The Paradoxical Ziad Rahbani Concert Waivers between Nihilism and Extropianism

Nélida Nassar  07.29.2013

Zouk Mikael International festival opened, to great acclaim, its tenth year edition with Ziad Rahbani’s performance despite iconic Pascal Obispo’s last minute concert cancellation. Indeed, political and regional conflicts, fears and uncertainties did not prevent another festival from courageously taking place in the mountains of Lebanon.

Ziad Rahbani does not need an introduction to the Lebanese or Arab public. He inherited music from two celebrated parents: his mother the legendary singer Fairouz and his renowned father the composer Assi Rahbani. His audience is the 18 to 35 years of age that grew up first familiar with his music for the theatre, his lyrics and politico-satirical writings. Throngs of fans completely filled up Zouk Mikael’s roman style amphi-theatre. 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 and which could be labeled as a “vernacular” style. He is also most 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 its promise for freeing the lower classes – caused him to rethink the paradigm of composing orchestral music for a select group.  Notorious for having friendships with socialist and communist leaning persons, 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 artistic purpose.

He produces music in many genres: 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, etc. Ziad undertook both goals, starting in the early 1980s. Perhaps he was motivated by the plight of the young and the desire to compose for young audiences using music to convey his political message and societal 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 lyrics specifically composed for Fairouz: Alone, Wahdana; How are you, Kifake Inta; How come it is such, Walaou Keefe. Enthralled by the 1985 score for Antoine Kherbaje’s play Heroes and Thieves. The opening notes of Rahbani’s Talfen ayesh – a well-loved satire about lying and deception – had the audience bursting into furious applause while singing along.

The concert influenced by jazz giants’ such as Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald and Charlie Parker reinterpreted the bebop style. Rahbani and his ensemble of ten brass and eleven winds musicians performed saxophonist Charlie Parker’s classic song “Birds of Paradise” transporting his fans to a Chicago style jazz bar. The lyrics instrumentation had the vocal jazz of scat singing, vocal improvisation with wordless vocables, or non-sense syllables. Tenor Edgar Aoun’s ability to sing improvised melodies and rhythms, created the equivalent of an instrumental solo using his voice. Humorous scatting, non-sensical use of the language and musical musings or compressions, narrated by actress Lina Khoury, peppered the concert and engaged the audience with Rahbani’s poetic, nihilistic and political newspaper columns writings. Generally, they sounded a bit contrived, sermonic while suggesting the political climate that feeds the composer creative process.

The works exuded great emotional substance using tone rows and serial music in several compositions. The band tune displayed fast tempos, 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, the style demonstrated complex melodic lines combining varied musical genres of jazz, blues, latin, classical (Bach and Schoenberg) as well as Middle Eastern maqamats.

The Scat singing offered the four female singers the same improvisational opportunities as the instrumentalists: it was rhythmically and harmonically improvisational without concern about destroying the lyric. Although Rahbani positioned himself modestly at the very edge of the stage, his talent for the piano consumed the concert – this is further amplified by the fact that in several of the pieces performed, the piano was the sole or main accompanying instrument.

The festival’s setting is a three-arcades roman amphi-theatre in modern construction of beautiful proportions. Perceived from the central arcade, the Lebanese flag was fluttering festively in the breeze. The stage was compact and minimalist with the center arena set up with circular tables for two or four. The amphi-theatre crowded to full capacity conveyed a feeling of charm and intimacy. The show was punctuated by singing, enthusiastic please for encores and vigorous audience applause.

Ziad Rahbani is an icon for the hipster Lebanese culture personifying the uncompromising artist and intellectual rather than an entertainer. For all his leftist leanings and discourse and his qualms about the right, capitalism, corporate might and America, he is this paradoxical artist that owes to the American musical culture in general and jazz genre in particular.

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