Perfect Sound Forever

The Lebanese Music Scene:
why free improvisation?

Sharif Sehnaoui Bechir Saade

by Sharif Sehnaoui
(April 2007)

In 2000 trumpeter Mazen Kerbaj, sax player Christine Sehnaoui and I founded an association called the MILL devoted to the development of free improvised music in Lebanon. At the time, we where improvising ourselves for a couple of years and where basically big fans of this music practice from Cecil Taylor to Evan Parker and beyond. Our main purpose was to hold an anual festival now called "Irtijal." It seemed like a crazy idea but we had to take this first step in a country that had almost never seen anything like it before in terms of music. Free improvisation in Europe and the U.S. has followed major evolutions in the fields of jazz and classical music- it has inscribed itself as an opening within free jazz and contemporary classical music from John Cage to Ornette Coleman. But Lebanon had skipped this phase of the history of music and 15 years of civil war had erased all traces of movements in that direction. So we were coming out of nowhere in a city that had no such thing as an alternative, contemporary or experimental music scene.

Back in my youth, there where very few record stores and tapes were still a common commodity with tons of "danse" compilations and "best of's" from the most famous pop-rock bands of the civilized world, and, in the back of the shop or on some remote shelf, there was always the classics of classical music. On the other hand, there was Lebanon's own oriental-pop movement stars alongside divas such as the famous Fairuz. Searching a little more, you could find some records of oud or ney players but they where very scarce: Arabic instrumental music was mainly heard live in cafés, restaurants, villages outside of the capital. Around 1997, I remember how hard it was for Kerbaj and I to find any significant jazz records. We heard that one guy was bringing some halfway up in the mountain (he now has opened a shop in the city that's by far the most interesting record store in Lebanon: La Cédéthèque that has produced the first ever free improv CD in the Arab world- A from the Kerbaj/Sehnaoui/Yassin trio) and had to drive hours to get there. Then we heard of other guys specialising in jazz distribution inside Beirut who even had the whole ECM catalogue. They where also big fans of this music and personal friends of Lebanese oudist Rabih Abou Khalil whom we often saw in their central office making recommendations. On one occasion, he told us that he rarely performs in his country. Eventually they went bankrupt and had to close the shop- not so many customers for such a specialised dealer.

Today, I often insist that Lebanon is not a great country for music- maybe good for fiesta and nightclubbing music, but very harsh for any kind of musician's music.

So how is MILL possible then? Out of the civil war and in a very tense political & social equilibrium, someone had to start building for generations to come, why not us? After a very timid start, one concert in 1999 and one day of festival in 2000 that included 4 concerts by Lebanese and French musicians, it became clear to us that we could become the first step of a movement that would allow the Lebanese people to have access to other dimensions in music. Free improvisation is our main practice but it's a form that allows for the inclusion of various ways and procedures. There is also significant interaction with other forms of art such as dance or video-art. "Irtijal" is now one week long and features around 20 events in its seventh year of existence. It has also presented concerts of free jazz (notably Peter Brötzmann) or contemporary classical music (with Gene Coleman), concrete music (Laurent Grappe) performance art (Thierry Madiot & Li-Ping Ting) or hybrid folk improvisation (Mike Cooper), contemporary jazz (Blast-Quartet) and post-rock (local band Scrambled Eggs) in an attempt to open new ways for the audience to understand sound & music. The audience is small but regular and feedback is generally very positive. The scene has also grown to include several talented musicians such as bassist Raed Yassin who is also a video artist and tape performer, guitarist Charbel Haber, flautist/clarinetist Béchir Saadé who has a jazz background and plays the ney as well, Jassem Hindi who explores the possibilities of electro-acoustics and noise music and various other offshoot of rock and psychedelic music. One of the elements that helped develop a "scene" was the regular organizing of workshops since 2002 (most notably with Wade Matthews, Michael Zerang or Axel Dörner) that helped participants to understand forces behind the music and develop their own ideas. Matthews was a specially strong voice in the numerous workshops and conferences he gave during his two visits to the country, even one time at the National Conservatory where relations with the very "conservative" teachers was extremely tense. This has also led to the creation of the Moukhtabar Ensemble, in an attempt to develop a contemporary repertoire and large number improvisation practice.

For a couple of years now, there have been two record labels, Al Maslakh and Those Kids Must Choke, which allow for the music to be known inside and outside of Lebanon. Local musicians have also been able to frequently perform in international festivals such as Moers, Transonic or the Transmediale in Germany, Sound Field and High Zero in the U.S. and have widely toured the occidental world. Slowly some interest is also emanating from the Arab world after previous concerts in Syria and Egypt and an upcoming wider tour planned in October. As a historical cultural capital of the Arab world, or at least a place other Arab countries look at, Beirut can push other cities to also question their relation to music.

So, starting from the first free improvised movement in Lebanon to becoming the main platform for "un-popular" musical genres, we have answered some of the questions of viability that where with us since our beginnings, and definitely proved that there was interest in a process at many levels.

The stakes are two-fold. On the first and most important level, this music community helps to promote the field of art in the Mid-East as a means to find an important escape from the multiple problems that plague the region. As such, it is able to push our culture towards a plurality in understanding things relative to perception and the importance of critical approaches to what the mainstream usually suggests, leading to an open-mindedness that can help societies that are too often caught in a dramatic, desperate mindset. There is still a huge amount of ground to cover though before this can happen- our art world in general lacks any critical press, valuable writings, specialized venues with professional conditions for the performers and an overall appreciation of art from the general public. But things are evolving in all fields and through MILL's activities, music is moving along.

On a second level, our activities help to reach of new ground for improvisation, contemporary, free jazz, electronic, experimental kinds of music in our increasingly globalized world. This new tendency is vital to the music world in general and has been a constant in the 20th Century when we see that several new regions have developed possibilities as in South-America, Russia, Eastern Asia, Northern and East Europe among other places. The very survival of these highly underrated and, by nature, non-ethno-centric musics are allowed by this movement. So why not the Arab world as well? This is all the more crucial considering the international spotlight on this part of the world, filled with stories of war, extremism, fanaticism, misery, blood and exploitation. Music is one of the main elements that can be helpful both as an internal factor and as an external one as different voices and ways inch towards global interaction.


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