Thursday, June 18, 2009

Ziad Rahbani
زياد رحباني

Click play to listen to Ziad while you read!


Those who are familiar with the Arabic music scene, know that for all the musical accomplishments of the early composers and singers, and for all the popularity of Arab musicians both in the Arab world and internationally, innovation, or perhaps appreciation for innovation, is noticeably lacking. This is only natural considering the economic and technological challenges of creating music and funding its continued production in these Arab countries, most of which are home to struggling economies, not to mention that freedom of expression is by and large muted and artists that address issues such as politics, sex, religion, minorities and the like have been and continue to be persecuted. On the level of content, art is subject to a large degree of state control and manipulation, and is threatened by a need to compete with the massive production capabilities of the United States and other Western countries whose cheap and crude cultural exports dictate the world music trends and fashion, resulting in an inexplicably bland and often obnoxious imitation of pop music aesthetics that are barely accepted as art in the West. Large corporations like Rotana monopolize production of these songs and video clips , spewing homogenized garbage music designed for mass consumption and the masses, due to this flood of noise and a lack of an alternative, either accept this music and enjoy it for what it is or reject it in favor of foreign products or lo-fi recordings of local artists.

Of course none of that dark picture is really any different than the state of the American music industry. It's the economic and sociopolitical problems that at the end of the day inhibit independent production of art, and more importantly, its distribution. In countries where not every 20-something has a MacBook and you could be jailed for disseminating your views on just about anything, artists are all the more at the mercy of those institutions that, rather than serving to promote art, seek to control it.

Perhaps for this reason the few artists that step out of the towering shadow of these institutions seem all the more impressive. Ziad Rahbani is one of these few and far between figures that has been able to innovate and, at times, instigate the Arabic music scene, making an artistic impact that transcends the music world. His plays have brought us some of the most creative and timeless musical compositions in the Arabic language, and his albums and words have inspired and enraged many. What is so remarkable about Ziad Rahbani is that he has sustained this high level of musical production and continued to transform as an artist across the decades, counted among the elite Arabic musicians to this very day. See this list of currently available translations of songs composed or performed by Ziad Rahbani on the site:

Performed by Ziad:

I'm Not a Heathen (انا مش كافر)
Pass it Around (دورها)


Joseph Saqer - Living By Herself Without You (عايشة وحدها بلاك)
Joseph Saqer - The Bus (البوسطة) for Fairuz version click here
Joseph Saqer - It's a Bad Situation (الحالة تعبانة)

Fairuz - I Trust in You (عندي ثقة فيك)
Fairuz - I've Sent You My Soul (بعتلك روحي)
Latefa - Secure Me a House (أمنلي بيت)

Selma - Suit Against Anonymous (دعوى ضد مجهول)
Selma - Don't Just Call Me (مش بس تلفنلي)

Biographical Information and Career

One would think that all this aforementioned artistic energy and innovation might arise from hard life experience or some sort of rags to riches background, however, Ziad Rahbani was almost the complete opposite of this, born into Lebanon's cultural elite to parents Assi Rahbani, who along with his brother Mansour was Lebanon's premiere composer, and Nuhad Haddad a.k.a. Fairuz, the most iconic Lebanese singer in the history of Arabic music. The Rahbani family is Lebanon's musical dynasty, and as son of the biggest composer and biggest singer in Lebanon, Ziad was heir to this dynasty. Yet, this sort of an upbringing might not produce anything more than a privileged, uninspired youth who more often than not pales in comparison to his parents or rejects their craft entirely. In Ziad's case, he was not only a musical prodigy surrounded by music since he was born, working side by side with his father, but also proved to be an intellectual of sorts, excelling in writing as well. Ziad mastered the piano at a young age, but his first work of note was actually a collection of poetry written in his teens entitled My Friend God (صديقي الله) (for download click here). He made his musical debut in the play The Station (المحطة), when his uncle Mansour asked him to compose the music to the song "The People Asked Me About You (سألوني الناس)", which he had written about his brother and Ziad's father Assi, who at that time was unable to work on music due to illness. This song, sung of course by wife of Assi and mother of Ziad, Fairuz, was a hit and gained Ziad his first recognition in the Arabic music world (click here to read and listen).

Ziad worked on a few plays with his uncle before moving on to his first play entitled Sahriyye (view it here) in 1973. Often featuring the singer Joseph Saqr, Ziad composed several subsequent plays throughout the 70s and 80s, which often contained political content and were a huge success on Lebanese radio. Here is a short list, some of which have links to video clips or music, and most of these plays' recordings are available on without picture:

1974: Nazl el Sourour نزل السرور
1978: Bennesbe La Boukra Shou? بنسبة لبكرا شو؟
1980: Film Ameriki Taweel فيلم أمريكي طويل
1983: Shi fashel شي فاشل
1990: Bikhsous el Karameh wel Cha3b el 3aneed بخصوص الكرامة والشعب العنيد
1994: Lawla Fos7at el Amali لولا فسحة الأمل

In the late 70s Ziad's parents, Fairuz and Assi Rahbani, separated, and from that time on Ziad became the composer of Fairuz's subsequent albums as listed.

1979: Wahdon وحدهن
1987: Maarifti Feek معرفتي فيك
1991: Kifak Inta كيفك انت
1999: Mish Kayen Heek Tkoun مش كاين هيك تكون
2001: Wala Kif ولله كيف

Ziad has many of his own albums as well, some of which feature collaborations with other artists, especially as his career went on and his singing voice faded.

1979: Abu Ali أبو علي
1984: Shereet Ghayr Huduudi شريط غير حدودي
1984: Huduu Nisbi هدوء نسبي
1985: Ana Moush Kafer انا مش كافر
1987: Hekaya حكاية
1986: Bi Hal Shekel بهالشكل
1996: Bema Enno بما أنو featuring Joseph Saqr
1996: Musakkafoun Noun مثقفون نون for Makhoul Kassouf
2001: Monodose featuring Selma
2006: Maloumat Akeeda معلومات أكيدة featuring Latefa

These are only a sampling of some of the musical and theatrical projects Ziad has worked on or contributed to, in addition to his concerts all over the Middle East and Europe.

Ziad's personal life was not without some chaos. His first marriage ended in divorce, and in 2009 he filed to disown his son from that marriage Assi Jr. when it was revealed by DNA test that Ziad was not his father, see news article here

His Music and Politics

Ziad Rahbani is regarded as a versatile composer not only for the creativity and originality of his compositions but also for his mastery of both "Oriental" and Western musical styles, and thus, is responsible for some of the most popular as well as some of the most critically acclaimed music in the Arab world. More than any other artist, Ziad Rahbani was responsible for developing a kind of "Arab jazz" that was pioneered by his father Assi and uncle Mansour and incorporated Western musical elements while utilizing a combination of traditional Arabic instruments alongside new instruments. Many of his most famous compositions in his plays and songs for Fairuz are of this nature, however, he also has recorded much that would be considered more experimental and further removed from the Arabic music scene in such albums as "Relative Calm (هدوء نسبي)" and his collaboration with Selma "Monodose."

The lyrics of Ziad Rahbani's music, sometimes composed by his friend Joseph Harb, always feature a certain candidness not typical of Arabic music that blends nicely with his free and sometimes playful musical style. Ziad Rahbani more than any other Arabic composer successfully utilizes sarcasm and wit in a way that gives his songs a unique tone.

Following in the footsteps of his uncles, many of Ziad's works deal with politics, expressing his socialist and sometimes nihilistic views that contained real social criticism. The Lebanon of his heyday was certainly a society in turmoil; between the years 1975 and 1990 Lebanon was in an almost constant state of civil war that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians and the flight of millions. The civil war broke down along ethnic and religious lines, although these lines were not clearly drawn since different factions constantly changed sides. Moreover, the majority of Lebanese who were living in a once integrated, diverse society found themselves caught in the crossfire, being forced to choose sides in a seemingly senseless circle of violence and chaos. By 1985, Lebanon was in the throes what is often considered the fourth phase of the civil war in which violence hit the Palestinian refugee camps hard following the withdrawal from Beirut of Israeli forces who had overseen one of the biggest massacres of the war, Sabra and Shateela.

In the midst of this escalating and increasingly confusing violence, Ziad Rahbani recorded one of his most important songs entitled "I Am Not a Heathen (أنا مش كافر)" in which he railed against the leaders of Lebanon's religious communities, collectively blaming them for destroying the social fabric of Lebanon and bringing pain and suffering to the once prosperous nation (see link for music and lyrics). Ziad's boldness in such tense times and his insistence on continuing to live in the Sunni Muslim quarter of Beirut despite his being Christian sent a clear message and established him as one of the vocal figures of the Lebanese opposition to the status quo, influencing other artists such as Julia Boutros to follow his lead.

The bitter irony of Arab politics in the latter half of the 20th century is that the same problems recur, and thus, the plays and songs of Ziad Rahbani still resonate in countries like Syria and Egypt where little has changed and Ziad's old works can be heard as if they were commenting on the present. It's true that the Lebanese Civil War has long since ended, but political unrest remains a feature of the Lebanese political landscape, and likewise, Ziad Rahbani remains a prominent figure as a political and social writer in addition to continuing his music. He currently writes a weekly column in the newspaper al-Akhbar commenting on the important political events of the day and writing, unlike most writers, in colloquial Lebanese Arabic dialect (click here to view).

Without a shred of doubt, Ziad Rahbani is counted among the Arab world's most influential and talented composers; however, unlike most Arab musicians who have shied away from political controversy and outspokenness, Ziad has continued to exercise his artistic, musical, and social freedom throughout his career. Looking at the the state of Lebanese and Arabic music today, we can see his influences on the artists of today, yet no musician as of yet has risen to fill his shoes. Perhaps it is a matter of time, or perhaps he is the last of a rare and dying breed in the Arab world. Either way, it is safe to say that all of us are lucky to have lived in his lifetime.



AC said...

nicely done!
you refer to his "uncles"...his Father was Assi and uncle was Mansour, as far as I know!

Anonymous said...

I love your blog, this is great work that you do.

Keep it up.

Anonymous said...

great job friend. i rarely find things written about Ziad satisfactory but this does us all proud.

Anonymous said...

great job friend. i rarely find things written about Ziad satisfactory but this does us all proud.

Anonymous said...

ممتاز! I am writing my final essay on Ziad Rahbani and his work for my 3rd year Arabic language class and this page has been very helpful!

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