Beirut has always been the cultural capital of the Middle East; an intellectual center to where artists have flocked, finding sanctuary in its relative political and artistic freedom. Artists, for the most part, have always been able to express themselves openly and freely in Lebanon, whereas many other countries in the region still suffer from rigid state censorship.
Since the Syrian uprising began in 2011, an influx of Syrian musicians that fled the country have since found refuge in Beirut. The underground scene that never quite managed to take off in Syria, partly due to the regime’s harsh restrictions, has found an open climate in which to thrive in Lebanon. Music projects such as Hello, Psychaleppo! – which sees music producer Samer Saem Eldahr fuse Arab heritage music (tarab) with electronic beats – and Damascene oriental-rock band Tanjaret Daghet [“Pressure Pot”] are among the many to have taken root in Beirut, pushed forward with the opportunities the Lebanese music scene has to offer.
“The underground scene [in Syria] was growing fast. There was a time when everyday a new project was formed,” says Anas Maghrebi, lead vocalist of the Syrian, post-rock band Khebez Dawle, who moved to Beirut in early 2013. “I think Syrians brought their originality, this toughness in the music to Lebanon, but in Syria all of it stayed underground in the basements. A lot of songs were written but there were no professional methods of coming up with the end product.”
Back in Damascus, Maghrebi’s first band, Ana, experimented with the idea of fusing Oriental vocals with post-rock instrumentals. But everything changed when their drummer, Rabia’ Al-Ghazzi, a peaceful activist in the early days of the Syrian protests, was followed and then murdered on 25 May 2012. “This was the first event that made us think seriously about disbanding. At around the same time, our guitarist Bachi Darwish was also taken by the army for military service. The whole image became black for me. My dream band disbanded without ever having had the chance to perform in front of anyone,” Maghrebi says.
The musician went back to his job at a local radio station, where he learned about music production and later released three songs online under the pseudonym Khebez Dawle [“Governmental Bread”]. After creating an online buzz, Ana bassist Muhammad Bazz got in touch and suggested he come to Beirut and turn the project into a band. “For me it wasn’t a joke. I want to stick to my beliefs, I wanna speak up, express… but I didn’t want to die back then, I still have so many things to do in life,” the musician says.
After moving to Beirut in early 2013, Maghrebi joined forces with Bazz and keyboardist Hekmat Qassar, and they later heard from Ana guitarist Darwish. “We got a call from this old voice; ‘It’s Bachi. Come get me. I’m at Cola [Station].’ We didn’t imagine we’d hear from him again. In Syria when you go to the army, you die without knowing who killed you from the front or back. He’d fled the army and was in Beirut all dusty, with no papers.”
A few days later Darwish joined Khebez Dawle and in early 2014 they asked drummer Danny Shukri of Tanjaret Daghet to record drums. He later came on board as well. The band received funding from the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture and the Arab Culture Resource and recorded their self-titled album, a concept album that tells the story of a young Syrian guy experiencing the events of the Arab Spring, particularly the Syrian uprising.
In Tanjaret Daghet’s rehearsal room in a basement off Hamra Street, bassist Khaled Omran, drummer Danny Shukri and guitarist Tarek Ziad Khuluki sit around a small table dragging on cigarettes. Khuluki has recently chopped off his characteristic ponytail – “I realized I was hiding my problems behind it,” he shrugs. Omran considers running home to shave his head before the band’s performance with Lebanese music legend Ziad Rahbani at the nearby jazz club, Blue Note, later that evening. “He always does this,” Shukri laughs. He considers something all week and then decides to do it ten minutes before a show.”
Tanjaret Daghet started out as an improvised music project in Damascus after Omran and Shukri, who had met at the Damascus Music Conservatory, joined forces with Khuluki, a guitarist Omran knew from the rock and grunge scene. Omran was the first to leave Damascus for Beirut in 2011 and Khuluki followed shortly after. “I would either go to Belarus and wash dishes or come to Beirut and be a musician,” Khuluki says. After moving to Beirut, their sound evolved into Oriental-rock fused with elements of jazz with Arabic lyrics.
Though both Omran and Shukri were experienced professional musicians and had worked with everyone from Ziad Rahbani to Zeid Hamdan, and Khuluki was well versed in the rock scene, producing an independent album in Syria still seemed out of reach. “In the Damascus music scene you can find a few musicians who play great and are trying to form a band or make a project, but they don’t know about the business, so projects wouldn’t last long,” Shukri says.
“It was really such a real underground scene. [In Syria] music is just something you can hear on the radio,” Khuluki says. “When we came to Beirut we decided to take things to another level; to find a producer and see how people get money to record an album, because in Syria you have to be rich to make an album.”
Not long after moving to Beirut, the band met Lebanese musician and producer Raed el Khazen, or rather he met them while hearing them practice through the walls next to his studio. Soon he was on board and recorded and produced their debut album “180°” which they released in the summer of 2013.
The album is at times dark and brooding and at others gently melodic with elements of jazz and Oriental melodies fused with rock and Arabic lyrics written by Omran. As with most bands coming out of Syria in the last few years, there’s always an assumption that the message is a reaction against the current war; it’s a stereotype Tanjaret Daghet seem exasperated with. “People always think that because we’re Syrian [what we’re doing] is really related to politics and the situation. But this project was there before the war,” says Khuluki. “If you want to really get into the lyrics, they’re mainly about social issues and pressures that have been there for a long time,” Shukri continues. “Because it happened in a certain period of time, it’s easy to relate to what’s happening, but the ideas were there before.”
Like many other young musicians who fled Syria over the last few years, Khairy Eibesh came to Beirut to escape compulsory military service. “Anyone who reaches 18 and has finished their studies has to go to military service. If you go you’ll either kill or be killed,” he says. The 23 year old rapper, also known as Watar, from Syrian hip hop duo LaTlateh, sits in his mini home studio, crammed into a small room in his top floor Achrafieh apartment. “In the beginning, the scene was just teenagers doing hip hop, having a good time. We launched the first hip hop album in Syria as Sham MCs seven years ago,” he says. He’s noticed the Syrian hip hop scene shoulder up to the region over the last few years with “a lot of new young MCs showing up with good quality lyrics, good skills and nice ideas.”
As the Arab Spring rose up around Syria, its hip hop scene became more politicized, reflecting the regional atmosphere. “We started to see that everything that’s going on is political, in Egypt, Tunisia or Iraq, and so [the music] changed automatically. Everything that was happening affected us.”
Back in Syria, political hip hop was almost impossible to perform, with any critics of the regime putting themselves at serious risk. For Eibesh, moving to Beirut has meant being part of a freer hip hop movement. “We never performed anything political in Syria. One track we did was very clear and honest about our view of the regime and we had to hide from them for a short time,” he says. “Here it’s a lot easier. Maybe it doesn’t have as big an impact as it would have in Syria but you can go on stage and speak your mind.”
The atmosphere of openness in Beirut has certainly been pivotal in helping a Syrian music scene reach its full potential in the city. “There’s a big process you have to go through in order to be approved to release your music, meaning the underground scene remained pretty narrow,” Maghrebi says. “If you publish any song against the [regime] you can’t [predict] what’s going to happen to you. A lot of people got arrested or killed and didn’t carry weapons. They’d just made some song or something that got famous.”
Though the hip hop scene has always had a certain fluidity between countries across the Arab world with the ease of collaborating on online tracks, the number of Syrian MCs now based in Beirut has made it ever more active.
Eibesh is still buzzing from his concert “From my Eyes” at Radio Beirut on the 22nd October where he performed alongside a lineup of Beirut-based Syrian and Lebanese MCs including Sayyed Darwish, El Rass and Nasserdine Touffar. “We had collaborations before I moved here, but it’s been a good point for me being in Beirut because there are MCs coming from all over the region and audiences here,” he says. “It’s better for all of us from a music point of view. People have seen a lot of new things and have developed, and I’m one of them.”
“Here in Lebanon if you take a look closer at the scene; it’s not just a Lebanese scene anymore,” Maghrebi says. “The two scenes have merged into one, into a hybrid. They’ve made this new brilliant, promising hopeful scene,” says Maghrebi. “It’s more than a scene, it’s a movement. It’s about youth starting to speak up, expressing their hopes, fears and thoughts. I’m really glad that [we’re] a part of this.”