Lebanon: One more assault against the mainstream

September 25th, 2009 | Posted in Beirut, Culture, Lebanon
    Daily Star by Matthew Mosley, Wednesday, September 09, 2009


    Photo: Tanya Traboulsi Antennas in the sky in Beirut, Lebanon.

BEIRUT: “We’re a growing family,” says Zeid Hamdan, describing the Lebanese underground music scene. “Audiences have been following us since the beginning and they see constant progress. They see that we’re serious about the music. Now a whole new generation of teenagers is becoming interested in what we do.”

If Hamdan gets his way, underground music will soon break into the light of mainstream media attention. One half of the defunct band Soap Kills and one third of cult rockers The New Government, Hamdan has fought to promote the alternative scene on various fronts. Now, with “The Road to Kfifane,” he is presiding over a music festival dedicated solely to Lebanese talent.

“This is very important,” he says. “The other festivals – Baalbeck, Beiteddine – only feature Lebanese acts who are very old and established, like Caracalla. It’s like watching an old film over and over again.”

“The Road to Kfifane,” rocking out at Beirut’s Sporting Club on September 19, features a modest array of fresh-faced talent. Kicking off with Katibe 5, the Palestinian hip-hop group produced by Hamdan, the evening takes in performances from Hiba and the Baalbeck Project, Hamdan’s latest Arabic-language electro outfit, and Trash Inc., the one-man electro act from Nabil Saliba, former drummer for The New Government.

Hamdan has scored something of a coup in booking Rayess Bek, the hip-hop star who hasn’t played a gig in his homeland for over two years.

“It’s very hard to develop as an alternative musician here,” says Hamdan. “So many of my collaborators have felt the need to go abroad to continue their work. Yasmine Hamdan, who I worked with in Soap Kills, has gone to Paris. Rayess Bek is there too. I keep on trying to tell him that there is work for him to do here. A real music festival will encourage all these people to return.”

The evening also boasts DJ sets from Jade, founder of The Basement Club, and The Underdolls, a female collective featuring Mayaline Hage of Lumi.

“We’re taking risks,” says Hamdan. “Unlike other festivals, there are no stars, but they’re all killer musicians. I decided not to have any act onstage for longer than 40 minutes. If they go down well, everyone will be excited to hear more, but if they’re not to the audience’s taste, it’s not such a long time period.”

This is the first edition of what is projected to be an annual event. Produced in conjunction with NGO Offre Joie, the festival was originally planned to play out on the terrace of an old monastery in Kfifane, near Batroun, now used as Offre Joie’s headquarters.

“The idea is to bring people to our center in Kfifane,” says Michel Ghanem, who works for the NGO. “It is a beautiful setting, looking out over the valley. But the logistics were impossible, so we decided to stage the first one in Beirut, where it’s easier to get attendance and sponsorship.”

For Ghanem, the festival is a serendipitous way of boosting both the Lebanese alternative music scene and the work of Offre Joie.

“Our target audience is the same,” he says. “The idea of Offre Joie is that, instead of spending the whole summer at the beach, young people commit one week to working on social projects. The festival audience members, who care about the music rather than the social or religious affiliations of the people playing, are those we want to attract.”

Projects carried out by Offre Joie include summer camps for the children of divided villages and reconstruction work in the South, helping to maintain what Ghanem terms the “beautiful diversity” of Lebanon.

“The music scene – where all kinds of people are coming together to express something new – is similar to what we are trying to do in the social domain,” says Ghanem. “In this sense, our work is the same.”

The charitable aim of the festival doesn’t preclude “The Road to Kfifane” being a slick operation. “This is being planned like a proper commercial festival,” says Hamdan. “They’ve fixed up a very high-quality sound system. All the musicians are paid. The people from Balima [the Saifi Village café] are cooking food, there’ll be CDs on sale – it’s going to be a great festival atmosphere.”

Hamdan’s hope is that events such as these will break the strangle hold of Arabic pop over the media. “There is a lot of interest in Lebanese alternative music both locally and internationally,” he says, “but it’s very hard for these musicians to get exposure in the media, so they don’t get booked.”

“It’s very exciting,” says Ghanem. “These acts are building the musical heritage for the next 15 years. They embody our main message: That if you are united, if you really believe, you can achieve anything.”

“The Road to Kfifane” will take place at Sporting Club in Manara on September 19. Tickets are $20, available from all branches of Virgin Megastores

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