Scoping out the underground

ebanon’s underground music fans have not always had it easy. Until recently, most of the local music scene was split between two extremes: The dolled up young Arab pop stars often seen as commercial, and the more legendary singers in the Arab world, such as Fayrouz, Warda and Salwa Katrib.

However, with the turn of the century, young independent Lebanese artists have slowly started carving out a new niche for themselves in the country’s music scene.

You can blame it on the spread of the Internet and mass communications, the influx and outflow of expatriates (and their guitars), the burgeoning local record labels, or just the rise of a  new generation more keen on the less mainstream, as Lebanon’s underground scene is now in full bloom.

Whether for political venting or personal expression, for the past decade or so, traditional Lebanese genres have been fusing with global sounds to create a new breed of music. From indie to funk, hip-hop to folk and reggae to oriental, it all comes together peppered with a mix of English, Arabic and French lyrics. (Please forgive the cliché.) And so, without further ado, NOW Extra brings you some of 2010’s biggest local underground releases.

Sandmoon’s raW

The act: Sandra Arslanian (piano/vocals), Tony AbouHaidar (drums), Elia Monsef (guitar), Johnny Assaf (bass)

The story: After performing with a series of electro/rock bands in Belgium, where the lead singer and songwriter grew up, Arslanian changed directions in 2009 and created Sandmoon. AbouHaidar and Monsef later joined the band, which has performed in diverse venues across Lebanon and Belgium. The group sings in English with melodies that hinge around indie folk and rock beats.

The album: The band’s debut album “raW” combines piano interludes with breathy vocals that remind us of unique female artists, such as Beth Orton and Cat Power. Some songs combine electronic beats that add a twist to the group’s folk-ness.

Zeid and the Wings’ 4-track EP

The act : Zeid Hamdan (guitar/vocals), Yasmine Ayyashi (back vocals), Gihan El Hage (back vocals), Marc Codsi (guitar synth/electronic drums), Paskal Sarkis (bass), Fayez Rizkallah (drums/synth ), Rita Okais (organ), Bechir Saade (ney/flute/bass clarinette)

The story: With a series of prior musical accomplishments under his belt, Hamdan has done it again. What started as a Facebook announcement in early 2010 by the man who can safely be deemed a pioneer in Lebanon’s underground music scene, has led to the production of both an album and a music video, which landed headlines with international media, such as the LA Times’ blog.

The album: The group’s first album, titled after the band, was released in April 2010 and is a fusion of Arabic, folk , reggae, rock and electro. The album comes with its own unique quirk: give Zeid a ring, and he’ll deliver the album to you on his very own bicycle.

Lazzy Lung’s Strange Places

The act: Allan Chaaraoui (Vox/guitars/loops), Patrick Hanna (lead guitars), Hadi Oueini (drums/percussion/Vox), Imad Jawad – (bass/Vox)

The story:  What started as a solo act back in Canada was multiplied by four by the time front man Chaaraoui had settled into his new home on the other side of the Atlantic in Beirut. Shuttling between Lebanon and the land of the maple leaf, the band says it is inspired by several genres and groups, such as Phoenix and the Strokes. Lazzy Lung’s local venue de preference is Dany’s pub in Hamra.

The album:  According to Chaaraoui, Strange Places, the band’s first official recorded album, is very personal with half of the album describing his experiences in Canada and the other half reflecting his move to Lebanon. He told NOW Extra that the album is “like a chronological timeline, leaving everything back home and embracing change in Lebanon, which is ultimately a strange place at the mental and physical levels.” 

Fareeq el Atrash (self-titled)

The act: Edd (rapper), Nasr (rapper), FZ (vocal percussion/FX), Goo (guitar/keys), DJ Stickfiggr (on the turntables), John Imad Nasr (bass)

The story: Initially a free jam collective that started a few years ago in Beirut, the name Fareeq el Atrash is now well known on Lebanon’s local hip hop/rap scene. Through gradual exposure mostly during live underground performances, the laid-back group released their debut album during last summer’s Fete de la Musique.

The album:  According to the artists, their character is best reflected through their unique selection of fresh poetics crossing between hip hop, funk, and rock mainly sung in Arabic.

Katibe 5’s  Ahla w sahla fik bil moukhayamet

The act: Osloob, Jazzar, Moscow, Boubou and Molotov

The story: Springing from none other than Beirut’s Bourj al-Barjaneh Palestinian refugee camp, this band probably has the least common of birth places. The group of five has been gaining ground since 2006, unveiling their harsh living conditions in the hidden enclave and stressing that their resistance through hip hop and rap need not be associated with violence.

The album: This year’s Ahla w sahla fik bil moukhayamet is a follow-up to their first album released in 2008, which took five years to put together.

Scrambled Eggs’ Peace is Overrated & War Misunderstood 

The act:  Charbel Haber (guitar/vocals), Tony Elieh (bass/vocals), Malek Rizkallah (drums/vocals)

The story:  The Scrambled Eggs’ history dates back to 1998, as the band emerged from the aftermath of the country’s fiery civil war. The group’s first album appeared back in 2002, with musical influences stemming largely from British alternative and progressive rock to other more aggressive styles of American pop/rock. By 2004, the band created its own record label, "Those Kids Must Choke," and in 2005, they collaborated with Lebanese filmmakers Joanna Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige on four soundtracks of the movie A Perfect Day. They also composed the soundtrack for Hadjithomas and Joreige's third feature film, Je Veux Voir, in 2008. Perhaps one of the most known in the local alternative scene, Scrambled Eggs has also been covered in the international press, including a feature in Times Magazine back in 2006.

The album: Peace is Overrated & War Misunderstood, the band's seventh album, consists of tracks recorded between 2006 and 2009. It launched on December 23 at The Basement club.

Munma’s Previews and Premises

The act: Jawad Nawfal

The story: Born in Beirut in 1978, Nawfal studied at the local Institute for Scenic, Audiovisual and Film Studies. He is the brain behind “Altered Ear,” a platform launched in 2001, with a special focus on means of using computer science to complement both sound and images. He has performed throughout Lebanon and France and his musical influences are rooted mainly in electro, electronica, techno, and hip hop. 

The album: Previews and Premises, which marks the fourth of the ambient/electronic enthused composer's albums, consists of recordings dating from 2006 to 2010.

Touffar’s Sehab al-Ard

The act: Jaafar and Nasereddine 

The story:  These soldiers of music sing about their harsh conditions back home in the Bekaa. To this hip-hop/rapping duo from Hermel, Beirut is a bubble, and people forget that Lebanon is much more than its sheltered metropolis. Their lyrical combat is a call for justice and recognition that Lebanon is not confined within the space of its capital.

The album: Sehab al-Ard, which literally means the landlords, is the pair’s first album. Many of the bands’ songs play on words in their satirical approach to issues they have strong opinions about. For example, one of their songs dubbed “al-wasakh” al-tijaree (wasakh meaning dirt) was a play on words as downtown Beirut is called al-wasat al-tijaree in Arabic. 

Rayess Bek’s Khartech Aal Zamman / L'homme de gauche

The act: Rayess Bek 

The story:  Back in 1997, he pioneered rapping in Arabic in the Middle East. After founding the group Aks’ser (Against the current), he launched a solo project geared toward addressing political realities under his new rapper name, Rayess Bek. In 2006, the UN commissioned him with producing a song for the international body’s program of action concerning disabled persons. Fed up with the re-surfacing violence that erupted in July 2006, Rayess Bek moved to Paris, where he continues to work full-time on his music.

The album:  The CD’s title, Khartech Aal Zamman meaning scratch the past, is Rayess Bek’s third release. He has never really left his original group, Aks’ser, either.