An evening spent beyond Beirut

BEIRUT: An eclectic mix of talent came to the Metro-al-Madina stage Friday evening. The three-course meal of Arabic fusion, video-assisted solo theremin and Arabic indie pop was served up by Beirut & Beyond.

This was the second day of the contemporary music platform, which has assembled players and industry professionals from hither and yon for four days of performance and mingling.

For many in this capacity standing-room-mostly crowd, the evening’s big draw was Lekhfa, centering on Maurice Louca (keyboard, electric guitar), Maryam Saleh (vocals) and Tamer al-Ghazaleh (oud, vocals). Combining talents from the experimental and theatrical edges of Arabic indie music, the trio was capably backed by Khaled Yassine on drums, percussionist Ghassan Bouz and Mahmoud Wali on bass guitar.

Lekhfa’s sound is that of skilled artists making music from dissonance. For listeners accustomed to pop glistening with postproduction polish, Lekhfa’s tunes may seem a little down-at-heel.

Habitues of the regions’ experimental scene, though, will recognize the deliberation in this music.

Though she isn’t the principal voice on all the numbers in Lekhfa’s playlist, Saleh - and the vulnerable, fractured atonalities she cultivates - rudders this music. Her vocals are matched by Ghazaleh’s sometimes shattered oud-picking and buoyed by Louca’s atmospherics, whether issuing from the keyboard or (more exotically) from the slide guitar.

The sense of music coming to pieces even as it’s launched from the instruments is accentuated by selective sampling of Egyptian shaabi music and the ensemble’s reinforced percussion.

Yassine is particularly adept at giving these tunes the sound of a machine whose ad hoc repairs echo through its odd knocks and thuds.

Arguably this music’s dissonance is rooted in the poetry of Mido Zohair, which comprises all the lyrics in Lekhfa’s debut CD.

“Rhythm broken, into four quarters,” begins Lekhfa’s “Ekaa Maksour” (“Rhythm Broken”), “drilling illusion, into listening ears / a devil in lies, a long arm in tyranny / you the sultan, the people public property.”

Evocative of state violence, these lyrics aren’t unrepresentative of Lekhfa’s other tunes, suggesting that this music’s smashed lyricism echoes the state of politics these days.

Lekhfa’s Beirut debut was immediately preceded by a solo set with multi-instrumentalist Javier Diez Ena. The Spanish musician intrigued and entertained his audience with a duet with electronic artist El Problema (the problem), who was present in the video works she composed to accompany Diez Ena’s work on the theremin.

Purportedly the first-ever electronic instrument, the theremin was invented in the Soviet Union in the first quarter of last century. The ghostly tunes musicians generate using this instrument - which for a time was associated with American B-movie horror and sci-fi spectacles a-la Ed Wood - are caressed from the instrument by manipulating the electromagnetic fields generated around its two aerials.

A serious and skilled thereminist, Diez Ena has incorporated additional electronics that allow him to loop and play back the sounds he’s crafted, making his compositions less linear than those improvised by another player.

The performer’s craft and imagination aside, the theremin’s stern sonic limitations root its sound in nostalgia, a feature that El Problema’s accompaniment maximizes.

The opening number of his set, “Roll Li Ning Roll,” has a certain beer-hall oompah band quality that’s nicely illuminated by file footage of an athlete’s exertions on the parallel bars, the mushroom clouds of hydrogen bomb tests and mass outdoor calisthenics - evocative of jolly propaganda films made in the first half of last century by certain European totalitarian regimes.

“The music and the visuals make a different trip,” Diez Ena grinned after “Mai Tai Break,” his salute to the Polynesia-inflected “mai tai culture” of last century.

“I hope you enjoy.” Evidence suggests Metro’s audience complied.

Friday evening at Metro commenced with electric oud player and vocalist Basel Zayed, fronting an ad hoc trio of Tarek Skaiker, keyboards, Omar Harb, bass, and Dany Shukri, drums.

Zayed’s music sets Sufi-influenced lyrics to silky jazz-fusion accompaniment. His oud’s electric pickup makes the instrument more guitarlike - able to hold its own in an ensemble concert setting.

For refugees of last century, his set with this adept trio would have been redolent of the work of the guitar duo Strunz & Farah (aka Jorge Strunz and Ardeshir Farah).

Highly receptive to all three of this evening’s acts, Metro’s audience welcomed Zayed’s sound, which gave them an opportunity for a bit of languorous subterranean dance.

Between sets, an industry professional you know pauses on her way to the bar, smiling. “You know Alan Bishop?” she says.

You nod, having enjoyed several shows with the (now Cairo-based) former Sun City Girls frontman.

“He says fusion,” the professional grins, “is the Israel of Arabic music.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on December 10, 2018, on page 12.




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