A Conversation with Mazen Kerbaj and Raed Yassin

One hypothesis about music as the propagation of an idea states that the manner in which individuals recognize, decode, and define propaganda develops as a result of their culture. While this phrase intuitively reads as “correct,” it is difficult to know what it means, especially within the relatively recent globalization spawned by the rise of the internet and its excess of immediate and disposable information. Do we really view information through a lens that values the social cues that are specific to our identity as a citizen of a given social group and/or politically organized nation over anything else? And, if so, does the same hold true to the way we receive, unpack, and use musical information to create?


From the rarified (read: Western) political and artistic air that most of our readers and writers breathe, art as a narrative tool to forward social, cultural, and political ideas is abstracted from day-to-day reality. The question asked here is if this affects the way we think about propaganda in the music we make and listen to; is the connection between art and narrative different, for example, for someone who has grown up in a country where intermittent periods of peace are noteworthy for their rarity as opposed to constant invasion and destruction?


Beirut, Lebanon, seemed to spring out of nowhere in the early 21st century as a center of radical new forms of art, literature, and music. One theory of origin is that a new point of view grew from a combination of European influence in the form of recordings, books, art work, etc., which were consumed in the relative isolation of the early 1980s during the siege of the Beirut by the Israeli Defense Force, a situation that continues to be replayed in Lebanon to the present day. The predominance of political and military occupation, strife, and destruction played a large part in spawning a small group of improvisers and artists that include Sharif Senhaoui, Christine Abdelnour, and, the subjects of this article, Raed Yassin and Mazen Kerbaj.


In personal conversations, both Yassin and Kerbaj are vocal, informed, and persuasive about their political beliefs. However, the way they view the relationships between those beliefs and their art subtly (and not so subtly) differs. Besides being well-known and active improvising musicians—Yassin on bass and Kerbaj on trumpet—they are both internationally recognized visual artists working in the area of installation and contemporary comics, respectively. Sound American spoke with them separately via email and Skype about how their formative years in Beirut, and how the city’s political situation and culture affected their views on music and art’s relationship to the propagation of an idea.



Both Yassin and Kerbaj received the same questions, which varied only slightly from the overarching topics for all the participants in this issue. They were (in paraphrase):



1. Is a non-political, non-narrative, “pure” music possible or desirable?


2. What are your reasons for working?


3. Does visual work naturally have more connection to narrative, storytelling?



Yassin uses his artistic practice to, with more or less consciousness, express strong ideas about mainstream art, society, economics, and politics. If simplified, his thinking falls more under the rubric, used often in this issue, of art primarily being the tool of an idea. Kerbaj, however, seems to be seeking to free himself from the need to connect his work to anything outside of pure “poetics.” The topic of music and propaganda is, purposely, one that offers very little opportunity for black and white reasoning so, of course, there is some internal conflict in both Yassin and Kerbaj’s reasoning, but the way that they answer points toward a possibility that our opening hypothesis is oversimplified.


Kerbaj, in discussion about whether a non-political music or art was possible for him, tended to focus on the notion that music possessed an innate ability to be purely abstract: that it has to exist completely separated from narrative and politics. This, he believes, is what makes music simultaneously “superior and inferior” as an art form.

Mazen Kerbaj: Photo by Tony Elieh

“I tend to think of music as a typically abstract form of art. We perceive it in a totally subjective way. In a movie or in a poem or book or whatever…you will always have the discussion of ‘what do you see?’ or ‘what did you understand?’…Even if you go to absolute abstraction in a painting you will have a discussion about what it means. As an audience, we are totally formatted to see stories in paintings and movies and literature.


These arts [film, visual art, literature] are concrete or abstract according to what you do with them or how people receive them. Music is only abstract. And this is somehow my interest in music, because of course I draw comics and do visual art, and even when I try to be very experimental and free and alternative and less figurative in the visual work, I end up being narrative. At a lower level, maybe, but I am narrative. So, in a sense, I tend to think that music is a kind of superior or inferior form of art, however you take it [laughs]. And, I really love the fact that music is limited in that way.”

This commitment to music as abstract form is not without its anomalies, however. The radical trumpet player is best known for his musically stunning and emotionally chilling solo extended technique improvisation, “Starry Night,”recorded against the sonic backdrop of Israel’s 2006 bombing of Beirut. How does a work that has become so tied in with the politics of the Middle East fit into his view of music as “only abstract”?


“Starry Night, the piece with the bombs; it becomes something, because I am specifically telling a story. It’s totally narrative. However, if I don’t say where it was recorded and under what circumstances, and I just play the recording for someone in Africa, for example, he or she may recognize the bombs, but the rest could really be anything. So, if I don’t articulate the narrative behind it of the period when Israel was bombing Beirut, etc., people could make another story with that music.


This is what I really love about music. It is so open to interpretation. You could put forty people in a concert and everyone would feel or understand or interpret or not interpret these things in their own way. In a sense it’s like a color. When someone tells you ‘the color red means violence’ it doesn’t mean anything. It’s completely subjective, of course. It could mean total peace for somebody else. It depends on your own experience, and music is like that.”


Kerbaj’s visual work—comics, both political and avant-garde—presents a different set of limitations when it comes to connecting narrative to art; limitations that ultimately boil down to process and presentation. He says, “with comics whenever you put two frames next to each other you are meant to make a connection even when there is none, so you create a narrative whether you want to or not.”


“In comics…you work on a thing for one year or something and then you are totally detached from it. It is being born in this period that you are working on it and then when it’s published it’s almost dead for you. You put it behind you and begin to work on something else, and it is this dead point where the audience discovers it. There is no real engagement with the audience.


In terms of making music, that process is totally clear. The audience is seeing the process of making music as it happens. In visual art, they just see the result, unless you are doing a performative piece. In visual art, they could ask you ‘what did you use?’ You used mixed media with gouache or whatever. But, that’s not seeing you do it. [In improvised music] the result doesn’t mean as much; it’s the process of being there and being with other musicians and this communion of sound or this way of being completely detached from yourself as a person, as an ego, as an artist and really forming a union with others.


I remember this saying about [John] Coltrane that is very interesting. He said he would really love to have albums with no liner notes. He thought that the music should speak by itself; whatever you understand is fine, but music is there and you shouldn’t try and speak about it. I read this in liner notes to a Coltrane album, which is crazy [laughs].


This brings us back to the core question: what is art and what is it for? In a sense, music is still a totally primitive art. You cannot have a proper intellectual idea conveyed by music unless you write about it and say ‘this is what I want to do,’ or they hear a bomb sound and know I am coming from Beirut and can connect the dots, but is this still music? It’s a big question.“


Raed Yassin has a more concrete view of his work’s origin. He doesn’t see the drastic separation between the musical and the visual, and there is no question about his work being related to social and political ideas.


“In my opinion, most of my work is related to politics. Even the abstract music that I make always contains a level of resistance to the mainstream politics in art. I see every artwork and every music piece as a political manifesto in itself. A black square or one thin white line, or a musical piece that consists of one tone is always highly political for me because it is fundamentally related to the language of expression. Other movements in art, society, politics, and economy are reflected within these various forms of expression, but you just have to uncover the connections and they will reveal themselves.


I have been working for several years on the periphery of events, to better reflect the situation that is happening in the ‘center.' I’ve been working in parallel lines to what society has secreted from ideas, so as to not have a direct impact on society, but to have an indirect effect that infects the whole body of the system, which could make an interesting change in the long run.”


Raed Yassin: Photo by Tony Elieh

While Yassin’s opinions are much more declamatory than his collaborator, he is quick to explain that his work is not purely a tool of a greater purpose, but simply the outcome of an engagement in living.


“Fuck the 'greater purpose.’ But, at the same time, there is something inside me that always moves me towards what I do. I feel connected to the world that surrounds me, even though my work is an act of refusal of those surroundings. As for it being a way of life, since it’s the only thing that I know how to do myself, it certainly is a way of life for me.”


Based on that statement, it was of interest to ask Yassin if he felt any groups or documents of music or art could be truly free of outside influence, if any work could be considered “pure.”


“In my view, I don’t think a musical piece or band that is totally free from outside narrative or influence actually exists. Even the most freeform pieces are always connected to some kind of system. Freedom is a relative concept. Purity is a state of mind that humanity hasn’t been able to attain yet. Any attempt to make a musical performance or composition or piece contains a musical consciousness behind it, no matter what shape that music takes. We were all born social animals, and isolation is a situation that humanity has completely lost on an abstract level.”


It’s quite clear that Yassin and Kerbaj, although they come from the same place, time, and experience—and the similarities in the work they make are abundant—have drastically different opinions about the origin of their art, and its connection to the world around them. Based on the introduction, however, both artists should be coming from roughly the same aesthetic starting point. How is this possible? Convention wants to create a gravity pulling toward some sort of reconciliation at the very least.


But, there is none. It is, to say the least, dubious to think of Mazen Kerbaj and Raed Yassin as being in agreement on this question of narrative and music. The only overarching similarity is one that is shallowly built on simple geographical identity and shared experience, a tenuous grouping considering the relatively radical differences in their views.


And, to embrace the fact that they are different can be satisfying: two people from the same culture and time period experience the same events in different ways, leading to very different philosophies and methods of working. Ultimately, if this idea didn’t exist, each locale would have a culture that was completely static and inbred. Ideas would have to be spread through the slow evolution of isolation rather than through an influx of new ideas from outside the culture and the ability of creative and critical thinking to affect those ideas. It is clear that the hypothesis of culture as the main factor in our relationship to propaganda and art is unfounded.


There is one postscript, however, that may tangentially relate to this issue’s conversation and to these participants in particular. An idea was introduced during Mazen Kerbaj’s interview that allows us to sidestep the question of culture and upbringing as it relates to propaganda and music. What if the work itself isn’t the tool of an idea, but the artist—the way they live and work and their presentation of themselves to the outside world—is the tool used to express a grand idea?


Mazen Kerbaj’s example of John Coltrane fits into this context in that the latter’s music, separated from titles, liner notes, history, or the imagery of Coltrane as proponent of spiritual African culture, is sonically, similar to early playing by Peter Brötzmann, which has a much more nihilistic detachment from all things spiritual, and Brötzmann was born in post-war Germany. While there are some similarities in sound, the large idea that each is expressing, radically different from each other, is at least partially expressed in the men, their words, and the way they have chosen to present their lives to the public.


And, to that end, perhaps the desire to find narrative or political connections in music—–whether the artist feels they are somewhat explicitly there, as Yassin does or that music is wholly without the capability of containing them, as Kerbaj says—is misguided. If the search is on for narrative, cultural, social, or political meaning, maybe we should be looking at the artist as human being, instead of the art as secondhand product.