BEIRUT: The stories about the travails of Lebanon's independent music scene are legion. The challenges facing indy musicians - and those who would promote their work - include Lebanon's small and fragmented market, the high prestige accorded international labels and acts within that market and the globalized culture of piracy, that makes it difficult for artists to make money from their work.
Under these circumstances, it's reassuring to find independent labels making strides forward, even as they struggle. Forward Music is a case in point.
Founded in 2001, Forward was originally geared to record and distribute audio-visual work. The label has released DVDs from such prominent Lebanese documentary filmmakers as Carol Mansour ("Maid in Lebanon," about the plight of Sri Lankan domestics in this country, and "A Summer Not to Forget," which documents Israel's 2006 summer war on Lebanon) and Mai Masri ("Beirut Diaries," about the oposition youth sit-in at Martyrs Square in the spring of 2006), to name just two.
Forward expanded its repertoire to become a recording label few years later, after facing difficulties in the distribution and promotion of its titles.
"To carry on an independent business," said Forward Music producer Ghazi Abdel Baki, "we had to expand and earn a share of the market."
Forward's offices have none of the pretensions that you might associate with the corporate music industry. Here, the scene is simple and modest.
The work environment here is family-like Abdel Baki said, and there is no strict organization in the way the staff works. That doesn't mean they aren't serious, though, and a culture of individual responsibility means there's no room for error.
Forward Music's emphasis is on the artists and their work, he added, and decisions are not made with an eye to commercial success alone.
"Forward Music does not produce hit albums," said Abdel Baki, "but rather focuses on concept titles with a long shelf life."
Forward's artists all stressed that, for their music to succeed, it was of utmost importance that they connect with their record label and share a common vision.
"We feel comfortable cooperating with Ghazi and our relationship was based on friendship," said oud virtuoso Charbel Rouhana, who leads the Beirut Oriental Ensemble. Rouhana's group recently recorded the album "Handmade" on the Forward label. This set of eleven contemplative compositions helps its listeners break out of the real world into a new realm of peacefulness.
Other Forward artists have stressed the importance of reviving Arabic music and of pooling the talents of young Lebanese artists to encourage new creative trends and fresh perspectives on the form.
Egyptian oud virtuoso Mustafa Said, for instance, believes his collaboration with Forward wasn't mere coincidence but the fruit of a mutual desire to develop traditional Arabic music from the inside.
"Forward Music understood our philosophical approach to music from artistic and intellectual perspectives," said Said, who is one of the few advocates of his particular genre of tarab (a musical form, which can be translated literally as "ecstasy," a term that's been compared to duende in flamenco music).
Said's album on the Forward label, "Rubaiyat al-Khayyam," is an attempt to show what this region of the world possesses in terms of an honorable music tradition, one that allows for interpretation and self-development.
More evidence of the label's interest in the revival of authentic Arabic music can be found in classical vocalist Ghada Shbeir's album "Al-Muwashahat," which was made in response to a desire to present a genuine image of the Arab cultural heritage. In 2007, the album, made with the participation of Charbel Rouhana, won the BBC World Music Awards for the Middle East and North Africa.
The musical preoccupations of vocalist Sumaya Baalbaki are somewhat different than those of Shbeir. Her Forward CD "Arabtango" saw her perform a program of classical tunes from composers like Abdel Wahab, Asmahan and Abdel Halim accompanied by an Argentinean tango ensemble. For her, the record is the result of a shared vision between her background in oriental music and Abdel Baki's knowledge of the Argentine musical tradition.
Abdel Baki himself stresses that both the artists and the producers take part in Forward's decision-making process, as a way of ensuring the finished product meets the demands of the musicians.
"Music [recorded by Forward] won't be edited for commercial purposes without the consent of the artist under any circumstances," Abdel Baki said. "Our aim is to promote new creative trends in the musical arts."
The approach seems to have met with some success. Abdel Baki says the label's artists have found a wider audience on the heels of a successful series of concerts at the Babel Theatre in June 2007 - featuring Charbel Rouhana, Mustafa Said and Sumaya Baalbaki, as well as oud player Ziyad Sahhab.
Among the many challenges facing Forward Music is piracy. "For every one original album sold, five and even more are subject to music piracy," said Abdel Baki.
That said, the label doesn't rely solely on Lebanon's tiny market. Its albums are also sold in the Gulf and elsewhere in the Middle East, Europe and America, where demands for new trends that draw from the rich musical past of the Arab world are progressively growing.
Packaging is also important to Abdel Baki and he says that Forward is working on promoting its online delivery platform through its Web site or I-Tunes, where people can download or order albums.
For more information on Forward Music, go to http://www.forwardmusic.net