Sharif Sehnaoui's Beirut

Photo: Beirut by flickr.com/photos/lucianaluciana/

 

I have designed this writing as a promenade from one side of town to the other, going through some of the locations that defined my idea of Beirut over the years, making it a city that I love and enjoy working in. Some of these places have been up ever since the late nineties’ cultural “renaissance”, following the dark years of the civil war, others are more recent. Some are obviously not going to last long and others are seeing the light of day as you are reading these lines, Beirut being in a constant process of reconstructing and reinventing itself.

A major point of satisfaction for me is the strength and width of contemporary & experimental culture, very well inscribed in the various fields of art, turning Beirut into a spearhead for the region, and could even become a model for many Mediterranean and European countries (come and visit and you will see what I am talking about).

In any case, here are some of the places where I have heard Lebanon’s most adventurous music over the years, and also some of its most characteristic sounds.

The Corniche

The Corniche (Photo by Tony Elieh)

This is where we start off, as I consider this to be the town’s only breathing space. A long coastline by the Mediterranean sea where all of Beirut’s various inhabitants can cross paths, have a drink, a swim, a walk… somewhere to forget that we live in a heavily polluted metropolitan hub, full of stress, insanity and foolish antagonisms… a place where you can leave the city behind you and just gaze at the openness of the sea.

Théatre de Beyrouth

Théatre de Beyrouth (Photo by Tony Elieh)

Most of Lebanon’s pre-war artistic activities revolved around its Theatre culture. Still today, 5 of them stand out, Theatre de Beyrouth being the oldest one of them, but also the most precarious, some would even argue that it is no longer suitable for proper artistic work, lacking any kind of modern facility, suffering from an ancestral ancient electrical apparatus, occasional drops of water pouring down on the stage. The signboard is a sound installation by itself, producing a multiphonic buzzing that would even outclass our local guitar hero Charbel Haber.

Yet it remains my favorite choice for a venue, not only because of the beautiful struggle to keep it alive, but also because of an incomparable feeling inside the room for both audience and performer and some marvelous acoustics. Memorable concerts took place there since 2002: Lê Quan Ninh, Fred Van Hove, Dans Les Arbres, Johannes Bauer, The Ex, Roger Turner or the Sun City Girls to name but a few.

That’s at one end of the Corniche, if you now move up along the huge American University campus, you will eventually reach the historical Hamra Street and another theatre of some importance.

Al-Madina theatre

Al-Madina theatre (Photo by Tony Elieh)

Holding many events in its big theatre room, including Omar Rajeh’s contemporary dance festival (Bipod), Al-Madina distinguishes itself by its location in the middle of one of the busiest streets of Beirut, an odd place for such a cultural institution to reside. But sound wise, the great advantage of this venue is its smaller secondary stage, a 100 seat pocket-size theatre located three-storeys underground, very well designed, allowing for beautiful acoustics, proximity and communion between audience and performers. Highlights include a duo of Michael Zerang & David Stackenäs, MUTA, “Next to You” with poet Patrick Dubost and actor Antoine Kerbage, and more recently an ensemble performance with Norwegian trio “1982”.

On the way back east one has to cross the old green line which was a no man’s land during wartime, but there is one last stop just before getting there.

Zicco House

Zicco House (Photo by Tony Elieh)

One of the very first cultural hubs of post-war Lebanon, Zicco House is a four-storey old house that opened its doors to many associations from various fields of militancy, arts and culture. For instance, Ahlam, defending the rights of homosexuals has long been located there. The house owner Mustapha Yamout has been active since the 90s, organizing the famous Beirut Street Festival among other things and managing his house like a true shelter for desperate battles and lost causes, so to speak… over the years various musical events took place there in vernacular conditions inside the house, in the garden and even sometimes on the roof.

Let’s now go to the heart of the green line, in on the outskirts of our shining new (yet soulless) “downtown” area.

The Egg

The Egg (Photo by Tony Elieh)

This unique structure was meant to become one of the biggest panoramic cinemas in the world had it opened its doors in the late seventies as scheduled. Instead, it became one of the most majestic ruins of modern history. It is also alternatively referred to as The Dome or The Soap (Al Sabouné).

It is the dream of every event organizer to hold concerts in the main room where the screen was meant to be. Although the venue is solely made of concrete, the curved ceiling of the dome allows for a unique sound and atmosphere. Sadly authorisations are very hard to get. I remember hearing a long and beautiful krautrockian piece there by The Scrambled Eggs. Truly unforgettable.

Monnot Theatre / The Crypt

Mannot theatre/The Crypt (Photo by Tony Elieh)

A short walk away from the Dome is the St. Joseph’s Jesuite Universty campus and the St. Joseph Church. Connected to them we find the Monnot theatre which is in fact an interesting set of three venues: the main stage is a typical theatre room where we recorded the Peter Brötzmann / Michael Zerang duo that we later released on our Al Maslakh label (www.almaslakh.org). Bob Ostertag & Pierre Hébert’s memorable piece called “Special Forces” was also premiered there in 2007’s edition of Irtijal during one of the most difficult years of our recent history.

Under the nearby church is the eponymous Crypt, an atypical venue that hosts exhibitions and also the annual storyteller’s festival. Occasional concerts are held there in a peculiar atmosphere and odd acoustics because of the curved walls (better to play in the lower frequencies).

Finally a third room is actually the rehearsal room of the theatre, it is called ACT, but we love using it for small format concerts with limited audience.

Traffic

 

Sadly such an important part of our daily lives that it is impossible to ignore, it has a huge impact on the way we need to plan our days, and on both the cityscape and soundscape that surrounds us. A great example is the Tabaris intersection located between Monnot and Metropolis Empire Sofil, the next venue we are heading towards.

Metropolis

Metropolis (Photo by Tony Elieh)

We are lucky to have this unique Art House Cinema that which is a true milestone for the city’s cultural panorama. Metropolis is in charge of the programming of two big cinema rooms that used to be the main screens for blockbusters, before the advent of mall culture and multiplex cinemas in the country. Founder Hania Mroué has turned it into the main place for local and Arab features and shorts (Ayyam Beirut Al Cinema’iyya…), documentaries (Les Ecrans du Réel…), historical movie cycles (Fellini, Bunuel, Herzog, Bresson…), an animation festival (Beirut Animated) as well as some of the best new and creative films from around the globe (Cannes’ Critics Week, European Film Festival…).

Metropolis also hosts regular Cine-concerts, such as Mike Cooper improvising on Murnau’s “The Last Laugh” projected on a wide screen in its 35mm format!!! Priceless.

But it’s time for a coffee.

Torino Express

Torino Express (Photo by Tony Elieh)

Located downhill in the most fashionable bar area of town (Gemmayzeh) Torino Express is a bar that opened its doors when there was still nothing else around. Aside from good coffee, the miniature-size Torino bar also offers some fine music and an unbeatable vibe. Throughout the years, some of Beirut’s finest inhabitants have persistently remained faithful to this venue serving coffee and alcohol from 11am until late at night, as well as a home-made hot soup of the day during the cold winter time.

At the other end of this very same area is another bar called the EM Chill, very similar in size, but with a second underground room that turns into a concert venue at night.

EM Chill

EM Chill (Photo by Tony Elieh)

When owner Rabih Aouad opened his bar’s basement space a little more than a year ago he managed to achieve one of the few musical joints with a true club feeling: small stage, small bar in the corner and a seated crowd that can enjoy the proximity of the band in a smoky atmosphere with a glass on the nearby table. The very eclectic musical programming allowed for some great stints by local bands such as post-punk trio The Scrambled Eggs with special guest Mike Cooper, dada-pop group The Incompetents, local free jazz combo AnArchy TV, or Tripoli’s heavy-metal offshoot Osman Arabi.

Reaching the outskirts of town and the very near suburbs we find a very strange venue that is very hard to define and classify.

The Art Lounge

The Art Lounge (Photo by Tony Elieh)

The place is not always open, but this venue’s industrial type space and vintage furniture has consistently attracted some of the most adventurous musical events of the past decade. Irtijal held its 2009 opening night there with a powerful set by French trio Sun Plexus 2. More recently, it became the home of many of Hadi Saleh’s Acousmatik System events (http://www.acousmatiksystem.org), often packing the place out for musicians from the Ad Noiseam label to more experimental sets by the likes of electro-acoustic maestro C-Drík, as well as all the tenors of the emerging local electronic scene.

From there you can get on the highway and in a few seconds reach a building that houses a very special studio for Lebanon’s independent & experimental music scene.

Tunefork Studios

Tunefork Studios (Photo by Tony Elieh)

Over the years, sound engineer Fadi Tabbal has developed what some of us had been dreaming of for quite some time: the possibility to record improvised, experimental, noise, free and new music of any type with someone who can actually relate to all of this with an acute and loving ear. Many visiting bands have entered the studios over the last couple of years. Electronic innovator Tarek Atoui held sessions there on a daily basis in summer 2010 involving many of Lebanon’s most daring musicians. Scrambled Eggs recorded their meetings with improvisers and with the “A” Trio for Johnny Kafta’s Kids Menu. PRAED just recorded their album “Made in Japan” for Annihaya Records, to name only few of the countless projects to come out of this essential venture for the future of Lebanon’s music production.

We are now out of town but there is one last venue that absolutely needs to be mentioned, though located in the Sin-el-Fil suburb, it remains central to Beirut as a regional artistic hub.

The Beirut Art Center

The Beirut Art Center (Photo by Tony Elieh)

Inaugurated a couple of years ago by Sandra Dagher & Lamia Joreige, the BAC can eventually be considered as Beirut’s first ever contemporary art centre, making it a true landmark for the country’s art world. Every few months is a new exhibit by the likes of Mona Hatoum, Chris Marker, Harun Farocki or Akram Zaatari, as well as some thematic collective exhibitions and special events dedicated to the country’s newer talents.

The BAC also holds a monthly musical event, often in collaboration with Ziad Nawfal’s Ruptured label who organized several of his CD launches there. The 75 seat auditorium that usually hosts video programs became the only real dark room / deep listening space where local and international artists have performed over the years, often in solo format: Stéphane Rives, Mazen Kerbaj, Raed Yassin or Harris Newman, or small groupings: MoHa!, BAO... Depending on the artist’s needs, concerts have also been held in the center’s various spaces: two powerful performances by Tarek Atoui & Uriel Barthelemy in the bar area, Radwan Moumneh’s “Jerusalem in my Heart” next to the ticketing desk.


 

Sharif Sehnaoui

Sharif Sehnaoui (Photo by Richard Cobelli)

Sharif Sehnaoui is a free improvising guitarist. He plays both electric & acoustic guitars, with (or without) extended and prepared techniques, focusing on expanding the intrinsic possibilities of these instruments without the use of effects or electronics. He now resides in Beirut, his hometown, after more than a decade in Paris, where he started his career as an improviser in 1998, playing at Instants Chavirés where he was a member of several orchestras. He has since performed his music worldwide and played in many clubs & festivals such as Soundfield (Chicago), Moers, Konfrontationen (Nickelsdorf), Météo Music Festival (Mulhouse), Club Transmediale (Berlin), Skanu Mesz (Riga) or Musikprotokoll (Graz).

In Lebanon, he actively contributed to the emergence of an unprecedented experimental music scene. Along with Mazen Kerbaj he created “Irtijal” (www.irtijal.org) in 2000, a yearly international festival that is at the moment the only improvised and new music festival in the Arab world. “Irtijal” celebrated its 10th anniversary in 2010.

He also runs several labels: Al Maslakh devoted to "publish the un-publishable" on the Lebanese musical scene. Johnny Kafta’s Kids Menu, an Al Maslakh sub-label dedicated to rock oriented experimentations. And finally, Annihaya, focusing on sampling, recycling and the displacement of various aspects of popular culture.

www.sharifsehnaoui.net

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