Ihsan Al-Mounzer: The godfather of belly dance disco | Music
In a hilly residential district in the suburbs of Beirut, under the ground-level car park of an indistinct apartment building, stands a statue of the Virgin Mary and a neon sign with the words “Al-Mounzer Super Sound”.
Wearing a loose-fitting navy blazer, open-collared shirt and jeans, Ihsan Al-Mounzer opens the door with a warm smile. The legendary composer and arranger has been making music here since the 1990s.
The soft-spoken septuagenarian walks through the reception lounge of his studio, gesturing at a wall lined with images of icons of Arabic music.
“This is our history,” he says, accentuating each word.
In the early 1980s, his career was at its height. A bandleader on a popular Tele Liban talent show called Studio El Fan, a pianist who joined iconic Lebanese singer Fairouz on her international tours, and a composer and arranger with a fresh approach to Arabic music, he was one of the busiest people in the regional music industry.
At the time, Lebanon was in the midst of a complex and debilitating civil war that was to last for 15 years, from 1975 to 1991, and partition the capital city into East and West Beirut. Though the conflict weighed heavily on the Lebanese population, claiming some 200,000 lives and displacing close to a million people, daily life went on – as did the entertainment industry.
In many ways, the civil war stunted a previously thriving music industry and impacted the careers of even the most well-known artists. Al-Mounzer, though, was among the exceptions.
By day he would spend his time at Polysound, a recording studio in the basement of an apartment building in West Beirut’s Corniche al-Mazraa, where he put his characteristic sound on scores of progressive albums by the leading pop artists of the time. After dark, he played live in Beirut’s night clubs and restaurants, including a regular gig in the piano bar of the Commodore Hotel, where he entertained foreign journalists covering the civil war.
In the same period, he also released his own groundbreaking “belly dance disco” albums – instrumentals that fused Middle Eastern melody with Western rhythm, putting forward his concept for an entirely original and localised version of disco music.
Four decades later, he is still at it. Lately, he says he’s been working on compositions for an Assyrian church in New York and producing for a handful of Lebanese pop singers, as well as composing his own music – although the live orchestras he used to record with have been replaced by Pro Tools, and he now arranges on the computer.
“It was a challenge at first. Technology is always fighting the older generations, but I insisted on walking in the new styles,” he says proudly, sitting behind a desk in the studio with a framed portrait of the great composer Mohammed Abdel Wahab behind him, one of a number of his own drawings that decorate the walls.
“Composers don’t read and write music nowadays – the computer writes the notes you play. In our time, you used to write everything by hand. I was very quick in notation – I would always have a pencil and rubber going.”
Al-Mounzer is now accustomed to the new technologies – but the studio’s decor has remained decidedly in the 1990s; several desktop computers now sit on either side of an enormous digital mixing desk. Later in the day, he plays one of his recent compositions on the software Cubase 8, an Oriental house track.
“It’s one for the club,” he says with a laugh.
Though he goes to the studio most days, Sunday morning is what he calls his “meditation time”, which he keeps free of appointments to work on any new projects. Afterwards, he goes to a restaurant in the mountains for a traditional Sunday mezze lunch with his family; his wife of more than 30 years, Carole, and their two adult children, who live in Beirut.
Journey into music
Born in Baghdad to an Assyrian-Iraqi mother and a Lebanese father, Al-Mounzer grew up in Ghobeiri, in the suburbs of Beirut, and showed an early talent for music. He inherited a love of the arts from his father, who enjoyed listening to the greats of Arabic music and would often recite his favourite poetry to Al-Mounzer and his brother.
After his father returned from a trip to Paris and described the paintings he had seen at the Louvre, Al-Mounzer took up drawing and his father would tell everyone that his son was going to be an important artist. But it was his natural talent for music that shone through when, aged nine, he picked up an accordion his brother had received as a reward for doing well at school, and family discovered he was able to flawlessly replicate any song he heard on the radio.
His family was of relatively modest means, but his father purchased a piano on store credit so his son could study classical music at the Lebanese Conservatory. Music quickly became his life. Later on, when a woman he was engaged to asked him to choose between her and the piano, he chose the piano.
When the Beatles exploded globally in the 1960s, Al-Mounzer was instantly hooked and formed a beat band called Moonlight. Sporting slicked-back Elvis quiffs and matching preppy blazers with continental ties, the five-member group played live every weekend in mountain resorts and restaurants in Sawfar, Aley and Souk el-Gharb, where icons of Arabic music like Oum Kaltoum and Abdel Halim Hafez had performed before them.
Already making a decent living from music, Al-Mounzer quit university and, like other Lebanese artists before him, packed his bags for Europe, keen to get to the root of the “foreign music” he had come to love.
Once in Italy, he continued his studies in composition and arrangement at a music institute and performed across the country as a one-man show on piano, singing in six languages. Back home, his father was still unhappy with his son’s choice to quit university, so Al-Mounzer sent him a cheque from his earnings to prove he was doing well.
He immersed himself in Italian life, learning the language and marrying his first wife Marina, a singer he met while performing in a Florence nightclub; they had three children. Al-Mounzer had some notable successes in the Italian music scene, including an Italian version of his song Tiri Tiri Ya Tayeera, which became a famous children’s nursery rhyme.
After a decade in Europe, including a few years touring Norway and Denmark with another beat group, Sonny Trio, he moved back to Lebanon in the late 1970s.
The prewar music boom
Before the war, Lebanon already had a well-developed music industry. Now-legendary artists like the Rahbani Brothers and Fairouz were at the start of their careers and recording at the national radio station, Radio Lebanon.
New Lebanese record labels, like Voix De L’Orient, emerged in the 1950s and 1960s with diverse catalogues covering everything from classical Tarab to Armenian rhythm and blues and Lebanese beat. And international labels like Phillips and EMI had Lebanese branches.
Baalbeck Studios, the backbone of Lebanon’s cinematic golden age and at the time the country’s most prestigious recording studio, was where Fairouz, Samira Tawfic and Zaki Nassif all recorded.
In 1960s and 1970s Beirut, every night of the week, the clubs, hotel bars, cabarets and restaurants of the city’s main nightlife districts – Hamra, Phoenicia Street in the hotel district, and Zeitouni – were abuzz. There were cabaret shows starring famous Egyptian belly dancers, Oriental ensembles, pop singers with a continental repertoire, and foreign and Lebanese bands like The Magic Fingers, The Dukes and The Kozaks playing everything from jazz and bossa nova to French chansons, twist and rock and roll.
“Prewar Lebanon was very flamboyant. There was a lot of money in the 1960s and 1970s,” says Lebanese filmmaker Malek Hosni, over Skype from the mountains above Beirut. Sparked by a love of contemporary electronic music and clubbing culture, he is currently working on his first full-length documentary, The Dancing Plague, which explores Lebanon’s dance culture and nightlife scene, from the past to the present day.
“We had the biggest airport in the region and if you wanted to go from west to east or east to west you had to pass Lebanon, which created this kind of cosmopolitan city (Beirut) where you had lots of different cultures. When you have lots of different cultures and different people, that’s when nightlife becomes interesting,” he explains.
The nightlife scene drew in artists from across the Middle East, who found work performing in the city’s numerous clubs and restaurants.
Many international musicians settled in Beirut too, hired to record on large productions by the Rahbani Brothers, joining orchestras in the grand stage shows of Casino Du Liban or playing live in smaller venues across the city. Italian singer Joe Diverio was a popular prewar act. Backed by Armenian-Lebanese band the Dark Eyes, he performed six nights a week at Beirut’s hottest nightlife spot, Caves Du Roy at the Excelsior Hotel on Phoenicia Street between 1965 and 1975.
Beirut produced a diversity of musical cultures and styles, its vibrant atmosphere helping the scene flourish, and making the city a regional hub for music production in the 1970s and a breeding ground for experimentation.
Many new genres were born in Lebanon, like Armenian-language pop genre estradayin, pioneered by singer Adiss Harmandian; Taroub’s distinct pop fusion taking in Turkish, Arabic, Greek and Spanish influences; and the Franco-Arab style spearheaded by Elias Rahbani.
It was this multi-layered and diverse musical heritage of Beirut that would make local audiences particularly receptive to Al-Mounzer’s fusion style – a natural progression from what had come before.
An experimental direction
Having been thoroughly immersed in beat music and rock and roll as a teenager, and after spending a decade performing jazz, beat and pop standards in the piano bars and nightclubs of Europe, merging Oriental and Occidental styles came naturally to Al-Mounzer.
Though he trained on the piano, he also embraced the latest music technology of the late 1970s, and it revolutionised the way he approached Middle Eastern music on his return to Lebanon.
Al-Mounzer’s use of synthesisers left a palette of futuristic sounds at his disposal and gave his Middle Eastern melody lines a modern touch. Following news of the latest synthesisers on the international market, he asked Yousef Nazzal – the owner of the Commodore Hotel, where he performed – to buy a Prophet-5 for him on a trip to the United States. Taking a monthly salary cut to pay back its $4,000 cost, Al-Mounzer installed the synthesiser at Polysound Studio.
“It was more than a synthesiser,” he remembers. “You could create new sounds, imitate instruments like the clarinet or saxophone and tune to the Arabic scales. I used to bring new sounds that had never been played in Arabic music.”
Polysound Studio was founded in 1974 by Nabil Mumtaz, an electrical engineer who trained as a sound engineer at Radio Lebanon. Known for his modern approach to recording, Mumtaz built his own 24-channel mixer and had a dedicated delay room and large reverb plate that gave his recordings that distinctive 1970s reverb sound. Some of the most forward-thinking records in the Lebanese discography came out of Polysound, like Lebanese arranger Nicholas Al Dick’s Hammond-studded jazz-funk album Sentimental Evening and Elias Rahbani’s innovative Mosaic of the Orient.
From 1980 to 1986, Al-Mounzer and Mumtaz formed a musical partnership at Polysound and became one of the most dynamic duos in the industry. “Mumtaz was very progressive and his ear was international. He was the genius of all sound engineers,” says Al-Mounzer.
As the studio’s in-house composer and arranger, Al-Mounzer shaped the sound of some of the most innovative Lebanese albums of the 1980s. With his original arrangements that bridged the music cultures of east and west, and Mumtaz’s forward-thinking recording techniques the pair was one of the driving forces behind the innovation of Lebanese pop music in the 1980s.
Al-Mounzer’s unique style of arrangement and modern sound on the synthesiser gave him almost overnight success, with numerous composers and singers from Lebanon and the wider region keen to work with him.
He worked around the clock, collaborated with almost everyone, and was known for juggling numerous projects simultaneously, across TV, live entertainment and the studio.
During the war, with only one TV channel broadcasting much of the time and people confined to their homes for extended periods, Studio El Fan reached huge audiences, helping propel Al-Mounzer to national fame. One urban myth from the time is that temporary ceasefires were called during fighting to coincide with the show’s broadcast.
Al-Mounzer remembers being nodded through checkpoints by soldiers and militia who recognised him when he had to cross the demarcation line dividing East from West Beirut.
“When it was broadcast on Saturday nights, you couldn’t find people on the streets, they were all watching the show on TV, so I was very famous,” he says nostalgically. “I used to pass through all the checkpoints. They all knew about me – that I’m not a fighter, not into politics and didn’t take a side in the war. I’m Muslim, my wife is Christian, and I never liked any name from the politicians.”
The Battle of the Hotels
In October 1975, Phoenicia Street, one of Beirut’s most prominent nightlife districts, changed in an instant when The Battle of the Hotels began. It was one of the civil war’s earliest and most destructive conflicts with the Lebanese National Movement, an alliance of Pro-Palestinian leftist and nationalist groups, and the Christian right-wing Phalangist militia battling it out between international hotels such as the Holiday Inn.
With the demarcation line cutting through central Beirut, Phoenicia Street was a no-go area for much of the war and so its once-legendary nightlife venues faded into obscurity.
“Lots of places in Beirut city centre were destroyed or inaccessible,” says Gregory Buchakjian, an art historian and visual artist who has written about the history of Beirut’s nightlife.
“Nightlife moved from the centre, towards West and East Beirut. In West Beirut, you already had Hamra, which was a nightlife spot before the war and it remained, although some periods were extremely difficult. Then you had the emergence of nightlife places in East Beirut and its outskirts. From the early 1980s, you had this trend of places opening along the coast with Jounieh becoming a very important nightlife spot.”
Beirut lost many of its long-standing entertainment venues, but a new nightlife culture emerged as several discotheques opened, marking the rise of DJ culture in the city. It was a trend that Al-Mounzer’s fusion music style tapped into.
The Summerland and Coral Beach
Located in the newly-opened Summerland, a mega-sized seafront hotel resort in Beirut’s southern suburbs, hip discotheque Mecano opened in 1979 and became one of Beirut’s most popular night clubs for a young affluent crowd. Following DJ gigs at Tramps and Club 70, Mohammad Tamo was hired as Mecano’s DJ, playing there from 1979 to the late 1990s, alongside his day job in a Hamra record shop.
“Mecano was the best disco in Lebanon,” says Tamo with visible enthusiasm, pausing to take a drag on his cigarette, at a table outside a coffee shop in Hamra. When he was just 13, he started playing music on reel-to-reel tape decks for the strip shows at Beirut’s infamous cabaret Crazy Horse and went on to dedicate his entire working life to music.
“Every day it was full. The disco fit 300 people, but most nights we had 1,000. At one point, I was working seven days a week for four or five years without a day off.” In 1980, American disco icon Gloria Gaynor performed by the hotel’s poolside to an audience of a few thousand, evidencing the extravagant lifestyle some were able to maintain throughout the war.
The Summerland was well equipped to keep running throughout the war: It hired its own fire-fighting department, made deals with local militias for protection and installed enough back-up generators to power the entire resort during blackouts. In 1982 though, the hotel was severely damaged when Israeli forces that invaded Beirut showered a nearby outpost of Palestinian fighters in the embassy district with rockets and cluster bombs. Only three years after its grand opening, the Summerland had to be completely rebuilt.
In the late 1970s, the neighbouring Coral Beach hotel had reopened its Polynesian beach-themed live music club The Beachcomber as a discotheque. After answering an advertisement in the newspaper, Ghassan Kazoun became its resident DJ and worked there for 19 years.
“The club was somehow a classy joint. When we started disco nights, [owner] Georges Massoud asked me to wear a suit and tie on weekends. It was couples only and jeans weren’t allowed,” says Kazoun, who took up permanent residence in the hotel in 1983 after a close call with a local militia on his way to work.
Supplied with the latest Billboard releases every week by a US record shop, Kazoun played “the best of 1970s disco music and soul, as well as some reggae, samba, rumba, rock and roll and even tamoure”.
Arabic music, which was unpopular with some, and viewed as not modern enough among a young hip audience, was “strictly forbidden” there, Kazoun says, though he occasionally played Ziad Rahbani’s 1979 jazz-funk record, Abu Ali, to “change the mood”.
Hamra: Music and resistance
Hamra, a commercial district in West Beirut bordered by two university campuses and the city’s red-light district, developed its own nightlife identity, with sidewalk cafes, pokey bars and basement cabarets wrapped up with progressive politics, underground music culture and partying to excess.
Starting the 1960s, Beirut was a cultural centre for the region with its freedom of expression attracting writers, intellectuals and artists from across the Arab world. Lined with cinemas, theatres, newspaper offices and sidewalk cafes, Hamra was at the heart of this cultural scene.
Already the site of several student movements, the district became the political and cultural centre of Lebanon’s Soviet-aligned pro-Palestinian movement in the civil war, from where groups like the PLO, the PFLP and the Lebanese Communist Party led the resistance against Israel.
Hamra remained a popular nightlife area throughout the war, but it was not exactly business as usual: bars and cafes closed intermittently, sometimes the casualties of car bombs, and the 1980s brought occupying Israeli forces, a wave of kidnappings and periods of intense shelling.
On occasion, the violence of the streets spilled over into Hamra’s cafes and bars, like the famous 1982 Wimpy Cafe Operation, where a young member of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party opened fire on Israeli officers. It was one of many operations that pressured the Israeli army to withdraw from Beirut.
Hamra’s left-wing identity was reflected in its music and nightlife with the area home to Beirut’s small circle of engaged musicians. Political playwright and composer Ziad Rahbani, the son of Fairouz and Assi Rahbani, was at the centre of this revolutionary music scene. During the civil war, he staged a series of musical plays that critiqued Lebanese society and, as a political commentator, he regularly took aim at Lebanon’s political establishment on radio and television. He wrote many political songs, including an anthem for the Lebanese Communist Party, and released some of the most innovative albums in the Lebanese discography that modernised Arabic music such as Maarifti Feek, an album he wrote for Fairouz, and Houdou’ Nisbi.
Forming the cultural arm of Lebanon’s left-wing movement, prominent singer-songwriters such as Khaled El Haber, Ahmed Kaabour, Sami Hawat, Marcel Khalife and Oumeima El Khalil gave voice to Arab liberation and the Palestinian struggle. Their politically-conscious folk songs became the soundtrack of resistance during the war. Innovative Lebanese band Ferkat Al Ard, which fused Arabic music with jazz, orchestral arrangements and political lyrics, were also popular, performing to leftist audiences throughout Lebanon, as well as touring North Africa.
Out of that small West Beirut music community came some of Lebanon’s most interesting productions of the era, many recorded in Ziad Rahbani’s Hamra recording studio By-Pass and released on the innovative independent record label ZIDA, founded by Armenian-Lebanese record shop owner Khatchik “Chico” Mardirian. Those musicians shared musical influences, appeared on each other’s records and played live in Hamra’s bars and theatres where they experimented with new genres, shaping the beginnings of Lebanon’s alternative scene.
In the early 1980s, Ziad Rahbani formed one of Beirut’s earliest Lebanese jazz bands with electric bassist Abboud Saadi, drummer Walid Tawil and trumpeter Elie Mansi and they played every night at Hotel Cavalier in Hamra.
‘Don’t stop the music’
Although Al-Mounzer stayed out of politics, he occasionally rubbed shoulders with this left-leaning Hamra scene. In the mid-1980s, he recorded at By-Pass studio, which offered a cheaper hourly rate than Baalbeck or Polysound. There, he worked on soundtracks for several Lebanese films, his own compositions and projects with other artists, including his 1983 album of Armenian songs, The Touch with Vatche Yeramian.
Ziad Rahbani, speaking in the basement of his Hamra recording studio Nota, remembers his interactions with Al-Mounzer at that time: “I like Ihsan Al-Mounzer. We worked together in the war. He was recording in our place before he set up his own studio. He was booking the studio for four weeks [in a row]… imagine… In the war! He was booking [the studio] for new singers before even knowing which one he would work with.”
Between 1980 and 1984, Al-Mounzer was also a regular feature of West Beirut’s nightlife scene with a nightly gig at the Commodore Hotel. After the destruction of Beirut’s prewar hotel district, the Commodore became the hotel of choice for international journalists reporting on the war. Its location was strategic – not far from the demarcation line but sheltered by taller surrounding buildings – and its billionaire owner Yousef Nazzal provided the required facilities for journalists to file stories from there, transforming the hotel into a kind of international press bureau.
Al-Mounzer performed there six nights a week, playing a mix of his own Arabic compositions and jazz and pop standards, with journalists sometimes jumping on the mic to sing along. Though Nazzal gave Al-Mounzer a suite at the hotel so he did not have to make the dangerous journey across the city back to East Beirut late at night, his time there was not without incident.
“When I was playing one night around 1982, a bomb exploded very close to the hotel and the organ flew across the room. I followed it, though, and continued playing,” he recalls. “The manager always used to say: ‘Don’t frighten people. If anything happens, don’t stop the music, because everybody will stop dancing and spending money.’ I was programmed in this. Even with a big bomb, I continued playing.”
Belly dance disco
Despite the strains of life during the war, Lebanon’s pace of record production did not slow. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Voix De L’Orient continued to release albums by big-name artists, while independent label Voice of Stars flourished and several new Lebanese record labels were established.
Within the wave of home-grown Arabic disco music, new original genres started taking shape as artists combined disco with local music forms and electrified their sound, pitching the synthesiser, electric guitar and bass alongside more traditional instruments. Al-Mounzer was a leading figure in this wave of experimentation.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, he released a series of groundbreaking solo albums on record labels Voix De L’Orient and Voice of Stars that combined disco music with belly dance music – a percussion-led genre. His albums formed the basis for a new genre dubbed “belly dance disco”.
Through innovative synth-led instrumentals, he responded to the international trend of disco music engulfing Lebanon, producing a creative fusion of Middle Eastern melody with Western rhythm and harmony that resulted in avant garde disco productions rooted in the sounds of the region.
“When I started to make Arabic melodies, I said why don’t I use this foreign harmony which I’ve learned. So, for all the melodies, I made a harmony background with the piano, chords, everything. I played with the culture that I had worked with before in Italy,” Al-Mounzer says.
“All the musicians said, where did this man come from – outer space? Because I studied in Italy, I played and understood foreign music – how they write love songs, how they compose melodies – I came back here and with all of this information I blew it up!”
Al-Mounzer transformed Armenian, Turkish and Middle Eastern folklore melodies into contemporary Oriental clubbing records with a disco beat. He also rearranged many modern Middle Eastern classics in the disco belly dance style, as well as crafting his own psychedelic-tinged disco-funk compositions.
He brought together a small, dynamic combo of some of Lebanon’s leading musicians to record on the albums. His use of the latest synthesisers gave his arrangements a modern dimension and the element of improvisation in the studio made his productions particularly dynamic.
“We used to bring the same spirit of live music, from when we performed in TV, to the studio,” he recalls.
At the time, Lebanese producers Daniel Der Sahakian and Joseph Chahine were hiring local musicians to record productions for their labels, keen to produce modern records for the local market that responded to the global wave of disco music. Both producers proposed that Al-Mounzer do modern re-arrangements of traditional songs from the eastern Mediterranean repertoire such as Jamileh, Far Away and Shish Kebab. The latter is thought to have originated in Turkey but was covered extensively in the US in the 1950s and 1960s by jazz-pop big bands like Ralph Marterie and Bob Azzam, as well as by jazz composer Dave Brubeck.
Twenty years later, Al-Mounzer revived the song, rearranging it in the disco belly dance style.
For Lebanese producers working with limited budgets, turning to traditional songs was a smart choice. Often dating back more than a century, with their original authors unknown, the melodies did not raise copyright issues.
The productions clearly aimed to replicate the commercial success of disco records with an eastern flavour in the late 1970s such as Boney M’s Rasputin and La Bionda’s Sandstorm. Drawing on old melodies that had travelled from the Middle East to the US and Europe, often within Arab migrant communities, Al-Mounzer’s instrumentals were a reclamation of sorts, returning the songs to the Arab world, but also reflecting the cyclical music exchange between “East” and “West” that has existed for decades.
Now, almost half a century after they were made, Al-Mounzer’s disco belly dance songs are reaching new audiences, part of a recent wave of interest in Arabic music as DJs, record labels and collectors turn their attention to innovative underground clubbing records from diverse locations, overlooked at the time because of the US- and Euro-centric nature of the international market.
Al-Mounzer’s productions, originally intended for the Arab world, are now finding popularity outside the region, sampled by big-name hip-hop artists like Mos Def and currently being re-released on UK label BBE, including his 1985 album Sonatina for Maria, due for release in 2021.
“When I go to YouTube and I see the viewers of all the music I made 40 years ago – it makes me happy, really,” he reflects proudly.