photos by Tony Elieh
Though he’s not that widely known internationally, most music heads consider Omar Khorshid to be the most important guitarist to emerge out of the Arab world in the 20th century. The Egyptian guitarist, who formed the beat group Le Petit Chats in 1966, was propelled into overnight fame when Abdel Halim Hafez, one of the biggest voices of contemporary Arabic music, asked him to join his orchestra in the mid ‘60s. He later played with the queen of the Arab music world herself, Egyptian diva Oum Kulthoum, continuing to add his distinctive guitar sound to the melodies of Oriental orchestras.
Khorshid’s solo works are notably progressive for his time; his fluid, versatile guitar playing was rooted in psychedelic rock in the ‘60s and later his magic guitar defined the belly dance melodies on numerous albums in the ‘70s. While everyone’s heads were pointing West for guitar icons, back in the Arab world Khorshid was on his own track, creating a kind of mystical Oriental surf-rock sound that formed its own identity. His work was cut short in 1981 when he died prematurely at the age of 36, leaving a question mark hanging over the potential his music could have had. Lately there’s been a revival of interest in his music internationally, helped in part by US label Sublime Frequencies’ 2010 compilation “Guitar El Chark” which introduced Khorshid’s songs to a wider audience.
For guitarist Charbel Haber, cofounder of Lebanese punk band Scrambled Eggs, Khorshid has always had a presence. With both of his parents being big fans of the Egyptian guitarist, Haber’s childhood was distinctly marked by his melodies. Though he acknowledges Khorshid’s influence has always been somewhere in the background, it’s only over the last few years that it’s resurfaced in the form of two new projects in homage to Khorshid, Malayeen and Omarchestra.
Haber sits outside Mar Mikhael’s café-bar Internazionale wearing his characteristic aviators as the last rays of winter sun touch the street. Sat among a group of musicians, familiar faces from Beirut’s underground music scene, the table is lined with half finished espressos and over-spilling ashtrays as they finish discussions on a future music project. Haber soon jumps into what’s clearly an obsessive kind of love for Khorshid, speaking enthusiastically about the impact he could have had in shaping the future direction of Arabic music if only his life hadn’t been cut short. It was, in fact, the subject of an article he wrote on the guitarist in Beirut-based magazine Kalamon’s first issue in 2010. “He was a big ass hole most probably. There are lots of stories,” he laughs, rolling into conspiracy theories over his death in a car collision – perhaps the result of his concert at the White House celebrating the signing of the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty in 1979, or on the order of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, over a rumored affair with his daughter.
“I was born in a house that adored Khorshid. One of the movies I remember from a really young age is ‘Guitar El Hob,’ a Lebanese-Egyptian production with Khorshid in the main role that he also did the soundtrack for. There is this mythical scene where Khorshid is playing guitar and Nadia Gamel [Egyptian bellydancer] is dancing around him. It’s the apogee of Arab Liberalism,” he says. “I remember a tape recording of my mum asking me what I want to do when I grow up; ‘do you want to be a lawyer, an engineer?’ typical things. I go ‘no, no, no. I want to play the guitar.’“
In his teen years Haber got into Western music, propelled off the back of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” So when he picked up the guitar at the age of 15 it was punk that came out, until the Khorshid influences started re-emerging years later. “Slowly with time and through the evolution of my playing I got closer and closer to post rock and psychedelic rock. I started playing these melodies that were totally familiar to me but I didn’t know [at the time] where they were coming from.” Now in Haber’s solos, Khorshid’s influence is more and more visible, describing it as that “California sunset” sound. “If I want to describe it in terms of scenery it would be the palm tree with the sunset, the beach, the Corniche. The kind of things you find in cities like Beirut and California,” he says. “I always feel like that surfy, buzuky guitar sound started here in the Middle East, travelled to North Africa, went to the States, got electrified and came back.”
Playing Arabic music was something that Haber always approached with caution, not wanting to make Arabic music from an exotic perspective. “After doing a lot of rock, psychedelic and ambient music, everyone asks ‘why don’t you do some Arabic music?’ I didn’t want to get into the worst situation ever, which is an Arab musician, making Arabic music from a neo-Orientalist Western point of view,” he says. “So I decided not to do it, not to go into the gimmicky stuff, a rock track with a bit of dabke in the back. I really didn’t want to go there and I didn’t have another thing to propose.”
As Haber’s guitar sound became more psychedelic, he decided it was time to do a project celebrating the work of Khorshid and so the trio Malayeen came together naturally. He teamed up with longtime collaborator Raed Yassin and musician Khaled Yassine and received a grant from Al Mawred Al Thaqafy (Culture Resource) to produce an album that included pieces adapted and rearranged from Khorshid’s original compositions. They recorded in 2011 and released the self-titled album at the end of 2012, available on CD on Beirut’s Annihaya Records and on vinyl on London-based record label Discrepant. “The main focus was [Khorshid’s] disco belly dance sound, but you always go into different directions. We wanted it to be dancey, but at the same time to not ignore the psychedelic side of it because this is what we do.”
The record received glowing reviews and as Haber re-listened to it he realized there was potential for another project. He proposed to Sharif Sehnaoui, a Lebanese guitarist from the free improvisation scene, to form a guitar ensemble focusing on Khorshid’s psychedelic rock sound. “Omarchestra is like a childhood dream of getting all these guitars and taking all these snippets that appear in Arabic songs and just making full pieces out of them,” Haber says. Umut Ağlar, a guitarist from the Istanbul improvisation and free jazz scene, Egyptian-Canadian guitarist Sam Shalabi and Egyptian musician Maurice Louca came on board, alongside Lebanese guitarists Osman Arabi and Fadi Tabbal and bassist Tony Elieh. They gathered in Beirut, spending three days recording in the dining room of Sehnaoui’s house. “We had seven guitars and a bass so that’s a lot of sounds. It flows in every direction, we wanted to let it expand,” Haber says. “I think it was one of the most magical music sessions I’ve ever done in my life. We had eight people with very contained egos working for the baby of a piece; the mentality of an orchestra, where you’re an element of something bigger.” The project which is due for vinyl-only release on Italian label Sagittarius A-Star in January 2015 bridges the gap between the work of Khorshid and Glenn Branca, the American avant-garde composer and guitarist known for his symphonies for orchestras of electric guitars and percussion.
The result is a spacey symphony of psychedelic guitar melodies looping over each other into rich layers of sound. Long drawn out solos snake into empty space, screeching with reverb, as a wall of rhythmic hypnotizing strumming slowly builds to a climax. It’s the perfect homage to Khorshid and one that magnifies in on that sound that defined the Arabic electric guitar and creates something new out of it. “We tried to take the elements we like [from each guitarist]. The thing is, there’s no fusion. It’s not that we’re fusing the work of Khorshid with the work of Branca. It’s the same sound, just different ways of approaching it,” he says.
Haber seems to have grown into the sound he feels could define the rest of his career, turning full circle back to his earliest influence. And it’s one that he believes might have a lasting impact. “I think time will tell. We’re not there yet but with Malayeen and Omarchestra… I don’t want to sound pretentious when I say it, but it’s gonna happen anyway… maybe, maybe it’s the founding stone for a new Arabic music movement; Arabic music without a prefix, without anything like an extra identity. Just Arabic music with a lot of electric guitars.”