Rabea Beirut – Live @ Babel Theater (November 12, 2009)
This band is shrouded in mystery, to me at least. I’ll do a mini analysis right here because I’ll probably never get around to making a whole one.
All I know about them is from their profile on the Eka3 website which says that they have been active here since 2004 and have played several shows and participated in various festivals, including abroad. They have one album out called “Laka Anta” released through Eka3 and there are two sample tracks available for streaming which are “Laka Anta” and “Ya Abana” that pretty much give you an idea of what their sound is supposed to be: a delicate blend of traditional Arabic music with jazz and classical music.
It’s been done before, but I wanted to expose myself to more “natural” things, since I usually tend to be attracted to more “electric” genres, like rock, electronic, or hip hop. I am more partial to the amplified, the distorted, the reverberating-delayed-flanger affected, but I do have a little soft spot for the pure, the natural, the unpolished as well, so this was a chance to lose my traditional-music-virginity.
-Before the Show: Although the album has been in stores for I don’t know how long, this was the launch concert, and this was also the first time that the songs on this album would be presented live. It took place at Babel Theater in Hamra, from 8:30-ish till 9:30-ish, making this the first performance I see in an actual theater, and that meant good sound and lighting; otherwise it wouldn’t be much of a theater then would it? This was also the earliest performance I have ever been to. The venue and time both gave the air of this being something quite formal, which was a welcome change from the usual quaint restaurant and open-area shows.
This time around, I was accompanied by a friend, whose arrival, albeit late, was greatly appreciated. But lucky for us, when they said 8:30, they meant 8:40…
There was a table set up by Eka3 with an assortment of its CDs, including the band’s own debut album, available for sale. I decided to hit it on the way out…
-The Show: The lights went down and two musicians walked onto the stage, which was quite well lit, so Babel had proved itself light-wise. One sat behind an electric piano, and he was Khaled Soubeih, the pianist and main composer of the group, the other lay a kanun across his lap, and he was Ghassan Sahhab, the kanun player of the group. They performed a piece for piano and kanun entitled “Salamat”, the opening track on their album. I know I tend to overhype certain elements sometimes, but: the sound was superb. The musicians were extremely well prepared and neither fumbled. I had seen pianos several times in my time, but this was one of the few times that I saw a kanun in person, so I kept my eye on the peculiar instrument, well, peculiar to me at least.
Following that intro, the rest of the musicians came onstage little by little, some before others, some coming then leaving, and they comprised of the vocalist Nadine Hassan, the percussionist Ahmad El Khatib, the cellist Bridgette Muller, the buzuk (or was that a oud?) player Tamer Abou Ghazala, the clarinet player Youssef El Fahel, and one of my favorite additions to the group, the bassist (the electric bassist! e-lec-tric!) Bashar Farran. Whenever one came out they were raucously applauded by friends and family that were there to support them. I personally applauded them for showing up… Everyone but Bashar and Youssef was onstage for a song with vocals provided by Nadine and they performed their own version of some classic Arabic song, rearranged for them by Khaled, who played his piano parts effortlessly and perfectly. Same goes for Ghassan. Nadine’s voice was very powerful and she was clearly very well-trained. Though she wasn’t dancing, her hand gestures conveyed the emotion being translated through her voice. The cello also stood out to me. Apart from being an instrument I don’t see that often, it was not muffled, but on the contrary made its presence evident with deep drones and light hums. Ahmad was on the tambourine and he really knew what he was doing. I was amazed with the variety of phrases that this minimal little percussion instrument could utter with the right taps in the right places. Tamer also added convenient oud/buzuk (I honestly am not sure what he was playing) touches.
One or two instrumental pieces followed. They too were reworkings of Arab classics. I’m not familiar with the original versions of the pieces, so I can’t really compare between the originals and their takes on them, but regardless of how faithful to the originals they were, they were sure played well.
Following that was a piece called “Ila Ayn?”. I remember the name because it was for that piece that the electric bass that was standing upright on its stand, and standing out to me as the most modern instrument onstage, was picked up by Bashar, the bassist. The words that best describe my reaction to that was “oh hell yeah”. Also joining in was Youssef on clarinet. The bass added that modern touch that was supposed to distinguish their sound, and so did the clarinet with its jazzy accompaniments. Also noteworthy was Ahmad playing on an odd box-like percussion instrument, which I had seen being used before at a Fareeq el Utrush gig. It sounded more like a drum set than the tambourine, so yes, the variety was definitely there.
Some more reworked classics followed, the clarinet disappearing till the end of the show and bass joining in on some pieces. Ahmad would play the box-like instrument along with the tambourine in the same song.
After those were over with, they presented their own original pieces which included “Ya Abana” and “Laka Anta” among a few others. It was in their own original pieces that I saw the modern flavor in the arrangements. During “Laka Anta”, Nadine made the one and only fumble in the entire presentation, missing a word in the lyrics, but it didn’t matter because the words tha she did sing were belted out with passion and intensity. I liked the cello in that particular piece.
-After the Show: With that, they concluded their performance. They showed their gratitude and thanked all who came, Eka3, and all who helped make the album possible.
On the way out, I bought myself a copy of their album, as well as a copy of the debut album of the Jordanian Arabic rock trio, Jadal, “Arabic Rocks, since I had heard them online prior and decided on giving them a chance. If they were good enough to open for Mashrou3 Leila at The Basement, then they’re good enough for me. Their album was good and Rabea Beirut’s album showed me just how accurately they presented their work, chillingly identical to the album tracks except for some variations here and there.
Although not a rock concert or hip hop show, this was one of, if not, the best performance I have witnessed. The lights were good, the sound was good, but the band wasn’t good, they were excellent.
This was my first venture into “natural” music and I would say it was a successful one, though at certain points I did get the desire to add a drumbeat here, an electric guitar riff there, some synth noise in the background. I have a tendency to try and mentally improve music that is not 100% satisfactory to me. I enjoyed them as is, but I’d like to see them collaborate with some alternative artist, just to see what manner of genre fusion that spawns.