By C. Taylor Ross
A Lebanese friend leads me, an American grad student from California, into a small Hamra bar, neatly tucked away in a grungy alley in Beirut. We descend a cramped stair case in the back, which leads into a small seven by seven meter room, filled with enough people to send a US fir e-marshal into convulsions, and enough cigarette smoke to have the area classified as “suicidal” by the American Cancer Society. The room is too crowded for us to make it down the staircase, so we flag the bartender to get some drinks and have a seat on the stairs. I’m not sure what to expect on my first night out in the Middle East, but I know I’m in for a night of rock and roll.
Before we could finish our beers, JLP walks onto the stage and does a final prep of their gear. Boudy Boustany, the lead singer, uses the time to ask for requests and tease the crowd about their taste in music, building a rapport with an audience who seems to already love him. Now set up in their comfort zone, JLP is a five-member mostly-acoustic cover band playing the best in rock, pop, alternative, and oldies. The band is comprised of Boudy Boustany on vocals, Ramzi Ramman on guitar and vocals, Ghassan Bouz and Ziad Ramman on percussion, and Joe Mokbel on the bass guitar. The Ramman brothers aren’t twins, but are so similar looking that they often get mistaken for each other.
The band begins the night by performing Pear l J am’s “Jeremy,” and then continues through a panacea of classic and contemporary rock songs. The energy in the room seems to pick up with each and every song; the stair s ar e no longer stair s, but fifteen miniatur e dance floor s on which about twenty-five drunk twenty-somethings’ attempt to accomplish both dancing and balancing – with sur pr ising success. After just a few songs the temperature in this tiny room begins to soar, as more and more drunk and debaucherous people begin convulsing to the music. Before long this little club is hotter than a bedroom full of Satan’s seventy-two smoking-hot mistresses, and Jesus himself couldn’t drag me out of here.
Their stage presence carries a playful joie de vivre, moderated by eloquent musical composition. A few songs into their set JLP performed an exemplary version of Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall,” which by any reasonable standard unabashedly shamed the original. The dreary and half-impassioned vocals of David Gilmour and Roger Water s hardly compared to the vibrant, diamond-like, piercing, vocals of Boustany. Listening to Pink Floyd’s version of the song has always left me feeling as if there was nothing deeper in the words than the ignoble angst of some sluggish hippies – who were followed by a bunch of going-nowhere fans as if their words were at all remarkable and revolutionary. The JLP version of the song, however, breathed refreshing life into Pink Floyd’s over-glorified anthem of anti-intellectualism. In this small venue in Beirut, “Another Brick in the Wall” finally reached its potential as an art-piece of revolutionary energy and passion. Perhaps it was only in the beautiful youth of Beirut, struggling against the overpowering forces of sectarian enculturation and parochialism which have permeated this country for decades, that a song like “Another Brick in the Wall” could ever be infused with the meaning it has always pretended to have. The throaty screams of Boustany, and the crackles in his voice, brought visions to my mind of concrete being violently shaken, slowly breaking apart, sending rubble and dust into the air, as he and the crowd sung in harmony:
“We don’t need no education…
We don’t need no thought control…
No dark sarcasm in the classroom…”
Here, tonight, these words embodied something near and dear to the hearts of the people in that room; they were words that aimed to tear down walls between people – they were words that aimed to separate the future of the youth from the histories of their parents. Pink Floyd gave birth to a drearily sung still-born – JLP vibrantly brought the child to life. It was like watching a star being born, not from the ashes of something old and great, but from the branded footprints of something false and commercialized: this was a new kind of phoenix.
As the band finished their last song I made my way down the stairs to the stage, shook their hands, and thanked them for their performance. My friend and I paid our tab and meandered out into the early morning air. The sultry summer breeze cooled our salty skin, as we bid our friends farewell. We slowly stumbled back toward home, through the deserted alleyways of Beirut, passing numerous armored personnel carriers, anti-aircraft guns, and constructions projects – perhaps standing as symbols of the struggle between the past and the future of this beautiful city. JLP play regularly throughout the greater Beirut area, especially Hamra, and were featured in the 2011 Beirut Music and Art Festival.