Daily Star: Using song to amplify calls for social change

July 7th, 2006 | Posted in Culture

Charbel Rouhana blends political awareness, traditional Arabic music and
compositional experimentation

By Stefan Christoff
Special to The Daily Star
Friday, July 07, 2006

BEIRUT: Somehow Lebanon’s electric political climate always seems to provide
fertile ground for innovative artistic expression. Such expression may be
rooted in the country’s rich cultural history, but on occasion, it also offers
important insight into the present challenges facing Lebanon (and by extension
the region at large).

Over the past nine years, Charbel Rouhana has become a fixture on the local
music scene. A rising star and longtime “special guest” at the Blue Note Cafe
in Hamra, Rouhana uses song to present an inspiring voice for social change.
The celebrated oud player and contemporary composer has successfully harnessed
folkloric Lebanese traditions and combined them with present-day musical
innovation and insightful social commentary.

In a recent interview with The Daily Star, on the heels of a benefit concert in
Beirut for World Refugee Day, Rouhana offered his thoughts on the relationship
between culture and social change. He also reflected on new territories to be
explored in Lebanese music and the effects of globalization on cultural

“I attempt to create songs rooted in a Lebanese tradition, while creating a
message through my music that reflects the current social realities,” explains
Rouhana. “Social change doesn’t only emerge from art. However, the artist can
play an important role in contributing to change.”

To mark the international commemoration of World Refugee Day, Rouhana performed
a concert organized by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees
(UNHCR), at UNESCO Palace in Verdun.

Accompanied by a diverse array of musicians and performers, Rouhana played for
an attentive audience against the backdrop of a slide-show depicting the harsh
conditions that refugees contend with, both in Lebanon and internationally.

At a time when the UN estimates that hundreds of thousands of people are
displaced on an annual basis, whether due to war, poverty or persecution,
Rouhana’s performance highlighted a critical international issue in a city
heavily shaped by a history of forced migration.

“The UNHCR organized the concert to raise awareness among the Lebanese
population on the realities faced by refugees, who flee their countries in
order to seek asylum in Lebanon,” says Dominique Tohme, a senior assistant with
the UNHCR in Beirut, who initiated the World Refugee Day performance. “In this
context the music of Charbel is important because it reflects the differences
between cultures but, at the same time, the possibility for cultures to unite.”

Rouhana began the UNESCO concert with an instrumental set from the 2004 album
“Sourat: Trait d’Union,” a beautiful series of compositions which stitch
together classical musical melodies and the sweeping rhythms of traditional
Arabic folklore.

He filled his second set with new vocal compositions, accompanied by a full
stage of singers and musicians. Rouhana’s new pieces feature lyrics that offer
insightful commentary on Lebanese society. Injected with lively rhythms, these
songs prompted the large UNESCO audience to start singing from their seats.

One song, called “La Shou al-Taghyeer” (“Why the Change”), reflects a common
frustration with political and social issues that have gripped Lebanon for
decades, such as the sectarian-based political system.

Cynically, Rouhana asks the listener why political sectarianism should be
changed. The question is, of course, rhetorical, despite the obvious and
concrete reasons for change that are stated by progressives in the country on a
daily basis.

“Basically the song expresses frustrations concerning social issues [of] our
present time and I felt that it was my duty as an artist to express that common
frustration,” Rouhana explains. “Lebanon’s biggest problem is sectarianism. [It
is] the root of many national problems because we often treat people and work
on the basis of sects and not on skills, creating corruption.”

A prolific composer, performer and music professor at Lebanon’s National
Conservatory of Music, Rouhana’s work clearly originates from a long history of
disciplined, formal training. But he is keen to emphasize the role live
performance plays in musical development.

“Musical construction is very important for me in terms of how a composition is
pieced together,” he says. “However, improvisation from the arrangement is what
makes a performance unique.”

In addition to using his talents in the service of humanitarian missions,
Rouhana’s music is also well known and much loved on the ground and in various
quarters of Beirut.

“It’s something to be considered as part of our contemporary musical and
cultural history in Lebanon. Charbel will be remembered as a musician who
projected Lebanese culture, although today he remains very modest about his
talent,” says Nabil Majdalani, one of the founders of the Blue Note Cafe, where
Rouhana has been playing an average of two concerts a month since 1999.

Traditional Arabic music clearly provides the foundation for Rouhana’s work.
Nonetheless, his compositions openly challenge cultural boundaries.

“I was raised in this country,” he says, “which drives me to create authentic
Lebanese music based on folkloric Arabic song, although I am also open to
bringing together different traditions. I am personally against making my music
purely of Western traditions because for me that means I have not produced any
meaningful culture.”

This raises a question: How does Rouhana assess the influence of globalization
on cultural developments in Lebanon, as more and more forms of cultural
expression are superceding national borders?

Rouhana has collaborated with such internationally renowned musicians as tabla
player Zakir Hussain and jazz musician Rene McLean, with whom he played a 2005
gig in Beirut.

“Everyone says that the world is a village. However, it’s important to make
choices in the face of globalization,” says Rouhana. “I enjoy international
musical collaborations, but the rule is always to return to the Lebanese music
from which I emerged.”

Charbel Rouhana is performing on July 12 at the Blue Note Cafe on Makhoul
Street in Hamra. For more information on his music, please check out

You can also access the article online at:

Stefan Christoff is an independant media activist and Tadamon! member. He is currently in Lebanon as part of the Summer 2006 Tadamon! Delegation Project.

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