The virtues of stepping outside Lebanon’s performative box

5 Apr

Beirut: “Why is improvisation so important?” Ziad Nawfal asks rhetorically. “It’s a wide open field that leaves a lot of room for ideas, for novelty, for unexpected things to be created.”

Nawfal should know what he’s talking about. A well-known DJ on Radio Liban, where he presides over “The Ruptured Sessions,” a program devoted alternative music, this seasoned connoisseur of Lebanon’s experimental music scene, is this year helping to organize Irtijal, the International Festival of Experimental Music in Lebanon, this year in its 11th edition.

True to its name, Irtijal (literally “improvisation” in Arabic) aims to create a setting for musical experimentation in Lebanon. It was founded in 2000 by Lebanese musicians Mazen Kerbaj and Sharif Sehnaoui, who wanted to expand Lebanon’s contemporary music scene beyond the mainstream. At the heart of Irtijal is a desire to promote interaction between foreign and local artists. The festival asks musicians to think beyond not only their instruments and training, but also their culture.

Nawfal became an Irtijal convert in 2004. “I used to always go because they were inviting these strange underground musicians. It was great.”

Nawfal’s love of musical alternatives – nourished since he cut his teeth as a restaurant DJ in the early 90s – drew him into Irtijal in 2009, when he invited festival organizers and musicians onto his radio show to promote that year’s event.

“We wanted to create a buzz around the musicians,” he explained. “Part of the difficulty with getting word out about Irtijal is that it is never going to be mainstream music.”

The fact that it doesn’t appeal to the masses is part of Irtijal’s charm. Because it challenges popular notions of what it is that music does, the concerts routinely push musical boundaries in a way that can only be done on the cultural margins.

Contemporary French jazz group “Dans les Arbres” kick off Irtijal ’11 at Ain al-Mreisseh’s Masrah Beirut Tuesday evening with a mingling of percussion, strings, clarinet and piano. Other scheduled performers include the popular Lebanese jazz ensemble “In-version: The Joelle Khoury Quintet” and the duo “Makharej,” whose works explore the sonic potential of the Arabic alphabet.

“A major characteristic of free jazz and improv is musicians from all over the world coming together. It’s collaborative,” says Nawfal. Artists participating in Irtijal often perform separately and then join forces with other musicians. Last year Dutch punk rock band The EX played as a group one evening and then performed duets with various Lebanese musicians in a “carte-blanche” styled festival finale.

This year’s Irtijal is to include a characteristically eclectic mix of sounds from electronically assisted sound poetry to trombone with analogue synthesizer. Friday’s finale is an ambitious ensemble collaboration among improvisers from throughout the week-long festival.

It sounds risky, and it is. Contrary to what some believe, improvisation isn’t as simple as grabbing an instrument and starting to jam.

“Improvisation takes pre-existing forms and subverts them,” Nawfal explains. “So you get free jazz, for instance, or free rock. There’s even improvised electronics [aka “electronic noise”], which is when you create freely with electronics.

“A more complex style of improvisation is when the idea [of improvisation] is applied to classical music. Classical music follows a traditional form, which is exactly the opposite of improvisation. So in this case it’s all about ignoring what you have been taught.

“In a way, that’s what improvisation is: Taking everything you know, everything you have learnt, and removing it. You have to forget what you’ve learnt but of course also be retaining it.”

One reason improv is exciting for a musician is the possibilities it opens. As Nawfal points out, “any instrument can be used to make music. Even a toothbrush.” Naturally musicians can use their instruments in a different way. A guitar, for example, can be beaten so that it is a percussive instrument only.

“You divert your instruments. You’re entirely free but you also need to have reference,” emphasizes Nawfal. “The best improv music comes from those who are really masters of their crafts. You have what you know, and you leave it, but you will always come back to it. What you know is what keeps you grounded and it is what gives your music a form.

“The audience members will always be recognizing something in improvisation. A theme repeated or a tune recognized. Improv is a constant back-and-forth. It’s not as random as you might think.”

Surprisingly, artists rehearse before their improv sets. Nawfal explains that this doesn’t detract from the spontaneity of the session. “The musicians agree on ideas – like themes – for their performance, but the performance itself has no fixed course. The artists have a shared idea that they take into their performance.”

An improv performance ends, Nawfal continues, “when the artists feel it. The idea comes to an end.”

Difficult though it may be to pin down the nature of an art as varied as improv, Nawfal’s definition is far from vague. “Improvisation is trained players playing within the ‘genre’ of improvised music – except that there is no ‘genre.’ It’s a way of playing in which there is no specific ‘way,’ a performance type without any specific ‘type.’ You can’t be too strict, you can only delineate ideas.”

Improvisation seems a complicated art form, relying on intuition and on each artist’s capacity to sense the direction of another artist’s sound. “Improvisation can go wrong,” agrees Nawfal, “but it can also go very, very right.”

Above all, Irtijal is about creating a home for improvisation in Lebanon, where artists from across the world can mingle ideas and passions. “Irtijal creates a bridge between Lebanon and the international improv community. However clichéd that sounds,” Nawfal says, “that’s what it is. The major characteristic of free jazz and improv is musicians coming together.”

Irtijal runs from April 5th -8th at various venues around Beirut. Tickets are LL15,000 per night, or a festival pass is available for LL40,000. For more information see


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