‘Safala’: how Liliane Chlela’s new album captures the 'chaos' of Lebanon

The electronic music producer returns with an uncompromising sound

Liliane Chlela describes her music as instinctual. Photo: Helene Tarabay
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How do you capture the sound of a society falling apart?

Sometimes, it can be as simple as an accordion note slammed viciously until rendered tuneless. That is what listeners will find in Bahr Ghettas, a track from Liliane Chlela’s recently released second album, Safala.

To call it uncompromising is an understatement. The album's eight songs veer from brutalising beats to ambient and tender soundscapes, channelling some of the tension and passion that has been coursing through Lebanon’s streets since nationwide protests broke out in October 2019.

These are memories engraved in Chlela’s mind and body.

The Lebanese electronic music producer was hospitalised after being injured in the first days of the protests. It was an experience that helped to sow the seeds for the anguished and ferocious sounds of Safala.

The fact the album was released weeks after Chlela moved to the Canadian city of Montreal in May is particularly poignant.

“No one really wants to leave their country,” she tells The National. “What happened in Lebanon over the past two years has been absolutely devastating.

“You are talking about the economy collapsing, the protests, then Covid-19 and the Beirut Port explosion that devastated everything and everyone."

Chlela says Beirut is being drained of culture.

“A lot of artists I know are leaving or have already left,” she says. “I am experiencing a terrible guilt trip because I escaped and there are people I know and love who are living halfway across the world with no electricity.

“It makes you think, ‘what am I doing here’?”

Not for the faint-hearted

This existential reckoning hovers over the eight tracks of Safala, recorded over a two-week period at her home studio in Beirut.

The album's opener, Charr, begins with crunching footsteps that lead to a nightmarish avalanche of searing synths and relentless beats. Zaybak W Rsas, meanwhile, is the sound of a riot in full swing: blaring sirens, and synths and beats cracking like gunfire.

The sounds are as much a reaction to what was happening on the streets of Lebanon as a reflection of Chlela’s approach in the studio.

"It is very instinctual and I am an improvisational musician," she says.

“Whatever is out there is just really the sounds I am hearing inside. What I am doing is a form of transcribing. This is why there is a sense of chaos and different landscapes to the music. It is basically a mix and match approach.”

That fierce and freewheeling mindset helped Chlela to forge her own path more than a decade ago, as one of a small number of female Lebanese indie music artists.

While she has found kindred spirits over the years through collaborative projects, such as The Butcher’s Bride (featuring Mashrou’ Leila singer Hamed Sinno), The DnB Project (with drummer Fouad Afra and bassist Bashar Farran) and Infinite Moment of Composure with producer Munma, Chlela recalls that challenges mostly came from promoters on the ground.

"Back then, I didn't know exactly where the obstacles, in terms of getting opportunities to perform, came from. At the time, I also didn't know that misogyny was a thing,” she says.

"Then again, I was never interested in being part of the chosen few or the crowd. However, it does make me sad that these same people are still the ones running things.

“The Lebanese indie music scene is very small and it is the same clique of club-owners, record label-owners and festival curators that are still there. The only difference now, with what's happening in Beirut, is that there is nothing for them to run."

Supporting the next generation of artists

But the scene, she says, will bounce back. Only this time, Chlela is ensuring the next generation of female indie artists will be ready to make their mark.

“Gender balance is what I am really focusing on right now," she says. "I am working on building a collective of women based in Lebanon, who don’t have to necessarily be Lebanese, that will provide access to different aspects of the industry.

“There will be a manifesto and the programme will be rolled out in the coming years. The aim is to provide workshops, DJing gear and a network of contacts. We have already started the process and applied for funding internationally.”

Until those plans materialise, Chlela is content to start the next chapter of her life in Montreal.

As for Safala, it may not be the most optimistic goodbye to Lebanon, but it exudes the kind of kinetic energy the country is known for.

“It’s not something you hear on a daily basis,” Chlela says.

“That’s never been the kind of feedback I look for. If it made you feel something, whether you appreciated and connected with it or even felt repulsed, that’s the reaction I want.

“Whatever that is, that is fine by me.”

Updated: July 05, 2021, 9:30 AM