Before every Lebanese event – musical or theatrical – that takes place there is a game we play. Guess the political affiliation. Is it a “Downtown-style, we are Phonecians” evening. Or a “fight Israeli agression, rejectionist” gathering.
Beirut Live, in east London, last weekend was neither. Money was being raised to help Palestinian refugees, and Lebanese made homeless by successive wars.
It was a celebration of Lebanon’s hypenated youth. The Lebanese who’d spent a long time in another country and taken on a second culture.
Zena El Khalil read from her book “Beirut: I Love You”, and described how – as a child growing up in Africa – her mother would nudge her, begging her to ask her grandmother “keifik”. I’m reading it now. It’s slightly surreal for the first few pages, but resonates really well with me. More on that in a few weeks.
There were photos and modern art on display. They were being auctioned off, in a paper bidding war. Although bidding didn’t seem to be going well early in the evening.
One of the highlights of the night was supposed to be Nadine Khoury. From Lebanon, via Old Street, London. Her friends gave her a raucous cheer when she came up on stage, but a few minutes later, they must have been holding their heads in their hands.
She was let down by a series of technical catastrophies. Her mic wasn’t on, her beat pedals wouldn’t work – so she had to kneel down on the floor to fade them out, while her electric guitar magically carried on playing. Look – no hands!
She didn’t give up though, and after two frustrating songs, told the crowd they could just go into the other room if they wanted to keep talking. “I can’t hear myself, and it’s making it very hard for me to keep singing to you,” she said. I felt like a naughty schoolkid. But what does she expect at 8 o’clock in a darkened bar.
Despite all that, her album is worth a listen. Try Midnight Prayer.
After the car-crash finished on stage, host Cleo Patra came up on stage to tell us there would be a ten minute break. That’s not ten minutes Arab Standard Time, yani half an hour, she said, the Arabs in the audience may need to find an English person if they need some help with that.
Mazen Zahreddine provided the night’s comedy. He thoroughly destroyed the myth that Lebanon is something to be celebrated. On his hit-list of reasons to hate Lebanon were: war, love, Christians, Muslims, Jews, Druze, secularists, clergy, warlords and peacemakers.
But it was worth waiting for the star attraction: Rayess Bek. He was the first rapper to do his thing in Arabic – instead of English or French – when he formed hip-hop band Aks As-Seer in the 1990s. I’ve always seen them as a bunch of American-wannabes – but this night changed my view of Arab rap.
The video below was filmed in Damascus. It is called ‘Difference is Normal’ and it was made for a UN campaign about disabilities and discrimination. And there are English subtitles.
His self-produced beats were hypnotic, his lyrics poetic, and his vocal effects powerful. And he has a huge and loyal following. Some of the girls in the audience swayed to the music repeating every word.
One of his new tracks is called Schizophrenic – it’s about that recurring theme of the Beirut Live night – struggling to find your identity as a second generation Arab-European.
The he moved on to a piece called Amercaineh – about the John Wayne / Arnold Scwarzenegger imitations on the streets of Beirut.
And as he finished, Cleo Patra came on stage and had a word in his ear. And then, to an ecstatic crowd he announced he’s do one final performance – but he said it wouldn’t be easy.
As he sat on the edge of the stage, in a far more subdued track, his mood changed. He revealed it was the first time he’d performed that song in public. It was written in a bunker in 2006 as the Israelis bombed overhead.
And that, for me, summed up the night. Artists living between Beirut and Europe (or Africa, or America) not just creating their work amid the fighting – but about it.