The Sound of Resistance: Lebanon

Learn about the history and traditions of musical resistance in:
  • Iran
  • Iraq
  • Palestine

  • Lebanon: Histories of Musical Resistance

    Zajal: Dueling Wordplay

    A contemporary vernacular practice of improvised oral poetry, zajal can be traced to ninth-century migrations between North Africa and the eastern shore of the Mediterranean. Performances of zajal are often staged as a competition of rhymes between two dueling wordsmiths, and are typically sung in two musical styles: free rhythm (nath al-naghamat) and metered rhythm (zazm al-naghamat), accompanied by daf, or tambourine. Each of the two poets in zajal performance recites the opening qasid and then address four topics based loosely on themes of love, nature, morality, and confessionalized eulogies. Well-known zajjaale who perform Lebanon today include Talih Hamdan, Zaghloul el-Damour, Moussa Zgheib, Asaad Said, and Khalil Rukoz.

    Fairouz: Voice of Lebanon

    FairouzWith a voice that embodies the soul of Lebanon, Fairouz is one of the best-known singing stars of the twentieth century. Born near a back alley of Beirut known as Zoqaq el-Blatt, Fairouz is beloved for the bell-like timbre of her voice, the sentimental nature of her lyrics, and the versatility of her career that fused European instrumentation and dance rhythms with Lebanese dabke (vernacular dance) melodies on stages across the world. In collaboration with her husband 'Asi Rahbani and his brother, Mansur, Fairouz stirred nationalist passions in the period following the 1967 defeat by Israel with political songs such as "Zahrat al-mada'in" ("The flower of cities"), an ode to Jerusalem that laments its loss. Other songs committed to Palestinian nationalism include "Jaffa," "Bisan," "Sanarji'u Yawman" ("We will return one day"), "Raji'un" ("We are returning"), and "Jisr al-'Awda" (Bridge of return).

    During the Lebanese civil war period (1975-1991), Fairouz maintained a pact of silence. Her refusal to sing was a tactic that evaded political appropriation of her live voice by hostile factions involved in the conflict. In 1994, she broke her silence with a controversial appearance at the Beirut Festival held in downtown Beirut.

    In celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the Baalbeck Festival, Fairouz was scheduled to lead the Rahbani Brothers musical, "Sah el-Nom," in a mid-July 2006 appearance that was abruptly sabotaged by the Israeli siege on Lebanon as bombing raids specifically targeted the surrounding town of Baalbeck.

    On December 1-3, 2006, Fairouz yet again demonstrated her commitment and strength of renewal with a restaging of "Sah el-Nom", which she performed to sold-out crowds in downtown Beirut at the BIEL center. A living testament of Lebanese resilience to destruction, her performance was invigorated by the Hezbollah demonstration that took place just moments away.

    Marcel Khalife: Beloved Dissident

    A self-made cultural phenomenon, Marcel Khalife gained popularity in the 1970s and 1980s for his songs of resistance to Israel's occupation of southern Lebanon. He began as a protest musician who played in the American University of Beirut's cafeteria and quickly gained a local following among students. Khalife is well-known for his settings of Mahmoud Darwish's poems, such as the iconic "Ila Ummi" ("To my mother") which speaks to nostalgic and traumatic conditions of Palestinian exile. Though many audiences maintain an allegiance to Khalife's nationalist repertoire of songs, his songs also seek to reimagine musical form and instrumental timbre in ways that have provoked controversy.

    Ziad Rahbani: Parables of Parody

    Ziad RahbaniZiad Rahbani, the son of Fairouz and 'Asi Rahbani, is regarded by many Lebanese artists as the visionary of the civil war generation. For example, this collection of recordings, taken from a radio station in West Beirut, offers wry commentary on the early period of the Lebanese civil war with an ingenious sense of humor and narrative. Though Ziad's extensive oeuvre is inextricably influenced by his parents, and his continuing collaboration with his mother, his work expresses a deep ambivalence about the forms of intangible cultural heritage that his family has constructed for Lebanon, such as folkloric representations of the mountain village, or vernacular and classical music forms ('ataba, tarab). Of his plays, musicals, and compositions that parody these themes, Ziad Rahbani's 1983 production, A Failure, is a highly critical play within a play that opposes war and conflict by sketching the difficulties of theater production during times of war. Today, Ziad directs, arranges, and composes for Fairouz (see "Sah el-Nom"), among other projects.

    Emerging Voices of Resistance: Responses to the 2006 War With Israel

    "From Beirut…to thase who love us" (July 2006)
    This video was produced by a consortium of artists, including vocalist Rima Khcheich, during the first days of life under siege.

    "We Live..." (July 2006)
    A live benefit concert recorded in Kuwait and mastered in Beirut that affirms music as an immediate response to chaos, isolation, paralysis, crisis—in short, military siege. Producer Ghazi Abdel Baki (Forward Productions) gathered with poet Meshal Kandari and musician friends Charbel Rouhana, Abboud Saadi, and Ziyad Sahhab at the legendary Blue Note Cafe in West Beirut during the first week of siege. This album is the result of their collaborative commitment to a Lebanese way of life. Proceeds will benefit local relief efforts in Lebanon.

    "Qana" (August 2006)
    US-based rocker Patti Smith created this heartbroken response to Israel's July 30 attack on Qana.

    Mazen Kerbaj

    Mazen Kerbaj jumpstarted Irtijal, the hub of Beirut's free improvisation scene, in 2000 with Christine and Sharif Sehnaoui, and Raed Yassin.

    Mazen KerbajHis work, in comics and illustration as well as music, defies convention. On the fourth day of Israel's 2006 siege, Mazen began blogging drawings which interpreted the ambiguities and anxieties of war with startling clarity, coherence, and immediacy. His ongoing work continues to distill the visceral experience of modern life in Beirut.

    During the war with Israel, Mazen frequently placed an MD recorder on his balcony in East Beirut and performed duets with the live sounds of bombs. By staking the creative individual against anonymous forces of mass destruction, Mazen's act of subversion reclaimed his starry nights from the powerlessness of life under siege-"Starry Night" circulated widely during the war.

    The Grendizer Trio, which features Mazen, Raed Yassin and a rotating cast of other musicians, took this idea a step further with their mid-October show that presented the duo in performance with "July's War".

    Julia Boutros

    Pop singer Julia Boutros initiated a fundraising project, Ahibaii, that donates the proceeds of her November 2006 tour to families of those martyred during the July war. The project is named after a chart-breaking single that sets to music a letter written by Sheikh Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah to Hezbollah fighters in August 2006. This project is the latest development in Boutros' longterm commitment to Lebanese nationalism.

    The Lebanese Underground

    An informal network of Beirut-based musicians, artists, and activists who work, record, and play together. Here are some of their recent antiwar productions:

    • Musicians AGAINST Monsters Concert (Beirut)

      Local indie scene fixtures Scrambled Eggs (Charbel Harber) and The New Government produced a benefit concert at Club Sociale during the 2006 war with all proceeds sent to Samidoun, a locally-based Lebanese relief organization.

    • Kill War Concerts (Amman)

      UTN1 (Baghdad) joined with Beirut-based rap artist RGB, Sisska (Kita3 Beirut), and DJ CTRL+Z (Beirut) for the first fundraising concert in August at Blue Fig. A second concert featured DJ Lethal Skillz (Beirut) and DJ Sotusura (Amman).

    From Berlin to Beirut

    DJ Jade of Basement (and formerly of Blend, see below) organized this fundraiser for charity organization Mowatinun at Watergate in Berlin.


    Though no longer active, alternative rock ensemble Blend produced their debut album, Act One (2003), as a response to the civil-war period and violent social aggression.

    The Kordz

    Mixing rock aesthetics with politically sensitive lyrics, The Kordz are a Beirut-based band that devoted a concert to charity work in South Lebanon.

    Hezbollah: Music as Resistance Tactic

    Hezbollah has declared its resistance to the violation of Lebanese airspace by Israel, as well as its commitment to liberating Lebanese land from illegal Israeli occupation. Whether or not the use of violence is justified for resistance purposes, a question that emerged after WWII with respect to decolonization processes, muqawama (resistance) is a defensible platform that shapes Hezbollah's main objectives and strategies. In order to build broad-based support for its ongoing campaigns, Hezbollah maintains public relations and media departments, produces television and radio programs, and regularly demonstrates in Beirut, South Lebanon, and the Beqaa Valley.

    Music is an integral component to these strategies of resistance. Comparable to other forms of militant mobilization, songs help inspire allegiance to Hezbollah through march tempos and lyrics that are usually sung in a deep bass register by a men's chorus. Hezbollah maintains a military band, which played to demonstrators in the December 2006 protest against Lebanese PM Fouad Siniora and was featured by the NPR program The World. Music videos are also regularly produced by Hezbollah.