Makhoul Kassouf: From the Beatles to Progressive Politics

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Kassouf could not escape the pull of the politicized environment he grew up in. In 1968, he read about Marxism, nationalism, and leftist ideas of all varieties. (Photo: Al-Akhbar)

By: Kamel Jaber

Published Monday, April 2, 2012

A pioneer of modern Lebanese political songwriting recalls his rise to fame and offers his view on the “Arab revolutions.”

“I like the images in his songs. I prefer it when he sings his own songs. Even though he is not a singer, he’s a good performer and you always get what he means.” Those were Ziad Rahbani’s words introducing his friend, Makhoul Kassouf, when his album The Noon Intellectuals came out in 1996. He is the dentist, musician, and pioneering writer of committed revolutionary songs.

Kassouf was born in Khinshara, Mount Lebanon, in 1949, where his father worked for the state tobacco registry, in a secular political climate supportive of Antoun Saadeh and his Syrian Social National Party. But his family moved to Beirut’s Ashrafiyyeh district, where he grew up and went to al-Hikmeh School, spending summer holidays in Khinshara.

At the age of 12, his father gave him an electric guitar after he showed interest in the instrument. In 1963, he joined a Western-style band named Devils, which played Beatles songs at hotels and nightclubs, as its second vocalist.

But Kassouf could not escape the pull of the politicized environment he grew up in. In 1968, he read about Marxism, nationalism, and leftist ideas of all varieties. He was inspired by revolutionaries like Tito, Che Guevara, and Nehru. When he went to France to study medicine at Montpellier University, he was drawn to French political songs. He began to listen to well-known leftist singers like Jean Ferrat, Leo Ferre, and George Moustaki.

After one year, Kassouf returned to St. Joseph’s University in Beirut. The rise of the Palestinian resistance movement in the wake of the Arab defeat in 1967 inspired him to compose political songs in Arabic. In 1969, he wrote a poem called In Our Tents There Are Children, which he sang to the French leftist singer Catherine Sauvage when she visited and performed at St. Joseph’s in 1971. That is where his journey into political song began.

St. Joseph’s University had a mainly right-wing atmosphere, especially in the faculty of dentistry, where Kassouf was studying. But against the prevailing trend at the time, he gave a year-end concert with the consent of the administration. He sang 17 of his own compositions, with titles like Employee, Students, Honor, Prostitute, Plant your Hands in the Wind, Our Eyes Have Doves (dedicated to the children of Palestine), Southerners, and Workers and Peasants.

Kussouf recalls that the press wrote about this “strange” event the likes of which were new to Lebanon.

Kassouf then took his guitar and began to tour the border region of South Lebanon, which had started to be subject to resistance operations and suffer Israeli attacks. He began to sing in town and village squares, in Kfar Kila, Hasbaya, Majdiyyeh and elsewhere. He sang during children’s vaccination campaigns, and any other occasion he could find to express his art and his cause. He also toured the Palestinian camps and Lebanese universities. His songs concentrated on the south, students, and resistance. In 1973, he released a now well-known album which included the numbers Southerners and Anxiety.

Kassouf graduated as a dentist in 1975, at the beginning of the Civil War in Lebanon. He set up a dental clinic which took up much of his time, but did not stop singing altogether. He tried to reconcile the two roles with his political activism. He was deputy head of the cultural department in the SSNP from 1970 to 1982, and worked on the party’s educational and medical campaigns during the war.

A number of musicians emerged at the time who played a major role in reinforcing committed political songwriting, such as Marcel Khalifa, Ahmad Qabour, Khaled al-Haber, and Rahbani, whose songs in turn brought out new performers like Joseph Saqr and Sami Hawwat. Kassouf had to struggle, using all his personal and material resources, to get his songs recorded and released.

Thus in 1978, he set the words of poet Talal Haydar to music in the song Badawiyya also known as Rakwat Arab. In 1980 it was released in a collection of political songs titled, You Are The Whole Story, arranged by Salim Sahhab. “The whole experience was awkward because at the time recording technology was not very advanced,” he recalls.

Rakwat Arab became so popular that Kassab re-recorded it in 1985 for his album Gatekeeper of Joy (the song was also rearranged by Khalifa and released in an album of the same name in 1995). Hawwat and Yahya al-Dad sang on the album, and Rahbani played the piano. The music was arranged by Abboud al-Saadi. The album also included the song They Remained As Poetry, with words by the late poet Kamal Khair Bek, Kassouf’s brother-in-law.

The dentist recorded a collection of his songs in 1986/7, but was unable to release them until 1991, at his own expense. The album was called Everything is Perfect, and consisted of eight songs, sung by Hawwat and himself, including The Noon Intellectuals.

“That was recorded at the insistence of Ziad Rahabani, who arranged the music for it,” Kassouf recalls. “The song provoked some intellectuals because it made fun of those who spend their time theorizing instead of actually joining the struggle.”

In 1996, Abdallah Shahine (Sawt al-Sharq) re-recorded the two albums Gatekeeper of Joy and Everything is Perfect. He released them in an album named The Noon Intellectuals. This collection was introduced by Rahbani, who wrote that “Makhoul Kassouf, with his Arabic guitar, without the lute, was the only one who sang songs like these until the beginning of the civil war in 1975, when several singers rose who had a similar style and became professionals.”

Kassouf has also produced two poetry collections called Letters on Papyri (1982) and The Cave of Dreams (1985), alongside his medical practice and teaching at the faculty of dentistry at the Lebanese University since 1987. Kassouf today has 30 songs ready for recording. In cooperation with Nadi Lekol Nass, he will re-record the The Noon Intellectuals collection in a new album, The Noon Intellectuals – Plus, which will include two songs he had left out when the original was recorded.

As for the current events, Kassouf does not feel that there have been any “Arab revolutions.”

As he puts it: “There are corrupt and backward regimes, and there’s no alternative to the current regimes other than the Islamic movements. They’re very similar to their predecessors, particularly when branding people as heretics, which even secular parties have used in a scenario written by the USA to serve its own interests. As for the intellectuals, they are now dispersed among the courts of the sultans and princes who have power and money.”

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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