BEIRUT: “Madad, madad oh master Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.” The reverent-sounding words issue from the six musicians seated in a semicircle, their call-and-response vocals backed by furiously strummed oud and a buzuk, and the rhythmic beats of a tar, a large frame drum used in Levantine classical music.“You who rule by God’s rules,” they continue, referring to the supposedly Islamic rule practiced by the self-styled “Islamic State.” “You will lead God’s servants – to an abyss like no other.”
Seated center-stage, sporting collared shirts and dark glasses, as though cast in a Lebanese remake of “The Blues Brothers,” composer, vocalist and keyboard player Khaled Soubeih and oud player Imad Hashisho tilt their heads rhythmically from one side to the other as vocalist Sandy Chamoun leads them into the first verse.
“And because Islam is merciful,” the five male voices parrot, “we shall butcher and hand out meat.”
Snorts of laughter issue from the audience seated at Hamra’s Metro al-Madina.
In the wake of The Great Departed’s concert last Tuesday, the Lebanese band’s recent composition “Madad Baghdadi” has proved a social media sensation. Garnering upward of 6,000 views on YouTube in less than four days, it has attracted largely positive feedback from commenters, although a couple have expressed worries that the song might be critical of Islam.
“Those who consider that Baghdadi represents Islam could be offended,” acknowledged vocalist Naim al-Asmar, “but the song doesn’t criticize Islam, it actually criticizes the conception of Islam that Baghdadi and his group has [imposed].”
“Madad Baghdadi” has also attracted widespread media attention to the band. Yet the group has already proved itself more than a one-hit-wonder.
The Great Departed formed roughly two years ago, gradually expanding from four members to the current lineup, which consists of Soubeih, Hashisho, Chamoun and Asmar, as well as buzuk player Abed Kobeissy and percussionist Ali Hout.
Several of them had crossed paths before, thanks to years spent playing on the classical Arab music circuit.
“To begin with, maybe we all got a little bit fed up with traditional music,” Asmar confided in an interview with The Daily Star.
“We still find it tasty, but it’s not a modern language to us anymore. It doesn’t cover the topics we’d really like to sing about. Traditional music used to talk a lot about love, about platonic love, about the big values in life. This is not really contemporary,” he added.
“This band was founded in order to be like a breathing space for the topics we would like to talk about – contemporary topics. Unfortunately, that is pretty much political, because of the whole situation. Musically, of course the influence of the traditional music is still there ...
“The instruments are basically traditional. The piano, in that assortment, is not really classical, yet the use of piano is very delicate, in order not to ruin the whole ambience of the takht, the traditional lineup ... It’s a bit difficult to classify it in a certain genre, because I don’t really know anything similar, but it’s what we really enjoy and like to do.”
It is certainly difficult to slot The Great Departed’s sound into any one convenient pigeonhole. Their music ranges stylistically between the sped-up, catchy riffs of “Madad Baghdadi” and last year’s big hit “Don’t Mix” – a satirical take on “Gas and alcohol don’t mix,” the injunction then-Egyptian President Mohammad Morsi made in Germany – and graceful, more classically inflected numbers, rendered contemporary by their topical lyrics.
The musicians forego the slow-building subtlety of traditional maqam for a bolder, head-nodding, foot-stomping sound, in which the oud and buzuk are strummed with fervor, rather than delicately plucked.
“We felt like doing something new,” Kobeissi explained, “something that resembles what we’re living now. We all live in cities, very loud and ambient and fast-moving cities and – with the way of life politically and security-wise that’s going on around us – I think is only normal that we are playing upbeat songs.
“The amount of violence that we use while playing, I don’t think it’s coming from a rock influence. It’s coming more out of the influence of where we live. We don’t do it consciously ...,” he added. “We try not to overanalyze or conceptualize the way we play.”
The band members, who will repeat their show “La Bombe” Tuesday at Metro, explain that Soubeih’s lyrics tend to tackle whatever topics are foremost in their day-to-day conversations at the time.
This year’s set list is very political, encompassing dictatorships and their downfall, the regional effects of 50 years of military rule, local bombings and the normalization of civilian deaths, the lack of media interest in ongoing conflicts and Lebanon’s foreign policy and internal politics.
“Maybe that’s the main thing that it really makes sense to talk about,” Asmar mused. “We cannot be living in this situation and talk about flowers. Last year’s concert was much less political. Maybe next year it will also be less concerned about politics. We hope so. The topics come from what we would like to talk about, but really it’s about music.
“In my opinion this band is presenting a new form of pop ... I have some friends that do not listen to Arabic music and they did like it. Yet some [older] people that are accustomed to traditional music, and pretty much hate everything that is contemporary, [also] really like it. Every member of the band whose personal experience [is in] the classical tradition is shown here, yet there is this very contemporary vibe.”
Humor is also an important part of the mix.
“And because revolutions are fitna [chaos],” runs the penultimate verse of “Madad Baghdadi,” “and women’s hair is fitna, there we are, all of us in deep s ? ... I swear to God, if I was a cow I would be wearing a bra.”
The reference to media rumors that Baghdadi had ordered cows’ udders to be veiled might be obscure, but it went down well with Tuesday’s audience.
“Now Baghdadi is a star ... and it is the first song actually to deal with that topic,” Asmar said, speculating as to the song’s success.
“At the risk of sounding a bit arrogant,” Kobeissi added, “it’s not only because the topic is [prominent in] the media. It’s a well-made song ... The question would be if people would want to hear it again in four years, when Baghdadi is nothing – hopefully.
“That’s also a typical thing when you work in pop music ... Pop culture topics have a very short lifespan. That’s why you produce a lot. You need to be always up to date. That’s the rule of the game.”
“Unless Baghdadi remains a problem for 100 years,” interjected Asmar, laughing, “which might be the case.”
The Great Departed will reprise “La Bombe” at Metro al-Madina Tuesday. For more information please call 76-309-363 or visit www.metromadina.com.