When Rock 'n Roll Dreams Turn to Nightmares
Regular readers of this blog are aware of the importance I attach to music and artists in trying to understand the contemporary Middle East, particularly during the “war on terror.” As I write in my forthcoming book, Heavy Metal Islam, if we really want to understand what is driving some young Muslims to become suicide bombers and how we can overcome this phenomenon, we need to follow the musicians as much as the mullahs. One of the most talented and inspiring artists I've met in my travels across the region in the last few years has been the members of the band, The Kordz, out of Beirut. In fact, just a couple of months before the war, the band's lead singer, Moe Hamzeh and I sat in a cafe near his home in Beirut, discussing plans for doing an album together. As I spoke to him continuously during the brief but brutal war in July and August, I saw how quickly such dreams can be shattered, and at the same time how important it was for Moe and other artists affected by the war, on all sides, to continue to pursue their vision. The following interview, conducted soon after the guns fell silent, gives us an idea of the kind of people who are out there to talk to if only we'd take the time, and how their loss of hope represents the loss of perhaps the last opportunity for a peaceful resolution to the present “clash of fundamentalisms.” More information about The Kordz is at www.thekordz.com.
I was standing on the stage of Beirut's Club Nova late one night, watching the crowd chant along with the chorus of Lebanon's biggest alternative rock band, The Kordz, Arab-metal version of “The Wall,” when it first really hit me: One of the most hopeful visions of the future of the Middle East I've yet to come across was standing—well, dancing, really—before my eyes. As I tried to play an appropriate rhythm under guitarist Nadim Sioufi's Arabesque version of David Gilmore's famous solo, an audience full of Sunnis, Shi'is and Christians reminded me that the song was about a lot more than either the stifling conformity of post-war British public schools or the overzealous worship by Pink Floyd fans for their favorite band.
Instead, coming in the aftermath of the “Cedar Revolution”... Wait, does anyone remember the Cedar Revolution,the brief moment in the late winter and early spring of 2005 when young Lebanese responded to the assassination of the country's former Prime Minister, Rafiq Harriri, by forcing the Syrians to end their decades long occupation of the country? Well it happened, and music played a small but crucial part in winning the day. For the fans at Nova that night, the wall evoked by the song was the one that closed the various Lebanese communities off from each other, Lebanon off from an independent future, and the Arab/Muslim world off from the world. As they pumped their fists and chanted the lyrics, it was clear, as the Kordz lead singer Moe Hamzeh later confirmed to me, that for the group's fans the song symbolized their refusal to continue being cogs in the machine of the occupations, violence, corruption and repression that for so long have defined Lebanon's political culture and economy.
I wonder, after this last war pretty-much leveled most every wall, and building, bridge, highway, etc., in the southern half of Lebanon, driving out hundreds of thousands of people in the process, how the fans of The Kordz will react the next time the band performs that song? In a long and sometimes tragic conversation to help me rewrite the Lebanon chapter of my forthcoming book, Heavy Metal Islam (Random House, 2007), which I thought I'd finished in early July, Moe thought over this and other questions:
ML: Moe, how did you get to this point today? By which I mean, go from a young kid with a passion for music, to a preeminent place in the Lebanese scene?
MH: Well, I've always been into rock, or more precisely rocks. You know, I have an advanced degree in hydrogeology. Geology is rocks, I do rock n roll. So it was a natural move. In fact, Beirut for me was the original 'school of rock.' I studied rocks in the morning and played rock n roll at night.”
ML: But what was the foundation for your evolution as a musician and using music to help bring peace and reconciliation in your country?
MH: My years spent at the American University of Beirut were foundational for my work as a musician and as a person. It gave me the chance to discover who I am and what I want. If I had gone to another university, where there wasn't this sort of interaction with other cultures and especially Americans and other people from Lebanon I would be a much more narrow-minded person. But even before this, rock n roll, and especially the classic rock, was a crucial vehicle for dealing with the strains of constant war and death that were a daily part of the country's long civil war. I was always into rock, because it was my only way to forget where I was, with bombs going off all the time. The music my only companion. Of course I liked Arabic music, but rock spoke to me because of how it reflected the reality of war, especially groups like Zeppelin and Pink Floyd, from whom I actually started to learn English. Just think about it, Pink Floyd's The Wall [which as I alluded to above, Hamzeh's band The Kordz do an amazing cover of] came out during the war. And for us it became a symbol of tearing down the walls between us that were constructed because of the war and that kept us apart and forced to live with the worst kind of 'thought control.' I'd put on the head phones and listen to album and try to sleep while the bombs were raining down. And in the morning when I'd wake up I'd put on Bob Marley because he gave me hope.”
ML: But in a sectarian country in the midst of a civil war, religious identity should have provided you with all you needed. Why wasn't it enough for you?
MH: To be honest, my experiences as a musician opened me up to the spirituality that he found missing in traditional religion. [Note: This is clear from watching and hearing him sing, as his vocal style and facial expressions betray an intensely spiritual style of singing that is very reminiscent of musicians singing religious music such as Sufi, Gnawa or Gospel.] My family is moderately religious, but the more I learned, the more I doubted, which is perhaps why I chose to study geology because science and religion both talk about how we came to be, and together we can get more of the answers. So I began to explore religions with the perspective of a scientist. Yet at the same time I used my pursuit of science and music as ways to become more spiritual. In fact, the name of my company is 'Temple Entertainment' because for me music is religious, because it takes us to a different place, answering key questions inside of you.
ML: Last time we spoke, that is to say, before the war, we agreed that your—our—generation is the future for Lebanon, and the Middle East as a whole. Has the war changed that, since it was mostly fought by young men, or is it still the case?
MH: I believe it is still the case. Our tolerance towards so-called secular (or as conservatives around the world call it, “Satanic”) music reflects an openness towards the future. You have to understand the context. I remember at AUB I had friends from Hezbollah, they would laugh at me as a rocker, but I wasn't a threat to them, we respected each other, studied, debated, and challenged each other. Why is this important? Because our discussions helped to say: Respect my space and I'll respect yours. And it is precisely this that is no longer happening in the larger society today, outside of the music scene.
ML: Speaking of the music scene, which is so varied and rich in Beirut considering how small a country Lebanon is, how did you wind up getting so into Rock. I understand why it appealed to you, but how did you get exposed to it outside of the war-time radio programs?
MH: Well, it started at an early age. I came from a middle class family, conservative (not extremist), no musicians or artists in it, yet I realized early that I had an interest in music. When I was 6 years old, after my dad moved me from a conservative religiously-oriented school (that affected me negatively) to a non-secular school, where we were allowed for 1 hour of music per week, you can't imagine the difference it made. I still remember every single moment spent in these classes. I was the favorite student to the music instructor; he allowed me to play most of the instruments and he counted on me to lead the class band for the end of the year show. I was so exited and inpatient that I wanted to get to the coming year and the next grade in order to learn how to play piano (as at that age we were not allowed to use the piano), and that was it.
ML: What about Arab/Lebanese instruments? Didn't you learn, or want to learn, the 'oud or qanun or darbuka?
MH: Sure, but it was hard to get them as well. The war prevented the music curriculum from continuing, which left little time or space to do much besides finishing the main courses. We had no more extra curriculum activities, beside sports, which I was not able to do since I had asthma, so I sat and watched my friends playing.
Years passed, and my only companion then, age of 10, was the radio, mainly FM frequencies with international music. I can't explain why. Yes, I listened to Arabic music when my mom and dad took the radio/cassette from me and had me listen to Oum Kalthoum and Abdel Wahab, who have of course influenced my way of singing and writing. But you can't believe the feeling when I bought my first tape of the BEE GEES. I soon started compiling tapes, which I had spent all my daily pocket money on. Eventually, my parents realized that I have a serious interest in music, and because I was seriously ill (very hard asthma) they got me a gift a keyboard. But our home wasn't big enough to put it anywhere that I could really play it and they couldn't afford a teacher for me, so I wound up just teaching myself a few basic melodies by ear-no notes- (funny enough Arabic ones!!! Abdul Halim Hafez…). Then they got me a guitar and I started to learn how to play all my favorite songs—Floyd, Marley, and other rock bands.
ML: Those groups all sang in English. Did you understand English already as a teenager?
MH: More and more. I'd call radios, talk shows, asked for requests, All my school reports to my parents said that I was a day dreamer. I wasn't good at other subjects, but by the age of 10-12 I had memorized English lyrics while singing along without knowing the meanings. For some reason, despite the bad asthma, I began to understand—and my friends kept telling me—that I had a good singing voice. The dream that began then, and continues to drive me today, was me singing, on a stage in a hall full of people. Time passed and music and my tapes and song were my only refuge from the surrounding Voices, whether bombs, or my parents shouting. Putting on the headphones, my Walkman, Floyd at night, Marley during the day, that's what kept me sane, gave me hope. In fact, by the time I was 17, I was able to put music in a rock radio station, and I had my own show, from 10-12pm. I was in the business, and I knew it was my future.
ML: How did the end of the civil war in 1989 affect you and your development as an artist?
MH: Well, I felt like the counter should be reset to zero. You know, it was only when the war was over that I could travel the country and understand the level of devastation it caused—just like today. The most important thing was going to the American University of Beirut, where my dreams gradually became a reality. I auditioned for the Music Club and I remember the feeling I had on stage, the fear and the emotions, were so intense, that I felt I was able to detach my soul from my body. The next day, my face became familiar at college. Eventually, I joined a band, played outside campus, gig offers came from all over the country. But it really began to click with, The Kordz. You can't imagine how people reacted to us. Not just Lebanese, but Europeans and Americans in the country. It was clear we weren't just another band, we had real potential.
But potential doesn't guarantee you anything. I was so lucky that in school I had the knowledge accumulated from being the president of the music club, and producing shows, promoting bands, PRing with media, and sponsors. This helped me land a deal managing Warner Music's label in Lebanon. I got Alanis Morissette to perform in Beirut! I attended gigs outside Lebanon, went to awards shows and realized that The Kordz could rock the crowd the same way these artists are doing. I got to see from the first rows or hang out backstage with the likes of David Gilmore and Bob Marley's kids—with the people whose music literally kept me alive in the darkest times of the war.
ML: That's all well and good, but how did you pull off getting such a big hit in Lebanon your first try?
MH: Success came when I released our first maxi single. I had to basically found my own label, as there were no labels available to produce rock music in Lebanon because it was still so alternative to the mainstream. Once again, I had to do it myself in order to reach others who share the same love to that music, without boundaries. But let me tell you, in my wildest dreams, I never thought that we will be able to open for Placebo, or for Robert Plant. I was living a dream, without being too corny, climbing my own private “stairway to heaven,” until... poof! In 24 hours everything changed. I tell you, it was like a tsunami, only man made. In one day the future you and I have discussed the last year—the gigs, recordings, tours, all of it was destroyed. Suddenly, we were on a stairway to the abyss, everything felt dark and gloomy. I had flashbacks to the last war. We were confused, lonely, isolated.
But still, I realized that the only way to be able to share these thoughts, experiences, and dreams—or nightmares—would be through the music, so we kept writing, trying to practice, continue with the new album, which we're finishing in Vancouver in the winter with a world-renown rock producer. This music has to be put on tape and gotten to as much as people as possible.
ML: But during war, and now in its aftermath with so much destruction, how do you find the ability to continue with this dream when so many others are shattered. I mean, it's not like Hezbollah is going to give you $15,000 to rebuild your album the way it's handing out tons of cash to victims of the war whose homes were destroyed. Yet you literally lived inside your music, which the war, all the violence by both sides, helped destroy.
MH: Well, I am a persisting person, I always was, and I always will be. I fought a war with asthma, I fought a war to sing and make it to be on a stage with a band, and now I am fighting a war to keep this dream alive. What choice do I have? All my fears about having more wars were right. The only way for us to survive this war is that we put our music on tape and get it out to the world. It's a cliché, but as Shakespeare wrote—and I remember, Elvis and even the Osmonds would sing—All the world is a stage! We are sure we can leave a mark, maybe change the life of many by allowing them to ask questions.
ML: Well, I remember that iconic picture of you during one of the huge demonstrations after Harriri's assassination. You had carved “Truth” into your buzzcut at the back of your head, and were standing above like a million people. What message were you trying to convey with that word, standing in front of all of Lebanon, all the world, since the photo was in the NY Times and lots of other papers world-wide.
MH: Well, the same question we asked ourselves. What is the truth? How did we get here, and most important, how do we move on, transcend, build a just and peaceful future where the next generation doesn't have to sleep to the sounds of Pink Floyd and Bob Marley just to drown out bombs. It would be nice to have heard them without the bombs muffling their message, let me tell you! It's not an easy trip, but we’ll get there. I can see it coming, and not even war can stop our generation from building our future, and The Kordz from helping to write its soundtrack.
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Mark A. LeVine (UC Irvine History Professor) - 9/20/2006
please email me directly for moe's email contact. as for the wall, we're planning, hopefully, to record it sometime in the future.
the war didn't destroy the music, it destroyed, at least temporarilly--until now at least--their ability to record.
Richard Silverstein - 9/19/2006
I went to their site but they only provide 2 very short samples of their music. A bit frustrating. Also, no Contact e mail. I'd love to write about their music for my mp3 blog if they might be willing to provide an mp3 file.
Their version of The Wall would've been great for the radio program of Israeli and LEbanese peace music which I co-hosted last wk. Wish I'd known about them then.
I wasn't clear fr. what Moe said whether the war caused them to lose their most recenty recorded music; or whether it destroyed their chance to put out a new album.
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