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Lebanon: Jazz And The Revolution

Ian Patterson By

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The socio-cultural change these past ten years that was bubbling under the surface has fed jazz growth in Beirut. It is connected to the freedom and self-expression that is built into jazz. Jazz and the revolution are not two separate things here. —Pim van Harten, jazz pianist, Beirut
When people's anger and frustration spill onto Beirut's streets, music is one of the first things to suffer.

Every few years, it seems, roads are blocked, and crowds swell the downtown area—angry at Syrian intervention or political assassination, enraged by Israeli attack, sick to the teeth of inadequate garbage collection. There's always something to arouse the ire of the Lebanese people.

In such times of unrest, when explosions of violence are always a possibility, gigs inevitably, are cancelled.

Protests come and go in Beirut, but the thousands of protesters that took to the streets on October 17, 2019, provoked by the government's proposal to levy taxes on WhatsApp, are in it for the long haul.

They refer to this date as the first day of the revolution.

Tired of corruption, authoritarianism and failing public utilities, the Lebanese are making their voices heard and are demanding change. This social-media-savvy generation witnessed the Arab Spring of 2011, which, despite its failings, showed that popular movements can topple unpopular regimes.

There is more underlying Lebanon's revolution, however, than at first meets the eye. Talking to Beirut's jazz musicians about jazz and about the revolution, it appears that the two are linked in ways that perhaps wouldn't be obvious to an outsider. To understand jazz in Beirut is to gain an insight into Lebanese society, and into the youth movement driving the socio-political revolution.

Jazz in Beirut is a complex, sometimes contradictory story, one that reflects the divisions in Lebanese society as well as the aspirations of the youth. It's a story of tradition and modernity, of belonging and of tribalism. Its symbolism is multi-faceted. Jazz is played all over the city and yet lacks a dedicated home. And who would have thought that for jazz musicians, Beirut pays better than Paris or London?

Like Beirut itself, the story of jazz here is not easy to pin down.

Caravan of Love

It's November 22, just over a month after the revolution began. Lebanese Independence Day. Significant numbers of the Lebanese diaspora have flown into Beirut, eager to participate in the nightly mass protests in Martyrs' Square—keen to do their bit.

A smaller crowd, though of symbolic import no doubt, has gathered at Caravanserail—a legendary, cellar-bar venue in Beirut's Hamra district. Beirut's jazz community—or a sizeable portion thereof—is in Caravanserail for the much-anticipated gig of Irish duo David Lyttle and Joseph Leighton, who are in the Lebanese capital for one night only on their short, Middle Eastern tour.

A week before the gig there was doubt as to whether or not it would go ahead, due to the unrest in the city. George Karajian, who opened Caravanserail in 1969, is pumped at the turnout. There's a great atmosphere. People haven't been going out much lately and they're up for a good time. Smoke hangs thick below the low ceiling and the waiter, Ali, is clocking up the miles as he scurries from kitchen to tables with food and drink.

The gig is a good one. "It was pretty amazing," says Lebanese jazz guitarist Jo Aouad, shortly after Lyttle and Leighton's performance. "They have great chemistry." It's not the first jazz gig since the revolution began—Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah's band played in Beirut the night before—but for the audience it feels like a step towards a return to normality, whatever that means here.

Aouad has been playing jazz guitar for six years, having grown up listening to Oriental music and studying classical guitar. There is plenty of demand for good musicians in Beirut, but as Aouad relates, you can never take anything for granted.

"It depends on the political situation of the country. Before the revolution I used to gig three times a week, but now, because of the devaluation of the currency people are really cautious about their financial situation. They're not going out so much. For the first two weeks of the revolution there were actually no gigs," says Aouad, who spent six months in the UK studying jazz guitar and composition in Birmingham City Conservatoire.

"I came back to do some projects here but when people study abroad, they mostly try to stay abroad." That said, there are jazz musicians from many different countries in Beirut, as Aouad explains. "A lot of musicians come here to make a living, because you get paid much more here compared to Paris or London, particularly if you are willing to freelance. The demand exceeds the supply. You see the same musicians gigging everywhere. So, that's actually to our benefit."

Aouad plays in a duo with Japanese flautist Nobuko Miyazaki, who came to Beirut to study Arabic music. "It can be complicated," Miyazaki says. "There are lots of opportunities, yes, but it's a little bit of a desert if you are really avant-garde or into free jazz. We arrange Oriental music and Japanese music and adapt that to improvisation, so it's a kind of world music."

Sitting at a table nearby is Swiss bass guitarist Rudi Felder. He followed his wife to Beirut when she took up a job with a development agency. "I play jazz regularly, three times a week, which would never happen in Switzerland," says Felder. "In Switzerland you can drive two or three hours for a gig paying thirty or forty Euros. Here you can get $100 and in the summer for private parties—there's a big wedding scene—you can get $500. In Switzerland you have to teach."

Venues in Beirut pay jazz musicians good money, but what sort of jazz are they paying for? "It's mainly standards here," says Felder. "There are one or two bands where people play their originals but the people who come to jazz gigs just want to have a good time. You can sometimes catch this energy, but we are mainly entertainers, I would say."

The crowd drifts away, leaving a hardcore gathered around Caravanserail's small, corner bar. A couple of Nicaraguan cigars add to the fug. Karajian picks up an acoustic guitar and breaks into revolutionary Spanish songs, belting out "Hasta Siempre, Comandante"—Carlos Puebla's ode to Che Guevara—for all he's worth. Now seventy-five, Karajian's passion for music still burns fiercely.

When the bar is quiet, Karajian recounts how he left Aleppo, Syria, to come to Beirut in 1963. With guitar in hand he came second in a talent competition and persuaded the owner of a cellar to rent the space to him for use as a venue. Thus, Caravanserail came into being in 1969. He describes his trio, in sombreros, serenading the tables in more carefree times.

Karajian produces yellowed photographs of the bar in its early 1970s heyday. The elegantly dressed men and women all seem to be having a ball. Fairouz, a Lebanese legend, and perhaps the most famous Arabic singer after Umm Kulthum, is in one photo. Farid Al Atrash, the Egyptian oud master appears in another. Caravanserail was a clearly hip place to be.

"Those were golden times," says Karajian. "The '60s and 70's were golden times in Beirut."

It was a great period for Lebanese jazz lovers too. Louis Armstrong's All Stars played the UNESCO Theatre in Beirut in 1959. Duke Ellington and his orchestra played the Casino du Liban in 1963—a visit that inspired his composition "Harissa." Ella Fitzgerald graced the internationally famous Baalbeck Festival in 1972. Miles Davis appeared at the same festival the following year, against the stunning backdrop of the Roman Temple of Jupiter. Golden years indeed.

It didn't last. in 1975 Lebanon was plunged into a brutal, fifteen-year civil war. Karajian closed Caravanserail's doors and moved to London, where he opened a restaurant off Regent Street. In a remarkable show of faith Karajian continued to pay the rent on Caravanserail for the next eighteen years as the venue gathered dust. It was 1992 before he could return to Beirut and pick up where he left off.

Though downtown Beirut has been reborn since 1990, plenty of buildings elsewhere in the city still bear the scars of war. The social tensions that have given rise to this revolution are another reminder of the fragility of peace. "We're really trying to avoid a civil war," Aouad had said earlier that evening. "We already had one. We hope for the best."

Reaching Out

The next day one of Beirut's top jazz guitarists, Raffi Mandalian, arrives punctually at Le Commodore hotel—once frequented by foreign correspondents during Lebanon's civil war— and we make a beeline for nearby Café Younes. This pavement-coffee shop dates to 1935, and the smell of roasted coffee beans vies with the traffic fumes.

Mandalian came to jazz via the records of Joao Gilberto and Stan Getz. Now aged thirty-seven, he's an in-demand guitarist and leads his own trio. Like everybody else, the revolution has affected his work this past month. "I didn't play. Roads were closed, the clubs were closed or cancelling at the last minute. We live in uncertainty, but you just continue with your life."

The healthy turnout at Caravanserail the night before for Lyttle and Leighton's gig, particularly by Beirut's jazz community, did not surprise Mandalian. "We had to be there. Musicians had to be there. It should be surprising when you don't have people."

For Mandalian, Beirut's jazz scene is fairly small and conservative. "The music is mostly very similar. There are a lot of people who call what they do jazz, but really, the number of actual jazz musicians is small. Clubs try different bands so that they can get different audiences and if you can play a bit of jazz, they will take you. The problem is to get regular gigs and a lot of venues do minimal advertising."

Mandalian confirms Rudi Felder's view that jazz musicians are seen as entertainers by most people in Beirut.

"Some places like good restaurants already have their customers, but in a club where they don't serve food people will only come for music, and for that you should have Arabic music or something really commercial. With jazz it is difficult. There is no place where people just go and listen to jazz."

That doesn't mean, however, that there aren't jazz musicians who are willing to follow their own path, as Mandalian confirms. "I play with [double bassist/singer] Donna Khalife. She's into a lot of different things and that has helped to push me into a different way of thinking, to be more open."

Khalife's name crops up that time and again in conversation with jazz musicians in Beirut, all of whom hail her originality and daring. Her debut album, Heavy Dance (Self-Produced, 2017) was certainly proof of that.

In spite of the unrest embroiling the city, Khalife went ahead with the launch of her second album, Hope Is The Thing With Feathers (2019), in Beirut's Metro Al Madina on November 18—an act that was in itself a statement of hope and resilience.

"Donna's maybe the only one in Lebanon who can scat, and she plays her own compositions," says Mandalian. "There are structures, but the progressions are unusual and rhythmically she's into odd metres. The improvisations are very open—there are places to go."

Mandalian too, has ventured down a more adventurous road, particularly with the project Borderland, which was recorded at St. Joseph University, Beirut, in 2016. An ambitious multi-media project, Borderland fused Mandalian's jazz compositions with Armenian folk music. A high-quality recording of the concert is available on YouTube.

"I'm a jazz musician and I'm Armenian also, so my goal was to introduce both those elements in a way that people can enjoy. There is a responsibility too, you have to try and reach people, Survive first of all, yes, but try to reach people, because if I can't do that I would rather play at home."

Mandalian teaches a jazz appreciation course at the Holy Spirit University of Kaslik, a role that suits his evangelizing passion.

"The problem with jazz is exposure," he says. "We need to put this music out more to reach people, because when people hear this music, they love it. That's why I love teaching at the university. You have twenty, twenty-five students who know nothing about jazz and you are introducing them to them to the music. It opens them up and they love it. Then they come to the gigs."

Mandalian accepts that jazz won't make him rich. "To be realistic, you cannot make a living from playing jazz only," he says, "but I love it and I do it as much as I can."

Fusion and the Spirit of Jazz

A little later, a Harley Davidson pulls up to the café. It takes a brave soul to ride a motorbike in the Beirut traffic, where no quarter is asked, and none given. The owner of the bike is Buenos Aires-born trumpeter Martin Loyato. After ten years in New York and five in L.A., studying with Wadada Leo Smith along the way, Loyato moved to Beirut in 2007.

Three albums under his own name reveal Loyato to be a musician open to a vast array of influences, from tango to minimalists like Philip Glass, from jazz to film music, from gamelan to orchestral and ambient textures, from Arabic folk to African rhythms. His broad musical palette is perhaps best captured on Involution (Syncretism Records, 2017), an elegant fusion that knows no boundaries. Given his openness to all music his views on jazz in Beirut perhaps shouldn't come as a surprise.

"The jazz world in Beirut is very conservative and judgemental," Loyato says. "Here it is bebop; not everyone, but in general. For some people it's like a political or religious belief. But there should be freedom of speech and freedom of religious belief; don't tell me your religion is best."

There is perhaps a hint of frustration underlying Loyato's words, but a tremendous passion for the subject of music as well. "What is jazz here in Beirut is not jazz in Europe, New York or Los Angeles. Everyone in the world is doing their own jazz thing. It's an expression of where you come from, your culture—it gets fused into the music. This is the beauty of the music," Loyato enthuses.

"What is happening today, socially, politically, culturally is a completely different world to the 1950s and 1960s, for example, and that affects our art, our playing. So, we cannot think of jazz as a fixed thing. It's always moving, it's always changing. You won't catch it. You won't own it. That's missing the whole point," Loyato stresses. "It's about freedom."

At the time of recording his first album in 2009, Loyato befriended the late, great Yusef Lateef. Lateef is widely viewed as one of the great jazz figures of the twentieth century, but for Loyato, it was Lateef's openness to all music that was most inspiring.

"Yusef decided to do a PHD in musicology at sixty. He moved to Africa where he taught. He composed orchestra pieces, music for string quartets and straight-ahead jazz. For me, that is music. These people, Yusef and Leo [Wadada Smith] are so humble. They never judge anyone for what they play or don't play."

Fusion is a word that Loyato comes back to repeatedly. "I find people doing beautiful fusion here. In Europe they would call it jazz, here they don't. They call it World Music. The beauty of jazz-fusion, World Music, whatever you want to call it—I don't argue about definitions anymore—is that I give you something you don't know, and you give me something I don't know. I'm learning a bit about you and you're learning about me. To me, this is the spirit of jazz, and actually how jazz started."

Which raises the question, to what extent has Arabic music fused with jazz in Beirut?

The most obvious exemplars are internationally renowned musicians Rabih Abou-Khalil and Ibrahim Maalouf, both of whom left Lebanon at the height of the country's civil war. In more recent times Beirut-born, New-York-based Tarek Yamani, has forged a successful career fusing classical Arabic music with jazz on albums such as Lisan Al Tarab (Edict Records, 2014) and Peninsular (Edict Records, 2017). But what of musicians living in Beirut today?

"Actually, you see more fusion of Arabic music with pop and rock than with jazz," says Loyato.

There is, however, one major exception—a name that has cropped up from all Beirut's jazz musicians who have spoken on the subject—Ziad Rahbani. "Ziad is at the top in my opinion," affirms Loyato, "because he brought a big part of Oriental music into jazz and he did it beautifully. Anywhere you go in the Middle East you can hear Fairouz, and the guy who wrote the music for her from the 1980s on is Ziad."

Dedication

Another musician who acknowledges Rahbani is Arthur Satyan, arguably the most important jazz musician in Beirut. Just about everybody in Beirut has studied with Satyan or played with him. "Ziad Rahbani is probably the only guy to do something nice jazzifying Arabic music. His forms are based on the lyrics and his arrangements are very interesting. There are a few more musicians doing more complex stuff but for me he is the real guy."

Rahbani, who is now in his sixties, has recorded little in the past decade. Where Rhabanni is these days, and what he is doing, Satyan is unsure. Nobody seems to know.

Satyan talks freely and openly behind the wheel as we negotiate the Beirut traffic on the way to Salon Beyrouth—Beirut's newest jazz venue. A blocked road necessitates a slight detour.

"Sometimes with the situation you can't even rehearse," says Satyan. "If the roads are closed, you can't go back home. Downtown and other regions of the city it can be a bit dangerous."

The traffic is thick and cars jostle for right of way. Restaurants, cafés, hairdressers, clothes shops and innumerable money changers flick by the passenger window. Alongside advertising posters plastered on walls are stencilled prints of Riad Salameh, the Governor of the Banque du Liban. His image has devil's horns and he is licked by flames, a reminder that this revolution is about the haves and have-nots. The graffiti that accompanies this revolution would make a great coffee-table book.

Arriving at the venue, Satyan reverses into a space about two inches longer than his car. Little seems to phase him. Salon Beyrouth is an elegant, split-level venue. A wall of top-range whiskies dominates the bar area. The choice is overwhelming—a connoisseur's paradise, no doubt.

Satyan is Armenian. There are a lot in Lebanon. Many arrived in the wake of the genocide sanctioned by the Ottoman government that began in 1915. Satyan came to Beirut in 1996 and two years later got a job at the conservatory as a classical musician. "My whole family in Armenia are classical musicians and composers, so I had no choice," he laughs.

Satyan studied in Moscow with the renowned composer Edison Denisov, but his path would be dictated by jazz. "I am the first jazz musician in my family, but I injected all my cousins with jazz," he laughs, through his cigar smoke.

In Beirut, Satyan quickly spotted an opening. "There were jazz bands that played standards, but they didn't know how to keep the form. They would play the melody, then some oriental scales, or else they would copy the arrangements exactly from the records. That's why I had the idea to open a jazz department."

In 2004 Satyan started a jazz class at the Lebanese National Conservatory of Music. After one year he held a major concert with the students. So impressed was the Conservatory's Head that the very next day he announced the opening of a jazz department. There's now a three-year programme, with the most outstanding students graduating to a fourth year.

Almost fifteen years down the line Satyan has mentored numerous jazz musicians in Beirut. "Every year I help one or two guys into the jazz scene, and this is great. I'm fighting to promote this music as much as I can."

Satyan has played with heavyweights like Larry Coryell, Ed Cherry and Charles Davis, and he used to tour Europe frequently. These days, however, his teaching commitments keep him more anchored, with touring mostly confined to Cairo, Jordan and Dubai.

Though the jazz scene seems to be concentrated in the Hamra and Achrafieh districts of Beirut, gig opportunities can pop-up anywhere in town. Dedicated jazz venues, however, are another thing entirely.

The Blue Note Café, which opened in 1987, used to be the jazz venue in the city, regularly welcoming top American artists such as Andrew Hill, Sonny Fortune, Chico Freeman and Charles Davis to its stage. In recent times, however, jazz has all but been usurped by more overtly commercial music. Few would call The Blue Note Café a home of jazz anymore.

While opportunities for Beirut's jazz musicians seem to be numerous, a regular gig is hard to come by. "Sometimes a place that never had jazz before calls, and it becomes a jazz venue. For pop and commercial music, you'll get work," says Satyan, echoing what Raffi Mandalian had said earlier in the day. "There is huge demand for light music, but for jazz it's pretty hard."

Offering jazz gigs two nights a week, Salon Beyrouth is possibly the only venue in Beirut with a dedicated jazz programme. "If this revolution hadn't happened Salon Beirut was planning to do a third night of jazz. Everybody wanted it to happen," Satyan says, exhaling a cloud of blue smoke. "But things changed."

The Songs Remain The Same

It's a short walk to Metro Al Madina, a left-leaning, independent theatre known for its wide-ranging entertainment, from cabaret and theatre to musicals and concerts. Shows are held here every night, but tonight is one of the first since the revolution began. The concert tonight is symbolic in more ways than one.

One of Beirut's top young jazz artists, double bassist Makram Aboul Hosn is playing tonight. He leads the way through the theatre to the backstage area. The technical team are in a meeting there so we move to what can only be described as a wig cupboard.

He outlines the theme of tonight's music. The first part features revolutionary songs from Egypt, Palestine and Lebanon. The second part, with Hosn on bass, highlights the songs of two great Egyptian composers, Said Darwish and Sheikh Imam.

"These are songs against the status quo, against oppression, against the abuse of power," Hosn explains. "We're singing songs from the 1920s and it's still the same themes today. It's pretty depressing. This revolution is all about saying there's no more telling us what we are, and what we are not allowed to do."

Hosn had never played Arabic folk music until he got involved with Metro Al Madina a couple of years ago. Once a month he plays in a band dedicated to the music of Umm Kulthum. It's an experience that has had a profound influence on his approach to the bass in jazz.

"Forget everything you know as a bassist. With this music you have to know the melody like hell. You have to follow the singer and you have no idea where they are going to go. You've got to have your ears open. The five instrumentalists backing the singer are all a millisecond behind him or her, because they don't know how the singer is going to ornament the phrase. It's really incredible," Hosn says.

"I fell into the trap as a jazz musician of going into auto-pilot mode, though it took me a long time to understand I was doing that. You can get away with it in jazz, but you can't with this music, otherwise you're just going to fall."

Hosn describes how playing Umm Kulthum's music has radically changed his bass playing in a jazz context.

"My playing has changed a lot. It's not like walking bass, you have to breathe a lot as a bassist with Umm Kulthum; one note every four beats, but it has to count, and it has to breathe. It has to have a lot of sustain. It brought me back to the essential notes. Going back to jazz after absorbing a lot of Arabic music I realize what is essential and I play a lot less accordingly," Hosn explains.

"Playing folk music here was a huge wake-up call for me. Playing folk music and watching two hundred people sing along is so powerful. It reminded me that music is a communal activity, not an intellectual, isolated activity. You've got to make people feel things," Hosn adds.

"Even in my solos in jazz standards or my own music I want people to understand what I'm playing, as opposed to not understanding."

Just an hour before the concert of revolutionary Arabic music is due to begin, Hosn reflects on the political upheaval of the past month. "It's the first time I ever disassociated with being a musician. I practise religiously, two or three hours every day. I never keep my bass in the case. When the revolution started, I needed to be down on the street."

Politics, as Hosn explains, has long impacted on music in Beirut. "The civil war resulted in the division of the country into smaller sections of geography and each section was ruled by a warlord, many of whom are our ministers and parliament members now. They had absolute power in their area, they were judges, healthcare providers, and defenders; you sort of had to have blind faith in their abilities as god-like leaders. Much of that mode of thinking is still present in our culture, and it leaks into the music scene. Now we are in Hamra. The next district is Achrafieh. You couldn't go there during most of the civil war, and people from there couldn't come here. There were snipers along the borders. You just couldn't move anywhere. So, people became very territorial and everything was done in small groups.

"When I understood that I understood so much about the music scene, and the jazz scene especially," Hosn expands. "The older generation are so sensitive towards critique and about who they collaborate with. They are very loyal to who they play with and they stick to that; some of them looked down upon us because we played with people they didn't approve of. The younger generation has mimicked that attitude to some extent, because the older generation often presented themselves as mentors."

Hosn talks about his country's struggle with the notion of self in the wake of the French occupation from the 1920s to the 1940s. "We have a huge chunk of the population who speak French better than they speak Arabic and another chunk who speak English much better than they speak Arabic. So, there is an identity crisis happening everywhere."

A barometer of the significant changes sweeping Lebanon society with this revolution can be read in linguistic terms, as Hosn explains.

"My news feeds used to be in English or French statuses. In fact, most people haven't got used to the Arabic keyboard. We just wrote in Latin alphabet. Then suddenly the revolution happened, and all statuses switched to Arabic. Now you're an outsider, you're not hip, if you write in English or French. Finally, we have some kind of unity and it happened really naturally. It's beautiful."

That's Entertainment

Back at Caravanserail George Karajian and Ali are readying the venue for the performance of oud maestro Khodor Hassoun. The oud player has been a fixture at Caravanserail for twenty four years. Ali has worked with Karajian for forty years. "When you trust someone you stick with them," Karajian says. Perhaps the clinging loyalty that Makram Aboul Hosn had talked about in the older generation of jazz musicians is something common to the war generation in general. Trust, after all, was in short supply in those days.

"You must speak to Pim," says George, dialing a number on his iPad.

Amsterdam-born pianist Pim van Harten has been living in Beirut for twelve years. His voice on the other end of the line is full of enthusiasm and candour.

Growing up in Amsterdam in the 1970s and 1980s, van Harten watched his father playing jazz in smoky bars for people out to have fun, drinking and dancing. For Van Harten, the social role of jazz, at least in Europe, has changed over the years.

"Jazz has become the classical music of our time, in a way. A lot of musicians are not comfortable with the idea of jazz as music that can entertain, but it can!," he stresses, laughing. "Maybe not in Amsterdam or Dublin, but it can in Beirut. In Beirut, people love to have musicians in the restaurant, in the café."

In Van Harten's opinion, those who attend jazz gigs in Beirut are not what he would term jazz fans. "It is exactly because there is no tradition of jazz here that it is the curious crowd who comes to us. It's the crowd that is bored and that is interested in anything fresh.

"We might play some Coltrane, Ellington or Ella Fitzgerald-type repertoire but it doesn't really matter to them. They don't judge it because they don't know it."

Van Harten edges towards the connection between jazz and the revolution.

Revolutionary Chords

"Both musically and sociologically, what they see and hear in jazz is completely new. And it's radical in a sense," Van Harten expands. "There is a lot of freedom on that stage, and informality and equality, self-expression, dialog and communication. There's a sexual looseness to it, and an informal hip vibe, all of which is not too common here. That's why jazz touches a sensitive spot in this culture."

The relative lack of cross-pollination between jazz and Arabic music— an area which seems ripe for experimentation—also reflects upon the mores of Beirut society, according to Van Harten.

"This is not a society where people look positively on mixing. There is diversity, but people define themselves in opposition to the others. Lebanon has always been a country of a living identity crisis," van Harten says, echoing Makram Aboul Hosn's thoughts.

"Here, Oriental musicians and fans of Oriental music feel that it needs to be pure and that it should not be touched. The jazz scene, unfortunately, is a little bit the same. It's a state of mind. Lots of players are bebop puritans, a music which they see as superior."

The notion that jazz is a social music, part of the evening's entertainment resonates with Van Harten. "We don't sell the band; we sell the venue. We bring people to an atmosphere, which is the sum of the venue and the band. You don't promote the band—that suggests that the band has a busload of followers and that is not the case at all. We play too often for that."

By all accounts there is practically no jazz —and certainly no jazz scene of any note—outside of Beirut, which likely has much to do with more conservative cultures outside the capital. But for jazz musicians like Van Harten, the social acceptance of jazz musicians in Beirut is something to be thankful for. "How many twenty-year olds in Europe will willingly sit through a night of jazz?," he asks rhetorically.

There are, Van Harten says, underlying socio-political reasons for this embrace of jazz in Beirut.

"It's American emancipatory culture meets Arabic culture and that's where the electricity is. I feel that electricity in the room when we play. The socio-cultural change these past ten years that was bubbling under the surface has fed jazz growth in Beirut," says Van Harten. "It is connected to the freedom and self-expression that is built into jazz. Jazz and the revolution are not two separate things here."

The success of jazz in Beirut may well be linked to the desire of youth for greater freedoms, but for Van Harten, it is not so much about desire for a new democratic constitution— perhaps that would require too great a leap of faith—but for a new society.

"It is almost a lifestyle revolution on the micro level. It's about changing their family relations, their sexual relationships, opinions about gay issues, the presence of Syrians, migrant workers, forms of entertainment, and so on. All this has been going on underground as a sort of silent, youth cultural movement. Now it is on the street and it has flipped into a political revolution. But to translate that into political change is really difficult for them because they were never really allowed to speak politics freely. They were depoliticized, in a way."

Seeing Where the Music Goes

Back at Metro al Madina, the evening of Arabic revolutionary music is underway. A young audience packs the hall.

People are being turned away from the door. It's sold out. The music, though, is relayed over speakers in the bar area, where a few young women dance with drinks in their hands, drunk on the feeling of freedom, of resistance.

Earlier, Makram Aboul Hosn, now busy playing bass to a rapt audience, had said something that seemed to encapsulate the link between the revolution and jazz in Beirut.

"It's like when you're improvising in jazz and it's really happening. You have no idea what's going to happen next measure, next chorus. We could go out on the street now and all hell could break loose. It fluctuates between hope and despair. We are really playing it bar by bar."

Photo: ©diplomedia/Shutterstcock.com

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