Monday, August 19, 2013

Raw as in War

First published on THE MANTLE

[Sandmoon at the Fete de la Musique, Beirut, 2013. Courtesy of Karim Sakr]
There’s much hearsay about the Lebanese music scene, labeled both “underground” and “alternative”. Perhaps both terms are overloaded with a certain idealization that borders almost on the soft power of activism: Something marginal, at the fringes of a turbulent political reality and almost illegal. This isn’t entirely untrue, but the daily reality of Lebanon is different: Pop stars sing at sit-ins of Salafist preachers and people record songs in basements as the Israelis are shelling Beirut. Sometimes resilience – and the Lebanese flaunt it with pride – is a code word for irresponsibility, but life goes on. The painter Mouna Bassili Sehnaoui told me last year: “In fact I never painted the war in a Goya like manner, being surrounded by tragedy and horror I did not feel like bringing the blood and gore into my workspace. I realize now that it is only many years later that one allows oneself to release the self-imposed control so necessary for survival.”
But perhaps music offers a different pathway in which the artist is unable to protect himself in the same way that material stuffs allow; music is the uncontrollable and uncollectable, you have much less of saying in what you’re doing than say painters or even photographers. The immediacy is absolute and the results evaporate once you’re achieved them. There’s a recording industry of course, reproducible copies, rehearsals, concerts, and what not. Yet there was that first time, the moment of seeing art right in the face, for a fleeting second. And then there’s the music scene in Beirut, collateral to the contemporary art scene. A scene is a horrible word. Reminds you of drunken ordinary people in extraordinary clothes crowding in the corners of white cube galleries. I prefer the word clusters. In fact, I became acquainted with the music from Beirut because of the films ofJoana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, which led me to Marc Codsi and aninterview.
The very informal Marc opened a world for me in which art and music overlapped in distinct ways. Beirut is small after all. There’s Mashrou’ Leila too, everybody knows, even provincial me chatted with them once in Istanbul; and some others of course. As Marc pointed out to me, the usual filters of art don’t really exist in Lebanon – critics, managers, labels – therefore the cluster is concentric. Joana and Khalil often remark that in absence of critics, it is artists who have to take on the task of speaking about their own work. My experience with fine art and the art galleries in the entire Arab world is basically the same. The music genres in Beirut are somewhat defined and by now, a bit homogeneous. The pioneering days of Zeid and Yasmine Hamdan, Marc Codsi, The New Government, and others, are kinda passé. There’s room for innovation always though, and in a region beset by turmoil, one has to innovate in order to survive his own life. It’s almost a reflex.
And that’s how I found Sandra Arsalanian, the singer behind the Indie projectSandmoon, based in Beirut. A number of clips on the Internet led me to this mesmerizing sadcore voice, accompanied by slow and diffused instrumental sounds, minimal, percolated and with the strong but continuous crescendo of folk music.Indie in Lebanon? It’s not that I was surprised, since after all I had spent days listening to Codsi, whose work borders on sound installations and the kind of sounds that accompany found photographs and overexposed negatives in a gallery space. Sandmoon was different; though I could hear the beating latency of anyone who has been to Beirut, the riveting waves, sounds that grow into elliptic and concave forms, and that punctuate the war-scared buildings, there was also a far-away. It wasn’t a distance or a territory. A movable far-away. I knew those distances well, stranded between three countries, so far away from my birthplace.
[Sandmoon at Waterfront, Beirut. Courtesy of Raymond Gemayel]
Encountering Sandra, it wasn’t just about the musician in “différance”. It wasn’t only about music, but about reclaiming a place in reality as our own in order to contest it. Always the politics that we could never agree on, but keeping the sense of humanity and dignity that makes art worth the name. Though rooted in Lebanon, in so many ways, through my work, and through the steel-proof hope that one day it will be a place to live with that dignity we tried to practice, I viewed Lebanon with entirely different eyes; perhaps partly clouded by the fact that my lens is accentuated by the reactionary environment of the Arabian Gulf. Also, in a way, it is interesting, because none of us lived through the Civil War. Do we share a sense of guilt about that? Perhaps so. The far-away emerged rapidly as we became more familiar and quickly an exchange in a language for me almost forgotten – Dutch – ensued, adding another layer of both familiarity and distance from Lebanon.
And she begins her story: “Beirut, 13th April 1975 (the beginning of the Lebanese Civil War). Ten days later I was born. Seven months later, I boarded a plane with my family and left (read: fled) to Belgium. I am of Armenian origin, conceived and born in Lebanon. I grew up in the West, but at home it was very much the Middle East. It’s both disturbing and enriching. The balance ticks one way or another depending on the circumstances. 32 years in the Benelux and then all of a sudden, an urge to flee again, this time to where I was born. The story of many; many Lebanese, many people whose country is ravaged by war. War, departure, return, the meaning of home (the physical, the emotional, the metaphysical), the quest for identity, nostalgia.” Can Lebanese artists stop licking their own wounds? That’s what art critics often ask me. But what is one to do when the privilege and responsibility of history is denied? When more and more war keeps ravaging it every time?
She continues: “We should make a tabula rasa and start anew. Like Downtown Beirut. Maybe we should sing about Solidere (the new historical downtown which unsurprisingly has nothing historical about it in a neoliberal frenzy). But somewhere between the Serail and the Corniche, the bullet laced Holiday Inn stands tall as a reminder of past wounds. I always wonder why they don’t demolish it.” Speaking at ease about her musical influences: Classical, Armenian, Oriental and Protestant church hymns, reminiscent of the folk tunes, and all varieties of good and bad pop, folk, jazz and bossa nova. She started off making music in Belgium and playing with several bands. Early in 2009, she admits to have known next to nobody in the music scene in Beirut and just having heard about the usual names, Scrambled Eggs, Soap Kills, Lumi. It was around the same time that I wanted to be a writer; I also knew nobody, except one painter, and hadn’t still figured out how that was to be done.
It was that year that a small breakthrough happened: “I had just amateurishly recorded a few songs on my cheap Casio synth, and saw a poster for Radio Liban’s Modern Music Contest, sent in a copy of the songs, got selected and that’s when it all really started.  That’s where I met Fadi Tabbal, who records and arranges the albums of the most of the Indie scene now.” Coincidentally, that’s how I became familiar with her music; finding the release of Radio Liban and listening to all the tracks, trying to get a vibe of the scene where Mashrou’ Leila was born, when trying to write about them. “Summer 2009, I started recording with Fadi. It was just the two of us, with the occasional help from Tony, the drummer. I was unaware at first that I was intending to record a full album. But I knew that one day if I were to make an album, it would be called “raW” – read “War” from right to left. And after a year in the studio, there it was: Raw. Raw as in the roughness of War. Raw as in the unpolished treatment of the songs. Raw as in unprepared.”
[Sandra Arsalanian. Courtesy of Karim Sakr]
We talk about the song titles and their themes: An album soaked in sadcore, nostalgia, lost happiness. The band was formed in 2010 and lasted for some two years with performances in and around Beirut. On and off about the music scene in Beirut, the growth, the new players, some diversity, and what not. And then more talk about war. That thing so intent on stealing the future, time after time. And Sandra is back with Sandmoon for a 2013 remake, with new band members and everything else. The new album, slated to be called “Home”. I had the pleasure of having a sneak preview of some of the songs, and the concept is cunningly matured, departing from the minimal Indie of the early 2000s into more acoustic and polyphonic sounds that are still natural, bordering on folk music and very familiar, personal, removed from the aesthetics of transparency, unfurling into warmer spaces that open up with personal stories, whispered lullabies and a voice geared towards the center of the ensemble.
The nine songs, written and composed by Arsalanian, elevate the sadcore into certain moments of ecstasy and affirmation, yet a fundamental melancholy remains:“Though sadcore is still at the core of the album, there are some happier, crazier moments that sugarcoat the initial melancholy. That’s what Home is all about. Release scheduled for fall 2013.” I can’t help but ask myself what it this home all about, the one that Sandra and I are looking for, through writing, through performing and through staying on the revel of life in one of the world’s most difficult regions. Perhaps it’s not that the question is irrelevant, but most likely the answers are. The late philosopher Gillian Rose offers a suggestion as she lays dying in a hospital bed in England in 1995: “I will stay in the fray, in the revel of ideas and risk; learning, falling, wooing, grieving, trusting, working, reposing – in this sin of language and lips.”
And the topic of war returns each time Sandra and I speak. This reminds me of sitting with Lebanese art historian Gregory Buchakjian and Turkish artist Hale Tenger at a restaurant in Istanbul, speaking over lunch. Gregory wrote at the end of his book, “Useless violence makes history. Useless violence makes art history.”There’s an inescapable edge in this, in which one finds himself collecting debris from history, and trying to insert some hope in the world precisely by removing the possibility of redemption or hope, or in the words of Algerian artist Abel Abdessemed“We don’t need hope. What we need is truth.” Long by-gone are the days of beautiful art, Gregory and I agree, because the redeeming and quasi-religious function of beauty has evaporated in the course of the Arab world’s most violent century. We are talking about an art that speaks truth to facts without leaving us at the mercy of their brutality. What we need is re-interpreters of what we were never told; archaeologists of culture.
And Sandra Arsalanian is one of those archaeologists skilled in excavating the cultural memory of the present through her melancholy sound, altogether primal and intimately bound with her Armenian heritage – an obsession I share as I dig up the stories from the pre-oil Bahrain of wooden doors, mud huts and fishermen, just like Bahraini sound artist Hasan Hujairi. And this no nostalgia, but rather a radical openness towards the past as memory rather than historicism. The Armenian-Lebanese, whose new folk sounds remind me of Eileen Khatchadourian, another Lebanese singer of Armenian heritage and yet voluptuously contemporary, is yet not an artist from the far-away; she is from the here and now, drinking Lebanon in, with all its paradoxes, its wounds, its moments of happiness: She performed at the Fête de la Musique in Beirut, this June, as a political sit-in gathered in front of the Lebanese parliament. One of the dozen sit-ins that happen every year with no apparent result.
Yet, sometimes the tragedy seems to overwhelm and engulf us completely, for example with the recent bombings in Beirut. At the same time, the order of reality cannot be transformed without a wholly new order of political imagination, of which art is one of the building blocks. I have always loved a certain thought of the philosopher Franz Rosenzweig when he insists that the purely human element in art and in life is that which is equal and common to us all, that element awakened by and in tragedy. It is in those moments when the chips are down, when everything that is at stake seems so volatile and fragile, those are the moments when art stares at you right in the face and demands from you understanding that there’s no aesthetics of life, there’s only the raw materials of and in the world. The raw materials that sometimes read as war, as tragedy, as loss; out of which we derive the most elementary human capabilities. Helene Cixous completes the thought when she says: “Everything that is (looked at justly) is good. Is exciting. Is “terrible”. Life is terrible. Terribly beautiful, terribly cruel. Everything is marvelously terrible, to whoever looks at things as they are.”
[Solitude, videoclip still, 2011]
Find Sandmoon on YouTube

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