Lebanon 1970 - Psychedelic Funk Rock
BY:Eugene Smith/Contributing Writer
Psychedelic Funk Music of Lebanon in the 60’s and 70’s: Cultural Conversation through Sound
Once a tourism advertisement for westerners, this footage offers a grainy window into the joie de vivre of pre-civil war Lebanon. Scantily clad women frequent snow-white beaches and azure Mediterranean waters. Alcohol flows as if pouring from a fountainhead as young and carefree Lebanese repose in abandon, deep into the night. Top-down and shining, the film commences with a white convertible speeding across a desert highway in a country on the cusp of 15 years of bloody civil conflict.
Welcome to Lebanon 1970
In the early 1970s, Beirut was a progressive metropolis and hub for cultural expression. Cigarette wielding artists and intellectuals sat on cafe terraces, conversing over the latest political and cultural happenings across the world. Rich tourists gathered in resorts and on beaches to drink and bask in Beirut’s pleasures. Economic promise drove wealthy European investors towards the city’s banking center. The rich composite of international influences placed Beirut at the nexus of cultures, catalyzing innovative art forms from borrowed and mixed styles.
Nowhere could this be found with such force than in the dusty tracks of Lebanese psychedelic rock and jazz funk fusion, a milieu of stylistic music emanating from the counterculture of Europe and the U.S. Now, over 45 years later, this era of Lebanese music is returning through digitally rendered LP’s and mixes.
Sifting through these low-fi tracks is as much like archaeological digging as it is venturing into uncharted sonic waters. This is where music was; yet, it feels like this is where music could still be going. Below are some of the most memorable Lebanese tracks from this forgotten musical era.
Lebanese Psychedelic Rock Funk
Dance of Maria – Elias Rahbani
Aurally exploring the breaks of Elias Rahbani’s Dance of Maria is like stumbling upon a yellow Volkswagen in a Levantine Oasis. The Nai (Arabic flute) riff following up the contemplative synth lines and stuttering drum beats is a refreshing as water after days roaming the desert.
Itab & Al Bosta – Fairuz
Elias Rahbani is the younger sibling of Assi and Mansour Rahbani, the famous Lebanese brothers who gained international acclaim through their work with Lebanese singer Fairuz. Small town origins coincided with their early love for music. The brothers made their start in radio where they met Fairuz, a part of their station’s chorus. Shortly after they produced her first single, a’tab. Moving on from the traditional orchestral backing of Itab, their later works would incorporate Fairuz’s singing with alternative western backing tracks.
Thanks a Lot – The Sea-Ders
This next act, The Sea-Ders is the Lebanese psychedelic rock with influences including The Everly Brothers, Elvis Presley the Beatles and the grateful dead. The bands lead guitarist also happened to play a bit of the buzuq- a traditional Levantine lute which became an essential element to the band’s sound.
The Sea-Ders rose to prominence and traversed some of the divisive social arguments of the late 60s and early 70s. In an interview with Project Revolver, drummer Zouhair Tourmoche, the only Muslim band member, reflected on the pressures of his religious tradition weighing on his western rock and roll lifestyle, saying, “I was the only Muslim in the band, I had to endure a great deal of insults, verbal abuse, and all other forms of stupid prejudices, all of which were hinged on one idea: that a decent Muslim boy would never abandon his culture and follow decadent Western behavior.”
This social antagonism highlighted larger issues in a society, which at times struggled to deal with an inundation of Western values and media.
Bennesbeh Labokra Chou – Ziad Rahbani
The Rahbani’s son could throw together a multicultural jam as well. This one pulls more from Bossa-Nova but comes with a particularly romantic film score introduction. Think Serge Gainsborough playing the Nai.
A Lovely Mix Tape from Jannis and Jakartra Records
For a larger picture of the Arabic music scene in the 60’s and early 70’s we turn to Jannis of Jakarta records, whose ceaseless international exploration for rare and interesting vinyl has resulted in this funky mix of Arabic vinyl called “Habibi Funk.”
A Bit of Backstory
In the 1970s, Beirut payed homage to the some of the most notable flaws of the Arab nationalist movement. The glitz and luxury of Parisian Beirut was in many respects a superficial fantasy that neglected extreme wealth disparities, post-colonial resentments, cold war dichotomies, disproportionate representation, and an unfinished debate over the structure of the state and society.
Lebanon began to unravel halfway through the decade. Ethnic and religious divisions within the country were strained by demographic shifts and unequal political representation. The sectarian rifts that resulted were further entrenched in conflicting cold war alliances.
To make matters worse, a sizable Palestinian refugee population in Lebanon’s south entered into conflict with Israel, dragging Lebanon directly into local geopolitics. The strain would prove too significant, splitting Lebanese society and dismantling the state through civil war. By 1974, the Lebanon of the tourist advertisement had become a war zone.
Beirut’s opulence was all too ephemeral, but its ghosts offer insight into a culture that based it vibrancy and innovative nature on its cross-cultural nature. Many think of Lebanon as a place of violence and bloodshed. However, through this music, one can see a side of Lebanon that gets lost in the news. In a time where festering social antagonisms tore at the fabric of society, artists brought cultures and histories together through experiments in sound.
Creativity, collaborations in culture, bridging languages and histories of conflict through the arts; sometimes that is the best way to understand each other and to express our frustrations, our dreams, our shared humanity. At the very least it’ll give us some good listening material.