For a small, mainly mountainous country located at the eastern edge of the Mediterranean and home to fewer than four million people, Lebanon packs in a lot of music. Along with Cairo, Beirut is one of the powerhouses of Arabic music production. Famously liberal and cosmopolitan before the 15-year civil war that all but obliterated its infrastructure, the Beirut music scene has proved characteristically resilient, and once again music pours out of this collage of shattered colonial architecture and bombed-out tower blocks nestling against brand new malls and coffee shops. So chic it hurts, Lebanese style is envied and resented by much of the rest of the Arab world.
Beyond Beirut, however, folk styles are still very much alive in Lebanon. The typical Lebanese folk dance, dabkeliterally "stomping of the feet"is a dance of community, and the national dance. As a folk style it was brought to contemporary relevance by such singers as Zaki Nassif, Nasri Shamseddine and Fairouz, a national icon. Fairouz is second only to the great Oum Kalthoum in her emotional power, and like that of the Egyptian diva, the dramas of her career, life and music have become entwined with that of her homeland. Fairouz's refusal to leave Lebanon during the civil war won her the undying admiration of the Lebanese people and confirmed her place in the national mythology.
Born Nuhad Haddad in Beirut in 1935, Fairouz began her singing career at 17. She rode the wave of a national folklore movement in the 1960s and '70s, alongside singers such as Sabah and Wadi' al-Safi, performing as part of the state-sponsored Lebanese Folk Troupe. She performed in masrahiyyah musical plays, which, for the most part, were written by the Rahbani Brothers. Mansour took care of the lyrics, while Fairouz's sometime husband Assi wrote the music. The Rahbanis' compositions for Fairouz were innovative in their synthesis of stylesbringing Western keys to Arabic musicand in their down-to-earth language. With a voice that has been described as muk hmali, or "like velvet," Fairouz has recorded more than 800 songs, expressing romantic love, nostalgia for village life and her homeland. Since the death of Assi Rahbani, for some years now Fairouz has sung and recorded compositions by her son, Ziad Rahbani, who brings to her performances caustic humor and a quirky jazz piano.
The general arts scene is very vibrant in Lebanon, with two international cultural festivals in the summer months: the Baalbeck festival which takes place in the Roman temples of Jupiter and Bacchus 50 miles outside Beirut; and the Beittedine Festival, which is held in the glorious 19th-century Beiteddine Palace. In addition to the international performers, the 2005 Beittedine Festival featured one of the luminaries of the Lebanese intellectual and artistic scene, Marcel Khalife. Bringing an intellectual rigor to the music as well as a distinct political engagement, the oud player, singer and composer Khalife has been dubbed the Lebanese Bob Dylan. He tours extensively and was closely associated with the late Palestinian-American writer Edward Said.
In the pop field the Lebanese believe in mass-production, and there is a new artist literally every couple of weeks. With the proliferation of pop channels, and also talent shows such as Star Academy and Superstar, young singers seem to mushroom overnight. One of the more durable artists is the sophisticated crooner Ragheb Alama, who has 13 albums to his name. Carole Samaha carries something of the Fairouz torch in that her background is in musical theater, while Nawal al Zoghbi was one of the first female singers to ride the music-video revolutionand managed to do so with her dignity intactwith her often Spanish-tinged, light Lebanese pop songs. One of the more highly regarded pop performers is Najwa Karam who combines modern pop with the jebeli mountain style, and who gained kudos recently by recording a duet with the veteran Wadih el Safi.
At the more disposable end of the scale: the 4 Cats are a girl group with shifting members and dubious vocals, while ex-model and sex symbol Haife Wehbe finds herself the frequent butt of unsavory jokes. Another pop singer, Maria, gained the nickname "cornflakes" after appearing in a video clip in a bath of breakfast cereal. All these singers churn out shiny, radio-friendly pop. One singer has transcended the school of throwaway music to become a superstar in recent years: Nancy Ajram. With her third album, Ya Salam, the college student from the Achrafieh district of Beirut broke through, and her combination of cheeky vocals and little-girl-lost looks propelled her to pan-Arab stardom, with particular success in Egypt, where the record-buying public is traditionally fascinated by, but dismissive of, Lebanese talent.
Beirut is a city that likes to party with an enthusiasm bordering on desperation. Consequently dance music is big, either at the underground superclub B018 (named for a former music studio in Christian East Beirut that played music loud enough to drown out the shooting during the war), or in the many bars along Monot Street. Star DJs have started to make their own music, and Said Mrad can justly claim to have invented what is now called "Oriental beats": classic Arabic songs remixed for the dance-floor. He is probably the Middle East's biggest homegrown DJ/producer, while REG Project and composer/keyboardist Guy Manoukian plough a furrow of accessible oriental house. Dance outfit Beirut Biloma's dance tracks feature rap vocals, and hip-hop is a fast-expanding phenomenon in Beirut. Political, cheeky and dazzlingly multilingual (sentences in Beirut can travel through four languages), rap crews such as rivals Aksser and Kitaayoun are noisily articulating the aspirations and frustrations of a new Lebanese generation. Tom Jackson