Time for some Lebanese disco. Picture a pre-civil war Lebanon: regarded as a Middle-Eastern Paris, a society making real steps towards liberation for women, fashion is picking up, Beirut has become a booming port-town. It is the rich man’s Tangiers, the architecture is a fashionable if not an uncomfortable reminder of the French Mandate – the Arab world and Europe seems to blur here. Sectarian tensions are rising, and violence is picking up. Through all this, disco with a wholly Arab formula takes shape.
So we will focus on the Rahbani family (the brothers, shown in the featured image). Not in the same all-singing, all-dancing vein as The Osmonds. There may be the odd flare trouser here and there, but it is as far from the synchronisation of that one-stop-barber-shop-family-omnishambles as it can be. This is a family that has, in many ways, dominated the Arab music scene for decades. It seems that music is no exception to the rule that, in the Middle-East, family is King.
The Rahbani brothers, a duo born in Lebanon, were well-known for their compositions which were, to Arab society as a whole, pleasingly traditional in concept. Early in their careers, they established a connection that extended as far as marriage with Arab classicist superstar Fairouz (she married the older brother, Assi Rahbani). Writing and composing for the “Jewel of Lebanon”, they cemented their musical fame. In later years, Fairouz gave birth to their son, whom they named Ziad. It is he, alongside his uncle Elias (a somewhat overlooked Rahbani brother) who began to develop another, funkier side to the family.
Liza…Liza was the first record I came across, courtesy of Uncle Elias. The title song is a monster track, worthy of Baccara or Boney M. Guitars buzz behind a hypnotic melody – a blend of Arabic and English lyrics- whilst strings sing through with utterly refreshing turns of phrase. Indeed the entire album from which it hails, also named Liza…Liza, blends psychedelicism with disco, playfully dancing between the two. It echoes the socially open-minded path Lebanon was about to embark on, had the Civil War not seized the country by the throat and forced them to postpone it. Even the album cover mirrors this move towards more liberal thinking, even fairly extensive Western influence. It depicts a topless woman, provocatively flaunting her Arab origin with a blingy gold-coloured necklace, looking seductively down her nose at us. As progressive as Beirut may have been becoming at that time, it is still a remarkably brave move from Elias, who would have been well aware of the displeasure it would surely generate from a society that was still, in significant part, made up of considerably conservative groups.
Prior to this album, Elias Rahbani developed his sound in the 1972 album Voix de L’Orient, wherein he brought Western melodies to life with Arabic instruments – the tabla (drums), the nai (flute) and the Bouzouki (Guitar). The standout track of the album is “Dance of Maria”, a punchy little number that drives its groove forward with tight drums and all but vomits exoticism, and has been used for various hip-hop samples in recent years.
Bootlegs of the tape were passed through Beirut streets, and perhaps two thousand copies made their way out of the Middle East
Moving on to the nephew, Ziad, I find myself returning to time and again to jazz-funk masterpiece Abu Ali, heavily reminiscent of Miles Davis’ A Tribute to Jack Johnson. Released at almost exactly the wrong time (the Civil War was well on its way), the song received very little commercial success. Bootlegs of the tape were passed through Beirut streets, and perhaps two thousand copies made their way out of the Middle East. The guitars have that funk twang to them, saxophones peal in and out, there’s a flickering cymbal effect. Ziad’s discography seems to be a little more extensive than that of his uncle’s- ducking into devotional work when he was a teen, to composing for his mother- but this is by far his greatest track.
There’s something quintessentially zany about the idea of Arabic Disco for me. It may simply be because disco itself is a fairly zany genre, full of cheesy little quirks. Arab Disco may not even be the right term for it, there are so many influences and varying facets to this music that the genre it’s aligned to may well do a great disservice to what it really is. Then again, I couldn’t even begin to tell you what else I’d call it, so maybe we should just leave it at that.