Interview: Bassem Deaïbess of Lebanon’s Blaakyum
Blaakyum frontman Bassem Deaïbess was born in Beirut in 1977, in the midst of a 15-year civil war. When he was 3, his family left for Qatar, which was relatively peaceful and still under British cultural influence. Despite being a Christian, in Qatar Deaïbess was forced to memorize the Koran and Islamic prayers, was forbidden to wear a cross, and was mocked by other students.
Despite the ongoing war, he returned to Lebanon each summer. "Sometimes we'd get stuck in my grandfather's house, since artillery were located few meters away," he says. "The sound of bombshells dropping, and machine guns that light up the sky at night, are all vivid memories."
Deaïbess began to study theology, but his parents also turned him on to Lebanese folk music, Persian pop, and the Beatles. By his last year in Qatar, he had become an accomplished breakdancer and joined a Christian youth group, where he would create and perform live shows set to the music of Michael Jackson. He also began to play drums and acoustic guitar. Then a nun told him he could play music and still serve God.
He formed Blaakyum in 1995, four years after he returned to Lebanon for good. Iron Maiden, Metallica, Testament, Dream Theater, Annihilator, Helstar, Nevermore, Opeth, and Deep Purple were major influences. The band played its first gig January 13, 1996, in Beirut.
That year, the Lebanese government blacklisted many heavy metal bands and began arresting musicians and fans. Another round of arrests followed in 2002, and another in 2011. Deaïbess was detained twice. I met Deaïbess online in 2011 after writing about the latest wave of Lebanese metalhead arrests on my blog, Backward Messages.
This year, on the anniversary of Blaakyum's first gig, its album Lord of the Night was released. The current lineup includes Rany Battikh on bass, Elias Njeim ("The Shredder of Lebanon") on lead guitar, and Jad Feitroui on drums.
"Lord of the Night" is a subgenre-hopping romp through metal, with lyrics of political unrest and defiance. Given Deaïbess's upbringing and experiences–Middle-East strife, a family of conservative Christians and Communists, doing jail time for his love of metal–it could hardly be any other way.
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How did you discover heavy metal music?
Metal was big in Lebanon, especially during the '80s. When I came back to Lebanon, it was all over the radio. You could hear Metallica, Iron Maiden, and Nirvana almost every day. My real introduction came in 1993 when my cousin gave me two cassette tapes: the Scorpions' Crazy World and a Body Count mixed tape. This was a clever way to initiate me to metal, since I was more of a pop/hip-hop/rap person. A few weeks later I bought my first rock tape: Gun's N' Roses' Use Your Illusion I&II Metallica's Black album followed, then Iron Maiden's Fear Of The Dark, and there, I was in love.
When did you start playing heavy metal?
At Don Bosco [the Christian youth group], I learned guitar and started messing around with classics. In 1994, I saw a Les Paul and asked my father to buy it for me. I was so happy that I had a guitar that looked like Slash's! But I was disappointed when I did not hear any distortion coming out of it. Back then, where I lived, no one played metal, and no one knew about distortion. One day, while I had my guitar plugged into an old Sanyo stereo, I was playing the music so loud, I had to crank up the volume to the max and there . . . magic! I heard a distorted guitar. I was so happy, but I probably made all the neighbors angry!
What is the Lebanese heavy metal scene like?
Compared to a population of 4 million, it is huge! Small gigs in pubs can have up to 300 people, and we have an average of at least one every month. We have over 50 bands in all kinds of genres, including post-rock and post-metal. We have 4 bands, including Blaakyum, who have gigged outside Lebanon.
In 1997, we had our first big multi-local festival called simply Rock Concert with about 1,500 in attendance. Rock Concert II had more. In 2001, a series of metal festivals called "Rock Nation" started and was held each year until 2008. It had around 2,500 attending. After the attacks on metal, festivals started seeing smaller and smaller numbers, but the average is around 1,000 during summer. We have at least one metal fest every year.
On the other hand, we have zero support. We do not have facilities to work in, and we do not have opportunities to grasp. Being in a metal band means spending more money on the band than you can ever make even from your regular job. It is a life of sacrifice, and we do it simply because we love this form of art.
What was the Lebanese atmosphere around heavy metal music when you started playing? How has it changed since then?
In 1994, a young boy committed suicide, and newspapers started talking about the dangers of hard rock music. In 1995, a few religious groups and a Christian TV channel started an organized campaign against this "dangerous" form of music. By 1996, the government had adopted the campaign and the persecution started. People would get caught simply for having long hair and/or dressing in black. A blacklist of most metal bands, along with Nirvana, was established by the Lebanese control committee, and suddenly it became "illegal" to possess or buy metal. When a blacklist is put together, the committee then sends it to the customs office around the country and to the border offices, airports, etc. We were forced to evade police or military checkpoints.
I was arrested while at the gate of my university. Many others were arrested. Concerts were stopped. It continued until 1998, when it slowly started to fade away and people started forgetting. The whole metal and "Satanic music" issue rose again, and 2002 was hell on earth for us. Arrests were more violent, people were beaten up, some people were kicked out of their neighborhoods, and some even had to leave the country.
During the first wave, many metal bands made it through, like Cannibal Corpse and other extreme music. The main bands that were banned were the most famous like Iron Maiden, Metallica, Megadeth, Slayer, and definitely the "evil" Nirvana. By 2002, all metal music was forbidden.
The severity of attacks faded by 2004, but only disappeared after the assassination of the businessman [and former Prime Minister] Rafik Al Hariri in 2005. That led Syrian troops to leave Lebanon for good, and the Lebanese political system got so busy with the chaos that no one had time to attack metal music.
In 2011, a new wave of attacks started, but this time it was weak--because Lebanon had stopped being a proper police state, because the economic and political situations were too heavy for people to get interested, and because it seems to most that the police have the situation under control.
This time, we are planning on bringing the fight to them. We will be the ones steering the issue again, as we want to get this ignorant society off our back once and for all.
You were arrested twice by Lebanese authorities, for being a metalhead, basically. Can you describe those arrests?
The first time, I was arrested by the military police, which in itself is against the law! That was in 1996. There was a checkpoint right before the university gate, and I was stopped there. They asked me if I like Nirvana. I said no. They asked me if I like Metallica and I said yes–and that was enough, with my long hair and black clothes, to be detained. I was sent to a dungeon-like prison. When the officer filled the form, the "charge" line was left empty. I was taken for two days. Luckily, they didn't cut my hair, but others were less fortunate.
It was freezing cold. I had to sleep with half my body covered with my jacket while the other half froze. I'd wake up few minutes later to switch my jacket to the other side . . . I barely slept. The next day, I was taken to the investigator's office. After some insults and humiliation, he started asking questions like, "do you practice Nirvana?" The official opinion was that "Nirvana" was a form of death-loving plague that makes people commit suicide if they listen to "Nirvana" music– which was anything heavy!
He later asked me about worshiping the devil, and I showed him my wrist, which had a rosary around it. His reply was, "This is a camouflage, you won't fool me with it!" Then he asked me what would I do if I was given a cat! Dumb stuff like that. By the end, he made me sign a paper stating that I would not indulge in Nirvana nor worship the Devil. I was let out by the evening.
The second time was in 2007. The secret intelligence came to the metal/rock pub I ran at the time, asked me to go with them for questioning, and I did. They asked almost the same questions. What saved me was the fact that I had a priest who'd attended concerts [at the pub] with a bunch of guys from his church, and we were good friends.
How many others have been arrested for the same things?
The thing is, there is no law banning metal, nor even Satanism. So most of the time there is no charge, as none of those arrested were caught in any immoral situation, nor were they blaspheming! Most detentions went on for a maximum of three days. Some were beaten, others only insulted. It all depended on the officer who interrogated them.
One band, Chaoteon, had people break into their concert with weapons–probably secret police of the anti-terrorism regiment. They took the musicians, put them in civil car trunks, and drove them to an unknown destination, where they were held and interrogated. The band was held because in Arabic, Shaitan means Satan, and Shaiatinon means a bunch of devils. The officials thought Chaoteon is read Shaotenon, and considered them Satanists.
Why do you think Lebanese authorities went after heavy-metal musicians?
The Christian Church here is so powerful, especially the Catholic Maronite Church, and has a huge influence on politics. So do the Islamic religious institutions. The whole thing was led by people (priests, institutions) from the church, though not the church itself.
Many benefited from these attacks. The authorities found an opportunity to distract the public from the essential issues and the corruption they were leading against the Lebanese people, and to come across as the protector of society–which is not the case, since to this day police fail to capture criminals, or solve any significant security issue. Journalists created fictional stories to gain money and fame.
I firmly believe that every time the government needs to distract people from important issues, they will start an attack on metalheads. We are always the scapegoat of this rotten society.
How did these arrests affect the heavy-metal scene in Lebanon?
It damaged the scene considerably. It's almost impossible to find a proper venue to perform, because most refuse to let metal bands play. We have to accept playing in the few less-than-average venues that accept us. It is thanks to the Internet that the scene still exists, as government cannot control that . . . yet!
What made 2012 the right time to produce and release Lord of the Night?
It wasn't. We intended to record and release by the end of 2008. We faced two major problems: the band was forced to part with our drummer, George Najjarian, because he signed a contract with a venue and was not allowed to perform anywhere else. Later we fired the guitarist because of musical differences. It took us a whole year to find a new lineup. Later on, we faced a problem with the production house (New Wave Production), as it got too occupied with mainstream Arabic and pop production, and didn't have time for us– especially because we'd won the production time when we won the Lebanese Global Battle of the Bands, so we were not paying customers.
We recorded the album three times. The first was a live recording to check how our sound will turn out. After the lineup changes, our producer realized that he was too busy for us and referred us to [another studio]. After finishing the whole album using VST (digitally recorded) drums and digital guitar effects, we felt it was not really authentic. We decided to re-record everything from scratch. At first I opposed the idea, as I realized it would take an awful lot of time, but I am glad the guys convinced me–the sound is very much raw and authentic.
Can you talk a little about the album itself?
Originally, Blaakyum intended to release a double album that was a complete story of the Black Family over three generations. It included the adventures of Sir Edward Black in "Part One: The Gate" and his grandchild, Sir Edmund Black, in "Part Two: The Land". When we decided to merge the two albums, the storyline was lost. Lord Of The Night does not hold to the original concept.
"The Last Stand" is an anti-tradition, anti-conformism song. The lyrics pretty much speak for themselves. This is the only song that I re-wrote from scratch after we changed our plans for the album. The original was a power/heavy metal song that reflected Sir Black leaving the underground and facing the society that he kept alive, though it treated him as an abomination.
"Cease Fire," first written in 1996 during the Israeli Grapes of Wrath aggression against Lebanon, was later re-arranged and expanded during the second war against Lebanon in 2006. This song emphasizes how the Arab and international community remained silent and turned their backs against the Zionist massacres. It accuses the international and Arab world of being the actual "murderers" of our Lebanese children because of their silence.
We re-arranged and re-recorded "Am I Black", our 1998 single, but the meaning of the song is still the same. It was my first composition ever. It is actually a Christian theology song, written back when I was a believer. It remains a song of hope and aspiration.
"Rip It Off" is a personal song. I was criticized by the metal community because I sang "emotional" classic and hard rock cover songs with [my other band] Communion. This song was my reply–a "FUCK YOU" song against conformism and society.
What's next for Blaakyum?
First we will be touring Lebanon. We already have new material, so we might enter the studio again in few months. We are currently looking for a label or record deal, and we'll be trying to book few shows in Europe and maybe USA. Blaakyum has just started.
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Blaakyum - "Rip It Off"
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Blaakyum - "Am I Black"
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Find out more about Blaakyum on their blog.
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