On performing, organizing and working with experimental and improvisational music in Beirut: Sharif Sehnaoui

Irtijal is not only the Arabic word for “improvisation” but it is also an annual festival concentrating on experimental and improvisational music from the region. Now, in its 17th edition Irtijal hosted not only musicians from Beirut, but from Egypt, Tunisia, Jordan, Iraq and other countries as well. It is the oldest festival of its kind in Beirut and co-founder Sharif Sehnaoui is one of the people behind the festival. Musiqa Mustaqilla talked with him recently about performing, organizing and working with experimental and improvisational music in Beirut.


Even though Sharif Sehnaoui was born in Beirut, his musical education was developed in Paris. For a long time he was detached from the music scene in Beirut, and he got introduced to jazz and experimental music during his stay in Paris. “In Beirut during the mid-90s there was no internet, basically what you could listen to was very limited. Even jazz lovers had to travel to discover new things. Going to Paris gave me many more options to search and discover new music.“ During his stay there he learned a lot about jazz and experimental music, and one of his earliest influences was John Coltrane who is famous for his free jazz compositions.

He remembers that “I wanted to play jazz music, I was fascinated, I was going to jazz schools and went to jazz concerts. I started to discover free jazz/ and free Improvisation. I didn’t really understand it then but I started to appreciate free jazz slowly. I was pushed to listen to free jazz and to understand how this music works.”

On his website he writes that “he plays both electric & acoustic guitars, with (or without) extended and prepared techniques, focusing on expanding the intrinsic possibilities of these instruments without the use of effects or electronics.”

Alan Bishop + Sharif Sehnaoui + Raed Yassin Performing at 100Copies in Cairo

At the beginning of the 2000s he came back to Beirut, where he was involved in building a infrastructure for experimental and improvisational music, and establishing a new scene with his projects. Together with Mazen Kerbaj he started to establish the festival Irtijal “with the intent of promoting contemporary and experimental practices in music, and assisting projects that do not fit with the Lebanese mainstream, yet still present undeniable artistic value.”

Starting as a one day festival, the festival is now extended to three or four days usually in April. He remembers that before he came to Beirut that, “at some point, I was completely disconnected from Beirut. I didn’t care much about the scene but then when we decided to establish the festival, I really got concerned and interested in the scene and what is happening here. This is when the local scene started to influence me back, giving me new options and directions. The influence of Arabic music on me was maybe there before, but it wasn’t really on a conscious level. Now there was a desire, a consciousness to include traditional music from the region, even though I don’t want to be a traditional musician.”

The festival is now quite wide in its reach and musical range. Artists from Egypt such as Nadah El Shazly, who is a singer and composer based in Cairo, another artist, Aya Metwalli and Zuli performed at the festival as well. From Iraq, Khyam Allami performed, bringing the oud and electronic sounds to the festival. Kinematik, Marc Codsi, Fadi Tabbal and other Lebanese artists performed there, mixing up the local scene. In an article from The Attic Dragoș Rusu writes that “the process of choosing artists and doing the artistic program is quite different from year to year. Sharif usually has the last word in deciding the program, mostly because he’s the one to decide if a certain project is financially feasible or not for the scene in Beirut.” On the success of Irtijal, Sehnaoui says that: “The festival is pretty good, even if not for the wider public but there is a reason why we have been around for more than 17 years. Year after year, we actually have enough people who will like it. There is a stronger presence now, with people from other Arabic countries, although it has happened  in the past years too. You will find people who do really interesting things from Iran, Iraq, Tunis, Egypt, Jordan and other countries.”


Mazen Kerbaj (trumpet), Sharif Sehnaoui (electric guitar) and Raed Yassin (double bass) have operated collectively as free jazz unit “A” Trio since 2003. Photo by Tanya Traboulsi

But the festival is not the only project of Sehnaoui. In additon to the annual festival, Sehnaoui has two labels of “two very different identities”, that are distributing experimental and improvisational music, making it accessible for the public. The first label is “Al Maslakh” which is devoted to “publish the un-publishable” from the Lebanese musical scene. On its website it is said that “our constantly growing catalog – publishing exclusively projects involving Lebanese musicians or projects of international musicians recorded in Lebanon – offers with each new release a different and unique musical/sound experience. One of the latest releases was by the artist Tony Elieh, playing electric bass with his album “It’s Good to Die every now and then”. The album was recorded and mixed by Fadi Tabbal at Tunefork Studios. The other label is Annihaya “focusing on sampling, recycling and the displacement of various aspects of popular music.”

But Sehnaoui is actively involved in other projects as well, playing with different groups and artists from the region. One of the main projects is “Karkhana” which is characterized as a “Middle Eastern based super-group combining musicians from Beirut, Cairo and Istanbul. The band consists besides Sehnaoui of Sam Shalabi, Maurice Louca, Umut Caglar, Mazen Kerbaj, Tony Eliah and Michael Zerang. Their music is a blend of “free jazz and psychedelic with various shades and traces of shaabi, tarab and much more”

His other main group includes the “A” trio with Kerbaj and Raed Yassin that focus on experimental improvisation.

When Sehnaoui is working on a new title, he is usually improvising, making sounds out of nothing, sounds that are not fixed. Directly composing came for him later, when it was attributed to a special project. He says that

“it is a very loose system. It allows usually to keep the music grow as natural and organic as possible.”

His study of philosophy influenced his own thinking of music highly. “When I started to study philosophy, it was at the same time when I was interested in improvisation. I thought for example about the concept of time, and thought about how it is applicable to music. When you go into experimental music, you free yourself completely from different harmonies, and rhythmic patterns and melodies. I was stepping into non-rational time.”

Wormholes is an ongoing audio-visual project by Mazen Kerbaj and Sharif Sehnaoui. It is performed live and in total improvisation mode.

One of his latest project was a collaboration together with Danya Hammoud called “To rest on a slope”. This project is “to make visible the states of the body in search of rest. Bodies that are nevertheless constrained to stand up, assigned to their „social becoming“. The body, caught in these contradictions, tends towards its gesture and retains itself; at times, it melts into its surroundings and, at others, it detaches itself from them. Closer to “material”, a latent violence forces us to the limit of our bodies, at the threshold of the Other, and at the threshold of representation. The state of tension between our two elements, movement and sound, becomes a hollow landscape where every detail, immersed in dense temporality, arises as an event by itself.”

On the success of experimental music, and how it found its way into to Beiruti independent scene Sehnaoui says that the audience is more appreciative of the performances and music,  Sehnaoui and his fellow musicians have found a place in the Beiruti scene in which they can flourish, experiment and keep the scene alive.


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