is in this “core” where locality – local memory and expression – can be found. And it is in this “core” where the life and working conditions, the possibilities and dependencies, of these artists are translated into personal sound statements. A deeper analysis of the “core” of music can therefore lead us to an alternative definition of what is “local” and “global” music.


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1  Appadurai 1998, 2003; Beck, Giddens and Lash 1996; Beck 2002; Bourdieu and Wacquant 1996; Friedman 1997; Giddens 1995.

2  See Enzensberger 2002 (1970); Horkheimer and Adorno 1971; Luhmann 2002.

3  Binas 2002; Erlmann 1995; Guilbault 1995; Hall 1990, 1994; Melucci 1997; Said 1993, 1978; Stokes 2000.

4  Conference “Negotiating diversity – challenges for cultural expression and policies in the corporate era”, May 11-13, 2006, Beirut, organised by Heinrich Böll Foundation, Middle East Office.

5  By asking this question one has to keep in mind that the budget of the Ministry of Culture is very limited, only 0,2% of the national budget (Rezk and Stéphan-Hachem 2006: 13).

6  Kaden 1984; Middleton 1990; Moore 2003; Parzer 2004; Stokes 2003; Walser 2003.

7  As there is hardly any literature on music in contemporary Lebanon, my research relies heavily on ethnographical fieldwork. Within Lebanese musicology and ethnomusicology one finds mainly literature and information on ‘Assi and Mansour Rahbani and Feyrouz, on Feyrouz’ son Ziyad Rahbani, sometimes on political singers like Marcel Khalifeh. Today’s musicologists from Lebanon focus mainly on Egyptian music (Dr. Victor Sahhab), on theories about maqâm modes, scales and quartertones (Nidaa Abou Mrad, Amine Beyhom) and on history of music in the Levant (Nidaa Abou Mrad). In June 2006, Université Antonine in Beirut and Université La Sorbonne in Paris organised the international colloquium “Traditions musicales au carrefour du systématique et de l’historique – Prolégomènes à une musicologie générale des traditions” in which musicologists, priests and sheikhs from Lebanon and Paris exposed their researches on music traditions in Lebanon (Abou Mrad and Beyhom 2007).

8  The National Conservatory (from 1929) and music associations like Association des musiciens amateurs (AMA) (from 1937), and the Académie libanaise des Beaux-Arts (ALBA) (since 1943).

9  See also Stone 2007, 2005, 2003/2004.

10  Sahhab, interview with the author, Beirut, 2006.

11  Mroué, interview with the author, Beirut, 2006.

12  Fayad, interview with the author, Beirut, 2006.

13  Ad played on radio Voix du Liban in 1980.

14  Sfeir, interview with the author, Beirut, 2006.

15  Omarz, interview with the author, 2005.

16  Haber, interview with the author, 2005.

17  Sahhab, interview by the author, Beirut, 2006.

18  Sahhab, interview by the author, Beirut, 2006.

19  Sahhab, interview by the author, Beirut, 2005.

20  Sahhab, interview by the author, Beirut, 2006.

21  Kerbaj, interview by the author, Beirut, 2005.

22  Kerbaj, interview by the author, Beirut, 2005.

23  Kerbaj, interview by the author, Beirut, 2005.

24  Kerbaj, interview by the author, Beirut, 2005.

25  Kerbaj, interview by the author, Beirut, 2006.

26  Kerbaj, interview by the author, Beirut, 2005.

27  Kerbaj, interview by the author, Beirut, 2006.

28  Eid, interview by the author, Beirut, 2005.

Table des illustrations

Titre Charbel Haber from Scrambled Eggs.
Crédits Photo : Th. Burkhalter.
Fichier image/png, 329k
Titre The gothic band Arcane at the festival “Rock Nation”.
Crédits Photo : Th. Burkhalter.
Fichier image/png, 385k
Titre Rapper Wael Kodeih aka Rayess Bek.
Crédits Photo : Th. Burkhalter.
Fichier image/png, 365k
Titre Sharif and Christine Sehnaoui, Fabrizio Spera and Mazen Kerbaj (from left to right) at the Irtijal-Festival 2006.
Crédits Photo : Th. Burkhalter.
Fichier image/png, 409k
Titre The group Soap Kills with Zeid and Yasmine Hamdan.
Crédits Photo: Th. Burkhalter.
Fichier image/png, 282k
Titre DJ Ceasar K from
Crédits Photo : Th. Burkhalter.
Fichier image/png, 506k


Doctorant à l’Université de Berne, Institut für Sozialanthropolgie

© Presses de l’Ifpo, 2007

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