Rahbani’s ‘Oriental Jazz’ Is Rooted in Lebanon’s Struggle but Scorned by Traditional Arabs
Ziad Rahbani has put the chaos and insanity of war-battered Beirut to music in an attempt to blend Arabic music and jazz into a new form.
He calls it “Oriental jazz,” describing it as “something like a hamburger that tastes of falafel,” a popular Arab snack made of spicy minced chickpeas and beans.
The son of Lebanon’s most popular singer, Fairouz, Rahbani has come under fire from Arab traditionalists for his pioneering efforts to bridge the gap between Arab and Western culture with music.
“Just as automobiles replaced donkeys, traditional music must develop to reflect the times,” Rahbani said. “Everything has to evolve.”
His mother, who since the death of Egypt’s revered Umm Kalthoum, is the Arab world’s leading singer, has performed some of his compositions at her sellout concerts, blending Lebanese folklore with Western syncopation and phrasing.
Rahbani, 32, has been working on his concept since the 1970s and gave his first Oriental jazz concert in war-torn Beirut in 1985.
One of the fundamental similarities between Arabic and Occidental music, he said, is that both rely on improvisation: “In jazz, the same basic tune is played in a different interpretation by each of the musicians.”
Oriental string and wind instruments, such as the oud, a sort of lute, the zither-like qanoun and the nay, a reed flute, are associated with an improvisation type of music called taqssim.
Classical Arab singers, such as the legendary Kalthoum, are famous for often stretching one song to more than a hour. The style is called tafrid, repeating one couplet over and over, but each time subtly different.
“It’s this personal element or subjectivity that creates the alteration, although the message is one,” Rahbani said. “Another common factor is the similarity between blues and classical Arabic songs. Both are melancholic and dragging types of music.”
Always unconventional, Rahbani plays jazz standards on the oud, known in the Arab world as the “king of instruments,” giving them unusual harmonies.
He has adapted well-known jazz compositions, such as Thelonius Monk’s “ ‘Round Midnight,” with an Oriental interpretation, often using Arabic harmonies and rhythms to give the songs a unique tonal color.
“I admire the music of composers like Charley Parker, Stan Getz and Dizzy Gillespie,” he said. “But my music is not Western, it’s Lebanese, with a different way of expression. This interaction between Oriental and Occidental instruments comes out in a natural harmony.”
Many Arab purists say Oriental jazz is an illegitimate form that has planted alien seeds in classical Arabic music.
To be sure, Rahbani’s music reflects the hybrid heritage of Lebanon, which until the civil war erupted in 1975, was a cultural melting pot where East met West. But it also is deeply rooted in the traumatic events of the sectarian strife, the bloody street battles between rival militias and three years of violent Israeli occupation after the 1982 invasion.
Rahbani, a leftist Greek Orthodox, also writes plays and satirical radio shows centered on his violent environment that mock the sectarian divisions of his country and the traditional political thinking that has taken Lebanon to the very brink of cataclysm.
His latest record, “Ana Mush Kafer,” or “I’m Not an Atheist,” was hailed by most Lebanese--Christians and Moslems alike--as an expression of their miserable political, social and economic situation.
One passage says:
“We have to sell diamond rings and gold mines
“To pay the bill in restaurants
“Nothing is left, no health and no job,
“Even my home was lit by a shell.”
Rahbani comes from a major musical dynasty in the Arab world. His father, Assi Rahbani, who died in Beirut in 1986, was one of the founders of modern Arab music. Together with his lyricist brother, Mansour, they wrote most of Fairouz’s famous songs and musical plays. Now her son is writing and arranging for her.
In a recent performance in London’s Festival Hall, where the one-night box-office take of $210,000 broke the record held by Frank Sinatra, she sang Rahbani’s plaintive “Khalik bil-Bait,” or “Stay at Home,” with an orchestration and phrasing reminiscent of Ella Fitzgerald. He accompanied his mother on piano.