Before I begin, I would like to point out that this review is not meant to be a personal attack by any means. It is meant to point out the issues one could face when an institutional platform is granted to voice limited and misinformed “fact” where some may see the platform as authoritative enough not to ask questions of the information’s authenticity.
Friday October 24th 2014. It’s 7:30 pm and the audience is getting settled into their seats in the lecture theatre at the Victoria and Albert Museum. The film: “Aswaat in Lebanon”, produced and directed by Aymeric Cattenoz.
This is the first event of many that I intend to go to that is part of a larger festival called the “Nour Festival of Arts” which is taking place within a six week period between October 20th to November 30th 2014 in venues across Chelsea and Kensington. “Nour” is currently in its 5th year. Its intention is to provide a platform and bring forth various forms of contemporary Middle Eastern and North African arts and culture. Works could be presented in the form of visual arts, culinary arts, film, musical performance and performance arts.
Anyway… back to the film. The apparent aim of the film is to showcase the alternative and contemporary Middle Eastern music that is currently emerging on the Lebanese scene. The movie is the first installation of many as the director intends to create similar films covering scenes in Palestine, Jordan, Egypt and Syria.
I can honestly say that I walked into this screening with an open mind. I wasn’t sure how the documentary will unfold and was very eager to find out. I can also say that the documentary started off all right. But I can also honestly say that it quickly went downhill from there as the layer upon layer of representational issues emerged at an alarming rate. I am very sad to say that I was quite disappointed with the film and I know for a fact that I was not the only one. There were several viewers who chose to leave mid-film while others chose to stay for the Q and A session; probably wanting to know more about Cattenoz in an attempt to understand the several choices he made pertaining to the film.
Before we get into the nitty gritty, I would like to point out that the editing and cinematography was indeed quite impressive; especially given that this film was Cattenoz’s first. The scene changes were seamless the change between one artist and another was executed in a way that was aesthetically pleasing and as far as the overall presentation of the visual goes: it was great!
My issue is what was covered (or rather, not covered) in the film. The entire presentation seemed to be coming from one who is quite ill-informed when it comes to the music of the region as well as the politics which is, believe it or not, quite important in this context. Taking this issue one step further is the provision of a platform in which the misinformation was being presented en masse.
Allow me to elaborate:
1) The title of the film in itself is not translated well. “Aswaat in Lebanon” had been translated to “Sounds in Lebanon” when in fact Aswaat really translates to “Voices” something that could have easily been remedied before the premiere. Also, presenting the film as an accurate representation of the contemporary Arabic music scene in Lebanon is in itself problematic as the director only visited Beirut for a combined time span of 3 weeks. Although Beirut has many a talented musicians and artists within its city limits it is not all that all of Lebanon has to offer. (See below for details about the music itself)
2) For the most part, the artists being portrayed were of a single social class within the city; a very distinct upper middleclass, French educated society. I can understand that this must have been easier for the producer to deal with due to the language barrier as almost all interviews were conducted in French. However, this begs the viewer to ask the critical question: What of everyone else? What of other artists in the region who are not of this social standing?
One certainly needs to take note of the artists who were portrayed in the film who were indeed recreating Arabic music as we know it. Artists like Mashrou’ Leila (Laila’s Project) and Zeid Hamdan as well as a young female soloist whose name unfortunately escapes me. Each of these artists allude to creating a new voice in the world of Arabic music; which tells me that they are indeed contemporary thinkers.
- Mashrou’ Leila takes the Rock genre and sings in Arabic also interlacing the music itself with Arabic flavours of sounds.
- Zaid Hamdan produces music for several bands some of which do indeed allude to the very distinct melodic nature of Arabic music. (I am referring to rhythms that can only be created with the use of the very distinct ½ flat notation that can not be found in any other musical system)
- The young Lebanese vocalist specifically lists her muses to be the voices and musisions of the golden oldies such as Umm Kulthoum, Fairouz, Asmahaan, Fareed Al-Atrash, Mohammad Abd-il-Wahaab (for those of you who are familiar with such legends). This particular artist’s covers as well as her own songs are sung very differently and interpreted in ways that pertain to the new music scene. Nevertheless, the sources of her inspiration can clearly be heard in her voice. (My mission is to find the artist’s name!)
(note: we hardly heard any of the above artists sing during the film)
Once these artists are skimmed over the problem of musicality kicks in due to the clear fact that Cattenoz is quite unfamiliar with Arabic music at its core.
As soon as Fairouz is brought up the fact that her music can be heard on the radio across Beirut every morning is mentioned; an array of Kitsch is displayed; and that’s the end of it!
3) Finally, from this point on all other artists portrayed go by English band/group names. They sing in either English or French and draw from European influenced void from a vision to change them into their own creations. The scene can certainly be presented as Jazz, R’n’B, Blues and so forth; being played in Beirut on Arabic soil by Arab youth who speak fluent French. A lot of the music is good music but it cannot be placed under the label of “Arab Contemporary Music”. By calling it that you are robbing the art of, let’s say Jazz, from its own history; which, in itself, is a whole other kettle of fish!
In conclusion, I feel as though this entire project is viewed from the colonialist’s perspective. The biggest problem here is that the documentary presents the story through the misinformed eye presenting inaccuracies as “truth”. It is an example of the “Oxidant” going into the space of the “Orient” without the need to be self-informed before informing others.
The following are a few links to Artists who are indeed reshaping and recreating the world of Contemporary Arabic Music:
– Maya Youssef (youtube)