Music in Lebanon
Following the Second World War (1945-1949), Beirut established itself as the cultural capital of the Middle East, with the Lebanese music scene leading the way. Lebanese music has a distinct sound due to the country’s unique fusion of Western and Eastern influences. Even Lebanese folk compositions often reference Western contemporary music. This rich cultural mix has also influenced Lebanese dance, and from the 1970s Lebanese dancers began blending the traditional dabke with Western classical and modern dances such as ballet, hip-hop and breakdance.
During the civil war, the tradition of musical fusion continued. The alternative Western music scene was also popular and continued to be so after the war. This went hand-in-hand with a growing interest in Arabic pop, and an Arabic music industry emerged that was focused in and on Beirut. In the same period, an extensive underground music scene developed, covering blues to jazz, hip-hop to rock, metal to post-punk and psychedelic to electronic-core. In the 21st century, experimental music took hold and today, a new wave of Lebanese indie rock youth music has emerged.
Pioneers of music education
Since the creation of modern Lebanon in 1920, music has been a feature of all aspects of private and public life. Wadih Sabra, composer of the Lebanese national anthem, founded the Music School in 1910. It became the Lebanese National Conservatory in 1929, the first of its kind in the Middle East. By the middle of the 20th century, the conservatory was an autonomous institute supported by the state under the supervision of the minister of education. From 1953 until the start of the civil war in 1975, the conservatory was a regional cultural hub, served as a national archive and music research centre, and had its own chamber orchestra directed by Raif Abillama. During the war, it was all but destroyed as instruments, documents, archives and libraries were looted or burned. It resumed its role as a national music school, archive and research centre in 1991. In 1995, it was upgraded to a national institute for higher education and was renamed the Lebanese National Higher Conservatory of Music. Since its inception, the conservatory has had two programmes: Western classical and Oriental classical. Modern Oriental and jazz were added later.
Universities have also incorporated music into their curricula. The first university to establish a music department in the Middle East was Université Saint-Esprit de Kaslik (USEK) in 1970. Other Lebanese universities followed suit, especially after the civil war.
The new millennium brought more private initiatives to create modern music schools, which subsequently opened in the major cities of Beirut, Jounieh, Byblos, Tripoli, Zahle, Tyre and Sidon. The best established is the Mozart Chahine School of Music, which has three locations and offers a musical diploma.
The Ottoman Empire, of which Lebanon was a part for several centuries until the empire’s collapse in the early 20th century, greatly influenced Lebanese culture, and these influences were fused with the previously accumulated cultural heritage of the region. This resulted in a musical tradition that shares similarities with neighbouring Syria and Palestine but is also quite distinct.
One of the oldest Lebanese music forms is today considered a living tradition, especially in rural areas. Called zajal, it is partly or totally improvised sung poetry. In most cases, it takes the form of a competition between two poets/singers or two teams, who declaim or sing verses in a colloquial dialect. The main melodies are produced by the poets themselves and supported by percussion instruments such as the daf, rikk and tabla. Occasionally, traditional instruments such as the nay, oud or kanoun will provide the accompaniment. Zajal parties are stand-alone night entertainment, where the two teams sit at opposite tables and sing while drinking arak (an alcoholic spirit) and/or eating meze (appetizers). The poets/singers (known as zajjalin) are usually respected social figures recognized for their talent and are invited to perform at weddings and special celebrations. The zajjalin improvise or sing the poetic discourse in verses, and the last few words are repeated as a unified chorus by most of the people present.
Although very much alive in Lebanon, zajal is not exclusive to the country and is still practised, if only rarely, in parts of Palestine and coastal Syria. Among famous contemporary Lebanese zajjalin are Chahrour al-Wadi and Rachid Nakhle, who wrote the lyrics for the national anthem, Zein Sheib, Talih Hamdan, Zaghloul al-Damour, Hanna Moussa, Anis al-Feghali, Moussa Zgheib, Asaad Said, Sayed Mohammad Mustafa, Khalil Rukoz, Victor Mirza, Sharbil Kamel, Edward Hareb, Assaad Assaad and Mouzir Khairalla.
Dalouna and Howara
Unlike zajal, dalouna is a fully sung poetry form that is usually memorized although it can be improvised as well. Dalouna can be adapted to any occasion, whether it is happy (weddings, births), sad (funerals), nationalistic (victory, independence), social (end of a day’s work in the field, village anniversary, holiday) or even religious. It is very much alive in Palestine and Syria as well, and is similar to Jordanian and Iraqi dabke. Although modern Lebanese Arabic pop music only borrowed elements of zajal, known as moual, it has fully embraced dalouna, and modern versions of dalouna have been sung by contemporary Arabic pop artists such as Assi al-Hillani, Faris Karam and Najwa Karam.
Howara is a purely Lebanese music form adapted from zajal. However, whereas dalouna is common to most countries in the Levant, howara is specific to Lebanon. Dalouna is a traditional Levantine dancing music and howara is a Lebanese folk dancing music and, in most cases, there is no dalouna or howara without dabke.
Dabke is the name of a folk dance of Phoenician and Canaanite origins. Today, dabke is as much a musical style as a dance style. It is still danced at weddings and even in nightclubs, and professional dabke groups can be found all over the country. The best known of these is Caracalla, which was founded in 1970 and established a dance school for theatrical musical and dance-based plays. It is considered the pinnacle of the marriage between Western and Oriental artistic expression and produced a genre so unique it has become known as Caracalla style.
The word tarab has no exact translation in English, although ‘ecstasy through the enjoyment of music’ or ‘being enchanted by the music’ come close. Tarab is also the name of a modern classical Arabic music genre.
Tarab is not originally a Levantine art form; it has a long history that can be traced back to the Golden Age of Arabic music during the Abbasid era. Tarab is nonetheless very popular in Lebanon, whether in its classical form, such as Mouwashat Andalusia and Qoudoud Halabiya (from Aleppo), or in the more contemporary interpretation that was popularized in the 1960s by the Egyptian singers Um Kulthum and Abd al-Wahab. Although the majority of modern tarab singers are Egyptians, a few Lebanese artists, such as Wadih el-Safi, who is nicknamed ‘the immortal voice of Lebanon’, have successfully ventured into the genre. George Wassouf is another popular modern tarab artist in Lebanon despite being of Syrian origin.
It would be impossible to write about popular Lebanese music without mentioning Fairuz, the singer who has been called the ‘soul of Lebanon’ and her country’s ‘ambassador to the stars’. She and her collaborators, composers Assi Rahbani and Mansour Rahbani, rose to prominence at a time when Lebanon was finding its national identity, following the end of French rule in 1946.
Fairuz was born in 1935 as Nouhad Haddad. She began her singing career as a teenager, performing in the chorus at the Lebanese radio station. It was there that she met and began working with the Rahbani brothers. She would later marry Assi, the eldest brother.
The trio burst onto the national stage in 1952 with the song ‘Itab‘ (‘blame’), which became their first hit.
Ramzi Salti, a Lebanon-born Stanford University lecturer who runs the podcast Arabology, which showcases music from the Arab world, told Fanack that the songs the Rahbani brothers penned for Fairuz were a departure from the lengthy pieces punctuated by orchestral interludes performed by previous icons of Arab music such as Oum Kalthoum.
Fairuz’s songs were as short as Western pop songs, three or four minutes, and she favoured a clearer vocal tone over the traditional nasal singing style of Arab music. Fairuz and the Rahbani brothers “revolutionized Lebanese music and they revolutionized Arabic music in general”, Salti said. “People initially rejected that and thought it was too Western, that it wasn’t Lebanese at all, that she was just copying the West, but it was groundbreaking.”
The rejection did not last long and Fairuz became a national icon. She appeared regularly at the Baalbeck International Festival, along with other famous singers of the day, including Sabah and Wadih el-Safi. The Rahbani brothers composed musical plays for the occasions, in which Fairuz played a starring role.
Fairuz did not flee the country after civil war broke out in 1975, but she refused to perform inside of Lebanon during the war, instead touring abroad.
In the post-war period, Lebanon has continued to export popular music to the rest of the Arab world. The 1990s and 2000s saw the rise of Lebanese pop divas such as Nancy Ajram, Haifa Wehbe and Elissa. These singers, with their racy videos and suggestive lyrics, have been magnets for controversy in the more conservative Gulf countries and elsewhere in the Middle East. Ajram has been banned from playing in Kuwait and Bahrain. The Bahraini parliament also called for a ban on Wehbe, and the Egyptian government briefly banned a provocative movie starring the singer. Yet these incidents did nothing to dampen the singers’ commercial success. If anything, it gave them more exposure.
Soapkills and the Burgeoning Underground Scene
Meanwhile, a young audience seeking more independent and edgier Arabic-language music also found its standard bearer in Lebanon, with the arrival of the indie electronica duo Soapkills.
The band, formed in 1997 by Yasmine Hamdan and Zeid Hamdan, blended classical Arabic musical influences with the sound of trip-hop artists like Portishead and Massive Attack.
Yasmine Hamdan told the New York Times that the group initially had a hard time getting radio play because she sang in Arabic. “It was seen as not cool. Either you sang traditional Arabic folk music or you sang rock in English.”
Nevertheless, Soapkills went on to become one of the most beloved acts in Lebanese independent music. After eight years, the duo split and went on to pursue successful solo careers – Yasmine in Paris and Zeid in Lebanon.
Other Musical Movements
The popularity of Soapkills precipitated a flourishing underground and independent music scene, encompassing a wide range of genres, from the jazz and bossa nova of Tania Saleh to the ensemble al-Rahel al-Kbir, or The Great Departed, which has penned satirical songs mocking the ideology of Islamic State.
Lebanon has also seen the rise of hip-hop, with artists including El Rass and Rayess Bek. Likewise, hip-hop groups have sprung up in the Palestinian camps in Lebanon and among young Syrian refugees living in the country.
There has also been an active Lebanese heavy metal scene since the 1990s, Blaakyum being the longest running group. The scene has periodically run into problems with Lebanese authorities, facing several waves of raids and arrests in search of ‘Satanic’ activities.
In 2008, Zeid Hamdan recorded ‘General Suleiman‘, a reggae song directed at Michel Suleiman, then Lebanon’s president. The song’s lyrics included references to ‘militia men’, ‘warlords’ and ‘corrupt politicians’ and ended with a cry of ‘gene-gene-general, go home!’
After the release of a video for the song, Hamdan was briefly imprisoned in 2011 on charges of defaming the president. His arrest caused widespread outcry among fans. Hamdan maintained that the song was intended as a call for the president to be a force for peace, after clashes broke out between Hezbollah and rival groups in 2008.
The Lebanese independent music scene has recently seen another break-out success with the rock group Mashrou’ Leila. The act, formed in 2008 by a group of students at the American University of Beirut, has found commercial success across the Middle East.
The group’s distinctive style is driven by singer Hamed Sinno’s emotive voice and the violin work of Haig Papazian. Sinno is openly gay, a rarity for a pop culture figure in the Arab world, and the band’s lyrics deal with issues of sexuality, substance abuse and political violence, topics that are taboo in much of the region. In April 2016, the group was banned from playing in Jordan, although the ban was later lifted.
The group released its fourth album, Ibn El Leil, in 2015. It debuted at number one on local iTunes channels, and reached number 11 on the international Billboard Charts, prompting the Guardian newspaper to write: ‘It’s such an impressive performance that stadiums seem not only possible but imminent.’