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Zen Sounds 051: Ferkat Al Ard
Re-issue specialists Habibi Funk uncovered a mythical lost album from 1970's Lebanon
I don’t exactly remember when I first met Jannis Stürtz, but it has to be around 15 years ago, probably at some festival in Germany. Jannis co-ran a hip-hop label, I edited a hip-hop magazine. We both loved socially conscious rap with musical roots in soul, jazz and funk; later we would both be spending most of our time chasing rare grooves from Africa, Brazil and, in his case, the Arab world.
Jannis started his second label Habibi Funk in 2015, focusing on re-issuing obscure records from North Africa and the Middle East. At the same time, I worked on two Krautrock re-issue projects with Now-Again Records. I admired what Jannis did from a close distance, as we were still meeting regularly. Soon he asked me to write the liner notes for a Habibi Funk release: »The Electronic Tapes« consisted of rare synth recordings by Algerian composer Ahmed Malek that had been edited and overdubbed by electronic music producer Flako.
Fast forward another six years, and Habibi Funk has become a constant force on the global re-issue circuit, with a dedicated focus on post-colonial practices. I still irregularly catch up with Jannis between his worldwide DJ gigs, and this week, I came across this recent vinyl mix he recorded for the popular Youtube channel My Analog Journal.
The first song Jannis played in this set instantly blew my mind. So I did a little online research and found out that »Entazerni« comes from a legendary album by Lebanese group Ferkat Al Ard, and that a re-issue of that iconic record came out last summer on Habibi Funk. »Oghneya« had been considered a treasure in collector’s circles for decades before Jannis decided to track down band leader Issam Hajali in Beirut (who runs a jewelry shop there today).
The good thing about great music is that it doesn’t matter when you actually discover it – it’s still going to be great music. And people like Jannis will always be dedicated to unearthing these almost-forgotten gems, driven by their sheer passion and curiosity for great music.
(Habibi Funk, 1978 / 2022)
When progressive rock musician Issam Hajali first heard Bossa Nova in a Beirut bar in 1974, he instantly fell in love with the Brazilian style of music. It wasn’t uncommon to hear it in Lebanon back then, as the countries were connected through migrant streams flowing in both directions. Lebanese people traveled to Brazil and came back, bringing records with them; many Brazilian musicians in turn visited Lebanon in the early 1970’s, which is often considered the country’s »golden age«.
Lebanon, independent since World War II, had grown into a cultural hub by that time. Hajali heard many Brazilian artists play in Beirut’s lively bars, but when the Civil War broke out in 1975, the political situation became increasingly instable and dangerous. Then an ultra-left activist, Hajali fled to Paris in 1976, where he recorded his first solo album, »Mouasalat Ila Jacad El Ard«, with his friend Roger Fakhr. Before the war, Hajali had been a singer-songwriter on the cusp of pop breakthrough; now he had to work factory jobs to put food on the table.
While still in Paris, he formed the band Ferkat Al Ard with Toufic Farroukh and Elia Saba, and when he returned to Beirut a year later, he met the composer Ziad Rahbani, a son of the legendary Lebanese singer Fairouz. They bonded over a shared love for Bossa Nova and Palestinian poetry and recorded »Oghneya«, an album that is referred to in collector’s circles as the Lebanese equivalent of Brazilian composer Arthur Verocai’s iconic solo album. It was first distributed on hand-copied cassettes; a vinyl release followed with Rahbani’s help in 1979. Ferkat Al Ard went on to record two more albums; Hajali left political activism behind, but he stayed committed to writing music, even though he didn’t record anymore.
In his liner notes for the re-released »Oghneya« album, Jannis Stürtz recounts how he tracked Hajali down in Beirut in 2016. The Lebanese master wasn’t keen on focusing on the Ferkat Al Ard album, but wanted his lost solo record to be re-released first. Habibi Funk re-issued it in 2019 to raving reviews and even an unsolicited social media recommendation from Yasiin Bey (fka Mos Def). As interest around the album didn’t seem to fade even after a few years, Stürtz gave re-releasing »Oghneya« another shot – and finally made it happen.
The album combines film score-like string arrangements with funky jazz grooves and Arabic folk elements. The music bears audible traces of Brazilian genres like Bossa Nova and Tropicália, but it’s also clearly rooted in Hajali’s native Lebanon, which he learned to view through a different lens during his exile years in Paris. Rahbani’s intricate arrangements could indeed be compared to Arthur Verocai’s delicate string work, or even to the David Axelrod records from the early 1970’s. Many songs feature crispy, loose swinging drums that will appeal to any fan of classic, sample-based hip-hop production. But most of all, the album is an exciting blend of cultural influences, perspectives and emotions; hearing it 45 years after its first release only adds to the fascination.
Unfortunately, the band asked for two songs from the original album to be left off the re-release. Such things happen all the time – one of the Krautrock bands I was working with asked us to re-name all the songs on their album, as they couldn’t stand behind the original song titles anymore. (New song titles were subsequently chosen by the label owner’s young children.) So I definitely know these problems first-hand, but it’s still a bit of a downer. There’s a bonus track, »Juma’a 6 Hziran«, that landed on the re-issue in exchange for one of the songs the band requested to be left off, but I don’t think it fits the rest of the album particularly well. The recording really differs in terms of sound quality, and it doesn’t have any participation from Rahbani and Elia Saba.
Still, the re-release of »Oghneya« has to be viewed as an outstanding contribution to the global appreciation of Lebanese music. Again, if you’re into this, do check out Hajali’s solo album, Roger Fakhr’s music and the rest of the Habibi Funk back catalogue as well. Each entry in their discography is a treasure in itself – but »Oghneya« might be one of their best yet.
One more thing
As you have probably heard, Ryuichi Sakamoto passed on March 28 after a long battle with cancer. There can be no doubt he was one of the most important composers of the 20th century. My knowledge of his discography is partial to say the least, but I do love many of his pieces, from early YMO stuff to 1980’s film soundtracks, his collaborations with Alva Noto and his outstanding late solo album »async«. I recommend watching »Coda«, a documentary from 2017 that followed the musical Zen master for five years. May he rest in peace.
© 2023 Stephan Kunze