Heavy Metal East: “Music is the weapon of the future”


Moe Hamzeh of The Kordz during the Cedar Revolution, photo by Lynsey Addario

In 2007, the documentary Heavy Metal in Baghdad chronicled the trials of Acrassicauda, dubbed “Iraq’s only heavy metal band.” No doubt many did a double take at trying to reconcile visions of headbangers with environs like Iraq or Lebanon.

Part of that surprise comes from the tremendous heaping pile of bullshit out there about the Middle East. This is, in mass-media world, the land of They. Here is one teeming mass of zealots, driven as by incomprehensible creeds towards destroying you, dear viewer. Fear! Cower!

This is a lie. Growing from the very real repression and devastation faced in these lands, metal of all varieties is thriving from North Africa to Pakistan. As Moroccan metal founding father Reda Zine proclaimed: “we play heavy metal because our lives are heavy metal.”

The resulting fusion sounds both old and new. Middle Eastern metalheads have gathered in the hundreds of thousands, rivaling the Islamist rallies that induce so much hand-wringing in the West. In defense of the most basic freedoms they’ve had showdowns with dictators and fundamentalists. Sometimes, they win.


Elgar, Pooyan and Fasrshid at the Desert Rock Festival. Photo by Megan Hirons.

In the West, critics and popular imagination have long dismissed metal as unserious, adolescent stuff. Across the ocean, forget it: this is one of the gutsiest musical movements in the world — and they mean every damn word.

And now, from Alexandria, Massive Scar Era…

For contrast, Lebanese band Oath to Vanquish…

…and lastly, yes, Acrassicauda.

“We need to have peace, even just to have these guys come over for a show in Tel Aviv.”
-Israeli music writer Alon Miasnikov, on Oath to Vanquish

“From a very early age we were taught to take sides, to differentiate between ourselves and the other sects and ethnicities. But at the same time I started to love rock n’ roll, I started to ask questions, such as ‘Why are we fighting?’ ‘Why would I hate a Christian?’ ‘What’s the difference between us?’ And this made me doubt everything and question everything, challenging everybody.”
-Moe Hamzeh, in Mark LeVine’s Heavy Metal Islam

Hamzeh was looking out over 1 million people — a mass that had, peacefully, finally gotten Syria to end its 30-year long occupation of Lebanon. In a meme-spreading effort, U.S. State Department types immediately dubbed it the Cedar Revolution. For the Lebanese it was the “Independence Uprising” or the “Cedar Spring.” He later recalled to LeVine that he felt “there was really a chance for a sincere change, the kind Bob Marley sang about in ‘Redemption Song.’”

The Kordz and Lebanese metal scene put fire in the Cedar Spring’s veins: their fans showing up in droves to the protests. They took the lead in part because the older generation, embittered by years of war and occupation, didn’t believe that sort of change was possible.

But, like the Prague Spring before it, for all that the Cedar protesters accomplished, they also saw their grandest dreams dashed by political infighting and the monumentally stupid July War.

Take that into account when you hear Hamzeh croon, almost cheerily “Don’t you know we’re gonna die/so stop counting the ways/Let us live while we’re alive” Consider where and of what he speaks. There’s blood in those words.

And not just in Lebanon. In Gaza, British reporter Johann Hari finds the kids not brainwashed Hamas-bots, but spouting Metallica (“I am dying to live/Cry out/I’m trapped under ice”) and stashing CDs and T-shirts away from Hamas’ fanatics.

LeVine’s book, while somewhat mistitled (Israeli musicians play an important role, as do Maronite and Coptic Christians) is the best chronicle out there on this movement. He goes doggedly from Morocco to Pakistan to make sense of it, providing a Rosetta Stone to an oft-ignored musical world in the process.

There’s a panoply of cultures in the Middle East, and their musical styles and ways of adapting to the repression they face vary accordingly. More than one country has had “Satanic Metal Affairs,” a diplomatic-sounding phrase that roughly translates to “the powers-that-be got scared of the metalheads and started beating the shit out of them.” In 1997, Egypt’s Grand Mufti called for the death penalty if the “metaliens” didn’t repent. The police promptly arrested over 100 of them, crushing the scene there for almost a decade.

But the bastards don’t always win. In 2003, Morocco’s government convicted 14 metal fans and musicians on charges like “shaking the foundations of Islam” and being “satanists who recruited for an international cult of devil-worship.” This time, however, the would-be victims fought back, staging massive rallies and concerts outside the court-house. The backlash got international media attention, and the prisoners went free.

The music seems to find a way to get out. Iran’s regime is among the most repressive, forcibly cutting metal fan’s hair and crushing concerts outright. So the bands take it online, like this particularly raw piece from Arthimoth:

It’s easy to see what they’re afraid of. If Egyptian metal musicians rave about Israeli band Orphaned Land, and Israelis about Lebanese metal, then the terminal dividing lines that benefit generals and dictators begin to blur. The fates of Eastern Europe’s tyrants are not that far away in history: often change is only an anthem away.

The dividing lines between styles have also blurred. Middle eastern metal overlaps considerably with the hip-hop and punk scenes, especially in Palestine and Israel, encompassing everything from Massive Scar Era’s symphonic rallying cries to Arthimoth’s primal growls. It was, after all, late Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti who coined the “music is the weapon of the future” slogan that’s become popular among Hamzeh and his friends.

There’s something refreshing, in a way, about these bands and artist’s faith in music to change even the worst kind of world. That’s a belief that seems long lost in the West, where music is too often viewed as niche or ironic, divorced from the tears and sweat of the world. It shouldn’t be so. The sheer courage required for Massive Scar Era or Sabreena Da Witch just to take the stage is a reminder that it doesn’t have to be.

It is also a reminder that alternative cultures have no borders, and that globalization doesn’t move in just one direction. Thirty years from now, metalheads worldwide may remember a day when a faltering genre was revived by powerful new influences. When it comes to the human need to be moved by song or cry out in rage, there is no They.

30 Responses to “Heavy Metal East: “Music is the weapon of the future””

  1. Rex Parker Says:

    This may seem beside the point, but I don’t think anyone has fully accounted for the importance that hip-hop has played in paving the way for the election of Barack Obama. Which is to say, musical genres (and the cultures that grow up around them) that are derided and mocked and caricatured by those in power can have a perception-changing force that even war or legislation can’t touch.

    Not always, but sometimes…

    rp

  2. Jerem Morrow Says:

    THERE IS NO FUCKING “THEY”.

    D, let’s have Middle Eastern Metal babies, you and I.

  3. Abigail Says:

    Loved this! Could really relate as an Asian (though not living in the Middle East). For many of us, we live under repressive governments/societies (especially when compared to the West – I really envy the kind of freedoms you guys have, esp political freedom) and for me personally alternative music and culture have been the gateways to living life on my own terms – thinking truly as an individual and refusing to conform to ways of life that I do not agree with – even if social pressure is truly overwhelming (and it is).

  4. Heavy Metal East: “Music is the weapon of the future” « &¶ Says:

    [...] piece on the growing heavy metal culture in the Middle East is up on Coilhouse: In 2007, the documentary Heavy Metal in Baghdad chronicled the trials of [...]

  5. Lydia Says:

    The photo of the man in the Metallica shirt and the woman throwing the horns is going to make me happy for the rest of the week. This was a fantastic article. Thank you.

  6. Mer Says:

    Incredible piece, David. Thank you again.

    Abigail, very curious to know, where are you writing us from? Thanks for reading! We’re glad you’re here.

    Rex, there are quite a few articles out there that touch on hip hop and B-Rock, check it out:

    http://www.chicagotribune.com/entertainment/music/chi-hip-hop-cover-1109nov09,0,463586.story

    http://socialistworker.org/2008/10/28/hip-hop-speaks-for-obama

    http://www.observer.com/2008/obama-s-hip-hop-admirers

    http://www.cnn.com/2007/POLITICS/08/17/obama.hip.hop/index.html

    But yes, I agree that it’d be great to see a more in depth, comprehensive perspective on the phenomenon than what, say, CNN can provide.

  7. Stephanie Says:

    I’m sure many of you have read/seen Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi but this article reminded me of her story when she was rockin out to iron maiden when she was a teen in iran!

    http://www.sonypictures.com/classics/persepolis/

  8. R. Says:

    This was a brilliant article. I agree with Lydia about the picture of the man and woman. That is great.

  9. Shay Says:

    Great piece. I’m glad Orphaned Land got name dropped, because really, what’s even more surprising than finding metal fans in the Muslim world, which can always be dismissed as American soft power, is finding Israeli metal fans in the Muslim world. This, to me, proves without a doubt that it’s all about the music.

    I’ve heard Lebanon also has a small but thriving Industrial scene, though I’m afraid we here have never been in contact with them.

    I did, however, get in touch with freetekno ravers/travellers in and around the middle east, and just a few weeks ago freeparty travellers from all over the world travelled to Jordan to party at the first MiddleEastTek teknival.
    I sadly couldn’t be there, and while not that many people showed (it was mostly Israelis and European as well as some Beduin from my understanding), it’s still significant.
    Music has the power to cross amazing divides.. Sadly, though, while it’s cool that such things exist at all, we must remember that in most of these places, these are very small minorities of outcasts who are into western music styles. It’s not like you open Al-Manhar radio and hear Metallica playing. Very small and sidelined — But Coilhosue is all about spotlighting the altculture, so again, I’m glad this got a piece.

  10. Sterlingspider Says:

    Ahh those beautiful strong nosed, high cheekboned, goateed, black shirt wearing, wire-cord necked, head bobbing, gravel throated, muscley forearmed metal boys… this takes me back to every boy I loved in my high school and college days, and in fact the gentleman in green holding up the Iron Maiden banner could be my current boyfriend’s long lost identical triplet (he already has an identical twin).

    The woman throwing the horns is awesomeness personified. Metal was the framework for my life for a very long time and at points I think it might have been the only thing holding me up. It’s always amazed me how much positive power it has, and it’s beautiful to see that sort of connection to people whose lives I couldn’t possibly imagine.

  11. Nadya Says:

    Shay: OH MY GOD! Lebanon industrial scene! That is so, so, so cool. I would go there just to research this. Wow! I am excited and inspired reading this post about metal, but since industrial is really “my scene,” it would be so amazing to learn about and experience how it manifests itself in the Middle East.

  12. Tequila Says:

    Always good to hear music actually cutting across social, political, & religious lines. Sounds like it’s actually getting a generation to think beyond what they’re told. Iran has had that mini-revolution for a while though in that so many of the young don’t really march in lock step to the ideals and mandates of the old. Music can be that release and catalyst for so many great things…we’ve totally forgotten that in the west. Music is now more of a dividing line of scenes and styles and marketed mainly as a product not an art. Hopefully this reminds us WHY we need music as a voice not just as entertainment.

    Still we all know it’s the minority within the majority that dictate most of the fundamentalist thought. It only takes 1 to 2% to use the violence we see each day and screw it up for all. If this music oriented minority can wrestle that percentage of idiots down…we’ll really have something!

    Curious what would happen if nations with repressive regimes truly lost control of the internet and media outlets for ONE day. We’d have a totally different world the next…China sure as hell wouldn’t be the same that’s for sure. I’ve no doubt Iran will change in our lifetime for the better…but the unknown factor in all this is will music like metal give these nations a way to communicate with “traditional enemies” or become another avenue to exploit like it has in the west. Look at Christian Rock…the world doesn’t need another abomination like that.

  13. cappy Says:

    Wonderful peace — I heard Henry Rollins talk about this kind of stuff one time, when he took a trip to Iran a year or so ago: “Normal fucking people, doing normal fucking things — buying food in Supermarkets, listening to rap music, going to work. Nothing like the bullshit you see on the news.”

  14. Walid Says:

    Nice article.

    The middle/metal eastern youth are asking for nothing but peace.

    http://www.myspace.com/kaoteon
    http://www.metalje.com for more information about Metal in Lebanon.

  15. creativename Says:

    Awesome article!

  16. k paul blume Says:

    Was actually paging through the hard-copy version of this yesterday at the library for which I toil. Though I have my doubts whether Megadeth will ever play downtown Baghdad, it comes as little surprise that Lebanon has birthed its own, indigenous Industrial scene…decades of machine gun fire having shaped (like an i.e.d. charge) the local aesthetic.

  17. Greg The Bunny Says:

    “THERE IS NO FUCKING “THEY”.”

    That needs to be on the first Coilhouse Magazine t-shirt.

  18. Price Says:

    Very awesome piece, glad I spent the time to actually read something during my day. I love how you highlight the fact that it’s a way of life, and that it’s what gives these artists character and identification, rather than the bullshit that is around them and that they are being pontificated on.

  19. Shay Says:

    @Nadya During the 2006 war, I frequented an interweb bulletin board co-op between Lebanese and Israelis. Apparently, a lot of Lebanese have a very similar mindset to Israelis, Beirut being the equivalent of Tel-Aviv as a seaside party town, cultural hub and sin city.
    Unfortunately, Lebanon happens to have significantly more crazies then we do and a fucked up weak form of government so they get constantly shat on by every player in the region – and mostly by themselves. July 2006 was supposed to be the month when the first issue of TimeOut Beirut magazine goes to print. Obviously, that didn’t happen, but I think they did start pushing issues out this summer.
    So, yeah, I don’t know if they’ve got several weekly Industrial parties running like we do (and like I said, I never managed to make contact with any goff/rivets from there at all, which is a bit telling), but they’ve definitely got at least some cool shit going on up there ;)

  20. David Forbes Says:

    Thank you everyone for the good words and intelligent responses.

    Rex Parker: Drat! My next article was going to be on the decisive role Irish folk singers played in the election, but clearly me focus was off.

    musical genres (and the cultures that grow up around them) that are derided and mocked and caricatured by those in power can have a perception-changing force that even war or legislation can’t touch.

    Joking aside though, amen to that. Plenty of metal and hip-hop artists, of course, have often made it pretty easy to be mocked and caricatured, but there’s some real power in both genres and it’s good to see that come out, both in the US and elsewhere.

    Jerem: Sure thing. You bring the booze I’ll provide the bed. Our metal bastard childrens will be GLORIOUS!

    Abigail: If I may, where do you live? Thank you for your comment. Hearing things like that gives me hope for the world.

    Lydia: Agreed. It’s a simple, powerful image that breaks a lot of stereotypes.

    Mer: Thanks, Mer. Doubly thanks for those links. You’re right, it’s a whole facet of the culture that does need deeper examination. Personally, it feels good to see hip-hop get more politicized again.

    Stephanie: I haven’t seen Persepolis yet. Will have to soon.

    Shay: Thank you. Kudos for pointing out that the rave/electronica scene has also made inroads in the middle east. Music does have some amazing power to cross those old divides that all the experts chalk up to “eternal grievances” or some such b.s. On that note, judging by the numbers of metalheads that came out in Morocco (equalling the massive Islamist demonstrations) and the Cedar Spring, I think they’ve gone a bit beyond a very small outcast group, at least in some areas.

    While unfortunately this piece wasn’t the place to go into it, LeVine does have a fair amount of detail about how the major oil sheik-owned music labels in the Middle East do their damndest to keep metal, foreign or local, off the airwaves. Sadly, rapacious corporate greed and fear also straddle cultural lines.

    Sterlingspider: Apparently, LeVine also found some middle-eastern metalheads congregating at a Hardee’s and sneaking beers afterwards. That took me back.

    While never exactly a metalhead myself, many of my teenage-years friends were. It was some of the only non-pop-dreck music playing on the radio in my hometown and did provide part of a healthy angry soundtrack to my growing-up days, enough for me to still appreciate how fucking awesome it can be.

    Nadya: “A Coilhouse Exclusive! In Search of Lebanon’s Industrial Scene, with your host, Nadya Lev” I can’t wait.

    Tequlia: Exactly. The exceptions, for better and worse, end up making the rules. It’s a point lost in a lot of the blather about the Middle East, but with rare exception, the fundamentalists are never actually that large a portion of the population. Most people (surprise, surprise) want to survive, provide for their loved ones and scrape out some measure of meaning in their lives. The metalheads are just as much of a real and natural part of the Middle East’s culture, and there are plenty of them too.

    Take heart. The day may be coming.

    cappy: As with many things, Rollins has a damn good point.

    Walid: Many thanks, especially for the links. The more information out there about this, the better.

    You’re right. That’s another thing that’s impressed me about this subculture: its members sincere desire to break past the old boundaries and live their lives, as they wish, in peace.

    blume: Baghdad is doubtful, but Beirut, Amman, Alexandria or Cairo aren’t out of the question in future years. Maybe by they’ll have to compete with the Lebanese industrial festival for space. Here’s hoping.

    Greg: Well that made me outright grin.

    Price: I thought it was an important point. Hamzeh’s quote stuck with me while I wrote. I think cultures like this can serve as the best kind of gateway drug: a kid gets into them, realizes that what’s forbidden isn’t that bad and finds a lot of strength. After that barrier is broken, it’s easier to start questioning a lot of the other bullshit around them. As they grow up, they do so with a far different outlook. This kind of rebellion’s as old as the opposable thumb — and just as essential to human survival.

  21. Shay Says:

    @David – You might find this thread from the local drum n bass forum enlightening.

  22. Nadya Says:

    Shay, that’s a brilliant thread!

    “The idea of a gig together is fucking amazing! If our politicians cant solve problems, well we cant as well. but it doesnt mean that we cannot share the free party spirit and party together. Let the corrupted people have their own world and i would do my best to ignore them.”

    “hey guyz… there is an important factor that is missing in both topics…here and kaotik system forum and that is …Palestinian artists…we cannot go forward with this if we dont gather all those like minded people from all over the region…or else this would only be another party… the sence and the cause of it fades away…so as I was saying…we need palestinians also to be involved..”

    Bless.

  23. Tequila Says:

    @Cappy…Rollins did a series for IFC where he traveled to places like Belfast, S.Africa, New Orleans, Israel, etc. and did his infamously funny one man shows. What’s great about them is he gets an outsiders views through the eyes of locals. A down and dirty history lesson via the pulse of those living there as opposed to just media soundbites. Each episode is broken up between performance bits with an audience and footage of him with a local traveling around. Worth checking out.

  24. Shay Says:

    Thanks Nadya. Good people on that board.

    Except for the Kaotik Soundsystem people, I know all the people on that thread personally, and I’m proud to call many of them my friends.

  25. Io Says:

    I wish more people could see this. I think that people in this country and in much of the rest of the world, view most of the Middle East as a monolith of fanaticism and backwardness. They see governments and extremists but never the everyday people — the people who share the same kind of diversity of ideas and interests as anyone else on this planet.

    Whenever I think of the recent war cries especially with regard to Iran, I also think of the thousands of students there who are already protesting and working toward social and political change. I think of a culture that has historically been one of the most diverse and literate in the world, and I hold out hope that they can return to that on their own. One thing I am certain of, however, is that war would only undermine or even destroy the pull of the people toward something better.

    To me, this is just another sign of that drive, and though there’s still a long way to go, it gives me a great deal of hope.

  26. k paul blume Says:

    The following item from The Futurist Top Ten Future Developments might prove relevant:
    9. The Middle East will become more secular while religious influence in China will grow. Popular support for religious government is declining in places like Iraq, according to a University of Michigan study. The researchers report that in 2004 only one-fourth of respondents polled believed that Iraq would be a better place if religion and politics were separated. By 2007, that proportion was one-third. Separate reports indicate that religion in China will likely increase as an indirect result of economic activity and globalization. -World Trends & Forecasts, Nov-Dec 2007, p. 10

  27. Goat Says:

    Shay mentions an (alleged) Israeli industrial scene; to go further underground, I can attest to a very active Israeli ambient/noise/powerelectronics scene as well, whose godfather is Vadim Gusis (Chaos As Shelter/Agnivolok).

    It always has been all about the music. Loud is its own language.

  28. Shay Says:

    @Goat – Since I live here, I’m pretty sure you can take my word for it, there’s a very active Industrial / EBM scene in Israel with a constant flow of events. I’m not sure if this is actually surprising, seeing as unlike Morocco or Egypt, Israel is a liberal democracy with a very significant cultural adoption of the west. We have our emo scum and our krushing rivetheads like everyone else ;)

    I also happen to be friendly with much of the noize scene in Israel. Just a couple of nights ago we had Moljebka Pvlse and Črno Klank playing with some of Israel’s finest.

    Speaking of which be sure to check out Ron_Zed DIY Records for some of my personal favorites in Israeli noize. Ta. :)

  29. m1k3y Says:

    \m/

  30. Jenny G. Bowen Says:

    Really nice piece David. :-)

    As Rex Parker first pointed out –
    In America, hip-hop and the new music that is emerging from that subculture (Girl Talk would be an example) are genres of music that are capable of incorporating future generations into emerging global recognitions rather than retaining past aggressions residual from previous generations. As the artist Nas (arguably best rapper of all time) said on his latest album ‘NIGGER’:

    We in chronic need of a second look of the law books
    And the whole race dichotomy
    Too many rappers, athletes, and actors
    But not enough niggas in NASA
    Who give you the latest dances, trends, and fashion
    But when it comes to residuals, they look past us
    Woven into the fabric, they can’t stand us
    Even in white tee’s, blue jeans, and red bandanas

    True dat. But hip-hop artists helped bridge a hug gap in our history’s culture and we now have a black President-Elect. Hopefully we will see art uplift even more people in our society & cultures.

    As David Forbes points out in this article, “often change is only an anthem away”. Art has the ability to reach across borders and to connect to our universal sensations in essence of humanity. Be it Middle Eastern Metal or American Hip-Hop, this emergence of global art and creative sub-cultures gives me a hope for the future. Too often when you watch media news you see hate, fear, & loathing against people living on this planet but in a different world. Here we see a chance for the artists emerging from the Millennial generation to go forward and unite & conquer with art, rather than divide & destroy with politics.

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