BEIRUT: Lebanon has no shortage of popular musicians. Any number of performers is skilled at coaxing local audience members off their chairs to dance. Special pride of place, however, belongs to the house of Rahbani.
The songs and musical theater of the Brothers Rahbani, whose creative nexus for some decades was Assi Rahbani and Fairouz (aka Nouhad Haddad), have become as much a part of Lebanese popular culture as dabkeh and tabbouleh.
On Monday night the Blue Note Café hosted “Orthoizoks und Rahbani Ziach,” an evening of original compositions by Ziad Rahbani – Assi and Fairouz’s son. From his piano, Rahbani the younger led an 11-person ensemble of musicians and vocalists before a capacity audience.
“Orthoizoks und Rahbani Ziach” is comprised of such Rahbani tunes as “Spiral,” “Smooth Talk” and “Viva de Funk.” Those familiar with Rahbani’s oeuvres may have found the evening’s playlist echoed the one he staged for his UNESCO Palace performance in December 2012.
This multilingual program – with lyrics in Arabic, French and English – transported the Blue Note through several distinct moods. From romantic ballads to cool jazz, Rahbani and Co. worked to sate the eager audience’s thirst for soulful groove.
Rahbani is a well-known figure in Lebanese music. A child prodigy, he came into his own during Lebanon’s Civil War and, after his father’s death, played a major role in piloting Fairouz’s career vector toward jazz music.
Credited as one of the pioneers of “Arabic jazz” – a hybrid of the instruments, tuning and improvisational conventions of Eastern classical music and Western jazz modalities – Rahbani released several albums of his own compositions during Lebanon’s 15-year-long conflict.
His stage plays, mostly musicals, were embraced by critics and popular audiences alike for their comic-acerbic depictions of the Lebanese condition.
Rahbani’s output has waned audibly since 1990, but his performances – whether super club shows of jazz standards or more rare stagings of his own work – are always well attended, which betrays something of his staying power.
The Blue Note’s enthusiastic Monday evening crowd demonstrated that Rahbani’s brand of jazz still occupies a broad swath of the country’s musical collective consciousness.
Unfortunately the opening-night show also suffered from several minor sound system shortcomings. Either the vocalists’ microphone was too loud or too subdued.
The Blue Note Café is an intimate venue, so it was challenging to accommodate all 12 members of Rahbani’s ensemble on stage and accommodate the audience as well. That said, there was no barrier between performers and spectators, a proximity that imparts the impression of being part of the show.
In addition to being a composer, pianist and playwright, Rahbani has also in recent years become known for his columns in Al-Akhbar newspaper. These writings drift into the performance, being read aloud as short interludes by one of his vocalists.
Some discriminating spectators, those who recall Rahbani’s most-recent UNESCO Palace performance, may have found that the maestro was a bit circumspect this evening – with his patently amusing audience interaction kept to a minimum. Renowned for his musical perfectionism as much as his wry sense of humor, Rahbani seemed utterly focused on his keyboard.
Rahbani’s trademark layering of piano chords, brass instrumentation, vocals and percussion weaves an elaborately textured sonic patchwork that is eminently audience-friendly. – With J.Q.Ziad Rahbani’s “Orthoizoks und Rahbani Ziach” is being staged at the Blue Note Café, Makhoul Street, until Jan. 29. Shows start around 9:30 p.m. Reservations required.