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Issam Hajali's Unique '70s Lebanese Fusion

posted on: Jul 3, 2024

By: Luke Mcmahan / Arab America Contributing Writer

If you were walking down Mar Elias Street in Beirut and happened to enter a little jewelry shop owned by a man named Issam Hajali, you would unknowingly have met one of the most unique musical voices of 1970s Lebanon. While he pursued other musical projects, two of his albums, 1977’s solo Mouasalat Ila Jacad Al-Ard (مواصلات إلى جسد الأرض) and 1979’s Oghneya (أغنية), done with the band Ferkat Al-Ard, are two fantastic examples of politically minded ‘70s Lebanese fusion. Originally only released with 100 and 500 tapes respectively, both albums were re-released a few years ago by the record label Habibi Funk to a greater international audience.

After a brief musical experience with the short-lived band Rainbow Bridge, Hajali left Beirut in 1976 for political reasons (due to his involvement with the far left) near the beginning of the Lebanese Civil War. After boarding a container ship for Cyprus, he eventually ended up in Paris. There, he reconnected with friend and fellow Lebanese musician Roger Fakhr and began creating what would be his only solo release, Mouasalat. Hajali lived on very little money, oftentimes playing guitar on the subway for change. When finished with the album, he could only afford one day in the studio.

So with a band composed of French, one Algerian, and one Iranian musician and Fakhr on the guitar, Hajali completed the album before being able to return to Beirut in late 1977. Again living with very little money, he entirely depended on record sales from his album, which featured an underground release of less than 100 tapes. He encountered resistance toward his then avant-garde style and the album did not sell very well. However, it attracted the attention of Ziad Rahbani, musician and son of famed singer Fairouz. With this connection, Hajali went on to form a new band, Ferkat Al-Ard, and record his second album Oghneya, which received a more substantial release and wider circulation in and around Lebanon.


Hajali combines elements of folk and jazz with Brazilian and classic rock sounds over adapted Palestinian poetry, resulting in two multifaceted and sublime albums. Yet while tied very strongly to the political and artistic ethos of the late 1970s, the music quite simply sounds timeless. The simpler and more folk-driven album Mouasalat opens with the bold ten-minute “Ana Damir El Motakalim,” a song that has been compared to “Stairway to Heaven” in its grandeur and innovation. Its tempo rises and falls as guitar and synth weave together, accompanying the words of poet Samih Al-Qasim. The opening of “Khobs” is reminiscent of a John Denver classic, again backing the words of Qasim with a pure and pared down composition. The album goes on to explore other genres, even featuring a jazzy breakdown in the song “Yawma Konna.”


In contrast, Oghneya is a much more lush album instrumentally. Here, Hajali is more musically ambitious and playful; and the presence of his two bandmates is notable. Saxophone and piano complement the santour, oud, and guitar, leading to an album of gorgeous compositions. Hajali’s Brazilian influence is also much more evident here, especially on the song “Juma’a 6 Hziran.” Songs “Entazerni” and “Matar Naem” feature particularly gorgeous arrangements of the aforementioned elements.

Messages Within the Music

As stated, Hajali was involved in the Lebanese far-left movement and began making music during the opening years of the Lebanese Civil War; but the political content of his albums extends beyond national considerations. Both heavily feature Palestinian poetry, with five of Mouasalat’s seven songs adapted from Samih Al-Qasim and the majority of Oghneya coming from Qasim, Mahmoud Darwish, and Tawfiq Ziad. As Hajali says in an interview with Habibi Funk, “You have to know that the events of 1967 caused the biggest trauma… We lost everything in six days. So, incidents following 1967 can be seen as directly or indirectly relating to this trauma.”

At once, for Hajali, the poets above speak to the Palestinian concern of the larger Arab community while resonating with the political struggles of their own country and subgroup. In the words of Tawfiq Ziad in a poem featured on Oghneya, “This flesh of ours is a bridge over the flaming sea to shores that we never betrayed, shores that never betrayed us.” Both Hajali’s lyrics and music are also such a bridge, reaching from the late 70s to current time and from Beirut to the rest of the world. And thanks to their re-release, these two albums can reach so many more people, including an American college student who has never stepped foot in Lebanon.

Main source: Habibi Funk interviews with Hajali included in Mouasalat and Oghneya vinyl record editions

The two full albums are linked below:

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