Saturday, February 03, 2007

freemuse and the Lebanese music underground

Lebanese “underground” music groups are highlighted at Freemuse conference in Istanbul

Susannah Tarbush

Al Hayat
3 February 2007

The burgeoning “alternative” or “underground” music scene in Lebanon was a major focus of interest at the recent 3rd World Conference on Music and Censorship held in Istanbul by Freemuse, the international organisation that fights music censorship worldwide.

During the Middle East and North African session of the conference, the Swiss ethnomusicologist and cultural journalist Thomas Burkhalter presented some of the findings of research he carried out in Beirut in 2005 and 2006 while preparing his PhD on musicians in Beirut.

Burkhalter introduced his presentation by the playing the track “Staying Alive” by the group The New Government [top]. During his research, Burkhalter asked The New Government and other “alternative” groups about censorship. He received a variety of responses, ranging from “We don’t care about censorship!” and “There is no censorship!” to “Censorship is everywhere, it depends on how you define it!”

Burkhalter said these answers were “as contradictory as Lebanon itself: a country with loads of problems and some good possibilities. A state with a quite strong civil society with its artistic circles, and a weak government weakened on a daily basis by still too strong clan leaders.”

He noted that while some people say the Lebanese live in the freest nation in the Arab world, “others observe quite correctly that in Lebanon you find states inside the state”, and therefore there are various concepts of what is and is not acceptable.

He asked the musicians whether and how they feel censored or not, from war, the media, Hizbollah, Christian leaders, or from priests or sheikhs who do not like certain kinds of music.

Heavy metal music has come in for harassment and censorship over in Lebanon at various times over the years because of its alleged satanic links. (Similar moves against heavy metal and its fans have been seen in Egypt and Morocco).

Moe Hamzeh [below] leader and founder in 1992 of the Beirut-based rock group The Kordz described to Burkhalter the clampdown on metal music in the 1990s. After the singer Kurt Cobain committed suicide in 1994, a young man in Beirut also killed himself and the authorities claimed he had been influenced to do so by Cobain.

Cyrille Najjar [right] , a co-founder in 1996 of the gothic group The Arcane, recalls how some of his friends were put in prison and beaten up. Burkhalter found that Garo Gdanian, the leader of the Death Metal group Weeping Willow did not seem to care too much about censorship. “At the same time his band practises quite a lot of self-censorship – a strategy that is not unknown in the Lebanese metal scene.” Some albums of metal music are still on a black list.

Xardas, a 24-year-old Lebanese from Tripoli whose real name is Osman Arabi, suffered a striking case of music censorship in June 2006. Xardas is a composer and producer of a genre of electronic music known as dark ambient. In April 2006 he released an album entitled “Acid Vomit. Human Genocide” on the US record label Autumn Wind Productions.

When the US record label sent 150 of the CDs to Xardas they were seized by General Security on the grounds that they were “satanic” and “offensive to people’s morals”. Xardas was summoned by the headquarters of General Security, and had to sign a paper promising he would not send or receive any packages containing “dark, harsh or weird” music. He was warned that if he broke his promise he would be arrested and jailed without trial.

In an interview posted on the Freemuse website, Xardas complains that “as a musician, these acts of censorship are simply putting my creative energies to death, thus making my life with no meaning at all, for I live for music.”

Burkhart said the late Philemon Wehbe, who during the Lebanese civil war severely criticised Lebanese political leaders in his songs, has become “a hero for today’s generation of musicians who do not believe in politics anymore”. They include “sound artists” such as Raed Yassin. Yassin has collected sound material from the civil war and from the latest war, such as political speeches, TV and radio jingles and advertisements, and the sound of bombings. “He created sound collages that criticise Lebanon on various often hidden levels.” He has no problem in releasing his work.

Nor do rap artists such as Wael Kodeih, also known as Rayess Rek, see big problems with censorship. And if a rapper does get censored, “they send this information to the Lebanese newspapers and get promotion for free.”

Burkhalter explained that as long as rappers and other musicians from the music sub-culture stay underground, no one seems to care greatly about censoring them. “The difficulties start when they want to cross to the mainstream media. This seems only possible when an artist has a nice face, good connections – or a name, like the rocker Gassan Rahbani who produced many controversial video clips that criticised Syria and the Lebanese government and were shown on Lebanese satellite TV channels.”

Burkhalter concluded that Lebanon seems to be more open than other countries in the Arab world, but it is very unstable. There are still some taboo lines that musicians should not cross. “The strategy for today’s subcultural music scene seems clear. The musicians produce their music in home studios, create their own websites and blogs and distribute the music within alternative networks – and they do this more and more successfully.”

Freemuse takes a keen interest in music censorship in the Middle East and North Africa, and in Beirut in October 2005 it organised the first-ever conference on freedom of expression in music in the region, in cooperation with the Heinrich Boll Foundation and the Irab-Arabic Association for Music. A report of the Beirut conference was published a few months ago under the title “All That is Banned is Desired”.

Layla al-Zubaidi, the programme manager of the Heinrich Boll Foundation’s Middle East Office, chaired the Middle East and North Africa session at the Freemuse conference in Istanbul. Al-Zubaidi was born Germany to Iraqi and Syrian parents.

Al-Zubaidi said the Beirut conference in 2005 had shown music censorship in the Middle East to be a very complex issue. “Censorship occurs on so many different levels – political, religious and social – and also the countries vary very much from each other. It is very difficult to compare a country like Saudi Arabia to Lebanon because they are completely different societies.”

But the Beirut conference had also shown some common features between Middle Eastern countries. In particular there is “an internalised sense that there are certain issues that should not be challenged too much. There is a certain set of social and religious values which can be summarised as public morals and political power.”

Burkhalter and Al-Zubaidi examined the effect of the Hizbollah-Israel war in changing the attitude of Hizbollah towards music. The war had led to the production of new propaganda music and politicised dabke music, Burkhalter said. After the war some people had asked whether the new popularity of Hizbollah and its allies would lead to a new kind of music censorship, comparable to that in Iran. But Burkhalter has found that many Lebanese musicians don’t seem very worried about this.

Al-Zubaidi noted that there has been a relaxation in Hizbollah’s attitude to music. During the summer 2006 war Hizbollah became more liberal because it “discovered the power of music for mobilisation and propaganda. It used songs from the 1950s and 1960s that appeal to Arabism and Arab feeling.”

She added that Hizbollah knew that people were worried that after the war it would tighten its grip on society. “They tried not to upset people too much and not make them afraid that society would change. This had an effect on music.”

Music groups around the world, such as those in Lebanon, are finding the internet a vital means of distributing their recordings and connecting with audiences worldwide. Internet sites such as MySpace and the video site You Tube are widely used by musicians. But some American participants in the Freemuse Istanbul conference warned that the current freedom and “democracy” of the internet, which gives all users equal access to the internet, is under threat because of the plans of major US telecommunication companies to introduce a “tiered internet” in which those who pay more will have greater and speedier access to the internet.

Another speaker during the Middle East and North Africa session of the Freemuse conference in Istanbul was the prominent Algerian rapper Ourrad Rabah. Rabah described how he had founded the rap group MBS in 1994, at a time when Algerian society was being torn apart by the war between the Islamists and the government. The name of the group stands for “Le Micro Brise Le Silence”, ie “The Microphone Breaks the Silence”.

Rabah gave examples of the censorship of musicians in Algeria including the harsh measures taken against those singing in Berber. The Berber singer Matoub Lounes was assassinated in Algeria in 1998.

Rabah spent seven years in France before moving to Barcelona, Spain, six months ago. “I am convinced we have to fight against censorship…the music must be in the street, where it belongs.” After suffering censorship in Algeria and then in France, Rabah now prefers to distribute his work through the internet rather than through making CDs. Moving to Barcelona has given him the chance to meet South American hip-hop artists, and he has made a recording with a Venezuelan rapper which will be distributed over the internet.

The third speaker at the Middle East session of the Istanbul conference, British classical and flamenco guitarist Jason Carter, has given concerts in countries including Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Uzbekistan, Pakistan and Brunei. This has been generally with the support of the British Council. He described some of his amusing experiences while travelling, including an encounter with a censorship committee in Brunei.

Musicians, like other international artists, have been facing increased obstacles to global travel since the attacks of 9/11. Such travel restrictions on musicians are in a sense a form of indirect music censorship. Despite the restrictions on public musical performances in Saudi Arabia, Carter now finds it easier to go to perform in Saudi Arabia than in America. “If I want to play in America legally, I have to apply for visa for $1,000 and the application could be refused in my case” because of the array of stamps from central Asian and other countries in his passport.

[English original of article published in Arabic translation]