When Kimaera released their version of Beirut Set El Donya, they got more than they bargained for.
To mark their 20th anniversary, the Lebanese metal band recorded a powerful cover of the patriotic 1995 song by Majida Al Roumi, complete with a stirring, gothic-inspired video.
The band’s fans in Lebanon were enthralled. They praised the reimagining of a track that resonates with their homeland’s current crisis, in a genre they love. It was so popular, the song was broadcast on mainstream Lebanese television.
However, the woman behind the original wants it scratched off the record.
On November 6, El Roumi's management stated an intention to file a copyright claim against Kimaera for their unofficial use of the song and producing a video screened on television without permission.
The statement, available on El Roumi's official Instagram account, also criticised Kimaera's aggressive musical take on the track: "It is a hybrid work that spreads violence and blackness and includes strange sounds and melodies that aroused astonishment."
El Roumi's management did not respond to The National's request for comment regarding her position and a potential lawsuit.
While Kimaera said they could not comment on the case pending legal action, keyboardist Charbel Abboud says the song has received the kind of attention the band could have only previously dreamt of.
“The video doubled its number of views within two days of what happened,” he says, from Beirut. “I think the more people see it, they will understand our artistic intentions.”
The same old song
For Abboud, the present predicament presents a long-held misunderstanding about heavy metal.
Though the genre boasts strong scenes in Lebanon, Egypt, UAE and even Saudi Arabia, he believes fans and artists have been stigmatised by those within and outside the entertainment industry ever since metal emerged in the Middle East in the mid-1990s.
“It has always been a genre that some people or organisations just couldn’t get a hold of or understand,” he says. “So you get these labels that think what we are doing is not music, [they believe] it’s blasphemous or it creates trouble.”
A listen of Kimaera's cover reveals there is more to the song than sheer black noise.
While built on death metal fundamentals, such as pummelling kick drums, ferocious riffs, down-tuned bass lines and growled vocals, the song is marked by symphonic and orchestral flourishes courtesy of operatic vocals by guest artist Cheryl Khayrallah and Abboud’s keyboards.
“We didn’t want to totally go away from the original composition, which is beautiful and haunting,” he says. “We wanted to show that sound, but presented in our way.”
The choice to cover such an renowned song was not designed to ruffle feathers, Abboud says, but to act as a bridge to those unfamiliar with the genre.
So did it work?
“In some ways, yes,” he says. “A lot of people told us they were interested and curious about the way we did the song. Others may not have totally enjoyed it, but they found it interesting.”
Kimaera have been posting these reactions on their Instagram account, including hilarious responses from those surprised once the song’s languid introduction is smashed by the sudden onslaught of guitars.
When it comes to criticism from listeners, Abboud says it was as predictable as it is demoralising.
“It’s the same thing that many of us metal bands hear in Lebanon,” he says. “They claim the song is blasphemous because of the growling vocals or that the song doesn’t represent Lebanon.”
Abboud takes particular offence at the latter charge.
"Tell me, what does that even mean?" he says. "There are many things that make up Lebanese culture. Because we wear black and play a particular kind of music, we don't represent Lebanon? That's like saying great artists who perform belly dancing are not Lebanese because they are half naked."
Arguably, no western music genre is more misunderstood than heavy metal. From the uniform black shirts to the long hair and tattoos that come with the scene, its sounds and its musicians have always been viewed as outside the norm.
Keeping it underground
“I remember 20 years ago, you couldn’t walk out on the streets of Beirut if you looked like that,” says Bachir Ramadan, Lebanese drummer of UAE metal group Nervecell. “Immediately, you would be labelled as a criminal. A lot of my friends suffered during those early days.”
Fortunately, with the onset of globalisation and an influx of western music television channels and radio stations, there is increasing public acceptance of the metal community.
"That's because we as musicians also go to work with other people in offices and we study with people in schools and universities," he says. "But there is still that barrier of 'as long as the music remains away from the public eye, there is no problem'."
This is why Kimaera’s cover prompted so much publicity, Ramadan says. Their song lifted a lid on a vibrant community that many wanted to remain underground.
"It is too much for some people to hear a national song covered in proper metal fashion and appearing on Lebanese TV," he says. "This is why people are confused and worried, that this is something new. In reality, the metal music scene has always been here in Lebanon."
New music on the way
Abboud says Kimaera is taking all the newfound attention in their stride. While he doesn’t know if the song will act as some kind of Trojan horse for mainstream acceptability, the band will continue doing what they do.
“We have a new album coming,” he says, “and it will have the sounds that many people love and some others may not. That won’t change.”
Ramadan also believes the controversy will be over soon. As someone who has recovered from severe injuries sustained in the Beirut port explosion in August, he says Lebanese society has more things to worry about than long-haired musicians playing loud guitars.
“I'd rather have that energy being used to discuss our lack of electricity and the state of our economy,” he says. “What we are talking about is only music. That’s all it is.”