In a time of crisis atop crisis, we’ve followed the diverse musical voices of Beirut artists as they found a way to keep making music. Here, as part of a larger project and assembled by musician and tuning champion Khyam Allami, is a sampling of music from this past year.
I hope that as musicians and friends we don’t just blip along with news headlines to the latest event and then move on. We know from our own musical lives that sometimes what we have to say takes time to unfold. And making music is challenging enough in emotionally drained times, let alone when catastrophe can impact health, or home, or electricity.
So see the links below – thanks to our friends putting in some extended work, we’ve gotten to follow a longer narrative of Beirut’s scene – and that in turn as just one snapshot of all the many corners producing music that may or may not be on the radar of the splashiest news outlets. These are all artists, that being said, who have made extensive international tours and influenced countless people through their work and teaching.
Beirut 20/21 is a journey charted by some of those artists, revealed late in June. Composer/musician Khyam Allami – who, congrats, just won a Prix Ars Electronic along with Counterpoint for their work on transcultural tuning – advised the project and assembled the results. A jury selected artists following an application process, and we’ll see both some known and new names. (That project is working on other resources for Lebanese artists, too, including working to register performing rights so they are properly compensated when their work is played.)
Part of the Musicians Support Program we developed in response to the multitude of crises in Lebanon, Beirut 20/21 is a postcard of its time that represents a snapshot of Beirut’s widely diverse and varied musical landscape, without pretense, on its own terms.
A true sonic journey that showcases a variety of genres, featuring Aya Metwalli, Bonne Chose, Dani Shokri & Tarek Khuluki, Elyse Tabet, Jaafar Touffar, Jad Atoui, Jana & Scarlett, Khaled Omran, Kid Fourteen, Kinematik, KŌZŌ 構造, Liliane Chlela, Melmo, Perla Joe, Rust, Samah Boulmouna, Sandy Chamoun, Wonderland, Serge Yared, and Yara Asmar.
The Norwegian Embassy in Beirut also provided support, together with the larger Beirut&Beyond Int’l Music Fest.
It starts with the chilling, powerful “Nitrate” by Jaafar Touffar, directly referencing the explosion of last summer. Jaafar is an established rap artist hailing from Hermel, Lebanon, who’s also teaching his skills in production and Arabic writing.
We’ve visited some of these musicians’ work together over the past year, so here are just a few personal highlights and works that connect to some of that recent coverage.
Composer Jad Atoui makes an aching, shimmering ambient piece that seems suspended in space, flows of color rushing in springs of sound. We have to talk to him more, as I’m curious about these bio sensors he’s using in his analog synth setup – and if you don’t know his name, you should, as he’s an established improviser and experimenter in both New York and Beirut:
BIOSONICS, anyone? (Yes, hope he can meet Leslie Garcia and Interspecifics at some point, too!)
Aya Metwalli, an artist between Cairo and Beirut (as I understand, at least) is back with an insistent, elegantly arresting track, and evidently she’s doing something new with her modern dance training, so more on that separately:
The duo Bonne Chose has an ambling, dreamy take that floats easily – it’s the work of a chance encounter of two session musicians, Abdo and Charbel Sawma, who have since come together to work on a full-length in their home studio:
The soft-shuffling “Dani Shoukri & Tarek Khuluki – Sari – A tribute to Rafeeq Shukri” is a duo of two Damascus-born artists working together in Beirut, interweaving classical materials and sharply-constructed electronic grooves. The sample, the description tells us, is from a mawal from the movie “Bint al Badieh”, 1958.
Kid Fourteen I wrote about last time, too, and here he’s a real one-man-band – credited as “Composer, Lyricist, Vocals, Synth, Guitar, Beats, Recording and Mixing Engineer”:
Liliane Chlela is one of the defining new voices in experimental electronic music, with a rich improvisational practice accompanying her productions. This sweeping creation “2025” seems to capture exactly this decade’s terrifying zeitgeist, futuristic and primitive all at once. Having a soundtrack to such emotions can be intensely cathartic, though, so have at it:
Elyse Tabet aka Litter is another electronic up and comer, here mixed by Jawad, and – I can’t describe this better than they do, it is “pulsing Ambient music that is both placid and disquieting.” And then in case those power outages and the general planetary apocalypse has you thinking about what machine music should sound like, they also note that her debut album ‘Newfound Grid’ “presents her music as a “machine running out of power.”
“We Slept Through The Day” is a favorite of mine from this release, in that it has that feeling of being in two conditions at once – not easy calm, not overly bombastic violence, but something dangerous and calming simultaneously:
For a blend of all this brilliant production with some pop vocals, here’s the spine-tingling poignance of Marie Abou Khaled, aka Beirut-native Melmo.
And the album ends fittingly with Hany Manja and Petra Hawi, who are seeking “transcendental” musical pathways combining Arabic musical tradition with the future as the duo Rust.
It’s all good, and I skipped over some of my favorites partly just so this article doesn’t last forever and somehow still fits on CDM. But it’s well worth listening closely, for some of the tuning and tradition that inspired Khyam’s projects to advocate for transcultural music technology. They should remind you – I hope – that tuning is not “microtuning,” not only an experimental venture, but a fundamental element of music cultures, plural, worldwide. Just like cramming everything into English (oops, sorry), missing out on those is simply an exercise in more colonialism in a world that really ought to say enough, already. Arabic traditions in this music flow freely with other international currents, past and present and future.
Or to say that more simply – do go listen, closely.
Mastering by Modular Mind, whose work you should also check out (label + production + live!) – https://www.modular-mind.com/
And some of what we’ve tracked in Beirut over the past year, reverse chronological order – realizing I can’t come close to covering everywhere, it’s at least one piece of a story thread:
And please, please do go read the interview with Khyam – from before the project won awards, no less! – as it’s worth bookmarking and coming back to, along with the tool. Arabic tuning and all its musical relatives are a major focus (Khyam is originally from Iraq):