Arabic Rock Music of International Caliber

Rock music in Lebanon reached a low point in 1997 after the suicide of one of its fans. One of the most promising young bands then broke up. It is now celebrating a brilliant fresh start under the name Blend. By Christina Förch

CD cover of Blend

​​It all started back in 1997. At the time, four Lebanese students formed a rock band called Leviathan. They performed wherever they could and played the whole spectrum of music from Pink Floyd to Radiohead.

Yet, after the suicide of a young rock fan, Lebanon's rock music scene plunged into a crisis. Albums by rock giants such as Nirvana and Metallica were banned. Music fans had to turn to the Internet to gain access to new releases.

After the breakup – a new beginning

This made the launch of Leviathan all the more difficult, leading to a decision by two band members to emigrate to North America in 2000. Although by Christmas 2001, lead singer Jad Souaid and bassist Haytham Chalhoub had returned to Lebanon, reuniting with guitarist Miran Gurunian and drummer Jad Aouad.

The four musicians changed the name of the band to Blend and played a tune that they had composed themselves. The song "Belong" became the hit of an Arabic compilation disc, providing them with their first success, even on Lebanese radio. This new project has shown such promise that some music insiders have even predicted an international career for the band.

"The song deals with the search for identity of the post-war generation," explained Souaid. "We young people suffered from a lot of insecurity during the war years and didn't know what the future had in store for us." The song Belong is about religion and fanaticism – all those values that the rock musician wants to have nothing to do with. In the end, Belong is a love song. Its message is that you belong in the arms of the person you love.

Blend – on the way to international success

The song Belong appealed to many young Lebanese and finally drew the attention of the international recording label EMI to the rock band. Representatives of EMI Arabia attended a live concert performance of Blend at a Lebanese club.

They managed to convince the two emigrant band members to return to Lebanon for the long term and to seriously attempt a new musical beginning, only this time with an international recording contract. Blend is to produce three albums within five years, which will then be marketed worldwide.

"We liked their music and their lyrics," said Hubert Ghorayeb, marketing manager of EMI Arabia. "They sing in English and this makes them internationally marketable. The lyrics and music appeal to both an Arab and an international public."

Blend is thereby the first Arab rock band under contract by an international label. Their first CD entitled Act One was released on the Lebanese market in December 2003 and worldwide marketing should get under way in the coming months.

Off-beat, nonconformist, and socially critical

Blend is also trailblazing in another respect. Whereas other Arab pop musicians sing love songs, Blend's music deals with issues such as globalization, corrupt politicians, and an apathetic population in the Arab world that lets itself be manipulated.

"We constantly asked ourselves how Arab performers could sing about romance, when so many people are killed daily in our region," said Souaid. The musicians in Blend write and compose themselves. This is also something new. Most Arab pop stars have their repertoire composed for them – usually by professional musicians.

The result is not only critical lyrics, but also rock music with its own particular timbre. The band manages to broaden the borders of classical rock with their electronic effects and Middle Eastern sounds. The Middle Eastern character of their music is highlighted by the contributions of an Arab violinist as well as the participation on recordings by the singer Natasha Atlas and the Lebanese rapper Rayess Bek.

"We grew up with Umm Khulthum and Fairuz," said Soaid. Blend has come up with a new form of rock music – one with a clearly eastern tone. Yet it is also a gentle tone that can appeal to a Western public.

Christina Förch
© Qantara.de 2004

Translation from German: John Bergeron

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