BEIRUT: “It’s essential the youth have alternative heroes that can expose them to a certain lifestyle, a certain freedom and creativity that we don’t find in the mainstream,” said Zeid Hamdan. “It will inspire them to sometimes break boundaries and also be very creative with very little means.”
A pioneer of Lebanon’s underground music scene, Hamdan knows a fair bit about the impact and importance of alternative music. He was one half of trip-hop duo Soapkills (alongside Yasmine Hamdan — no relation), who, in the late 1990s, came to epitomize the carefree hedonism of post-war Beirut. His music continues to be a reaction to the political events that surround him.
“Aasfeh,” released in 2012 by Zeid and the Wings (Hamdan and a shifting lineup of other musicians), was a response to the revolutions that had spread across the Arab world; 2015’s “Balekeh” was a musical critique of the indifference toward war in Syria (particularly the song “Jazira”); while last year’s “Mouhit” reflects on a refugee crisis that has seen more than one million Syrians enter Lebanon.
“You want to express things, because the region changes so much and so quickly,” Hamdan told Arab News. “Perspectives change. ‘Jazira’ said, ‘We are not an island, we are a sinking ship’. I was expressing disgust at how indifferent we can be when we are all one same sick body. Now, ‘Mouhit’ is saying, ‘Come with me, let’s cross the oceans, let’s jump over the walls, let’s walk day and night, let’s go for our dreams,’ and it’s in the light of this refugee crisis, with us living in
Lebanon with so many refugees. All these people need to grow, to free themselves, to build their dreams. So you see, we mature with the situation. We learn. We express. We produce.”
Hamdan is just one element within a regional alternative music scene that is growing in significance, even if very few artists within that scene have made it to the big time. In many ways, artists such as Mashrou’ Leila — the poster boys of Arab alternative music, Palestinian four-piece 47Soul, and Tunisian singer-songwriter Emel Mathlouthi are unified by a potent cocktail of attitude, spectacle, and socio-political lyricism.
“Through music you can resist and through music you can be creative and through music you can challenge yourself and challenge things,” Yasmine Hamdan — who plays DXBeats at Dubai Opera House on April 28, told me a while back. She is not alone in this belief. Mathlouthi, whose music is both powerful and eccentric, would be unable to operate within the confines of mainstream Arab pop.
“Inspiration and creativity are a blessing and we should never take them for granted, so I will not try to fake some ready-to-go music formula to be mainstream, losing my soul and therefore run the risk of not knowing how to defend it at all,” Mathlouthi told Arab News. “I just try to be alive and awake to catch whatever is passing by that could help me craft and innovate.”
Yasmine Hamdan has described mainstream music as Arabic pop kitsch, or musical junk food that pollutes the airwaves and recycles clichéd constructs of love and heartbreak. Anthony Khoury, lead singer of Beirut-based band Adonis, whose third album, “Nour,” was released last September, tends to agree. Last year the band said music in the Arab world needs both revival and renewal.
“The Arabic language is unparalleled in its richness and playfulness,” said Khoury. “Yet local pop songs have been ruminating for decades on a very limited group of words, ideas, structures, which has severely flattened our language. For us, the ‘revival’ of Arabic music is first of all a rediscovery of the Arabic language and the possibilities it offers.”
By extension that revival will depend to a degree on the success of independent artists. And yet with limited rehearsal space, few venues, and a lack of support from television and radio stations, the environment is challenging. Labels, too, are problematic, with very few willing to take a risk on bands that they view as socially and politically outspoken. Even Mashrou’ Leila, arguably the most successful Arabic independent group out there, remain unsigned.
“Labels are tricky,” admitted Firas Abou Fakher, Mashrou’ Leila’s guitarist. “Everyone we spoke to at Middle Eastern labels expected a lot more conservatism in the compositions, lyrics and public engagement than we were willing to entertain or compromise on. We’d be more than happy to sign when we meet the right match. It just needs to feel like they’re willing to take a risk on us, before we agree to take a risk on them, and then we’d totally swipe right.”
Some encouragement should be taken from this situation, however. From challenges, obstacles, creative friction and improvization emerge defining sounds.
“Every place in the world is more or less defined by its local indie music scene,” said Ali Al Saeed, founder of MuseLand Records, which releases its fifth compilation of regional indie music on May 1. “It is often what genuinely reflects the vibe of a city or a community. That culture is also what — in a way — documents that process.
“I often feel that we’re still trying to figure out our sound, collectively,” he added. “If you look at places like Egypt, Lebanon and Jordan, you get a sense of what the music movement is about. I’d like to see artists here, in places like Bahrain and Dubai, push their musical boundaries a bit and get out of their comfort zone. Some pretty interesting stuff is happening in Kuwait, which to me was a pleasant surprise.”
More initiatives to promote and support alternative music are needed, as are more venues that are built and designed for the sole purpose of housing gigs. But a further shift in mindset is also required, believes Al Saeed.
“There’s no shortage of efforts and initiatives and projects,” he says. “And they play a key role in growing and improving the scene. But the bigger change that no one seems to be addressing is the cultural aspect, and how to change the mentality of musicians and music fans. I’ve been repeating this quite often lately. The change I’d like to see is to move away from taking the musicians to the crowds, to having the crowds come to the musicians.”