BEIRUT: It’s pretty common for a band to pause near the end of a concert to introduce its members. It’s normal, too, for virtuoso singers to ornament the melodic line of a tune with some vocal gymnastics. It’s rare to have such concert introductions sung. It’s rarer still to have the syllables of each name ornamented like a line of improvisation in a maqam tune. Performed live, the effect is infectiously comic – even if you’ve no idea what a maqam is.
That’s how Al-Rahel al-Kabir wound down its Tuesday evening concert at Metro al-Madina, the first to mark the launch of “La Bombe,” their debut CD. Aside from wringing yet more laughter from the already-well-amused audience, the closing number – belted out with ironic verve by Naim Asmar – fell nicely in line with the balance of the show.
That show was filled with driving, maqam-inflected pop music and lyrics illuminated by winking, irreverent wit.
Principal composer and lyricist, keyboardist, vocalist and tuba virtuoso Khaled Soubeih founded The Great Departed in 2013. Since then the band’s become a fixture at Metro al-Madina, the Hamra Street cabaret space that’s proven to be a vital incubator for the city’s performing artists. (Metro also helped finance “La Bombe.”)
In addition to the band’s concerts, they’ve attracted a loyal following via social media, thanks to tunes like “Madad Sidi Baghdadi,” a happy little hand-clapper that tears a strip or three from Daesh (ISIS) founder Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi – “You who rule by God’s rules/ You will lead God’s servants to an abyss like no other,” etc.
Then there’s “Don’t Mix,” a hilarious, sort-of-bilingual lampoon of former Egyptian President Mohammad Morsi, who once ill-advisedly tried to mix Arabic and English in a German television interview. “Gas and alcohol don’t mix/ Drinking and driving don’t mix/ Fish and yogurt/ Politics and the military ... / Don’t mix.”
English translations of Soubeih’s lyrics do unique injustice to a TGD performance. Many of his tunes are of the “call and response” variety. Often it’s Sandy Shamoun who takes the lead, followed by a male chorus centering on the voices of Soubeih, Asmar and oud-player Imad Hashisho. Sometimes the opposite is true. Abed Kobaissi’s bouzuq and Ali al-Hout’s percussion complete the onstage ensemble and the album is augmented by accordion, qanun, fiddles and cello.
Sensitive to the ample absurdities of national and regional politics and society, TGB’s tunes are by their nature theatrical, and the players have embraced that theatricality without ever hoisting themselves from their stools.
This broad performance aesthetic, as much as the stage’s retina-burning flood lamps, no doubt explains why all the men in the band don shades during their shows. It doesn’t explain by Shamoun doesn’t, but even pop music benefits from a touch of the ineffable.
It seems TGD take a dim view of conventional CD launch concerts – where the band just plays their record playlist on stage. The “La Bombe” concerts also feature guest appearances by Metro regulars like Yasmina Fayed and Roy Dib.
After four or five tunes from the CD, accordionist-vocalist Samah Abu Mona joined the band on stage to belt out “Khitab” (Speech), a playful solo vocal that sounded like a wink at traditional forms like aataba.
Abu Mona then turned his attention to his squeezebox while Shamoun and her lads sped through the crowd-pleasing “Madad Baghdadi.” (Usually translated “The Birth of Sidi Baghdadi,” the CD liner notes rename the tune “St. Baghdadi’s Celebrations” in English and “Mawled Sidi al-Baghdadi” in Arabic.)
Sung in French, “La Bombe,” the CD’s title track, is nominally about the efforts of its oddly polite male protagonist to plant a bomb. The lyrics however – “Where may I plant my bomb, madame?/ ... I would like to plant it/ I should have planted it ...” – and Asmar’s frantic delivery suggest the bomb-planting may be a metaphor for another activity.
That impression was reinforced Tuesday, thanks to the assistance of oriental dancer Randa Makhoul.
As their growing fan base already knows, TGD is an impressive ensemble of talented musicians, whose wit and insight provide a sardonic echo of this region’s present torment.
As one (bilingual) American audience member reflected partway through Tuesday evening’s show, “I wish we had a version of these guys in the States.”
Al-Rahel al-Kabir will reprise “La Bombe” at Metro al-Madina Sunday evening, Dec. 4. Doors open at 9 p.m.