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French Version

History repeats itself while Beirut musicians create something new

Jawad Nawfal and Joanna Andraos discuss new albums 'Black Tuesday' and 'Khimaira'

Wandering through the worlds created by the works of Jawad Nawfal and Joanna Andraos requires a sympathetic disposition toward the gothic.

Both musicians, Nawfal and Andraos specialize in a particular brand of electronic experimentation that is evocative of ghosts, ruins, shattered landscapes and psychological terror. Their music is intensely cinematic, and listening to it is as visual an experience as it is aural.

Like most creative types in the Lebanese capital, Nawfal and Andraos work across numerous disciplines and have a tendency to wear many hats.

Nawfal studied sound design and often works in film. He writes advertising jingles for a living. Seven years ago, he created a research laboratory of sorts called Altered Ear, which serves as a platform for cross-fertilized efforts in cinema, contemporary art and music.

Andraos is an artist, a photographer, an actress and a classically trained pianist. She is one half of the collective known as Engram, which made its last public outing a year ago with an exhibition of eerie photographs in Saifi Village, all based on a haunted house in Achrafieh that - despite being listed as an address of architectural and historical significance (the house was built in 1890) - was torn down and replaced by a luxury high-rise. The other half of Engram is Caroline Tabet, who is married to Nawfal.

Last month, Nawfal and Andraos released an album each, "Black Tuesday" and "Khimaira," respectively. Both albums came out on Incognito, the upstart independent record label and sister company to CD-Theque that took off in 2004 for the purpose of forging a pan-Arab distribution network for alternative cultural production (including books and films as well as music, and so far tackling the markets in Lebanon, Syria, Palestine and Egypt). And both albums were co-produced by Ziad Nawfal, Jawad's older brother, who is a DJ, radio host and all-around Beiruti music maven.

One might be tempted to say that any similarity in the music of Nawfal and Andraos is down to proximity among friends. This is possible, and probably likely on the formal side of their practice, how they craft and polish and present their work. But on the conceptual side, their affinity for the gothic is tethered to something greater, and older, than social networks.

Cultural production in Lebanon is rife with ruins, ghosts, haunted houses and mysterious corpses that either remain unfound (alluding to the 17,000 people who went missing during the Civil War) or return from the dead horribly deformed (offering cautionary tales to those who would dredge up buried history without carefully consideration of the consequences). Depictions of Beirut as a city haunted by the not-quite dead suggest a preoccupation with unfinished business that is palpable in the news of political bickering reported on any given day. The archaeological and archival impulses evident in contemporary art practices over the last 15 years indicate a desire to find, order, index and perhaps be done with the past.

Nawfal's "Black Tuesday" and Andraos' "Khimaira" illustrate the impossibility of doing so, as Beirut bears the weight of too much piled-up history, and all of it repeats.

"Black Tuesday" is Nawfal's follow-up to "34 Days" and his second album recorded under the name Munma, which he refers to as his "resistance moniker." (Other musical aliases that Nawfal has floated around include Aequo, with Victor Bresse, and AEX.) He now sees these two efforts as part of a trilogy, all three installments of which were born during the war with Israel in the summer of 2006.

"People ask me if Munma is always going to be so political," Jawad says, the question sparked, no doubt, by a clipped and distorted sample of Hizbullah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah speaking that Nawfal has used in live performances and has buried on "Black Tuesday"'s second track.

"I'm trying to express emotions. This is part of my metier, my formation," he explains. "There are emotions that I am gathering. The war triggered something in me. The war, after the war, this is how I see things until now."

The most recent war triggered an unprecedented outpouring of artistic responses in Lebanon. The irony is that they all slide into a rather long history of creativity provoked by conflict. And the fact that Nawfal's second Munma album is named not for the war, as "34 Days" was, but for the day last January when students started fighting outside the Beirut Arab University and stoking fears of a return to sectarian strife, is evidence that the continuum remains appallingly unbroken.

Of all Nawfal's musical endeavors, Munma is also the one that draws most heavily on the rhythms and instruments of Arabic music. That continues on "Black Tuesday," with the addition of a particularly soulful, deep and melodic flute on the third track, entitled "Ambidextre." In general, the current crop of songs are more beautiful than those on "34 Days," but whenever the sound turns sweet, Nawfal has a tendency to bend it, whether by introducing a darker complement or by pulling the notes ever so slightly sharp or flat.

If the basic structure of Nawfal's effort is fundamentally spacey dance music, Andraos' "Khimaira" is an altogether weirder and more sonically adventurous affair.

"When I didn't know her, I used to see her singing," recalls Nawfal. "Then we met through Caroline and Engram." Musically, "[Andraos] was more organic, more classical, and she wanted to get into digital signal processing and sound design software. I gave her a few courses to give her the tools to record the stuff she was experimenting with on piano, playing and then altering the sound.

"At that time, I was searching for classical influences," he adds. "There are no artists here who do classical but can also go into electronic."

Though she studied drama and works more actively in the arts, Andraos says "sound for me is first." She began playing the piano as a child and says Tchaikovsky's "La Poupee Malade (The Sick Doll)" was the first composition she learned. She never played anything by her favorite composer, Rachmaninov, but she did study intently for years.

"My teacher would shout," she says, because "I only wanted to memorize music. I didn't want to read music. That's why I didn't continue purely classical training."

"Khimaira" is a mad romp through piano-based electronica, more wild than but not totally dissimilar from Aphex Twin's "Drukqs," a two-CD set inspired by piano compositions by John Cage and Erik Satie (another of Andraos' favorites).

"She improvises a lot and she does things that are not really permitted in classical musical," says Nawfal, who, with Bresse and under the name Aequo, remixed one track on the album called "Abyss."

"She changes tempo. She works on silences. She has silences that come after dramatic moments. She references classical works but it's the abnormalities that interest me a lot. The weird structuring, the places where you feel something is missing, the works on lost objects. Sometimes you feel there is no physical support for the music. There is no bass at certain points. You feel she has taken away certain supports on purpose."

The allegorical possibilities buried in there for the life of a young artist in contemporary Lebanon are endless.

Munma's "Black Tuesday" and Joanna Andraos' "Khimaira" are both available now from Incognito

Marseille,01 11 2008
The Daily Star
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