Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Katibe 5: Palestinian rap from the refugee camp of Burj al-Barajneh, Beirut, Lebanon

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."

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Omar Souleyman from Sublime Frequencies

You must check out this videoclip of Syrian singer Omar Souleyman. The great and wackily creative label Sublime Frequencies put out an album from Omar Souleyman last year, but I only just became aware of it. (Sublime Frequencies also released a highly regarded of Saddam-era Iraqi pop and folk music called Choubi Choubi!). I don't really know anything about Omar Souleyman or the genre(s) that he is working in, but trust me, the music on the clip will knock you out. About all I can find about him is what Sublime Frequencies writes on their website, which is reproduced below. Note, however, that it says that Omar Souleyman considers himself a man of integrity. This may be true with regard to his music, but politically? One of the songs on the album is entitled "Bashar Ya Habib al-Sha'b (Bashar, the People's Beloved." Maybe Sublime Frequencies thinks that such adulation of the Grand Leader, Syrian President Bashar al-Asad, is...quaint? Maybe they should consult the Human Rights Watch reports on Syria. Really, they could have left this song off the album.

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