Monday, December 08, 2008
Wednesday, December 03, 2008
"Beirut hip hoppers sound out the rhythm of peace"
By Raphael Thelen
Special to The Daily Star
Thursday, December 04, 2008
BEIRUT: "Hip Hoppers for Peace" was the slogan under which 11 artists of all political and religious backgrounds met Saturday night at the Student Lounge in Hamra to present and perform songs of their new album "Peace Beats." Lebanon's small but emerging hip hop scene flocked into the apartment-like rooms of Student Lounge, a space dedicated to intercultural understanding and dialogue, to see the latest project of the Permanent Peace Movement (PPM), a Lebanese peace-building NGO.
Supported by the United States Agency for International Development and executed by the members of the PPM, the project aimed to "bring together hip hoppers of different backgrounds and find ways to promote peace," Shant Kabakian, assistant project coordinator of the PPM, told The Daily Star.
"The PPM was born in the midst of the 1975-1990 Civil War, and since then has been dedicated to promoting peace in Lebanon and throughout the whole [Middle East and North Africa] region," added Kabakian, who is a singer and producer himself.
"We had two workshops, both three days long, with people from all religious backgrounds participating," 16-year-old rapper Firas Hassan, aka Oxigene, told The Daily Star, adding that they "talked a lot about peace, and this is reflected in our lyrics."
The result of the collective effort was handed out during the concert in the form of a 14-track album, featuring all artists involved in the workshop, which will be available at Beirut's Virgin Megastores next week. The project featured 11 male and female rappers, of whom most rapped in Arabic, except two who performed in English, one in French and one in Armenian.
Oxigene was the first one to take over the stage and performed his song "Artistic Revolution," calling for peaceful change through diplomatic and economic means.
A couple of songs later the largely male crowd of Lebanese, mostly students, was already smoothly jostling in front of the stage, and the atmosphere began to heat up.
The audience was spared the usual lyrics about crime and sex, and instead was treated to intelligent rhymes and topics that came straight from the heart of artists, like "I-Voice," a duo of Palestinian refugees living in Lebanon, who started rapping in 2001, or "A-Boxx," who has been in the rap game for five years, recording and performing in Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates.
A-Boxx's "No Change" kicks off the "Peace Beats" album, with lyrics like: "If I can switch position with rich politicians, I'd twist divisions of all these kids' religions so they could stop making all these sick decisions, quick collisions, leading them to split divisions."
The rappers displayed not only remarkable lyrical skills, but also creativity and a willingness to try out new ideas. One set of songs, for example, was accompanied by a human beatbox, a percussionist and a bagpipe player, while another piece saw a flute on stage.
Even if the sound equipment was not 100 percent professional, the endless rotation of artists on stage made up for it with their spirit and ability to improvise. Toward the end, the concert turned into a freestyle session, which gave everybody a chance to show her or his rap technique and lyrical talents to the steady flow of the two talented beatboxers.
The concert stood up to its name "Peace Beats," by not only raising hopes that there is a future for hip hop in Lebanon, but also for peace among its people.
Friday, November 28, 2008
As Taboos Ease, Saudi Girl Group Dares to Rock
By ROBERT F. WORTH
JIDDA, Saudi Arabia
They cannot perform in public. They cannot pose for album cover photographs. Even their jam sessions are secret, for fear of offending the religious authorities in this ultraconservative kingdom.
But the members of Saudi Arabia’s first all-girl rock band, the Accolade, are clearly not afraid of taboos.
The band’s first single, “Pinocchio,” has become an underground hit here, with hundreds of young Saudis downloading the song from the group’s MySpace page. Now, the pioneering foursome, all of them college students, want to start playing regular gigs — inside private compounds, of course — and recording an album.
“In Saudi, yes, it’s a challenge,” said the group’s lead singer, Lamia, who has piercings on her left eyebrow and beneath her bottom lip. (Like other band members, she gave only her first name.) “Maybe we’re crazy. But we wanted to do something different.”
In a country where women are not allowed to drive and rarely appear in public without their faces covered, the band is very different. The prospect of female rockers clutching guitars and belting out angry lyrics about a failed relationship — the theme of “Pinocchio” — would once have been unimaginable here.
But this country’s harsh code of public morals has slowly thawed, especially in Jidda, by far the kingdom’s most cosmopolitan city. A decade ago the cane-wielding religious police terrorized women who were not dressed according to their standards. Young men with long hair were sometimes bundled off to police stations to have their heads shaved, or worse.
Today, there is a growing rock scene with dozens of bands, some of them even selling tickets to their performances. Hip-hop is also popular. The religious police — strictly speaking, the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice — have largely retreated from the streets of Jidda and are somewhat less aggressive even in the kingdom’s desert heartland.
The change has been especially noticeable since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when the Saudis confronted the effects of extremism both outside and inside the kingdom. More than 60 percent of Saudi Arabia’s population is under 25, and many of the young are pressing for greater freedoms.
“The upcoming generation is different from the one before,” said Dina, the Accolade’s 21-year-old guitarist and founder. “Everything is changing. Maybe in 10 years it’s going to be O.K. to have a band with live performances.”
Dina said she first dreamed of starting a band three years ago. In September, she and her sister Dareen, 19, who plays bass, teamed up with Lamia and Amjad, the keyboardist.
They were already iconoclasts: Dina and Dareen wear their hair teased into thick manes and have pierced eyebrows. During an interview at a Starbucks here, they wore black abayas — the flowing gown that is standard attire for women — but the gowns were open, showing their jeans and T-shirts, and their hair and faces were uncovered. Women are more apt to go uncovered in Jidda than in most other parts of the country, though it is still uncommon.
“People always stare at us,” Dareen said, giggling. She and her sister are also avid ice skaters, another unusual habit in Saudi Arabia’s desert.
The band gets together to practice every weekend at the sisters’ house, where their younger brother sometimes fills in on drums. In early November, Dina, who studies art at King Abdulaziz University, began writing a song based on one of her favorite paintings, “The Accolade,” by the English pre-Raphaelite painter Edmund Blair Leighton. The painting depicts a long-haired noblewoman knighting a young warrior with a sword.
“I liked the painting because it shows a woman who is satisfied with a man,” Dina said.
She had thought of writing a song based on “Last Supper” by Leonardo da Vinci but decided that doing so would be taking controversy too far. In Saudi Arabia, churches are not allowed, and Muslims who convert to Christianity can be executed.
Dina held out her cellphone to show a video of the band practicing at home. It looked like a garage-band jam session anywhere in the world, with the sisters hunching over their instruments, their brother blasting away at the drums and Lamia clutching a microphone.
“We’re looking for a drummer,” Lamia said. “Five guys have offered, but we really want the band to be all female.”
Although they know they are doing something unusual, in person the band members seem more playful than provocative. Unlike some of the wealthier Saudi youth who have lived abroad and tasted Western life, they are middle class and have never left their country.
“What we’re doing — it’s not something wrong, it’s art, and we’re doing it in a good way,” Dina said. “We respect our traditions.”
All the members are quick to add that they disapprove of smoking, drinking and drugs.
“You destroy yourself with that,” Lamia said.
Yet rock and roll itself is suspect in Saudi Arabia in part because of its association with decadent lifestyles. Most of the bands here play heavy metal, which has only added to the stigma because of the way some Western heavy metal bands use images linked to satanism or witchcraft. In Saudi Arabia, people are sometimes imprisoned and even executed on charges of practicing witchcraft.
The first rock bands appeared here about 20 years ago, according to Hassan Hatrash, 34, a journalist and bass player who was one of the pioneers, and their numbers gradually grew. Then in 1995, the police raided a performance in the basement of a restaurant in Jidda, hauling about 300 young men off to jail, including Mr. Hatrash. They were released a few days later without being charged. There is no actual law against playing rock music or performing publicly.
“After that, the scene kind of died,” he said.
Mr. Hatrash, who has graying shoulder-length hair, recalled how the religious police used to harass young men who advertised their interest in rock and roll. He once had his head was shaved by the police.
In recent years, with the religious police on the defensive, bands have begun to play concerts, and a few have recorded albums. Occasionally young men bring their guitars and play outside the cafes on Tahlia Street in Jidda, where young people tend to congregate in the evenings.
Although the music is mostly familiar to heavy metal fans anywhere — thrashing guitars and howling vocals — some of the lyrics reflect the special challenges of life and love in this puritanical country.
“And I Don’t Know Why,” a song by Mr. Hatrash’s band, Most of Us, has these lyrics:
Why is it always so hard to get to you
When it’s something we both want to do
Every time we have to create an alibi
So that we can meet and love or at least try...
As the Saudi rock scene grew, Dina gathered the courage to start her own band. It plans to move slowly, she said, with “jams for ladies only” at first. The band members’ parents support them, though they have asked them to keep things low-key. Eventually, Dina said, they hope to play real concerts, perhaps in Dubai.“It’s important for them to see what we’re capable of,” she said.
Saturday, February 16, 2008
And check out these Haifa Pepsi ads. This one based on her 2007 hit, "Bous El Wawa."
And the "Ana Haifa" one:
Wednesday, January 30, 2008
Another interesting article about Palestinian rap, this time from Lebanon. I found this in today's Daily Star (Jan. 31, 2008). Go here for an interview broadcast on al-Jazeera English with the group in question, Katibe 5. It's useful because it gives you some idea about conditions in Burj al-Barajneh camp. Go here for a video of the group in concert. A more recent, short clip of the group live (and a better song) than the previous vid, is here.
The sounds of Public Enemy re-routed through Burj al-Barajneh
Five well-read, fast-talking, wisecracking young men are putting the social content and political volume back into hip hop
By Ayman Oghanna
BEIRUT: In the 1980s, hip hop exploded onto the world music scene like a heat-seeking missile. Groups like Public Enemy spat poetic political activism into the formerly apolitical "party music" of their predecessors. In doing so, they gave America's black, poverty-stricken and racially oppressed underclass much more than entertainment.
"Fight the Power," "Don't Believe the Hype," "It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back" - these were anthems of emancipation, empowerment and education, a lyrical call to arms charged with the poetry of Gil Scott-Heron and the fury of Malcolm X.
Today, however, political hip hop in the United States is as dead as disco. Flip through any of the music channels and a horde of diamond-encrusted children flog you with crass, self-indulgent materialism, vanity-label perfumes and a shopping list of expensive pretty things you will never own.
The articulate activism that once defined the genre has all but disappeared, leaving in its place a grotesque serving of the worst kind of capitalism - a vain, vacuous, self-serving materialism where you either get rich or die trying. Little wonder, then, that one of American hip hop's most successful sons, Nas, entitled his last album "Hip Hop is Dead."
But, then again, don't believe the hype. Hip hop as a political medium is far from dead. Throughout Africa and across the Arab world it is thriving. In particular, young musical renegades from Algeria to Gaza have embraced the genre as an exciting new sociopolitical platform. The subculture of Palestinian hip hop is adeptly captured in Jackie Salloum's critically acclaimed documentary, "Slingshot Hip Hop," which made its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, earlier this month. Salloum's film profiles a number of home-grown hip-hop groups, including DAM, Palestinian Rapperz (PR), Arapeyat, Abeer, Mahmoud Shalabi and more.
Another group at the forefront of this musical intifada is Beirut's latest hip-hop sensation, Katibe 5. Refugees straight outta Burj al-Barajneh, these five talented twenty-something MCs are the heirs of Public Enemy and its ilk. As artists who combine Arabic music, political activism, social commentary and, of course, hip hop, they are creating a fresh, dynamic form of political resistance.
Each member of Katibe 5 goes by his chosen nom de guerre. Nadir, or Moscow, is the group's stern-faced, serious and solemn pragmatist. The affable Amro, aka C-4, boasts a confident, extroverted charisma that is nowhere near as menacing as his plastic-explosives nickname would suggest. Katibe 5's resident graphic artist is Tarek "The Butcher" Jazzar. Bobo is quick-tongued and articulate, originally from Sierra Leone. And Yousri, known as Molotov - "Or Molo," he quips, "What name do you want? I've got plenty" - is the joker of the pack.
These eclectic characters have been recording music together since they were 15-year-old mates in a Burj al-Barajneh school run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). "No, not a school exactly. It was a small prison," Bobo promptly clarifies.
The group recently signed a deal with Lebanon's Incognito, an upstart record label and independent distributor associated with La CD-Theque, a record shop with branches near Sassine in Achrafieh and the American University of Beirut in Hamra.
"Like the name says, they're not commercial," says Bobo. "They're underground." Katibe 5's first album, "Welcome, My Brother, to the Camps," is due to be released on Incognito in two weeks' time.
The group's music encompasses a variety of subjects, including the conditions of refugee life, corrupt humanitarian aid agencies and non-governmental organizations, Iraq, capitalism, Palestine, the 2007 conflict in Nahr al-Bared and relaxing on a Saturday night. Inspired by the older, more political generation of US hip-hop acts, Katibe 5 shares their same idealism.
"We're the students of Public Enemy," says Bobo. "They succeeded in teaching people and we want to continue this. Our message is sociopolitical. You can't separate the social from the political."
Chatting on the roof of the building in Burj al-Barajneh where Jazzar lives with his family, the members of Katibe 5 converse about politics, philosophy, literature and economics with the same passion and energy they put into their music.
"Have you read Nietzsche?" asks Moscow. "You like Frantz Fanon?" chimes Bobo. "What about Yukio Mishima?" adds Molo. "You don't know Mishima? Kenzaburo Oe then? C'mon, man. You must read Mishima, Oe, all the Japanese writers, man. They're good. They're like this," Molo explains, holding his thumb and forefinger together to create an exact, precise point. "They give the wall its true image."
These well-read, fast-talking, wisecracking, chain-smoking refugees don't present themselves as musicians but rather as Marxist revolutionaries - more PFLP than Notorious B.I.G.
"We are part of a revolution," says Moscow, "a musical revolution. It's happening here and all over the world. We're the adverb. We come before the verb. We're preparing people for action," he says, a Che Guevara bracelet slipping out from under his sleeve to punctuate his revolutionary rhetoric.
Katibe 5 sees itself as being on a genuine musical mission to increase awareness, educate people and instigate global action and resistance.
"We want people to wake up and realize their rights and responsibilities. We want people to realize that companies are trying to control their behavior," says C-4.
The audience that Katibe 5 addresses doesn't only reside in the refugee camps. The group expresses a Trotskyite solidarity for all of the world's oppressed.
As Moscow explains Katibe 5's aims, "We have a responsibility not just to reflect this life. We're not just Palestinian refugees speaking about our problems, or our lives in the camps, because the problems we face are not only a Palestinian problem. All over the world there are people who are oppressed, people who are incarcerated, people who are suffering."
So what or who, in Katibe 5's view, is the cause of this global suffering? "It's the system, man," says Bobo/
"The system" is a recurring bogeyman in Katibe 5's music and ideology: a perceived, pervasive superstructure that keeps people ignorant, poor and backward.
"We're fighting the system," Bobo expounds, "the system that makes people blind, and makes people ignore their rights and responsibilities.
"Look at hip hop," he adds. "The mainstream record companies want to say that hip hop is about cars, b****** and getting money. You should have this, you should have that. You should have a mobile phone because if you don't have a mobile phone, you're not a human. [But] hip hop's not about that."
So what, exactly, is hip hop about, then?
"Hip hop is a weapon for all oppressed people," says C-4.
"Hip hop is a movement," says Bobo. "It has always existed because hip hop is life. From the beginning there were always people living, people suffering. Hip hop is the art of talking, of expressing yourself. Lyrics are its base. You find it in poetry, essays and here in Arabic culture. It has existed from the beginning. As long as people are oppressed and incarcerated they will have something to say."
Illustrating their point, they start free-styling over the camp's background beats: children playing, hammers hammering, the call to prayer coming from a nearby mosque and - this being last Sunday afternoon - the sounds of deadly riots in the Dahiyeh.
"Hip hop is based on the street and so it cannot be anything but political," says Bobo, satisfied with the clarification.
Perhaps it's a reflection of their context, youth or political and musical influences but there is an ominous paranoia undercutting Katibe 5's worldview, as well as an open acceptance of resistance by any means necessary.
"You know what, man?" C-4 warns. "They know what hip hop does to society and they want to kill it and stop its flow."
"You have to fight for your rights," adds Molo. "Peace means politics, politics means negotiations, negotiations are meant to sustain negotiations and not bring a solution. So I say, f*** negotiations, f*** politics and f*** peace."
Putting aside the philosophical musings and antagonistic worldview for a bit, what really counts is the music and, thankfully, Katibe 5's debut album is good, good enough to give some merit to Katibe 5's grand ideas and political pretensions.
The group's sound - a mix of traditional Arabic melodies, rap, beat-boxing, poetry and sampled news footage - is in many ways unique. It's a far cry from the majority of loved-up popular Arabic music and perhaps more importantly, it's enjoyable to listen to. Think Public Enemy with an Arabic twist - loud, satirical, relevant and hard to ignore.
The contrasting voices and styles of the five members complement one another well, and they give the music variety and depth. To be sure, some songs are a little rough around the edges, but that is also part of the appeal. On track after track, Katibe 5's sincerity, raw energy and youthful vigor carry their music. Furthermore, the group isn't afraid to experiment. This gives them the potential to get bigger and better, and to receive the attention they deserve.
But ultimately, they couldn't care less about what other people think. "All that matters is this," insists Molo. "Know your aim in life, do it and then die. There's nothing else. Everything else is emptiness."
Friday, January 11, 2008
Thursday, January 10, 2008
Other than my "ideological" objection to that song, it is great stuff.
Omar Souleyman is a Syrian musical legend. Since 1994, he and his musicians have emerged as a staple of folk-pop throughout Syria, but until now they have remained little known outside of the country. To date, they have issued more than five-hundred studio and live-recorded cassette albums which are easily spotted in the shops of any Syrian city.
Born in rural Northeastern Syria, he began his musical career in 1994 with a small group of local collaborators that remain with him today. The myriad musical traditions of the region are evident in their music. Here, classical Arabic mawal-style vocalization gives way to high-octane Syrian Dabke (the regional folkloric dance and party music), Iraqi Choubi and a host of Arabic, Kurdish and Turkish styles, among others. This amalgamation is truly the sound of Syria. The music often has an overdriven sound consisting of phase-shifted Arabic keyboard solos and frantic rhythms. At breakneck speeds, these shrill Syrian electronics play out like forbidden morse-code, but the moods swing from coarse and urgent to dirgy and contemplative in the rugged anthems that comprise Souleyman's repertoire. Oud, reeds, baglama saz, accompanying vocals and percussion fill out the sound from track to track. Mahmoud Harbi is a long-time collaborator and the man responsible for much of the poetry sung by Souleyman. Together, they commonly perform the Ataba, a traditional form of folk poetry used in Dabke. On stage, Harbi chain smokes cigarettes while standing shoulder to shoulder with Souleyman, periodically leaning over to whisper the material into his ear. Acting as a conduit, Souleyman struts into the audience with urgency, vocalizing the prose in song before returning for the next verse. Souleyman’s first hit in Syria was "Jani" (1996) which gained cassette-kiosk infamy and brought him recognition throughout the country. Over the years, his popularity has risen steadily and the group tirelessly performs concerts throughout Syria and has accepted invitations to perform abroad in Saudi Arabia, Dubai and Lebanon. Omar Souleyman is a man of hospitality and striking integrity who describes his style as his own and prides himself on not being an imitator or a sellout.
Sublime Frequencies is honored to present the Western debut of Omar Souleyman with this retrospective disc of studio and live recordings spanning 12 years of his career, culled from cassettes recorded between 1994 and 2006. This collection offers a rare glimpse into Syrian street-level folk-pop and Dabke– a phenomena seldom heard in the West, not previously deemed serious enough for export by the Syrians and rarely, if ever, included on the import agenda of worldwide academic musical committees.
Go here for a review of the album from Popmatters.com.