Known throughout the Arab world for being an open-minded, cosmopolitan place to make art, Lebanon has long been at the center of Arabic musical cool. After World War II, Arab musicians saw Lebanon as a place they could go to embrace modern production and take chances with the subjects of their material. For example, composers like the Rahbani brothers, who wrote most famously for Fairouz (more about her below), were were able to not only write popular songs but develop their work for the theater, openly exploring themes of village life, love, family, and lost innocence. The best Lebanese musicians of the time didn’t break completely with the Arab musical past–the Rahbani brothers used traditional instruments like the oud, the mijwiz (a double-pipe, single-reed clarinet), the durbakke (a goblet drum), the riq (a tambourine-like frame drum) and especially the buzaq (a long-necked lute) in their compositions–but they did embrace Western song structures and explored universal social themes with a freedom unavailable to most non-Lebanese Arab musicians. Carla Fleyhan of Brazil’s “Jornal Jovem” characterizes (and surely idealizes) post-World War II, pre-Civil War Lebanon, as, “Friendship, love, peace, safety, charity, life on the pond, joy, and happiness, but above all this the arts : this is how life was in Lebanon.”

Despite its being battered during the civil war, Beirut has returned as a hub for both progressive and popular Arab music. In today’s Lebanon, underground rock–you’ll love Soap Kills, though close your eyes or this one will make you so dizzy–and Arabic hip-hop acts such as Aks’ser, whose members rap in Arabic (more about Aks’ser below), and Ramez, who raps in French, abound; many, like Aks’ser’s Rayess Bek, use their music to explore social issues. At the same time Beirut is second only to Cairo, Egypt,
in mass-producing, and over-producing, Arab-language pop. National Geographic, in its introduction to Lebanese music, groans, “With the proliferation of pop channels, and also talent shows such as Star Academy and Superstar, young singers seem to mushroom overnight.” (What…? You’ve never heard of Star Academy?)

In class we’re going to listen to:

— Fairouz: “Ya Leily”
Born Nuhad Haddad to a Maronite Christian family in Beirut in 1935, “Fairouz” (which means “turquoise” in Arabic) is generally revered as second only to the great Oum Klahtom in the legion of all-time emotionally powerful Arabic vocalists. Known as “Ambassador to the Stars” or, in tune with this song, “Neighbor to the Moon,” Fairouz became famous in the ’60 and ’70s as part of a Lebanese Folk revival, performing with well-known singers Sabah and Wadi’ al-Safi. Her career really took off when she connected with Assi and Mansour Rahbani (introduced above) who composed some of her most famous songs. (Fairouz married Assi.) In her career she recorded over 800 songs, many of them about love, the simplicity of rural life and nostalgia for her homeland.

Fairouz and the Rahbanis earned respect throughout the Arab world for addressing relevant social issues in their music. During the Lebanese Civil War Fairouz refused to leave the Beirut, even during its darkest days. She also remained neutral in the fight. Lebanese of all ethnic and religious backgrounds praised her greatly for staying with them as they struggled.

Today Fairouz continues to perform. Though Assi Rahbani has passed on, Fairouz still sings many songs composed by their son, the caustically humorous jazz piano player, Ziad.

More about Fairouz:
The story of Fairouz | “Ya Leily” on YouTube | Listen to Ziad Rahbani’s politically ground-breaking “Ana Mosh Kafer,” “I Am Not A Heathen,” written during the Civil War. (Read the lyrics here.)

— Aks’ser, “Baba”
Aks’ser, which means “Against the Current,” is a rap trio from Beirut that uses hip hop to address Lebanese social issues. The most prominent member of the crew is Waël Kodeih (a.k.a. Rayess Bek), who famously raps in Arabic. Wael’s went out on his own with The Rayess Bek Orchestra, whose musicians use traditional instruments like the oud and ney that back his socially conscious hip hop with orchestral arrangements.

More about Aks’ser:
A little bit more about Aks’ser | Listen to samples from Aks’ser’s self-titled album | Aks’ser freestylin’ in Montreal | The top 10 Arabic rappers?

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