For Hadi Zeidan, Beirut is many things. It’s a “dirty, chaotic, noisy city” and a place of beauty. It was his home until he was 17 (he’s now based in Paris) and it’s still home to a number of diverse musical cultures. He’s showcasing two of them during OzAsia.
Beirut Electro Parade is the sound of modern Beirut – a pulsating underground club night featuring some of the biggest electronic artists performing in the city today. But Zeidan insists there’s no headliner on the diverse night, which might be the biggest electronic and experimental gig of the year now that Unsound Adelaide has been cancelled. The event, at Nexus Arts on November 1, will transport guests to modern-day Lebanon with cosmic synths, neo-Arabic influences and obscure electro.
The artists appearing include house and techno DJ Jack The Fish and American composer John Zorn collaborator Jad Atoui, who Zeidan describes as a big figure in the alternative and experimental scene in Lebanon. He describes Atoui’s approach as “very mathematical. He uses a modular synthesiser system and creates complex compositions that could fit the genre of ambient music or industrial sound,” and says the results are “hypnotising”.
Also on the bill are Renata and June As, who “have been fostering the techno scene for the past couple of years” and continuing a tradition that began in the ’90s when Beirut DJs would host raves in the forests and mountains surrounding Lebanon’s capital.
Rounding out the line-up is Zeidan himself. As the curator, he insists he’s “not essential as a performer” but he wanted to be a part of the night’s first Australian show. Musically, he says his set will be eclectic and not focused on technique. “I want to tell stories, to riff off a theme or a key and try to recompose a story during a set.”
His other performance, Shik Shak Shok, is even more obviously built around a narrative. “It’s not a show by Hadi Zeidan,” he says. “It’s an experience.” He describes it as, “A night where we can imagine a lost Beirut from the ’80s. It’s a Beirut that never existed or might have existed.”
The show, held at Nexus Arts the night before on October 31, is a paean to the city of his youth – “The passion I had for Beirut in the ’80s,” he says. That was when he was growing up and falling in love with the city, but he says for many people, “It’s a period that we do not talk about, it’s the period of the war.” The brutal Lebanese civil war raged for 15 years and claimed more than 100,000 lives. In that chaotic setting, music provided escapism. “The pop songs are quite happy, in a nice contrast with the war,” says Zeidan. He remembers the period as a time when there were “hundreds of musical releases and parties” turning fear and uncertainty into euphoria.
But this is not a music show so much as a transportive experience. The music, he says, is merely “a medium” for a cabaret with a difference. That medium is a treasure trove of Lebanese music that Zeidan has been obsessively compiling for years. Whenever he’s in Beirut, he meets with label owners, record collectors and musicians as part of his attempt to catalogue the Lebanese music industry’s entire output from the period (that part of his collection currently stands at 784 records).
For Shik Shak Shok he draws a little music from the ’70s, but the majority comes from the ’80s. That’s partly because it was when he was discovering the city’s music scene, and partly because by that time the records were pressed in Greece rather than Lebanon, meaning more survived. The selection he’s bringing will lean towards “belly dance music” and “psychedelic funk”. He describes belly dance clubs as “the cabarets of the Arab world” (the name Shik Shak Shok is from an iconic belly dancing song).
The music will be accompanied by visuals from Arabic movies from the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s. And to round out the experience of the seated show he’s also created a small cocktail menu inspired by “the tastes of the Mediterranean”. That means drinks such as arak- (an anise-flavoured spirit) based cocktails and Lebanese-style beers served with lemon juice in the bottom of a chilled glass. And to complete the journey, Zeidan is considering the logistics of taking phones away from patrons during the show. After all, as he says, “This show draws from a contemporary art approach. We’re talking about an experience or an installation rather than just a music show. This is a journey, and we’re going into another decade.”
OzAsia runs until November 3.