What Beirut Sounds Like

World music hobbyist David Wilezol selects a lineup of songs from Lebanon's Mediterranean capital.

By / February 2012

For centuries, Beirut was one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world, the pride of Rome’s Eastern empire. In the early 20th century, under French occupation, it acquired the nickname “The Paris of the East.” Recent decades have brought instability and no shortage of war to Lebanon. Beirut’s musicians have responded as musicians must, by channeling their struggles, memories, hopes, and hard-won joys into song. Regardless of style, the selections here reflect the complexity of life in contemporary Beirut, the frustrations of war, the need for escape, and, above all else, the thrill of creativity.


1. Scrambled Eggs: “Russian Roulette”

Indie rock in Beirut is a recent yet resilient genre. Scrambled Eggs is hipster royalty around those parts for having done it longer than anyone else, plying their trade in the city since 1998 and at times touring Europe. Their song “Russian Routlette” resounds with nihilistic angst over the 2006 Lebanese-Israeli war, as lead singer Charbel Haber opens with “I’ll shoot you in the head / you shoot me in the leg” over a demented surf rock riff that launches into an early Smashing Pumpkins-style chorus.


2. Mashrou Leila: “Fastateen”

The broken heart is the most ubiquitous theme in all of pop music. But Masrou Leila’s breakup song “Fasataeen” conveys a depth of feeling antithetical to American Top 40. A sparse set of acoustic guitar chords and serpentine Arabesque fiddle provide more than adequate backing for the lyrics, which address a romance shattered by differences related to religion and money. With their willingness to confront sacrosanct topics in Lebanese society like class, sexuality, and politics, it’s easy to see why Masrou Leila has become a smash.


3. Khaled El-Habre: “Ebnik Ya Saaidi”

Call Khaled El-Habre the Lebanese Leonard Cohen. “Ebnik Ya Saaidi” starts as a pensive guitar strum with muttered vocals but steadily builds into a cathartic string and horn jam. El-Habre has been performing for more than three decades. His lyrics are flush with nationalist references (the man fought in Lebanon’s 1982 war with Israel), but he keeps his catalogue fresh through constant experimentation with horns, jazz, and Latin influences.


4. Wadih El-Safi: “Baladi”

Wadih El-Safi is Lebanon’s most famous singer, a cultural icon who is now 90 years old. Nicknamed “The Voice of Lebanon,” he has written some 3,000 songs. El-Safi’s big break came in 1938, when he was discovered in a national competition sponsored by the Lebenese Broadcasting Network. El-Safi is credited with urbanizing Lebanese folk music by incorporating drums and thicker strings. In “Baladi” El-Safi mines a centuries worth of memories from the Levant with his dissented, dramatic voice.


5. Trash Inc.: “Punk Rock Chick”

Trash Inc. is the alias of Beirut-based drummer-cum-electronic DJ and producer Nabil Saliba. On “Punk Rock Chick,” he sprinkles icy, android female vocals atop a gritty electro baseline, with spates of glitchy, 8-bit filtered guitar crunch. As much Metallica as Michael Jackson, Saliba is one of the most famous electronic producers in the Middle East, and Punk Rock Chick has even been used in the popular soccer video game FIFA 07.


6. Joelle Khoury: “Exil”

The pianist and composer Joelle Khoury trained at the Beirut Conservatory, St. Joseph’s University of Beirut, and George Mason University in the US. Her composition “Exil” (“Exile”) recalls the dissonant, idiosyncratic pieces of 20th century composer Charles Ives. Featuring brooding, disorienting piano, percussive sections, and a soaring operatic mezzo-soprano vocal, the piece is laden with melodrama that is not for the faint of heart.



7. Malikah: “Ya Lubnan (Oh Lebanon)”

Female rapper Malikah drops sledgehammer-force rhymes in “Ya Lubnan,” a hip hop commentary on Lebanon’s recent conflicts that opens with the pop of AK-47s. Malikah won an award from MTV Arabia in 2007. She has toured the US and Canada, her advocacy for women’s rights making her something of a feminist icon. “Being an Arab woman who MCs is difficult,” she told Rolling Stone. “You have to work twice as hard to earn the respect of the audience. That won’t stop me, though.”


David Wilezol is a radio producer, writer, and hobbyist musician who lives in Washington DC.