PARIS: Millions around the world were in a state of shock when Paris’ beloved Notre Dame Cathedral was engulfed in flames last April. Having survived the turmoil of the French Revolution and two World Wars, the revered 850-year-old Gothic-style monument suffered the collapse of its spiral and wooden roof and damage to its high altar. One commentator wrote: “The very heart of France and the soul of Europe have been suddenly and viciously ripped out.”
The day after the blaze broke out, Jack Lang — president of Paris’ Insitut du Monde Arabe (IMA) — joined forces with the French-Lebanese art collector and champion of Arab artists Claude Lemand to set up a tribute to Notre Dame from Arab artists. Deeply saddened by the damage caused by the fire, Lemand started contacting artist friends, to see if they would be willing to contribute commemorative works of art.
“When I was watching this tragedy unfold on television, it reminded me of the beginning of the civil war in Lebanon,” Lemand told Arab News. “Notre Dame is a historical building that doesn’t belong just to French and European civilization, but to all of humanity. The Arab artist — like his European counterpart — has the right to convey his feelings and admiration towards this monument.”
Running through December 20, “Arab Artists’ Tribute to Notre Dame” showcases four new artworks created by contemporary artists from the Arab diaspora in response to the fire and its aftermath.
The renowned Iraqi artist Dia Al-Azzawi is one of them. His symbolic acrylic-on-3D-wood panel portrays a profile of the cathedral guarded by a carved-out cross — standing out in the midst of a red mass that not only represents the fire, but also rebirth.
Another contribution comes in the form of an abstract painting by the French-Moroccan painter Najia Mehadji. Completed in a single broad brushstroke, the painting’s dominating blue (a color associated with the Virgin Mary) swirl hints at the shape of the Madonna and Child statue that stands inside Notre Dame.
Montpellier-based Mohamed Lekleti’s mixed-media canvas is a conceptual work potraying “the duality of the world,” divided into two halves: good and evil. Lekleti’s work reminds the viewer of life’s inevitability, and to accept that events are sometimes beyond human control, but that taking action — no matter how slow or small — to heal wounds is important, as emphasized by the artist’s depiction of a hand sewing a thread.
Syrian figurative artist Boutros Al-Maari contributes a circular canvas illustrating fictional characters from Victor Hugo’s iconic novel “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” surrounding the burning cathedral. Inspired by his own heritage, Al-Maari depicts Hugo as a ‘hakawati’ — a storyteller in Damascus’ old cafés. It is a scene of both anguish and hope; of men crying in disbelief and the Virgin Mary being consoled with the offering of a flower.
According to Lemand, a second part of the exhibition will materialize early next year, exhibiting a new roster of artists.
“The goal of this exhibition is neither political nor financial,” he explained. “We just wanted to give an opportunity for Arab artists to present a brighter image of the region — far from the violence, the killing, and religious strife that have in recent years given the world a miserable image of the Arab world.”
Postcards release sophomore album ‘The Good Soldier’
Frontwoman Julia Sabra discusses the Lebanese indie band’s new record and their growing popularit
Updated 23 January 2020
BEIRUT: “I feel this album is more angry than sad,” says Julia Sabra, singer and guitarist in Postcards — Lebanon’s dream-pop, indie-folk and slowcore pioneers. She’s nursing a fruit juice on a rainy Beirut morning in December at a local coffeeshop, as she discusses her band’s sophomore studio album, “The Good Solider.” The air is thick with introspection and atmosphere.
Incidentally, atmosphere is exactly what Sabra and her two bandmates — guitarist Marwan Tohme and drummer Pascal Semerdjian — do best. Since their founding in 2013, Postcards have established themselves as one of their country’s most exciting indie exports. Their unique, shoegaze-colored sound, a small army of fervently committed fans, and the fact that they sing in English in a region where the most commercially viable acts are of the Arabic pop variety, all make their ascent to prominence even more intriguing.
Sabra is soft-spoken and eloquent, much like the vocal lines she delivers with vulnerability, discreet composure and tempestuous emotion. 2018’s folksy “I’ll Be Here in the Morning” was recorded when there were still four band members. They amicably parted ways with bassist Rany Bechara shortly after the release of the debut album, which the singer says tightened the dynamic between the three remaining members. “Weirdly, the less people you have, the more powerful the sound is; so, now it’s less about intricacy, and more about the atmosphere you create,” she explains.
“The first album was a trial of something new for all of us, and we felt very comfortable with it,” Sabra says of the first LP, on the back of which they scored a record deal and performances at both local and international festivals, as well as tours in Jordan, Dubai, the UK, France, Portugal, Italy and Germany, and opening spots for indie luminaries Beirut, and Angus and Julia Stone.
“The second album took everything a step further and we were able to explore more,” she continues. “We didn’t consciously set out to make it different from the first one... we just follow the music, really. ‘The Good Soldier’ is a natural continuation of our sound.”
One of the most immediately noticeable aspects of the Postcards sound is that you could easily assume they’re from somewhere in the American Midwest. “I feel like we express ourselves in a different language,” Sabra explains. “Our music is not specifically linked to our region. We live here, we speak Arabic to each other and our friends and families; yes, everything we sing about and feel comes from our environment, but it’s pretty complicated... those dynamics when it comes to language. It’s something I think about every day.
“We live in a tiny country, play a niche type of music, sing in English,” Sabra continues. “But it’s not like we’re in denial about where we’re from, or like we look down on Oriental/Arabic music or something silly like that,” she states, with a slight bit of apprehension at the notion. “I feel like the West, with all its multitudes, is allowed to be so many things — why can’t it be the same with us?” In other words, artists from the Middle East are not born of a cultural monolith.
“Abroad, there’s a system: you check out a band, listen to their music and you just go and see them,” she says of her band’s international touring experience. “It’s cool to travel there and see people show up; we ask some of them ‘How did you know about the show?’ ‘Oh, well,’ they say, ‘I’ve just listened to your music!’ It’s real simple.”
Back home, it’s all been a little different. “In Lebanon, it used to be a social thing. You don’t always go to a gig to listen to music, but to hang out... the whole indie bands thing was trendy. However, in the past couple of years, a small but extremely devoted audience has emerged,” she says with bright-eyed reverence for the faithful. “Now there’s a real fanbase of people who listen to the albums and who follow you — even if it’s 200 people at a gig, they really want to be there and hear the music.”
Like all the other releases in the Postcards catalog, “The Good Solider” was produced by one of Lebanon’s most prolific musical mainstays, Fadi Tabbal, for whom Sabra has a lot of respect. “Fadi is the key,” she says of the Tunefork Studios producer. “He makes people aware of what’s special about their artistic identity, the sonic universes and soundscapes... he’s a perfect mentor, because he pushes you to do your best.”
Tabbal has supported Postcards from the beginning, and now both manages the band and handles their live sound. “It helps that he’s also an artist... an encyclopedia of music, a living version of the Oblique Strategies”, Sabra says, comparing Tabbal to the Brian Eno/Peter Schmidt-created cult card set featuring unconventional, ‘think-outside-the-box’ creative cues.
Sabra does not understate the progression that the band’s second album represents: “It’s a step up for us, working together closely, delving deeper into everything, taking more risks. We’re more aware of what we’re doing. It’s our baby. A very important, emotional statement.” Her compelling vocals navigate the delay-drenched sonic expanses of Tohme’s guitars and bass lines, and the hypnotic whirlwind of Semerdjian’s beats and percussion, all enveloped by entrancing synths and ambient passages.
Both the anger and the melancholy that Sabra used to define “The Good Solider” are on full display on opener “Dead End”, where dramatic, searing guitars emerge intermittently in the chorus out of the aural sea of solitude crafted by the atmospheric instrumentation and Sabra’s lyrics. The title track is the link between the two halves of the album: “That song is sort of the thesis of the album — it’s a synth-y folk song, and the big theme is the realization that things that we believe in and that we were taught to believe are crumbling down.
“The good solider is the person who’s willing to consider letting go of a life where you live according to what’s expected of you — marriage, kids, and all that,” she continues. “Maybe there’s a way to get past this intrinsic patriarchal thing that’s so deeply engrained in us. So, ‘The Good Solider’ is about making your own way, while realizing that it all needs a lot of work and commitment, the kind that not everyone is necessarily cut out for.”
In the context of the turmoil that often seems like a near-permanent fixture of life in Lebanon, Sabra says, “We don’t have any other way to process our lives and what happens to us and how we think and feel. Making music is a bit of a self-involved, but very therapeutic, exercise, and it’s also a representation of who we are at this certain point in time — as both people and artists.”
For now, though, Postcards are just gearing up for what comes next. They played a jam-packed release show on January 3 at Beirut’s iconic Metro Al Madina theater. “We have a bunch of tours coming up; March, June, August and fall... taking over the world, basically,” she smiles, only half-jokingly. “We’re just happy the album’s been set free into the world. From here on, it takes a different meaning – it’s no longer just ours.”