Beirut Meets New Creative Music

September 7, 2005

Taking stock of Lebanon’s Improv scene
From CODA Issue 323

By Ken Waxman

“I was born the same year of the Lebanese war, and I lived in it until its end and in fact I’m more and more convinced that there’s a close relation between it and my kind of playing today,” explains Beirut-based trumpeter Mazen Kerbaj, 30. “A lot of my passion for this music [Free Jazz] comes from my childhood, it reminds me unconsciously of the soundscapes of bombs and rifles that filled my ears during my childhood.”

War and bombs aside, the CD that so affected Kerbaj and his friends and introduced them to Free Jazz, was Peter Brötzmann’s Machine Gun, complete with its war-like cover. This initiation soon led to he and other like-minded players amassing as many Free Improv CDs as they could by the likes of Evan Parker and Charlie Haden.

The lessons took so well that by 2000, Kerbaj and husband and wife improvisers, guitarist Sharif Sehnaoui and alto saxophonist Christine Sehnaoui – who spend part of the year in Paris – organized and played Beirut’s first improvised music gigs. Having established the only Free Scene anywhere in the Middle East outside of Israel, the three didn’t stop there. In 2001 they structured an annual International Festival for Free Improvised Music, called Irtijal – which means improvised in Arabic – in Beirut, and it’s still growing.

Having invited advanced players from France, Belgium, Germany, Norway and the United States to play alongside Lebanese improvisers in previous festivals, the most recent Irtijal festival and workshops, which took place in early July, came full circle to Kerbaj’s original influence. Saxophonist Brötzmann was a featured guest, playing in a duo with American drummer Michael Zerang. Among the other non-local participants were saxophonist John Dikeman and clarinetist Gene Coleman from the United States; British guitarist Mike Cooper; Swiss clarinetist Markus Eichenberger; and French guitarists Pascal Battus and Quentin Dubost, plus soprano saxophonist Stéphane Rives from Paris.

As well as their own solo spots, all the international musicians save Brötzmann played with local improvisers in formations ranging from trios to big bands. Additionally, improv concerts now take place outside the festival proper. In 2003, for instance, the Sehnaouis, Kerbaj and French-Vietnamese percussionist Lê Quan Ninh gigged in the village of Salima. This year the three Lebanese founders plus Zerang played in Deir El Kamar and adding Coleman, performed the first concert of improvised music in Zahleh, in eastern Lebanon

Zerang, who played in Cairo in the 1980s and in Yemen with Brötzmann in 2004 was impressed by the enthusiastic listeners. “I’m thrilled to be taking the music to a potentially new and different audience,” he declares. “I think this form of freely improvised music will reach a new audience at a very exciting time in their history. Having and icon like Peter [Brötzmann] here also gives the festival extra authenticity,” he adds.

Regarding his collaborations with local players, percussionist adds that “we western artists can learn a great deal from the artists in Lebanon, as their rich traditions of arts and culture are so obviously healthy and on display.”

Today, Lebanese audiences’ initial skepticism towards the music has disappeared, explains Kerbaj, with more than 100 people attending some festival concerts. “For a small country like Lebanon, that’s quite a lot.

“The audience is also special because they’ve never heard this music before and it’s a huge surprise for their ears and eyes. One day after a concert, for instance, a guy came up to me saying: ‘That’s great! You invented a new music.’ You rarely find these reactions in Europe.”

Even more gratifying to Kerbaj is the number of local musicians encouraged by the festivals and workshops who now play improvised music themselves. Although the number is small, the players come from different backgrounds including rock – sucvh as guitarist Charbel Haber – contemporary, ethnic musics and theatre – like bassist Raed Yassine, who is also an actor.

There are also limited opportunities to play outside the country, mostly in France where the Sehnaouis live, although Kerbaj himself did a short tour of the United States in 2004. Surprisingly, notes the trumpeter “our most incredible experience with a good audience was in Damascus [Syria].” This enthusiasm was for a trio made up of him, guitarist Sehnaoui and bassist Yassine, was “in a country where you can hardly even find a rock CD,” he adds.

More international players are finding their way to Lebanon and earlier this year a new label dedicated to improv called Al Maslakh (the slaughterhouse in Arabic) was created. Al Maslakh has so far released CDs by Rouba3i – which means quartet in Arabic – made up of Kerbaj and the Sehnaouis plus one additional instrumentalist, and Kerbaj’s solo disc.

Despite the country’s somewhat fractious political situation, an outgrowth of the 1975 to 1990 civil war and subsequent Syrian presence, the trumpeter maintains that improvisers are never bothered by censorship “because we are mainly ‘underground’ and nobody really hears about us, except people interested in what we do.”

With CDs available, more gigs with locals and outside players, Kerbaj hopes that one day what he describes as “the first Arabic scene for improv” will spread to neighboring countries like “Syria, Jordan and maybe even Iraq.”

Festival link:

Improvisers Website:


Lebanese Improv on CD

•Rouba3i5: Mazen Kerbaj, Ingar Zach (Norwegian drummer), Christine Sehnaoui and Sharif Sehnaoui (Al Maslakh 02)

•Brt Vrt Zrt Krt: Mazen Kerbaj trumpet solo (Al Maslakh 01)

•Abu Tarek: Mazen Kerbaj and Franz Hautzinger trumpets (Creative Sources CS 025)

•Franz Hautzinger’s Oriental Space: Mazen Kerbaj, Franz Hautzinger ,Sharif Sehnaoui, Helge Hinteregger (Artonal ARR 08)

•A: Mazen Kerbaj, Sharif Sehnaoui and Raed Yassine (Thèque ) –the first CD of Arab improv every released


Improvisers active on the Beirut scene

*Marc Codsi – electric guitar

*Charbel Haber – electric guitar

*Mayalynn Hage – voice

*Jassem Hindi – clarinet and mixing board

*Abdallah K – laptop

*Mazen Kerbaj – trumpet

*Bechir Saadeh – clarinet and flute

*Christine Sehnaoui – alto saxophone

*Sharif Sehnaoui – electric guitar

*Raed Yassine – double bass