Nélida Nassar 08.11.2013
Ziad Rahbani’s performance at the Beirut Holiday 2013 was the third concert given by this usually reclusive artist this summer, in less than a couple of months, in Lebanon. A darling of the Lebanese and Arab public, he does not need an introduction. He inherited music from two celebrated parents: his mother, the legendary singer Fairouz, and his renowned composer father, Assi Rahbani. His audience is aged 18 to 35. They grew up first familiar with his music for the theatre, his lyrics and politico-satirical writings. Throngs of fans completely filled up the Beirut Holidays Stadium. Rahbani is instrumental in forging a distinctly Lebanese style of composition, and is best known to the public for the works he wrote in the 1980s and 1990s in a deliberately accessible style, often referred to as populist. It could be labeled as a “vernacular” style. He is also mostly credited with creating a very distinctive style of Lebanese jazz.
Mounting troubles in Lebanon and the civil war, as well as his fascination with leftist political discourse – Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’ teachings and their promise of freeing the lower classes – caused him to rethink the paradigm of composing orchestral music for a select group. Notorious for entertaining friendships with socialists and communists, in many ways his shift mirrored the German idea of Gebrauchsmusik, as he sought to create music that could serve a utilitarian as well as an artistic purpose.
He produces many genres of music: solo and orchestral work, chamber music, film, television and theatre scores, as well as vocal works. His approach encompasses two trends: first, music that the general public could easily learn, and second, music which would have wider appeal, such as incidental music for plays, movies, radio, and the like. Rahbani undertook both goals, starting in the early 1980s. Perhaps he was motivated by the plight of the youth and the desire to compose for young audiences, using music to convey his political message and social malaise.
The concert opened with the slowly changing harmonies that are archetypical of what many people consider to be the sound of Ziad Rahbani’s music, evoking the Lebanese landscape, idioms and spirit. Manal Semaan, a young Syrian singer, who has accompanied Rahbani at many of his concerts, brilliantly intoned his lyrics that call for political activism with an ironic twist such as Maaloumate mich akideh, “Non Definitive Information”. This was followed by songs composed by the Rahbani Brothers and Ziad himself specifically for his mother Fairouz: Ishtaktelak, “I miss you”; Kan gher shakl al zeitoun, “The olive’s shape was different”; Habiytak tal neseet al nom, “I loved you as I forgot about sleep”; Oudake ranan, “Your lute sings”; and the seminal Bayye rah maa el-aaskar, “My father went with the soldiers”; during which the audience went literally wild. The opening notes of Rahbani’s Ghayrou al nizam, “Change the system” – a well-loved satire inciting for civil disobedience – had the spectators bursting into furious applause while singing along.
The concert was influenced by jazz giants such as Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald and Charlie Parker, and reinterpreted in the bebop style. Rahbani and his ensemble of twenty-five musicians and twelve singers, four female Afro-American singers among them, performed Barry Mann and Cynthia Weill’s On Broadway; Bill Withers’s Soul Shadows, and Anthony Newley’s Feeling Good. The singing lyrics had the vocal jazz of scat singing, vocal improvisation with wordless vocables, or non-sense syllables. Humorous scatting, non-sensical use of language and musical musings or compressions peppered the concert and engaged the audience with Rahbani’s poetical, nihilistic and political journalistic writings. Generally, they suggested the political climate that feeds the composer’s creative process.
The songs exuded great emotional substance, using tone rows and serial music in several compositions. The band tunes displayed fast tempos and virtuosic technique, introducing revolutionary harmonic ideas, including passing, substitutions and new variants of altered chords. The tone ranged from clean and penetrating to sweet and somber, and the style demonstrated complex melodic lines combining varied musical genres such as jazz, blues, latin, classical (Bach and Schoenberg) as well as Arabic maqamats.
The Scat singing offered the four female singers the same improvisational opportunities as the instrumentalists: it was rhythmically and harmonically improvisational, without any concern about destroying the lyrics. Although Rahbani positioned himself modestly at the very edge of the stage, his talent for the piano consumed the concert – this was further emphasized by the fact that in several of the pieces he performed, the piano was the sole or main accompanying instrument.
The stage setting was compact and minimalist. The outdoor theatre was crowded to its full capacity – while still conveying a feeling of charm and summer holidays. The show was punctuated by singing, enthusiastic pleads for encores and vigorous applause and cheers. It was a grand, memorable evening with an iconic intellectual, artist and composer of hipster Lebanese culture.