BEIRUT: Five years ago, the Lebanese singer-songwriter Mayssa Jallad had an existential crisis. She was working hard at an architectural firm in New York, trying to make ends meet, but couldn’t find the time to embrace either of the things she loved — music and urban research. So she quit her job, returned to Beirut, and began writing music about architecture.
“People thought I was crazy,” admits Jallad with a laugh. “But I went on this journey of trying to create this experimental project. What if we talked about Lebanon’s difficult history through architecture and music? What if it could become — through music, through intervention — part of our heritage?”
The outcome is “Marjaa: The Battle of the Hotels,” Jallad’s debut solo album and, in many ways, an extension of her Columbia University master’s thesis. That thesis detailed the Battle of the Hotels, which took place during the early stages of the Lebanese Civil War, and argued that architecture be viewed as a principal character in the world’s first high-rise urban battlefield.
The process of creating the album — which was released on the Lebanese indie label Ruptured earlier this year — began with its first four songs, which represent a “walk in a very empty city,” explains Jallad. “That was kind of a terrifying feeling for me to see empty skyscrapers, because it reminds me of the past and how they were used as weapons. In the present there are all these empty towers that are real-estate-development focused, just really ignoring the needs of the city.”
Inspired by a practice known as experimental preservation, which suggests that if you are unsure of something’s historical value, you should intervene, Jallad initially worked with the oud player and singer Youmna Saba. Together they set about trying to express silence through vocal melodies, as well as how best to play the guitar silently.
“It started with the vocal melody, because voice is my main instrument,” says Jallad, who co-wrote the album with acclaimed producer Fadi Tabbal. “But after I’d written the first four songs, I asked Fadi, ‘What should I do now? How does this album continue?’ And he said in a very casual way, ‘You write the battle now, no?’ And I was like, ‘How does one write a battle?’”
The answer lay in giving voice to the buildings themselves — buildings such as the campus of Haigazian University and Burj El Murr, an unfinished skyscraper in the Kantari district of Beirut. The Holiday Inn, designed by André Wogenscky and Maurice Hindie and completed just months before the outbreak of the civil war, also features prominently.
The result is a starkly beautiful soundscape. There is a somber, atmospheric dreaminess to the album, which is powered by the ethereal wonder of Jallad’s vocals. Largely acoustic, it nevertheless delves into the realm of dark ambience, creating an occasional sense of militarism or otherworldliness.
“We tried to make it very spatial as an album, because it described architecture,” explains Jallad, who will be recognizable to anyone who has followed Lebanon’s independent music scene over the course of the past decade.
In 2013, she co-founded of indie-pop band Safar with guitarist Elie Abdelnour and last year wrote the single “Madina min Baeed” with electronic music producer Khaled Allaf. Released through Thawra Records, the song’s video was directed by Ely Dagher, whose debut feature film “The Sea Ahead” premiered at Cannes in 2021.
For Jallad, the success of “Marjaa” is new and exciting territory. A vinyl version of the album is to be released in October, followed by a series of European concerts in November.
“It’s the beginning of being able to consider this as a career, which has been a dream of mine,” admits Jallad, who works as a researcher for PROCOL Lebanon, a Beirut-based research initiative founded by the Institute for Global Prosperity. “It makes me emotional just to think about it.
“What I know is that I will be continuing on this path, because I think there’s a lot of difficult history we need to talk about, especially with regards to what’s happening today and how history affects the present, especially in places like Lebanon, which seem to be just recycling conflict through politics and its leaders. I’m kind of letting ‘Marjaa’ take its course and lead me where it wants to lead,” she continues. “But, in the meantime, I’m starting a bit of new research, so let’s see what ends up becoming music, or what I feel is necessary to do.”