Photo: Ely Dagher

Marjaa: The Battle of the Hotels

by Mayssa Jallad
(Ruptured Records, DL)

Marjaa: The Battle of the Hotels is an album that takes Beirut’s recent history and adds song, maps, and memories to create something so extraordinary that it gives one pause. As a piece of political music, it sits alongside Lebanese Mazen Kerbaj’s ‘minimalistic improvisation with the Israeli air force’ (Kerbaj on trumpet, the warplanes on bombs) or Checkpoint 303’s delicate songs from off-limit Palestinian villages. Marjaa is a work of reconstruction that uses modern Arabic-language song to subtle and breath-taking effect.

Based in Beirut, Mayssa Jallad is both an architectural historian and a musician. Her album revisits the division of her home city in 1976, when a fortified border (the Green Line) divided the capital into east and west sections, marking the beginning of the Lebanese civil war. The five-month Battle of the Hotels (1975-76) was fought in the city’s hotel district (the Holiday Inn was one focus).

Written in tandem with producer Fadi Tabbal, the album is in two parts: ‘Dahaliz’ is an attempt to walk in the city with the aid of a pre-war map; ‘Maaraka’ imagines being in the embattled hotels themselves. Despite this horror, the music is usually delicate. Synths, oud, a bit of guitar and percussion and vocals, and that’s it. There is very little drama, just a pervasive sadness; drones, often made by strings, pervade and contribute a feeling of tension and foreboding. As a lyrcist, Jallad is poetically laconic. One track, ‘Kharita’, from the Dahaliz section, has two just lines: ‘I walk the streets alone, in my hand a map/ That I don’t understand.’ It’s this precise, minimal weightiness that helps make Marjaa such an accomplished and unusual album.

Louise Gray

Photo: Gassian

Les Égarés

by Sissoko Segal Parisien Peirani
(Nø Førmat!, CD, LP, DL)

First, there were four virtuosi, then two star duos – kora player Ballaké Sissoko and cellist Vincent Segal; then saxophonist Émile Parisien and accordionist Vincent Peirani – and now one superb quartet. This is the first album from Sissoko Segal Parisien Peirani and one can only hope that there are more releases on the near horizon.

Les Égarés (literally, ‘the lost’, but a poetic translation would be ‘straying’) is a luminous album that ‘strays’ across musical and geographic boundaries. Bookended by two West African Manding tunes, ‘Ta Nye’ and ‘Banja’, the musicians sway into other territories, too. A loose cumbia, in the form of the jaunty ‘Esperanza’, is launched by Segal and quickly taken up by the other musicians, intricately weaving patterns around the main tune. The album is an intersection point between many musics and its gentle echoes of some of the greats – John Coltrane, Don Cherry, and Joe Zawinul – are purposeful reminders of the single currency that unites all sonic genres.

Recorded in the French Alps, there is an airy suppleness to the 10 tracks. All instrumentals (unless you count a few spontaneous chuckles of delight breaking through from one of the players), musical conversations switch this way and that between the four. The absence of percussion makes for a fluid listening experience in which one picks up rhythms in less explicit ways: the movement of the cello lines, the breaths of the accordion. ‘Banja’, the last track, ends with a crunch of accordion chords and then, after a few seconds, the delicate sound of birdsong. Perhaps the musicians wandered outside. It’s nice to think so, for the message of Les Égarés is to simply look around you and listen.

Louise Gray