An eclectic and oddly put-together mixtape from an eclectic region, Golden Beirut is a very good cross-section of certain musical trends that are occurring in contemporary Lebanon.
Golden Beirut is a compilation of artists from Lebanon making music in a wide variety of genres, embracing both traditional and contemporary sounds to create a wide palette of music. Among the genres represented here are rock, hip-hop, techno, folk and many more. There are a number of highlights throughout: Scrambled Eggs, for instance, delivers “Russian Roulette”, an interesting take on the typical guitar-bass-drums school, a fast-paced song that subtly hints at the ongoing strife of the region, with a nervous guitar riff that evokes an angry hornet about to strike. “The New Government”, by the band of the same name, also employs the standard rock instrumentation augmented by an organ. The result is a song bristling with manic, youthful energy, despite the dark subject matter of the protagonist committing acts of violence. The very dark humor is effective in showcasing just how horrible the crimes portrayed in the song are by juxtaposing them with such sunny musical accompaniment.
The songs that sound the most contemporary are a mixed bag; on the one hand there are exciting pieces like “Haflet el-Hermel” by Anwar Iskander, a swirling cacophonous, somewhat claustrophobic piece of electro-trash that is lyrically repetitive but constantly shifting musically, adding or subtracting different noises and melodies throughout the entire piece, notching up the tension throughout. On the other hand, there are a number of hip-hop tracks that come off sounding rather generic despite the inclusion of some traditional violin accompaniment. “Intikhabeirt 2001” and “Katibe 5” both suffer from this rather standard approach of simply rhyming over a loop; if these songs were in English, they wouldn’t sound very different from the typical hip-hop that you can hear on the radio throughout North American and the U.K. (although the former features a verse from Zoog, who raps in English, once more addressing the political strife of the region by urging people to get out and vote).
Fortunately, there are several songs that take advantage of the rich cultural history of Lebanon. Usually on any compilation like this there are bound to be a few songs that showcase the traditional music of the region very effectively. Ziyad Sahhab’s “Rawak” and “Keskonatten” by Rayess Bek does just that, employing instruments such as the oud and the nay, which are sort of the equivalent of the banjo and the flute, respectively. However, both of these songs are hampered by small details; Sahhab’s song features a rather awkward and ugly key change in the middle, and Bek’s hip-hop flow is somewhat arrythmic.
A better representation of customary Lebanese music comes in the form of “Ahwak” by Shift Z featuring Hiba el-Mansouri, as well as “Raksit Layla” by Mashrou’ Leila. Both draw far more from folk music than anything else on the album, but manage to become somewhat more distinctive. “Ahwak” achieves this by adding some electronic instruments while “Raksit Layla” does so by drawing rhythms from different cultures, namely an almost country beat from the Southern U.S., which morphs into a dance rhythm from South America.
The highest and lowest points both come towards the end of the album. Undoubtedly the best track, and the best representation of the aesthetic of marrying the classical to the current comes in the form of Lumi’s “Don’t F With My Cat Reprise”. By utilizing modern orchestration and studio techniques to a long-established song form, Lumi creates a turbulent ocean of sound, creating a piece of music that serves as a bridge between time periods, one that can be crossed from both sides. Those who enjoy the futuristic elements of this song will be intrigued by the traditional sounds and vice-versa. The result is a song that has an extremely broad appeal.
The least impressive and most mind-boggling inclusion is the final track, “Disposable Valentines” by the Incompetents. This one is head-scratcher; a simplistic keyboard melody coupled with off-key singing and generic, vague lyrics. The strangest part is either the random insertion of a rain stick or the completely dissonant, atonal recorder solo. Whether this is supposed to be an “art” song or a joke of some sort, either way it simply does not work and only serves to finish off a pretty decent compilation on a low note.
Overall, this is a very good cross-section of certain musical trends that are occurring in contemporary Lebanon. There is enough hear to be accessible to people who prefer a good number of genres, and hopefully this will serve as an “in” to encourage the listener to try out some types of music they would have otherwise passed by.