Staring at the face of the oncoming pandemic, singer and songwriter Anthony Khoury decided to take out his pen and paper.
He says writing a song for his band Adonis was a way of processing the dread he felt when in New York a month ago.
As the front-man of the popular Beirut indie-rock group Adonis, Khoury was two weeks into his business trip in the Big Apple, inspecting venues for their upcoming US tour, which was supposed to be held later in the year.
“The news was spreading that this virus had arrived in the US and it was going to have a really bad effect. I was seeing shops being ransacked and people buying all that toilet paper,” he recalls.
“I was in this bar in Brooklyn and was talking to the waiter. I was saying what will happen if I can never get home and I am stuck here? I still remember that fear and uncertainty.”
A poem for the times
Khoury channeled his feelings into composing a poem in one sitting in that bar.
Called Thoqb Aswad (Black Hole), the piece is written in classical Arabic "fusha" prose and is full of apocalyptic imagery: the sky is swallowed whole, the streets are full of echoes and "there is not much time before take-off, not even one last moment to say goodbye".
That final couplet was a premonition of Khoury’s frenzied attempts to make it back to Beirut, which he eventually did on one of the last flights to Lebanon before the country shut its borders.
After posting the poem on the band’s website upon his return, Khoury didn’t think any more of it. With all Adonis band members isolated in their own homes, the idea of doing anything creative seemed meaningless at the time.
“For two weeks I couldn’t write anything on the piano or guitar. There was just no feeling and I wasn’t creative at all,” he says. “But things changed when our guitarist (Joey Abou Jawdeh) called me and said maybe we should work on that poem and make it a song, as it reflected what we were all feeling in Beirut.”
Thus began a series of creative firsts for the group: a song composed from a poem, ditching the Lebanese dialect in favour of singing in classical Arabic and recording it all without being in a room together.
This could have resulted in a disjointed mess, but the song version of Thoqb Aswad is a sublime piece of prog-rock, and marks a great leap forward for Adonis.
Writing music 'Jenga' style
Nearly six minutes long, the song is cinematic in scope and moves from a gentle piano introduction, to acoustic folk, symphonic crescendos and a pop-rock finale.
The track’s epic nature reflects the way the band composed the song, which Khoury says, was similar to working from an online Google document.
“We tried to create a working style with the music software that we use,” he says. “So basically we are all online, the four of us in the band and the producer, and we would put our own parts down in this one file and build it from there.”
With each person adding their own part after another, this Jenga style song-writing approach resulted in Thoqb Aswad sounding full of pomp and vigour.
Intriguingly, that was the easy part. The real challenge Khoury says was to sing the song convincingly in classical Arabic.
“I had to concentrate and really focus on getting the pronunciation right. It also forced me to rethink the way I perceived the language. A lot of the time we think singing in classical Arabic is something done by artists from the past like (Lebanese singers) Fairuz and Majida El Roumi. But it made me realise that singing in fusha has its own beautiful power to it,” he says.
“Because we are so used to hearing it when someone reads a story, it gave our song that that same feeling.”
A new album is in the works
By incorporating more classical Arabic into their work, Khoury says this could result in the band forging new collaborations with regional artists.
“It will help us in working with more people who are not used to the Lebanese dialect,” he says. “We can break that barrier now and do some really new and exciting things with other great artists.”
With the song well received by the faithful, Adonis plans to continue working this way until the end of the lockdown.
“The songs are flowing and we want to create an album during this time,” he says. “I mean, I don’t think we are all leaving home anytime soon, so I think we will come out with something really interesting out of this experience.”