Interview by Jo Kali
Last year I settled into one of Rabih Beaini’s shows in the small dark confines of Cafe OTO. The impression of that night still lingers. His formidable figure seamlessly melding the sounds of his Middle Eastern roots into jazz before crashing into militant techno. A child of Lebanon’s civil war, his music is permeated with social conflict, traditional heritage and experimental structures, so when CTM announced their theme of ‘New Geographies’ it came as little surprise that Beaini was going to be taken on board as co-curator. As a musician that dwells in the dynamics of regional identity and cosmopolitan space, he represents everything the theme makes us question: “the hereto accepted notions of culture, identity, and community”. With the festival looming, we caught up with Beaini on reciprocating culture, early music experiences and achieving freedom through music.
So let’s start with CTM’s theme, New Geographies, did you help select that or were you picked up because it matched your ideas?
They chose me because of my heritage and my contribution to the musical scene. We’ve done some collaborations before — I think that was something that inspired them to work with me more. It’s a crucial theme in my music work. I think CTM wanted to take the angle of communications (like global communications) in music and then the whole theme and ideas came and developed after that. The main focus is how things communicate from one place to another in the world, and how the transformation of many traditional practices are interpreted today and projected into the future.
Do you find there’s often a balancing of global and traditional in your own work?
I think it’s quite an unconscious thing, I don’t think about it much. It develops after a lot of years working on music and getting a lot of influences, and also developing a process of public and a process for private. An approach to how much should be played and used, I think t’s a combining of the two things, so the knowledge — my personal knowledge — and this process development, but in a non calculated way.
In For The Right Red Hand, there’s some strong social messages and tension coming through, were you thinking of anything in particular?
It was exactly that kind of focus; the internal conflict of every person that questions themselves and what is surrounding them: the sociopolitical. There’s so many of us that don’t know what is right and wrong. The line is becoming too fine right now, but also the standard is becoming much more secure in a way so… it’s kind of a representation of this conflict in a good and a bad way.
Growing up during a civil war, what was your musical environment like?
Well besides the local music from, let’s say 80’s psychedelic rock and popular music, there was a point where traditional music came back to the music scene in Lebanon, and I really like this combination between the two things. Since I was a child, I was exposed to very traditional, very regional music, music from the surrounding areas, very specific and localised music. But at the same time, I grew up in school and we had cassettes arriving from outside, friends that are dubbing cassettes and passing them in the classroom. I got exposed to a lot of early hip hop, early house, early electronic music, not really knowing the background, definitions and such, but developing that knowledge in the later years. Moving to Italy, it was more about experimental jazz and the avant garde.
What made you go into music when you were younger?
I don’t know, I really, really don’t know. It just fell on me in a way. I mean, I have no musical background with family but maybe it was the sense of freedom that was driving me there. The sense of creativity within something that is actually nice and useful. Recreation is a right to every person. Even making silly dance music is a right for the society. I can’t really tell why, I just think it was natural.
Was it this sense of freedom that attracted you to improvised music?
It’s somehow related to freedom and not applying to musical rules and things that can tie you down to a certain theme or structure. At the same time, it is tightly related to structure in a way. My kind of improvised music is developed following a scheme that I’ve studied and learnt from before, so it’s not really random or completely freeform. In my opinion, freedom is something you need to earn, by knowing what to do with the freedom that you get.
Did you find music helped you communicate or settle in Italy?
Um, I think, in a very narrow way yes. Like, the very first person I met there was also a DJ so it was quite a clear reference to start talking about and sharing music. The language developed in the later months. I started learning the language when I moved there, but I think the communication reached a higher level when I started playing in more places and meeting more people. The medium of music introduced me to a lot of real special persons. It all grows together in a way, you share and things grow. I’m still friends with them now.
Were there ever any hostilities or difficulties for you?
Besides some episodes, especially in the following years, I think the excitement of discovering Italy and of living in a new place, and the resemblance or familiarity of my own culture with the Italian culture, meant that I never really felt detached. I never really felt like a complete foreigner, or that I didn’t fit. Italians are welcoming people and fun to be with so it was a good experience, there weren’t difficulties at the start. There were things you couldn’t avoid, you have them everywhere. 9/11 was quite a crucial point, I think for every foreigner that was living abroad, from immigrants, to students to workers, I think it was a crucial point, but hopefully we’re going to go beyond that.
Do you see a strong correlation between how you think of society and how you think of your music?
Absolutely, you cannot deny it. Sometimes musicians try not to be too political but I think already in the early stages in choosing what to listen to and what to develop in your career, it’s already a political choice. You can’t escape it in a way. Probably not through clear statements, but yes, the sociopolitical is related to my music.
CTM has a lot of artists this year making social or political comments, like Disarm. Is there anything in particular you’re excited to have on the programme?
The Disarm project is actually a very powerful message. I was really happy we were able to accomplish that, it was quite a tricky one to get confirmed. I’m really happy to have got Pauline Oliveros. A crucial and essential figure in my, and a lot of people’s, musical life. Abdel Karim Shaar is a very, very respected tarab singer in Lebanon. He is very famous there, not really well known in the mainstream but an important figure in Lebanon. He also used to sing in a choir in church, so he had all these influences in and beyond Lebanon and developed his own way of singing tarab. This applied perfectly to the theme in my opinion, but also it was a way of introducing something that I grew up with into where I am living now. I wanted to share this with CTM and everybody. Then there’s Sharif Sehnaoui, a musician also from Lebanon doing a commissioned piece. One Man Nation from Singapore. Also because she is a very active person on gender and transgender rights and she has her very own way of performing and it a very beautiful way.
Which artists do you wish you had been able to book for the festival?
Last year I discovered a gamelan master from Bali who completely rewrote the scales of the gamelan and retuned it and made an album that I would consider avant garde and free jazz, made out of a gamble ensemble. I think it’s really mind blowing but it’s quite impossible to bring him over for one show in Europe. A whole orchestra, all the gamelan, very huge and heavy. It should be managed in a much better way, perhaps in a future project. Many particular traditional rituals, very transformative rituals from Indonesia would also be completely displaced and out of place if brought to Berlin, in my opinion. Sometimes, maybe, things should stay where they are. If there is a will to bring them out, they will express that will. I think we respected that.
CTM is balanced between audio and visual, that’s not really something you’ve worked on before.
I think CTM is one of the festivals that is mostly balanced on that side. Unlike many other festivals, they don’t appoint too much to the visual side where you are sometimes distracted from what’s actually happening, or the transformative, introversial message that the music is giving you. You really don’t transcend because you are looking around you, or in front, to a video or video art. CTM is well balanced though, they’ve worked on many installations and dance performances but not too much. The installation by Vincent Moon is absolutely crucial to this year’s theme. The project is called Híbridos and it’s about a very specific community in the Amazon in Brazil. He is representing the ethnomusicological but without wanting to; he’s not going on an expedition, he’s travelling and incorporating the cultures. He’s not only taking but also giving, I think it’s one of the best examples of how music research should be done and he’s got some extremely beautiful images. He’s an artist himself so I think this is what he gives; his art. This video art installation will be played on three screens, mixing together films he’s made. It’s very interesting and he’ll be presenting a new project on opening night.
Is reciprocation and exchange important with music? I have the image of Western popular music being exported but not so much being brought back.
It’s absolutely the contrary in my opinion. Western music is almost entirely based on what came from the rest of the world initially, because if you strip it down it would become, probably not even medieval music, like classical music that has developed from that. But still, it’s a transformation that happened in the Western world that is now going back and influencing all these parts of the world where they originated. In the same way that African music went to America and became Jazz and Blues, then Jazz, Blues and Funk came back to Africa and created Afro Beat. It’s a whole loop that’s continuous. I think, New Geographies explores how Western music influenced traditional music around the world, in the present. In the contemporary era. But also, while that music is being transformed, it’s being transmitted to us here.
The freshness of this phenomenon, especially in the last couple of years, is that there are genres which are being born and created in the remotest of areas but becoming influential or central in modern, Western music. We are going beyond the etiquette of World Music where there is a presentation of a traditional band, or a really important traditional singer, it goes beyond that, breaking the rules and coming into the Western world proving that it’s something really stable and really important and that’s what is happening with music in South East Asia or the Middle East, in Egypt, North Africa, and sometimes South America in a way. The transformation of their own music into electronic beats and how that influences house and techno. There’s so much around. So much that we don’t know about, or that is hidden, or not really widely known, and the world is so big, we don’t even have an idea about how big the world is. It’s fascinating.
Berlin’s CTM festival will begin January 29th.