At one point in Checkpoint 303’s politically charged 90-minute multimedia performance at Dawar al-SHAMS Saturday night, the phrase “out of place” flashed on screen. Unfortunately, this phrase was more resonant than the rest of the activist sound project’s performance.
Blazing on screen during the musical collective’s tune “Said Guevara,” “out of place” lost whatever political poignancy may have been intended, to become instead a synopsis for a show that would have been less underwhelming were it better placed.
Founded in 2004 with the collaboration of Tunis’ SC (sound cutter) Mosha and Palestine’s SC (sound catcher) Yosh, Checkpoint 303, has worked with numerous artists and friends across the region and world. The team’s brand of experimental electronic music reworks field recordings, rhythms and beats into activist tunes intended to highlight civil society’s struggle in the Middle East.
Among the project’s best-known works, “Said Guevara” mingles speeches by Che Guevara and Edward Said to create a track that, in its rhythm and aural atmosphere, is evocative of Gill Scott-Heron’s iconic 1970 tune “The Revolution will not be Televised” while speaking to this region.
Also recognized is “Gaza Calling,” which features the voice of Gaza resident Bilal as he repeatedly tries to get through to the U.N. by phone, and “Needle stuck on Lebanon,” which underlines the deja vu of the July-August 2006 war by mixing radio, TV and Internet news broadcasts from that summer.
All three, among other more recent recordings from the group’s “Sidi Bouzid Syndrome” EP, were performed Saturday night as part of Beirut’s Spring Festival, with SCs Mosha and Yosh accompanied by Miss K Sushi on piano and Rodovan on bass guitar.
Arrayed before the large projection screen, the four musicians received an enthusiastic but far from ecstatic welcome by Dawar al-SHAMS’ appreciative audience. The three-quarters full auditorium appeared to be comprised of long-term fans, with a handful of older Spring Festival regulars sprinkled in.
They listened attentively, applauded adequately, threw in the odd whistle of approval but filed out at the end without even so much as a whimper of wanting more.
For their part, the foursome on stage never seemed to feel their own performance. As can be the case with experimental music, a conventional performance dynamic (a sense that the performers were venturing into their compositions, say, or tangible climax) was absent.
In short, the show belied the passion beneath the work – a passion that’s obvious when you’re attentive to the intricacy of the tunes: whether Mosha’s haunting oud or the carefully chosen and placed urban soundscapes.
This is an intricacy that can be appreciated at home. A live show – especially when it’s defined by the auditorium conventions of stage and audience – needs something more. It cries out for the alchemical interaction provoked when music permeates both performers and audience.
Why was this ineffable magic absent Saturday night? The culprit appears to be the venue. With its theater seating and staging, Dawar al-SHAMS confines onlookers to their chairs, establishes clear lines of separation between performers and fans, muting the audience. Such a venue is better suited to conventional theater and classical music concerts.
In this context, Checkpoint 303’s concert felt utterly misplaced. It might have proved an entirely different affair had it been staged in a less formal music venue – Zico House, say, or EM Chill.
As one audience member audibly whispered halfway though, “This would be better with a beer.”
The venue alone can’t be held accountable. Acknowledging that most electronic music performance isn’t interested in conventional on stage-off stage alchemy, Checkpoint 303’s was not a visually engaging show. For most of the performance, there may as well have been cardboard cutouts on stage instead of human musicians.
The lack of visible energy and enthusiasm among the ensemble played a substantial role in the concert’s overall lethargy. Three or four numbers appeared likely to change this, as the bopping of Miss K Sushi – the only band member who visibly moved to the music during the performance – seemed to infect SC Mosha. Alas, the sound cutter’s animation proved momentary.
While the whole failed to satisfy, one particular component of the show is worthy of note.
Between tracks, Checkpoint 303’s screen settled on the image of a sign at a checkpoint in Occupied Palestine. In Hebrew, English and Arabic the sign says “Stop and wait for instructions. Prepare documents for inspection.”
Each time this sign returned to the screen, it was accompanied by a deep, rumbling recording – evocative of a roll of thunder that fails to eventually boom. It induces an unsettling anxiety in the listener. Each track ended with the audience’s polite applause giving way not to the next track but to this impending sense of danger.
Also curious was the audience’s unusually long silence at the conclusion of “Needle stuck on Lebanon.” Perhaps this betrays the power of which Checkpoint 303’s experimentation is capable. Maybe this one moment, of rendering a Beirut audience silent, should be noted beyond the otherwise uninspiring quality of the event.
Checkpoint 303’s music is capable of affecting listeners. Next time the project hits Beirut, let’s hope they perform someplace else.