Radio Beirut - Various Artists


Set aside any thoughts of crystal ball gazing and divination, there’s very little magic in programming music for radio. Thank goodness there are still pockets of public and campus radio where true musical taste-makers can use their guts and gifts for picking trends, but in the world of commercial radio, constantly concerned with its share holders, music selection occurs in a virtually risk-free environment dictated by national charts and local focus groups. Presumably, that model follows suit throughout the rest of the world, that is where it’s not further confined by political agendas. A new compilation of Lebanese artists called Radio Beirut – Sounds from the 21st Century provides an encapsulation of the homegrown talent making waves in the capital at a time of rebirth for a city once dubbed ‘The Paris of the Middle East’. There, the starving artist faces stiff economic challenges, with radio in private hands and payola seen as part of the process of doing business. In other words, if you want spins, you better pay up. The situation has generated a burgeoning alternative scene reflected in the new release. It’s a cosmopolitan mix that represents Beirut’s Occidental and Oriental cross-roads. Influential hit makers on the disc include Zeid Hamdan, the ‘Michael Jackson of Lebanon’ who spearheads a number of featured projects including the duo Soapkills (a reference to the sterile rebuilding of parts of Beirut). Included in the compilation is Herzan, considered an underground classic. A personal favorite comes from Zeid and The Wings (so that’s what happened to them after Sir Paul split up the band!). Their pointed barb aimed directly at Lebanese President, Michel Suleiman earned Zeid a conviction that carried an up to two year prison sentence. Public pressure soon granted him a reprieve. Other artists who contribute tracks of note on the disc include singer Youmna Saba and pop band Mashrou’leila. Accurately reflecting a scene through compilation means accepting the good with the not so much. The darling of Beirut’s singer/songwriter scene is 19 year old Sima Itayim, a stylistically Suzanne Vega kind of offshoot. Her insipid English language composition Stale Coffee is as unappetizing as the title would suggest. But, even taste-makers get it wrong sometimes. Radio Beirut seems a credible representation of what’s happening musically in a dynamically changing city today. Tomorrow might be more interesting still.