BEIRUT: Offstage, Mehdi Haddab looks a bit like a French-accented Wolverine -- not the largest member of the weasel family but the mutton-chopped Marvel Comics superhero, whose big-screen incarnation is played by an Australian bloke name of Hugh Jackman. It’s the sideburns.
When he steps onstage with his electrified-and-duct taped instrument, the Algerian performer assumes his own heroic profile: “the Jimi Hendrix of the oud.” Anyway that’s what he did at Metro al-Madina Thursday evening, when his trio closed day two of Irtijal, the international festival for experimental music in Lebanon.
Back in the 20th century, a wise man of music criticism pointed out that when Les Paul and Leo Fender conspired to concoct the term “electric guitar” it was one of the great con jobs of the century.
It’s not that the Fender and Gibson lines were crap, far from it. They simply weren’t really guitars anymore: the electric pick-up made the instruments something other.
This shard of insight reverberated through the hall during Haddab’s gig, as sure as the sure-fingered playing. Indeed, based on his incendiary opening number, amateur oud listeners would be tempted to remark that Haddab – here backed by adaptable rock’n’roll’n’jazz drummer Fouad Afra and Bashar Farran on electric bass -- doesn’t play oud at all, but a differently sized and strung “electric guitar.”
As he settles into his gig, Haddab does demonstrate his oud technique – albeit as a still point from which to launch into one of the blistering solos that’ve earned him comparisons to James Marshall Hendrix.
Contrary to what some scheduling has suggested, Haddab-Afra-Farran was not the final act to perform at Irtijal Day 2. Afterwards, the cognoscenti, Irtijalis and Hamra Street’s shiftless hipsters were treated to a set by performers from La Voix Est Libre.
This year’s special guests at Irtijal, the artists of this cabaret-style Paris festival were in their natural element at the Metro, though they promised to resurface at the BAC Friday.
Double pairings were the rule of the first half of Irtijal Day 2.
The festivities commenced with the cosmopolitan quartet Mayas/Falb/Buck/Kern. Pianist Magda Mayas and her creative consort, percussionist Tony Buck are Irtijal habitués, though on this occasion Mayas was performing not on a prepared (read “pimped-out”) baby grand but a stand-up piano – requiring her to kneel beneath the keyboard to get to the strings needed for the opening bits of the show.
Joining the duo were a couple of pals from the European experimental music circuit – percussionist Didi Kern and Hans Falb on turntables. Piano and DJ flanked the percussionists.
Common instruments aside, the drummers’ techniques are nearly as disparate as those of Mayas and Kern, so this array made for some engaging complementarities -- the flanks providing a nest of organic ambience for the percussionists’ unconventional scratching-thumping-cymbal crashing. It’s an absorbing sonic ride best appreciated with eyes wide shut.
One of the creative highlights of the evening was the Euro-Lebanese pairing of “Wormholes & Hoye,” effectively two live art duets working simultaneously. Team 1 was comprised of La Voix Est Libre players Vincent Fortemps (live painting) and Jean-François Pauvros (electric guitar). Electric guitarist Sharif Sehnaoui and live painter Mazen Kerbaj was Team 2.
You might imagine that such a performance – two duets performing on the same instruments – would be a tad boring. In fact the show underlined the immense diversity afforded by the individual players’ talents and eccentricities.
Though neither Pauvros nor Sehnaoui can be accused of playing their instruments conventionally – the former is fond of bowing the strings and screaming into the pick-up, while the latter prefers tapping the strings with chopsticks and other shadier objects – their performances are entirely distinct from one another.
Any decision to revive the show should, however, consider retooling the guitar work to make the players’ bursts of energy more complementary.
Similarly, though Fortemps and Kerbaj are using more or less the same technology – having their “paintings” projected onscreen in black-and-white as they’re being created – their approaches are quite dissimilar.
Fortemps has rigged his camera so that the projection has the look of stop-motion animation. He uses dry media (powders) as well as liquid paints and is less respectful of the plastic sheath upon which he works – cutting strips out of it, and removing it altogether at one point to show his hands sculpting a bird nest-like thing.
Kerbaj, who has a history of playing improv trumpet though liquids, is more comfortable using inks of different levels of opacity, playing with their density with more liquid, moving them, amoeba-like, across the medium with a straw.
The most pleasant confluence of the two works came late in the show. While Fortemps’ hands were monstrously present on the screen stage right, on the stage left screen Kerbaj departed from abstraction long enough to reproduce a ship and a building from his figurative work. Between them he painted “Ana wayn?”
Where am I?
Irtijal 14 continues until 5 April at various venues around the city. For more information see http://www.irtijal.org