We had the pleasure of speaking to Lebanese Heavy Metal Band Blaakyum. We sent questions to front-man Bassem Deaibess ahead of his talk at London's Chatham House regarding Art as Defiance in the Middle East.
Adam - I want to jump right in, If I may, and talk about your upcoming discussion taking place at Chatham House on the 5th April. You will be discussing current affairs in Lebanon, Syria and Palestine and how art gives you a medium to project these issues to a wider audience.
How difficult is it to play music in your home country, are there any dangers immediately surrounding people who wish to express themselves through art?
BD - In Lebanon, where I am from, it is not difficult to play music at all. What is difficult is to make half a decent living from anything that is not mainstream Arabic pop. There are no dangers surrounding people who wish to express themselves through art, except if their self-expression got to do with criticising the political system, including the president and political figures, or criticising religion, or if it was related to dark arts such as Gothic matters or the occult.
Adam - Are people likely to attend events or are they too concerned with the safety threat?
BD - People attend events. The problem is that most people who are into cultural music or alternative cultures are leaving the country to seek a better life abroad, so our biggest problem is emigration.
Adam - Music in this day and age relies heavily on an online audience, how difficult was it to get your music out of the middle east online, what issues did you encounter and how did you combat them?
BD - Although the age of the internet opened the door for artists to be able to reach audiences directly without the control (sometimes destructive control) of the music industry, other problems plague the online communities, first the fact that ANYONE can upload anything, means the internet is flooded with low quality untalented music. The other problem is the way the industry is trying to gain control over the internet and thus more and more terms are being added to platforms such as YouTube and Facebook which is limiting the ability of artists to reach anyone. As for the Middle East the main problem for most Middle Eastern bands is censorship that means they are usually limited to politically and socially acceptable lyrics. Those who have daring lyrics usually keep their identities hidden. But other than that we have no real issues getting our music online, except the recording process! We do not have studios dedicated to Metal, or at the least that understand how to record the genre and this leaves us with mediocre quality releases that don't show the full potential of the bands we have here.
Adam - Have you noticed more people protesting through the medium of art lately?
BD - Arts have always been a protesting tool in the Middle East, especially in Lebanon and Egypt. We have our own counter-culture Arabic music and poetry, it is not something new. We also have a vibrant Rap scene, a big graffiti scene, stand-up comedy scene... So the arts have always been a medium to protest the reality we live in.
Adam - What kind of hardships do you encounter?
BD - We live in a country where corruption is the norm, politicians are more of a mafia ruling us without our consent, while fighting among one another. Basically we are a feudal system masked as a democracy. Our country has suffered from economic crises since the end of the civil war in 1990. Add to that the fact that Lebanon was occupied by the Syrian regime up till 2005, and the constant wars and threats from Israel, we never really had any period of calm. Add to all this the refugee crises (Lebanon hosts refugees that amount to 50% of its original population). All of this we had to endure in parallel with the intolerance of our religious institutions, our government and society towards the Metal culture. Ever since 1996 we have had 3 major waves of anti-Metal "witch hunts" led by the church and conducted by the authorities and the police. Trust me, we know what hell is! We live it every day.
Adam - Blaakyum have achieved some success since forming, how did you begin your journey into music and just how difficult was it to start a band in the middle east?
It wasn't difficult to start a band at all, in fact it only took us 1 month to find each other back in 1995. Metal was relatively free at the time and finding Metalheads and musicians was just a matter of contacts and phone calls. So starting the band wasn't the problem. The difficulty was sustaining the band. For example Blaakyum passed through 5 major line-up changes since it was conceived in 1995 till the band split in 2001. After the reformation with a completely new line up in 2007, to date we had to go through 4 major line-up changes. Being in a band in the Middle East is a total sacrifice and most of the time it is not sustainable.
Adam - A major talking point of the past few years has of course been the refugee crisis, do you feel music and art can get a stronger message across to people that are so massively against helping refugees and hopefully one day change their mind?
BD - Music, especially Metal, has always tackled sensitive subjects. Arts and music can enforce these messages and empower them in a way no other form of communication can. A very interesting thing to note is that a big part of the Syrian Metal community came to Lebanon as refugees and they contributed a lot to the current growth of the Lebanese Metal Scene.
Adam - What do you feel is the main issue preventing more artists coming forward from the middle east to try create a movement?
BD - The main problem in the Middle East is the mentality of the Middle Eastern people. A lot of them do not trust each other enough to create a movement. On the other hand we have been under police states for so long that most such attempts would fail.
Adam - The talk is titled Art as Defiance, what is the most defying piece of art you have seen/heard lately?
BD - The thing that is stuck in my mind is Behemoth's Nergal’s defiance of the tyrannical Catholic church in Poland, through his incredible art.
Adam - Just how much does the political aspect of your personal life impact your music writing process?
BD - A lot. In fact, I try to some extent to not let it overwhelm my creative process. I am very political, and we live in a highly politicised world where everyone has a say and can express it. Drawing the line is sometimes difficult but also necessary.
Adam - We ask most bands what the music scene is like in their home, what is the scene like in Lebanon?
BD - Like most international scenes, the Lebanese Metal and Alternative scene passed through ups and downs. But in general and considering that it is a small country with 4 million inhabitants (now 6 million including refugees), the scene is healthy, with a lot of gigs and festivals going on, a well-established community of bands and some international acts performing. It is growing rather well.
Adam - Is there any way of immediately improving the scene? if so how?
BD - Yes there is! Pass a law protecting freedom of artistic expression and educate the people that an artist needs to be free to say whatever they want, no matter how offensive, or blasphemous.
Adam - I would like to talk about your last album 'Line of Fear' what was the writing process for the album?
BD - The writing process took a LONG time. Basically we started writing right after we released our debut in 2012, during our Eastern Europe tour that year we had already written half the album. But as usual, the financial, political and social situation in Lebanon makes recording a decent album difficult. We did not want to repeat the mistakes that we did during the debut recording, and the opportunity did not present itself until after we won the Wacken Metal Battle in Lebanon, when we were contacted by Mr. Manuele Pesaresi from Dyne Engine Studio in Italy. From there things went smoothly thanks to at the time our newly appointed manager, who made everything run like clockwork.
Adam - When you put the album out there was there any fear of threat?
BD - No. Fear is the main weapon for the establishment, the bigots, the religious... If we give in to fear, it means they won.
Adam - What kind of hate messages have you received?
BD - I do not think we received any hate messages per se. From time to time someone would pop up and tell us that "soon" we will be put back in jail because we are evil. But that's about it.
Adam - As a band you must encounter so many issues, how do you push through them and continue on your career?
BD - I really don't know. I guess living in such a region makes you resilient by nature?! I mean we just carry on... That is the only way I can think of it. We encourage ourselves. At some point I was really down and almost about to give up but our drummer and bassist at the time (Jad Feitrouni and Rany Battikh, who have now left the band) stuck by my side and literally put me back on my feet. I think it is this bond that keeps us going as Metalheads. Most of the time you are not judged the way society judges you, based on preconceived ideas.
Adam - What can we expect from you this year, any touring plans?
BD - YES!! We are putting together a UK tour now as we speak, it will be late summer 2017, we are also studying the possibility of a Europe tour.
Adam - Another question we ask bands, with recent terror attacks in major cities is there anywhere you actively try to avoid playing as of late, of course you have high experience in terror, so does this affect your decisions?
BD - Not at all. One thing you learn when you live in a volatile environment such as the Middle East and Lebanon specifically is that nowhere is safe, and nowhere is ultimately dangerous. If you're gonna die, you're gonna die, so no point really in avoiding performing anywhere. Also it is very important to note that once you start altering your plans because of terrorist attacks, you have declared victory for those terrorists, and that we will never do.
Adam - What is the worst thing you have ever experienced during your career?
BD - Being locked in a prison cell for simply being who I am.
Adam - What advice do you have for people wanting to get involved in music?
BD - Just do it... Jump in the fire, there is no other way. Oh and get a competent manager as soon as you can.
Adam - What is the best piece of advice you have ever been given?
BD - "The only way to make it is to keep performing at every opportunity you got". This was given to be by a great German journalist called Christopher Rimmele.
Adam - And what is the absolute worst?
BD - "Drink whiskey before you sing it warms up your voice". Given to me by a completely idiotic promoter in Lebanon.
Adam - What kind of work are you doing in Lebanon to help the locals?
BD - A lot of things, I had established the first Metal Pub in 2006 and have encouraged new bands to grow. But our most recent support is bringing for the first time a true Thrash Metal act to Beirut. In fact we are bringing Onslaught, the pioneers of British Thrash Metal, to Beirut on June 10 to our yearly mini-fest Skull Session.
Adam - Is there any way people can get involved to help the people of the middle east?
BD - Yes, as Metal fans they can help us by supporting our bands, buy their albums and spread the word. As promoters they can help us by helping us get gigs in Europe and the UK, and by keeping in mind that it is not as easy for us to do this, it is really hard work to get visas and travel is not always guaranteed. This also makes me think that on the cultural level, musicians in the Middle East need to have special treatment to make their lives less hellish when applying for visas.
Adam - Finally, is there any messages you want to get out there to the readers? How can they help you? What should they be aware of?
BD - Artistic expression in Lebanon is not always respected. We have a police state censorship and our artists are subject to arrests based on religious ideologies. The way anyone can help is by raising the issue and pressuring our governments to get modernised and civilised, through petitions and awareness campaigns, and by supporting our local artists.
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