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French Version

Hip-hop act draws inspiration from the middle class

The real-life brothers who make up Ashekman have moved from live performances to their first album, 'Nasher Ghassil'

Sitting outside a cafe in the heart of Hamra on a recent afternoon, two brothers recall the adrenaline rush of recording the final tracks for their debut album. The 23-year-old twins, known collectively as Ashekman, went into their studio one night last July. Lebanon was under siege and Israel was waging war.

The recording space was located two floors underground, and the brothers were putting together one of their characteristically politically charged tracks when the bombs started falling. As they recall the intensity of their experience that night, they finish each other's sentences and piece together a breakneck narrative.

"The walls are literally shaking around us," says Mijrim Kaleim. "They are fighting with their weapons, and I am fighting with my microphone."

Mohamed and Omar Kabbani, known on stage as Mirjim Kaleim and Carbonn, respectively, give voice to Lebanon's disaffected youth through music. They do this most palpably on their first album "Nasher Ghassil," which has just been released and will be launched officially on March 8 with a concert at Basement, a club located near Beirut's port.

Ashekman is by no means the first hip-hop group to emerge in Lebanon. The brothers arrive on an already populous playing field that is still, to a certain extent, re-treading some of the old moves that hip-hop pioneers perfected elsewhere long ago. Hip hop, after all, is an aging genre at this point, with more than three decades of history. But Ashekman delivers both new and original material and is positioned well against a political, linguistic and socioeconomic backdrop that the brothers have clearly considered seriously.

When asked about their background, the brothers are quick to say that their middle-class upbringing is key to understanding their music. Having been born, raised and still based in the middle, they say, gives them an authenticity that is sorely lacking in local hip hop today.

They both attended the Lebanese American University in Beirut. Now, they both work as graphic designers but for competing advertising agencies. Their music, which they describe as both a personal and professional pursuit, takes up most of their free time.

European hip-hop groups shaped the development of Ashekman to a far greater extent than their American counterparts, they say, because the lyrics of European rappers rang truer to their own experiences in Lebanon. Among the groups that affected them most were the French rappers NTM, IAM, and KDD.

While "Nasher Ghassil" is their first album, Ashkeman has a long history of performances dating back to the creation of the group in 2001. Two years ago, they won a competition at the Goethe Institute in Beirut and, as a reward, performed live with the German hip-hop group Blumentopf.

Ashekman's album features light but diverse beats, which lay the groundwork for the group's forceful, often controversial lyrics. The brothers insist emphatically that they want to keep it real on the album, and they do so by taking to task anyone they perceive as hurtful to the youth of Lebanon's middle class.

The album's musical and lyrical zenith is a track entitled "The Bomb Society." Perhaps the brothers take on more political and social material than any twentysomethings reasonably should, but Mirjim Kaleim and Carbonn handle it smoothly through a mix of metaphors and direct accusations. The track acts as the political platform, if you will, in which all ideas are laid out and then elaborated upon in other tracks. What strengthens the texture of "The Bomb Society" and gives it real weight is the insertion of audio tracks from the days various political leaders were assassinated in Lebanon.

"There are some guys who pretend to be religious, but every night they go out and sin / There are some youth emigrating and traveling abroad, and not looking back to their country Lebanon / In the end of my verse I ask myself why I'm frustrated, the answer is because my society is a bomb," the brothers intone in the lyrics.

Ashekman's music criticizes numerous people while the brothers pursue what they call the "gray opinion," a stance against political and social extremes. Put another way, Carbonn argues against a "dogmatic outlook" in which citizens hold their leaders beyond reproach.

In addition to going after Syria, Israel and Hizbullah, the brothers take on Lebanon's so-called "gold diggers" (the postwar nouveau rich) and its superficial pop stars. Repeatedly, they lament the loss of the country's middle class.

Ashekman, not surprisingly, has come up against censorship several times in its young career. Closed down three times during their performances (once at a music festival in Tripoli, once at an event for the Beirut Marathon and once at Unesco Palace), the brothers argue against what they call a linguistic double standard. Musically speaking, profanities uttered in English or French, they say, get a pass from the censors and Lebanese society in general. Curses expressed in Arabic, however, get censored and roundly criticized.

Three times before its release this month, Ashekman's debut album was rejected by Surete Generale, the brothers say, due to inappropriate content. To get it through they tweaked the lyrics, stopped naming people by name and switched up the syllables of certain words so the censors would accept the material and the public would still be able to catch the underlying meaning. Going one step further, Ashekan have put an Arabic parental advisory warning on their album. They are the first music group in Lebanon to do so, and they did it voluntarily.

Mirjim Kaleim and Carbonn's ambitions, however, stretch far beyond the music world. They want to create an entire brand around Ashekman. Besides the album, they throw up posters (a 10-minute drive around Beirut reveals hundreds of them), do graffiti and have, of course, a clothing line in the works.

The brothers walk a fine line between disavowing commercialism and embracing it. They promote their album through art and clothing, but their lyrics speak out against over-commercialized artists. The distinction, they say, is that they go commercial to promote a message, whereas other artists go commercial to earn money.

By way of example, the brothers explain that their album was originally scheduled to hit the shelves in February. Due to Lebanon's ongoing political turmoil, they had the option to delay and wait for a more commercially viable time. Instead, and because their album is so entrenched in the politics of the day, they say they decided to forfeit potential sales to make a point.

In conversation, the brothers vigorously argue that their music is "aggressive but not violent." Their aggression, they say, comes from their desire to protect the lifestyle of the Lebanese middle class and the average Beiruti on the street.

Back at the outdoor cafe in Hamra, a noisy motorcycle whizzes by, halting the brother's give-and-take conversation for several seconds. Everyone waits for the motorcycle to pass and for the sound to recede enough to resume speaking.

"Hear those sounds?" Mirjim Kaleim asks suddenly. "That's our music."

Ashekman's "Nasher Ghassil" is out now on the brothers' label, Toj Kil Shi Records

Marseille,03 05 2007
The Daily Star
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