When two worlds collide
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When two worlds collide


In 1978, Lebanese band Ferkat Al Ard released their debut album Oghneya in Beirut. It was a groundbreaking release that brought together Lebanese folk music, Arabic strings, Brazilian bossanova and jazz (mainly fusion) into a gloriously lush sound that requires the listener to reconsider Lebanese music. Brazil in Beirut? How did that happen?

The cover of Oghneya. (Photo: John Clewley)

The good folks at the Habibi Funk label recently reissued the album to wide acclaim. The label is dedicated to recovering and reissuing Arabic funk, soul and jazz from the 1960s to 1980s to international audiences. Readers may remember a recent review of the Habibi Funk compilation The King Of Sudanese Jazz on the work of singer and guitarist Sharhabil Ahmed.

Ferkat Al Ard was a trio led by Issam Hajali and supported by his friends Toufic Farroukh and Elie Saba. Hajali's 1977 solo album Mouasalat Ila Jacad El Ard was reissued by Habibi Funk in 2019 but it does not have the same Brazilian influence as Oghneya.

To uncover the roots of Brazilian influences on Lebanese contemporary music, one has to delve into the 19th century and the Ottoman empire. The sudden decline of the silk industry at the end of the 19th century led to many Lebanese migrating to Brazil in search of a better life. Brazil now has a Lebanese diaspora that accounts for more than 5% of its 200 million population. As a result, some Brazilians and Brazilian Lebanese went back to Lebanon and are known as Brasilibanes in Lebanon. There are estimated to be around 20,000 Brasilibanes in Lebanon today.

The influx of Brazilians and their music helped create the rich tapestry of music that emanated from Beirut during its Golden Era, from the middle of the century to the onset of the civil war in 1975. Beirut during this period was one of the key cultural centres in the region, famed for its cosmopolitan outlook and brilliant music. Brazilians brought Bossanova with them (which by the mid-1970s was a worldwide phenomenon), which found its way into the music of superstar Fairuz (her son, musician and producer Ziad Rahbani worked on this album as arranger; he was known as a key pioneer of Lebanese bossanova), which is why you can hear some of her music in the lushness of Oghneya's sound.

In 1974, Hajali met with Brazilian musicians who were based in Lebanon and they had a profound influence on his musical direction. Although by the time civil unrest broke out, Hajali, as a staunch socialist, had to go into exile in Paris (Rahbani also had the same issues, but he remains popular in Lebanon for not only his music but also his political views). Hajali returned to Lebanon and recorded the album with the assistance of Palestinian poets Samih al-Qasim, Tawfiq Ziad and Mahmoud Darwish (there was a huge Palestinian refugee presence in the country during the civil war). Indeed, the album's sad and mournful tone at times seems to reflect a sense of longing for better times.

Even the choice of the cover photo for the album is a political statement. In the sleeve notes, Hajali noted that the cover photo comes from the original cassette tape cover and was taken in front of the Kantari area of Beirut, which was known as a stronghold of the left during the war. When it was released on cassette, friends of the band would take 50 copies each and sell them by word of mouth.

But what about the music on the album? Well, it kicks off with the gently swinging groove of Matar Al Sabah, which sets up the sound of the album -- a glorious melange of Lebanese folk and Arabic strings dancing around cool bossa rhythms and rock and jazz riffs. It's quite unlike any music I've ever heard before.

Hajali noted in the sleeve notes that the music was very new to Beirut at the time, and therefore was to some extent shocking and different but with even its political edge (especially in the lyrics), it nonetheless garnered support and many new fans.

Hajali is the main vocalist on the album and his smooth voice shines on several of the songs, supported by Cairo-style strings. I'm still learning about this album as I listen, still recovering from the shock of something so unusual and so, so good, but so far my favourites are the opening track, the awesome title track and the brilliant Matar Naem.

If you feel jaded by all the "bump and grind" of contemporary pop, try going back to the glory days of Beirut when somehow Lebanese music met and danced with Brazilian bossanova, creating sometimes truly unique and exciting. Highly recommended. More info from habibifunk.bandcamp.com.

John Clewley can be contacted at clewley.john@gmail.com.

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