Artist captures the many voices of Beirut’s underground folkies

May 16th, 2009 | Posted in Beirut, Culture, Lebanon
    Daily Stary, by Matthew Mosley. Thursday, May 14, 2009

    Photo: Tanya Traboulsi. Scrambled Eggs perform in Beirut, Lebanon.

BEIRUT: “The choice of artists is very personal,” says Ziad Nawfal of his latest album, “The Ruptured Sessions.” “I really have to like what they do.” It seems that Nawfal isn’t alone in his tastes. A capacity crowd at the album’s April 30 launch party at Hamra’s Walimat Wardeh restaurant craned their necks around bodies and pillars to catch a glimpse of the featured artists at work.

The disk is a compilation of material recorded live on Nawfal’s Monday evening Radio Liban show “Ruptures.” “I started inviting young artists into the studio to talk about themselves and the music they like,” said Nawfal over the phone several days after the album launch. “They’d also play three or four tracks of their own.”

These sessions accumulated into a treasure trove of local talent. Nawfal’s latest release is the first in what is projected to be a series of compilations from the radio show.

“For this first album I decided to focus on acoustic singer-songwriters,” says Nawfal. “But there is lots more material in other styles.”

Five acts are responsible for the nine tracks on “The Ruptured Sessions.” Scrambled Eggs’ front man Charbel Haber is featured alongside The Incompetents, Youmna Saba, Nadine Khouri and Cristobal for a determinedly low-fi mix. Production and instrumentation is kept to a minimum, resulting in a homey, hand-made feel.

“Initially, we had decided to record these sessions for archiving purposes only,” Nawfal explains in the sleeve notes. “Listening to them afterwards, and despite all the imperfections and various fumbles induced by on-air anxiety, we found a beautiful set of genuine, touching performances.”

Most of the songs don’t exude the oriental patina you might ascribe to Beirut. They might easily have been the work of Londoners or New Yorkers. Nadine Khouri’s delicious, husky voice, lilting over the strains of an ominously rippling guitar in her song “All This Violence,” bears comparison to English singer-songwriter Beth Orton, while Charbel Haber’s “Building a Nest” could have been composed by Blur in a mellower moment.

No Britpop pioneer, however, could have come up with Youmna Saba’s song “Tehfi,” performed with Fadi Tabbal. For a start, it’s sung in Arabic. A high, quavering reverberation weaves in and out of Saba’s delicate, expressive voice in a languid lament. Later, a flute and some unobtrusive guitar strumming joins the ensemble.

“The identity of Beirut’s folk scene still isn’t fixed,” says Nawfal. “It’s a very young movement. The purpose of this CD is to let people know it exists.”

The scene’s vernal nature throws up a number of pleasant surprises. The Incompetents, a duo formed of songwriter Serge Yared and instrumentalist and sound engineer Fadi Tabbal, play a trio of anarchic, mad-cap ditties. Alternately yodelling or growling, Yared’s vocals aren’t constrained by the musical accompaniment, often willfully falling off-rhythm.

Kazoos hoot, lips smack and, in one particularly delightful segment, there is an extended warbling from what sounds like a froggy chorus.

Nawfal straddles Beirut’s alternative music scene like a benevolent Svengali. As well as his radio show, he works as a concert promoter, music producer and general authority on the underground scene. Not content with all this behind-the-scenes action, he has donned his well-worn hat as a DJ to warm-up the crowds for a number of gigs in recent months, including those of Scrambled Eggs and The Incompetents.

“Like many other scenes, alternative music has been steadily growing in the past two to three years,” he says. With his multiple pans simmering on the underground’s hob, Nawfal can surely take some credit.

“The Ruptured Sessions” is released on the Incognito label and can be found in discriminating record shops around greater Beirut. For more info ring +961 1 491 497.

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