Playlist #26: Elias Rahbani Tribute

Click here for the full playlist on YouTube.

Elias Rahbani was arguably one of the most influential lyricists, composers, orchestral arrangers and conductors in the Arabic-speaking world. As the youngest brother of the famed Rahbani brothers Assi and Mansour, he would soon outgrow their footsteps with his iconic orchestras and groundbreaking compositions. Writing songs for some of the region’s most iconic singers, including Fayrouz, Sabah, Melhem Barakat, Nasri Shamseddine and Majida El Roumi, Elias Rahbani’s staggering musical legacy encompasses nearly 800 songs.  

Some would argue that his most profound influence of all was on Lebanon’s disco scene in the 1960s and 70s. Blending psychedelic music with disco, he playfully danced between the two, and colourfully expanded them with Arabic melodies, Elias’ music, and it’s outward facing messages, echoed through Lebanon during the years before the civil war hit in 1975. In this playlist you’ll hear “Liza..Liza”, a perfect example of his funky masterworks that radically set him apart from his older brothers. 

Studying music at the Lebanese Academy and the National Conservatoire for Music, his promising career took a temporary nosedive when paralysis on his right hand threatened his future as a musician. Yet his career and his musical future received a significant boost when, around the age of 19, the BBC in Beirut commissioned him to record and produce a staggering 13 programmes as well as compose 40 songs. Propelling  him to an international platform, this opened the doors for him to work with some of the region’s greatest artists, starting with Nasri Shamseddine and Fayrouz. 

Alongside his productions for radio, he also composed music for numerous classic films; the most known being Habibati – حبيبتي and My Blood, Tears and Smiles دمي-  ودموعي وابتسامتي, both featured in this playlist. His compositions also included TV series like Lulu لولو  from 1974 and theatre plays; his first theatrical play “Wadi Shamseen – وادي شمسين“ saw none other than Sabah in the leading role.

We have included a varied selection of Elias’ works to showcase his eclectic musical repertoire. From the more traditional dabke infused works sung by Sabah in “Shofto Bil Anater – شفته بالقناطر”, to his melancholic work with Jaqueline in “Kif Halak Ya Asmar – كيف ”حالك يا أٍسمر  brilliantly composed for the stellar Oriental Nights  ليالي الشرق film from 1965 you will come across these and more within our selection.  

Melhem Barakat, one of Lebanon’s most famous tarab singers, worked with Elias on several works and often participated in many of the Rahbani musicals and operettas such as “Yemkin Nitla’a – يمكن نتلاقى”. Elias’ work with his orchestra is one of the holy grails of rare disco, transmitting the spirit of Beirut. His 1972 album Voix de L’Orient, in which he ingeniously brought together the tabla (drums), the nai (flute) and the bouzouki (lute) in a breakthrough sound that blended Western melodies with Eastern instruments. The standout track of the album “Dance of Maria”, with its punchy grooves and tight drums, features at the start of the playlist. His iconic music, the soundtrack to many generation’s upbringing have also most recently been used in hip-hop samples.

There’s also the patriotic “Am Bahlamak – عم بحلمك” that Majida El Roumi sang in 1980 in tribute to Lebanon, while the civil war was raging. Magida herself insists it was this song and Elias’ dramatic composition that launched her to fame. In contrast, Pascal Saqr’s “Que Sera Ma Vie” and Elias Rahbani’s “Moi Je T’aime” demonstrated his dexterity to masterfully transition between the two musical languages. 

We compiled this playlist to pay tribute to one of the most eclectic composers of the 20th century who passed away on Monday 4th January 2021. This selection serves as a testimony to the musical genius whose fearless sounds, audacious musical instrumentation and timeless tonalities have embedded themselves in the rivers of memories and personal histories since the 1960s onwards. His music will always be cherished and his spirit lives on through his timeless compositions. 

What are MARSM Playlists?

Marsm’s bi-weekly playlists take on the musical history, trends and upcoming productions from the music scene in the Arabic-speaking countries. Each playlist focuses on a new theme, showcasing both underground and established artists – from the more dance-able to the most experimental – and everything in between.