Sat. Nov 27th, 2021


“Just after the explosion, I thought for a moment, ‘This is the end of the Lebanese music scene.'” Sharif Sehnaoui, musician and co-founder of Irtijal, the country’s leading experimental music festival. The explosion at Beirut‘s harbor on August 4 last year devastated Mar Mikhael and Gemmayze, filling large cultural districts with musicians’ apartments, studios and performances. “It was not rational, but I felt all we did was in vain,” he recalls.

Sehnaoui and his friends had a lot to lose. Over the past two decades, they have helped grow a vibrant music scene with a massive spread of genres. Record companies such as Sehnaoui’s Al Maslakh and Annihaya as well as Ruptured, co-founder by Ziad Nawfal, managing director of Irtijal and producer / composer Fadi Tabbal, have promoted emerging talent. International attention has been drawn to groups including Kinematik and Postcards, many of them nurtured by Tabbal at Tunefork Studios, a community hub where mainstream and alternative artists mix.

Tabbal’s reaction after the blast was similar to Sehnaoui’s, but both men soon dismissed their pessimistic initial thoughts. As they note, this was not the first catastrophe they had overcome. In recent decades, Lebanese artists have lived through occupations by Israel and Syria, civil war and an economic collapse that led to a bloody uprising. Then came the pandemic. Today, the Lebanese pound has lost 90 percent of its value since late 2019, homes can go up to 23 hours a day without power and nearly 80 percent of the country lives below the poverty line.

Sharif Sehnaoui, musician and co-founder of the Irtijal Festival © Tony Elieh

Despite all this, last year’s 20th anniversary edition of Irtijal continued, albeit in abbreviated form. Sehnaoui could not bear the thought of canceling. On November 1, it became the first public art event in the country since the explosion, with a weekend of concerts featuring nine local performances. A second weekend of performances followed. Due to Covid restrictions, audience sizes were down, but this did not diminish the importance of the event. “I heard ‘It’s like you made us alive’ from a large number of participants,” says Sehnaoui.

Other initiatives have helped strengthen the artistic community. The Beirut Musicians’ Fund was launched within two weeks after the Tabbal blast by Tunefork, which supports itself by providing sound engineering for concerts and festivals, and providing sound design and scores for film and TV productions, but allowing local artists to pay what they can. .

“I called everyone to make sure they were right and then asked if they had lost anything. [they required] to make music, ”says Tabbal. He knew no other organization would take care of these needs. The fund’s goal of $ 49,705 was quickly achieved through numerous means, including word of mouth, a funding platform set up by Postcards’ German agent, and international events including a 17-hour digital concert hosted by Morphine Records and Berlin’s CTM Festival has been arranged. It has since raised an additional $ 23,562 for music schools, instrument makers and students in need.

The search for capital is not new to the Lebanese art community. “The scene is 100 percent funded by private individuals, independent institutions and the underground,” said Sehnaoui, who condemned the total lack of government assistance.

The need for funds also led Sehnaoui to Irtijal’s office a few days after the explosion, where the ceiling, windows and walls collapsed. A friend mentioned that a grant application at the Gwaertler Foundation in Switzerland will soon be payable. He completed the application while sitting in the rubble at a computer that was somehow still working, hoping it could provide the money needed to launch a new album project.

Ziad Al Zayyat and flatmate Saad Molaeb play on the roof during Lebanon’s closure in May 2020 © Joseph Eid / AFP via Getty Images

It has become istimrar (Arabic for “Continuity”), a digital album recently released on Bandkamp and flow via SoundCloud. It was produced in partnership with the UK’s renowned Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, which has been collaborating with Irtijal since 2019. The project contains 12 new commissioned works that have been recorded and mixed locally.

Thanks to this award and Huddersfield’s support, Istimrar provided its contributors with a rare inflow of cash: a $ 1,000 fee, in addition to production costs. Composer Jad Atoui, 28, says it could sustain him for up to three months, unlike his last comparable job, which paid for what is now worth about $ 40. “Such initiatives enable us to continue working and exploring new ideas,” he says.

Istimrar also gave his commissioned artists total creative freedom, and the resulting pieces are an example of contemporary Lebanese music’s dynamics and eclecticism.

Composer, DJ and producer Jana Saleh survived the explosion because she knew how to rush to her windowless bathroom, as she did during the Civil War. Almost everything in her apartment / studio near the harbor was destroyed, and her childhood piano was upside down on its keyboards. Rather than repairing this or that recording equipment, she used it in their damaged form for her piece, “Soupir”. “I not only wanted to record the condition of my instruments, but also [to reflect] the conditions of the country, ”she says. She calls the result a “tribute to what has been taken away from us”.

“Vocal Bodies” by Nour Sokhon features an audio landscape that combines field recordings, objects found inspired by material in a building destroyed by the explosion, and excerpts from a roundtable discussion between eight Arab women that impacted two years of discuss disasters on their minds and physical health. “They expressed what is not often heard – our sense of belonging and feeling safe where we live, how the environment we listen to affects how we feel,” she says. “After three hours, they all shouted at the city that had so oppressed us.”

Sokhon and her peers ‘complex and nuanced compositions contradict the Lebanese political class’ dismissal of artists as unproductive and unworthy of attention – except when it comes to tax collection. Consequently, Nawfal regards these and other artistic acts as “forms of resistance” to multiple threats to the community’s existence, from the social revolution and financial crisis to the pandemic.

“In Lebanon, even if you have no financial restrictions, you can never live in a bubble. You still have to create in the midst of disaster, because there is always some kind of suffering, ”he says. “You can decide whether to respond to it or not, and most musicians I know do, through their music.” No wonder then that, despite last year’s explosion, the scene still resonates.

‘Istimrar Phase 1’ can be streamed and purchased at irtijalfestival.bandcamp.com

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