The Lebanese people went through long periods of war and conflict. Exploding bombs, rockets, missiles, grenades, and gunshots became an ordinary occurrence. Music became propaganda, protest, a symbol of escapism, and a gate towards a better world. The focus of this paper lies in musicians and sound artists: What role did they play over time? How did they respond to warfare musically? And how was their music used and misused? The paper is based on extensive ethnographic field research in Beirut. It includes sound examples from different times, and interview sequences from musicians of different generations.
The paper observes and describes the following main positions: The (leftist) protest singers of the Civil War period (1975 – 1990) used metaphors and/or programmatic music to describe traumatic war experiences. One cassette by the singer Philemon Wehbe became a top seller on street stalls all over Lebanon: “Lebanon, they fucked you!” Wehbe sang, and the Lebanese people from different political fractions sang along. Some composers and musicians wrote propagandizing music for the different militias, or jingles for the many community based radio stations. Rock bands rehearsed and performed in small shelters and tried to forget the tragic events. Some musicians fled, or hid in their houses.
For today’s generation of musicians and sound artists, war is still very present. The “blubbering.” “jarring,” and “clapping” of Mazen Kerbaj’s trumpet seems to resemble the noises of rifles and helicopters; and Raed Yassin’s piece “Civil War Tapes” with its sound samples from the war period — political speeches, bombs, radio jingles, and synthesizer pop – is a powerful and disturbing recollection of traumatic memories.
These sound artists know all the weapons of war just by listening to their sounds, and they hear from where to where a rocket flies. During the 2006 war between Israel and Hizbullah, some argued that they even felt nostalgic about their childhood in war — a challenging answer for the Swiss ethnographer.
17.6.2010, International Soundscape Conference Koli, Finnland
16/17.7.2010, The Siege of Beirut Symposium, SOAS, London