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Arts & Entertainment

Peter Stenshoel's album of the week: An Evening in Beirut

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When I express my joy at hearing vintage pop music in a foreign tongue, speakers of the language in question invariably say, "But how can you enjoy it if you don't understand the words?" That's a legitimate query. I can only say that I think I listen harder. Without individual words to distract me, I can focus on the beat, the arrangement, or instrumental technique. Moreover, the emotional intensity of a good singer can be heard in all languages. I can sympathize with anguished voices, celebrate with happy ones, and wonder along with awe-struck performers.

And then there are the intangibles. I once argued this point with set designer Robert Israel. He pretty much stated "never the twain shall meet" should you hope to understand a culture by hearing its longstanding musical expression without having lived among that culture for a long time. Maybe Bob's right, but I contend that music is vibration, a way of direct connection to living, beating hearts. The power of music to communicate is well understood by despots: they are always trying to control or eliminate it!

"An Evening in Beirut" was released back when that city was considered "the jewel of the Orient" and rivaled Paris, France, as a romantic destination. Those of us brought up on Beirut's ugly and tragic civil war years can be forgiven for not knowing the city's glorious heyday. This record corrects that. Side One concentrates on popular music styles of the day rendered in Arabic. I have chosen Su'ad Hashim's playful "Jar Al-Hawa" to share, because nobody is making music like this today. It has that charming lare 50s/early 60s sensibility. The liner notes consider it to be of "occidental rhythm."

Side Two is arguably more important, as it displays the traditional classical music of the region. By "classical," I mean comporting to the Arabic maqams, or tonal systems, which use more notes than the Western scale, and can sound too flat or sharp to the uninitiated ear. To hear an example of that by one of this album's singers, Najah Salam, go here.

Lebanon is still home to the Baalbeck International Festival, which yearly brings hundreds of thousands of people to the ruins of the Roman Acropolis in the Beqaa Valley.