After ‘Love & Revenge’ it’s ‘Glory & Tears’ for Rayess Bek

Rayess Bek. (Supplied)
Updated 24 December 2018

After ‘Love & Revenge’ it’s ‘Glory & Tears’ for Rayess Bek

  • Lebanese musician draws inspiration from Saudi singer Ibtisam Lutfi for new project celebrating ‘lesser-known’ Arab artists
  • Best known by his stage name, Rayess Bek, and once renowned as a trailblazer in Arabic hip-hop, Koudaih is almost unrecognizable from the artist he once was

DUBAI: “She has one of the most incredible voices I’ve ever heard,” says the Lebanese musician Wael Koudaih of the Saudi Arabian singer Ibtisam Lutfi. “She really is an incredible singer and oud player. She would sing very classical Arab music, sometimes with a little khaleeji touch that had a very special rhythm, and she had a very beautiful way of playing the oud.”

Softly spoken and affable, Koudaih is sitting quietly in Fabrika, a co-working space in the Achrafieh district of Beirut. Best known by his stage name, Rayess Bek, and once renowned as a trailblazer in Arabic hip-hop, Koudaih is almost unrecognizable from the artist he once was. The quick-fire lyrics in Lebanese Arabic or Parisian French have faded into memory, replaced by a wider artistic repertoire and an appreciation of both classical Arabic and modern electronic music.

He first discovered Lutfi while researching for the sequel to “Love & Revenge,” his much-lauded audio-visual collaboration with video artist Randa Mirza. An ode to the Golden Age of Arabic music, “Love & Revenge” was a fusion of ‘electro pop music and cinema from the Arab world’, with Koudaih’s re-working of classical Arabic songs accompanying Mirza’s edited film sequences.

Now Koudaih and Mirza are working on “Glory & Tears,” a follow-up to “Love & Revenge” that focuses on lesser-known artists from the Arab world. It will retain its predecessor’s pop edge — utilizing drum machines, synthesizers and electric oud to create a contemporary sound that draws its inspiration from artists including Lutfi and the Mauritanian trio Houria.

Koudaih is also working on “Dabake,” an electronic dabke project funded by the UNHCR that will be performed soon in Beirut, and features Syrian electronic artist Hello Psychaleppo, Khaled Omran from the Syrian alt-rock trio Tanjaret Daghet, and Lebanese indie-rock outfit Who Killed Bruce Lee frontman Wassim Bou Malham.

“It was very unusual to see a woman dressed the way Lutfi was, with this haircut and those beautiful dark glasses, playing the oud and singing in Saudi Arabia,” says Koudaih, returning to “Glory & Tears.” “We are not used to this image and it’s quite unusual. She’s a quite unique person in a quite unique environment. I think this is why I enjoyed listening to her songs.”

One of Saudi Arabia’s greatest singers, Lutfi was born in Ta’if in 1951 and began her singing career in Jeddah in the 1960s. An exceptional oud player, she was blind and had a distinctive, striking appearance, yet disappeared from public life suddenly in the late 1980s following the death of her parents. She re-emerged briefly in 2013, only to disappear again shortly afterwards.

Now elements of her work are to be given new life through “Glory & Tears,” which Koudaih says will be sewn together using the theme of hybridity.

“It’s quite interesting, because we’re getting out of this glorious Golden Age, which I love, into something else that existed,” he says. “Where you have singers or musicians that were known locally but didn’t get the chance to become superstars. Singers from Sudan and Yemen, and groups such as Houria, who wore traditional clothes, had an electric guitar, and played Mauritanian songs in Arabic but in their own dialect.”

Downstairs from Fabrika a sound lab is in the process of being built. An isolation room has been installed and special flooring laid, although the space isn’t expected to be fully functional until next year. It’s where “Dabake” was recorded and where Koudaih has chosen to co-invest with the owner of Fabrika.

Born in Nabatieh in southern Lebanon, it’s all far removed from Koudaih’s early days as a rapper and beatmaker, performing with the likes of Eben Foulen and Tamer Nafar from the Palestinian hip-hop group DAM. Koudaih’s art has evolved, encompassing theater, dance, and productions such as “Goodbye Schlöndorff,” which combined intimate cassette recordings from the civil war with short sequences from director Volker Schlöndorff’s movie “Circle of Deceit.”

“You know, I got to a certain point where I felt that hip-hop was not something I could go further with,” he once said. “I felt it was over. I felt I’d done everything I wanted to do with this kind of music and that it was limiting me as an artist. I thought what I was saying — or what I had said — was enough in the context of lyrics and of rapping to a beat.”

With Mirza he has found greater room for artistic expression, with the duo also working on a separate archival project; one that is based on the first ever recordings made in the Arab world.

For Mirza, “Glory & Tears” has opened up a whole new realm of Arab cinema. Whereas previously she had worked with classics such as Hussein Kamal’s “Abi foq Al-Shagara,” or Youssef Wahbi’s “Gharam wa Intiqam” (Love and Revenge), she has now delved into the obscure, drawing on movies including Hamada Abdel Wahab’s “Rihla Ila Al Qamar” (Trip to the Moon).

“What Randa is doing is quite amazing, because she is taking forgotten, lowbudget genre movies like ‘Star Wars,’ but done by Arabs,” says Koudaih. “It’s crazy. You have Arabic kung-fu, you have an Arab James Bond, the Karate Kid, an Arab Dracula. They are amazing and super-funny. We are playing on this double — or troubled — identity, where we are in the post-colonial phase. It is modernity as seen through the eye of the colonized.”

The first performance of “Glory & Tears” is expected to take place early next year, with both Mirza and Koudaih to be joined in Beirut in late January by the Algerian electronic oud player Mehdi Haddab and French musician Julien Perraudeau, both of whom were also part of “Love & Revenge.”

“In these films you see this influence that came from the West but is then treated in a very funny and very Arab way,” says Koudaih. “You still have the cowboy, but then you see an Arab running, then the army arrives, and then he gets into a space machine and goes to space. Then he meets Dracula. All in the same movie. It’s so confusing. So many clichés. But it’s super-funny.

“And I think this is what we are today. At least this is what I am, if I have to speak for myself. I am this weird, unclear mix of French, Lebanese, a little bit of American because I watch so many movies, and maybe German because I lived in Berlin for three years. I have this tendency to grab stuff from cultures. Grab the stuff that I like. Even if I wasn’t a creator I would still do it, because this is human nature. It is this hybridity that ‘Glory & Tears’ is all about.”


Maleficent, Angelina Jolie’s misunderstood sorceress, returns

‘People aren’t born hard and aggressive,’ says Jolie. ‘Something happens and you don’t feel safe.’ (Supplied)
Updated 21 October 2019

Maleficent, Angelina Jolie’s misunderstood sorceress, returns

LOS ANGELES: No one is born the villain. Not Lucifer in Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost, not Arthur Fleck in Todd Philips’ recent release “Joker,” and certainly not Maleficent, whom Angelina Jolie brought to life in 2014. Unlike “Joker,” however, “Maleficent,” a reimagining of Disney’s classic “Sleeping Beauty” (1959), was an open-hearted film, showing not only how the world can harden the pure of heart, but also how love can soften it once more.

“We think of her as evil and dark, and we asked why, and went deeper,” says Jolie of the character. “Most women — most people — aren’t born with a certain hardness and aggression; something happens in your life where you lose trust, you don’t feel safe, and you start to fight and you protect yourself in a different way.”

“Maleficent” shows not only how the world can harden the pure of heart, but also how love can soften it once more. (Supplied)

In “Maleficent: Mistress of Evil,” the sequel set six years later, Maleficent hardly lives up to that title, but rumor would have it otherwise. The story of the ‘sleeping beauty’ Aurora (Elle Fanning) has spread across the land, painting Maleficent as the villain, rather than the one whose love saved her. Now, as Aurora plans to marry Prince Phillip (Harris Dickinson), Maleficent must meet the neighboring Queen Ingrith (Michelle Pfeiffer), who wishes to destroy Maleficent and her magical world.

“When you see a leader like (Ingrith), who is so angry, so hostile, and who believes that the only way to survive is to destroy the other… we make it very clear in this film that she’s afraid, she’s weak and she’s ignorant. That’s why she’s behaving that way and that’s why she’s wrong,” Jolie says. “It’s not political, it’s not trying to be, but if you’re happy about the way the film ends, and it feels right, I think that heads you in the right direction, and for children it gives a nice guide.”

In the film, Maleficent must meet the neighboring Queen Ingrith (Michelle Pfeiffer), who wishes to destroy Maleficent and her magical world. (Supplied)

While the film features a lot of violent spectacle, the inner conflict of the lead characters themselves is whether they are strong enough to resist becoming violent, rather than the inverse.

“That’s something that isn’t portrayed a lot on screen — a lot of princesses grew up and they said, ‘Well, we’re going to make her a strong princess, and we’re going to make her tough, so we’re going to make her fight!’ Is that what being a strong woman means? We’re going to have to have a sword and armor on and fight? Aurora can do that in a different way, in a pink dress. It’s beautiful that she keeps her softness and vulnerabilities as her strengths,” says Fanning.

Redefining the ‘strong woman’ character is not just about redefining strength, for Jolie. It’s about lifting women up without pushing men down.

Harris Dickinson plays Prince Phillip in Disney's live-action “Maleficent.” (Supplied)

“We show diverse types of women, but we have extraordinary men in the film,” she says. “I really want to press that point, because I think so often when a story is told of a ‘strong woman’ she has to beat the man, or she has to be like the man, or she has to somehow not need the man. We both very much need and love and learn from the men. I think that’s also an important message for young girls — to find their own power, but to learn from and respect the men around them.”

For Maleficent, those men include Conall and Borra (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor and Ed Skrein respectively), both of whom are of the same race as her, cast out from the rest of the world. The two play out the conflict at the center of the film — whether the only path to peace is conflict, or whether diplomacy and goodwill can help.

Elle Fanning plays Aurora in “Maleficent.” (Supplied)

Ejiofor, who was nominated for an Academy Award for 2013’s “12 Years a Slave” says he was captivated by the film’s themes.

“It was an interesting conversation about leadership — what self-sacrifice means in terms of leadership — and has a real engagement with optimism and positivity in terms of leadership and what is beneficial to most people, and what part leadership plays in that. I felt there was something very rich in the script,” he says.

Even Prince Philip was built to break stereotypes and challenge perspectives, according to Dickinson.

Angelina Jolie brought Maleficent to life in 2014. (Supplied)

“I saw him as this young man trying to figure out how to find his voice and challenge the perspectives of his parents and rule in a more inclusive way,” he says. “(Director Joachim Rønning) and I spoke about him as not just the archetype of a Disney prince who comes along and saves the day.”

While Skrein’s Borra at first seems to be the cliched hawkish brute, he too turns out to be more openminded than he appears.

“The love and understanding of Conall’s message really resonated more, and we do see Borra go on a real arc or journey of his moral stance,” Skrein says. “I think that comes from Conall and that’s why we have to try and preach empathy and peace over violence as much as we can.”