Culture

Metro al-Madina’s seven-year itch

BEIRUT: When The Daily Star mentioned the “seven-year itch” to Hisham Jaber, he didn’t recognize the term. Jaber, aka Roberto Kobrosli, knows about the itch of course, though in Lebanon the phenomenon is more complex than elsewhere. “[Kobrosli] spoke about that the other evening,” he smiled. “At four years, the couple has their first big clash. At seven years, you have to decide if you want to have a child, or if everyone goes their own way.”

That “other evening” was Metro al-Madina’s Jan. 5 anniversary party, an opportunity for musicians to perform sets from nine of the venue’s current slate of shows.

It was the seventh such concert to be staged by the subterranean cabaret, which over the past seven years has proven a reliable venue both for music and musical theater lovers and for performers.

Jaber was among the plotters who created Metro, so the anniversary provided an opportunity to ruminate about what’s happened and what happens next.

“We’ve made a lot of children at Metro already, not just one,” Jaber chuckled, “so we can’t leave everything and go. This is theater. It’s a bit of a cliche, but you can feel it’s a real family among the artists - especially after Hashisho’s death.”

Imad Hashisho was among the pool of musicians on whom Metro has drawn since its inception. He played oud and sang with Al-Rahel al-Kabir, the rock’n’tarab outfit that cut its teeth at Metro a couple of years back, and “Days of Wonder,” the band’s new concert series at the cabaret, foregrounds the oud-player’s absence.

Hashisho passed away in a car crash in March 2018 and his absence may be felt all the more because there has otherwise been such continuity among Metro’s artists and technicians.

“We were working and working. Suddenly it’s seven years,” Jaber mused. “It’s no joke.”

Jaber has a stake in most all the shows Metro has staged over the years, though at the moment he’s thinking about “Metrophone,” devised to place aspiring vocalists on stage in a talent show-style format.

“I like the Metrophone project very much. It’s an economic disaster for us,” he chuckled, “a real loss, but we do it for us and for the audience and to introduce these second-tier artists. We can’t all be Wadih Safi or Fairouz. It’s important to have a map so that we know what resources are left to us.”

One of Metro’s new projects for 2019, being launched in a couple of months, is the New Song Society, which seeks to provide exposure for new musicians.

“We’ll make an open call for anyone who has a new song. They can send us a demo and, if we like it, we can produce it. We provide a house band with some vocals. The audience will know they’re coming for a new song experience.”

Tarab and jazz, rock and rap tunes are all equally welcome.

“It’s an open call,” he said. “The music should be fit for a one-night show. The composer will see his songs produced and can see how a particular instrumentation works and the audience response. It will be very valuable for the composers.”

Pushing new contemporary music may seem a departure for Metro, whose bread and butter has been long-running retrospectives like “Hishik Bishik” and “Bar Farouk.” Actually new tunes have always been part of its programming, including the retrospectives.

“People don’t know that there are five new songs in ‘Bar Farouk’,” he said. “Once or twice a month and for all our new shows we always have new work, regardless if it’s retrospective.

“Within reason. If you’re doing Abd al-Halim, we’re not going to write any new songs from Abd al-Halim,” he laughed, “but we want to push this scene, to have the audience hearing new things, not just coming to sing along.”

The New Song Society is about building audiences as much as exposing new talent. “We’re looking for new writers, composers, new vocalists because the scene should move, should grow,” he said. “The audience should be able to appreciate contemporary writing and composing about what’s happening now, our feelings now, this is important.”

Jaber also notes there’s a bit of a glut in the market for musical retrospectives these days. Based on the playlists, he wonders how many of these simply copy Metro’s programming. “Our playlist is in all the venues,” he chuckled. “No really. All of them.

“If you want to copy stuff, copy decent stuff and put something from yourself also. Put more, not less. There is a lack of ideas in the f ?ing country, really.

“It’s a disaster, but it’s normal. Other venues’ investors, they want to make money so they take a working model. They see we don’t starve here so they do it and make some money then shut and go to a new venue. With new venues you have a year or two because it’s new.”

He paused, then laughed. “We’re an NGO, though we’re a company, paying taxes yaani.”

Other new projects include a new Kobrosli show - one of several stand-up-based performances Jaber has written for his mop-haired alter ego.

“Roberto Kobrosli in love,” he chuckled. “It’s about relationships and how it goes in Lebanon, and the history of love in the city.

“We’re also preparing a new cabaret show,” he said, pausing as if to measure his words. “It’s about hashish - all the art and music that’s emerged around hashish - Sayid Darwish, Zakariya Ahmad - and the society of the hashishin, especially now that there’s a move to legalize hash. So the show will be part of the propaganda, but the audience must be prepared first.

“The show is called ‘The Hashish Show’,” he chuckled, “so it’s also for Hashisho.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 17, 2019, on page 12.

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