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Elias Rahbani, Lebanese Composer Who Sought New Sounds, Dies at 82

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On the Friday evening before the coronavirus hit Beirut, a pulsating crowd of partygoers stomped on the roof of a warehouse overlooking the harbor, dancing retro and fresh to music at the same time. His beat was unstoppable, his sound a mixture of lush Arabic diva melody, French pop from the 1960s and disco.

The musical mix did not require modern adjustments by a DJ. It was just another Elias Rahbani experiment.

From the 1960s to 1980s, Mr Rahbani, a Lebanese composer and lyricist who died of Covid-19 on January 4 at the age of 82, wrote instant classics for the Arab world’s most popular singers, commercial jingles, political anthems, movie soundtracks and Music for underground and experimental Arab artists.

The Rahbani sound was omnipresent. Many Lebanese people remember the jingles he wrote for picon cheese or Rayovac batteries, or the love themes he composed in 1974 for popular TV shows and films such as “Habibati” (“My Beloved”). His style changed often: he was one of the first composers to combine western electric instruments with traditional Arabic and combine western genres – prog rock, funk, R&B – with traditional Lebanese dabke folk dance music.

“His music is engraved in the memory of all Lebanese,” said Ernesto Chahoud, a Lebanese DJ who runs the Beirut Groove Collective, which hosted the camp parties. “He’s made great Arabic music, great Lebanese music, and at the same time he’s done all these western styles. That’s why it’s timeless. That’s why a lot of people want to hear his music today. “

He was never the face of the songs, unlike the celebrities he wrote for, including Fayrouz, the legendary Lebanese singer with the passed out voice, or Sabah, the film and music star with the golden hair. Along with his older brothers Mansour and Assi Rahbani – the musical duo of the Rahbani brothers – Elias Rahbani was popular among Lebanon’s political, religious and class divisions.

Still, he had ambitions that exceeded the borders of tiny Lebanon. One of his sons, Ghassan, said Mr Rahbani nearly signed a contract with a French company in 1976 that would have given him a wider audience and perhaps greater control over the rights to his music. it would also have meant moving to France. However, at the last minute he was overtaken by an onslaught of fondness for his country and decided not to sign.

Updated

Jan. 25, 2021, 7:56 p.m. ET

“My father lived with regret for the rest of his life,” said Ghassan Rahbani. Mr Rahbani died in a hospital in Beirut, his family said.

When he rejected the French treaty, Lebanon had just gotten into civil war. Hundreds of thousands of people died in the fighting from 1975 to 1990. When it became too dangerous for Mr. Rahbani to travel to his usual studio in Beirut, he set up a makeshift facility in his apartment north of the city. He later evacuated to a rental property further north.

But he stayed productive.

Mr. Rahbani produced more than 6,000 tunes, said Mr. Chahoud. He wrote for pop stars; He wrote for an Armenian-Lebanese band, The News, who rode Mr. Rahbani’s psychedelic rock compositions to gain international recognition. He has written for political parties across the spectrum, including the Baathist Party of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

When asked about his political sympathies, he refused to be labeled. “I am above all, and everyone comes to me,” he once said, according to his son Ghassan.

Elias Hanna Rahbani was born on June 26, 1938 in Antelias, Lebanon, north of Beirut, to Hanna Assi Rahbani, a restaurant owner, and Saada Saab Rahbani, a housewife. The elder Mr. Rahbani played the bouzok, a lutel-like instrument. He died when Elias was 5 years old.

Elias Rahbani told Mr. Chahoud that he started playing the piano as a child after hearing hymns from the monastery near his family home. He became a pianist, but an injury to his right thumb forced him to switch to composing at the age of 19, said his son Ghassan. He finally got his big break while working for Radio Lebanon and writing songs for the singer Sabah.

Mr. Rahbani often worked with his older brothers who became famous for having written much of Fayrouz’s music. Although Mr. Rahbani wrote for many mainstream artists, he increasingly experimented with new sounds from around the world and often provided the material that helped kick-start the careers of little-known Lebanese bands and singers. Funk, French-Arabic, Latin American music, psychedelic rock and the French pop yé-yé all influenced his work.

In the 1970s, Mr. Rahbani was one of the first musicians to introduce western drums, electric guitars and synthesizers to Arabic music and use them in albums such as the traditional oud (which also resembles a lute) and the durbakke (a small hand drum) one inserted “Mosaic of the Orient.” Mr Chahoud said tracks on the album had been sampled far outside Lebanon, including by the Black Eyed Peas.

In recent years, Western-influenced Arabic music from Mr. Rahbani’s time has become popular in clubs and on internet radio in the Middle East and beyond. It is often played by DJs browsing vintage record and tape archives to find and promote songs by lesser known artists. well-known Arab artists.

But in Lebanon, Mr. Rahbani never left the soundtrack.

Hwaida Saad contributed to the coverage.

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Robert Dunfee