Arrayed in a blousy white shirt and smart corduroy jacket, his short black trousers gathered at the knee over white tights, Amr Alsafadi’s mane of long curly hair bursts from beneath his top hat. The boyish figure bears more than a passing likeness to the Artful Dodger, Charles Dickens’ irrepressible pickpocket. Face painted white with black lines radiating from around his eyes, Alsafadi has the timeless appearance of Pierrot, Commedia dell’Arte’s sad clown, as he belts out a love song about a woman separated from him by war.
Alsafadi is the vocalist of the as-yet-unnamed six-member ensemble whose two performances at Metro al Madina – both entitled simply “Hat Lanshouf” (Come and See Us) – were enthusiastically received by an audience of fans and idly curious.
The venue is the perfect setting for the group – Hat Lanshouf, in lieu of better nomenclature. The cabaret-style setting – candlelit tables in a plush underground venue, with its red velvet seats and gold ornamentation – helped reinforce the impression that this was more of a vaudeville spectacle than a regular pop-music gig.
The band layers Arabic lyrics over a musical base of piano, drums, bass, accordion and French horn, in a series of varied, classic and jazz-inspired tunes, incorporating diverse elements from rock to tango to circus music. The effect was completed when, near the end of the show, the musicians performed a brief cancan, momentarily transporting Metro al-Madina to the Moulin Rouge.
Hat Lanshouf mingles several nationalities. The three Syrians – Alsafadi on vocals, the talented Yazen Al-Hajari on piano, and Mohammad Bazz on bass – are complemented by Lebanon’s Wael Abifaker on French horn and Samah Abilmouna on accordion and U.S. drummer April Centrone, who trained in Arabic percussion and has played with such Lebanese icons as Ziad Rahbani and Marcel Khalife.
Alsafadi and Hajari are the creative hub of the group. Having met at university in Damascus, where they both studied painting, the pair discovered that Alsafadi’s interests in performance were the perfect complement to Hajari’s composition skills.
Hajari began composing cabaret-style numbers with poetic, narrative lyrics, and the piano-vocalist duet started to perform. They relocated to Lebanon two years ago, after the onset of the war in Syria.
“We’ve always thought about Beirut as a place to start,” Alsafadi says, “because it’s a good place for music, especially modern music, and for young artists there are a lot of places to work.”
The duo began with street performances with a keyboard and soon gathered a crowd of fans. It was at their first gig, at Hamra jazz club Mojo, that Alsafadi first donned makeup, transforming into his vaudeville persona.
“When I’m performing I play a lot of roles,” he explains, “because each song talks about a particular character. ... It’s not new, what I’m doing. It’s something that’s always been on the stage, this character, someone who’s different, a kind of clown. In all cabaret shows you’ll find someone like this, who puts on a mask, who’s always telling the stories. Everyone finds their own way of doing it. I’m not an actor. ... I am myself on the stage, but I’m using the character to tell these stories. ... This mask helps me to be free.”
The musicians’ getup – particularly the impressive array of hats in various sizes, shapes and colors – foregrounds the ironic spectacle of their gigs, which is about more than just technical proficiency on their instruments.
Alsafadi moves with androgynous grace, twirling slowly around the mic stand and across the stage during more sedate numbers and twisting dramatically during more up-tempo passages, sometimes hurling himself to the stage on his knees.
Hajari’s tragicomic lyrics are perfectly suited to Alsafadi’s posturing.
“Two years ago I starting thinking about how to make a theater of song,” the composer explains. “It simply came to me. Stories started to appear in the lyrics. I think that every musician is trying to create visual images and express emotions in their music. Take Vivaldi’s ‘Four Seasons’ – he wrote his experience, exploring how you can use music to talk about ideas like nature, freedom, love, summer.”
While many of these songs are about universal themes, others have their roots in Syria and Hajari’s own experiences. “Kan fi bint” (There was a Girl), for example, is about the lover from whom he was separated when the war began. “Sons of B*es” is about the time the composer spent in prison in Syria, in connection with military service.
“He wrote the song about how we can’t feel free in our country,” Safadi says, “because when we say something they take us to jail ... but the lyrics are very funny.”
“Blah blah blah” mocks politicians who talk and talk but who never follow through on their words. Masquerading as the Syrian culture minister, Alsafadi tunefully belts out the three syllables with a comically timed insouciance.
“In this song we try to make him funny,” explains Hajari, “not a bad guy. It’s a condition of talking about evil – you need a balance of feelings. ... It’s indirect.”
The composer says that finding a balance between lyrics and music is often difficult.
“In general when trying to fit the music with the lyrics,” he explains, “there’s always a fight between the melody and the words, because the melody is always more beautiful and abstract than the lyrics. ... Sometimes the rhythm of the lyrics makes me satisfied, not the words.”
The group’s timing is impeccable, particularly when you consider that the six musicians have only been playing together for two months. Alsafadi and Hajari assembled the current group in time for their first concert at Metro al-Madina in June, Hajari writing in parts for the additional instruments, while the musicians also provide their own input and impetus.
The act is so well suited to the cabaret-style venue that Metro alMadina have proposed they begin working with the band on an album.
“They want to be a producer,” says Alsafadi, “and they’d like to put the Metro label on the album. It’s the first experience for them in releasing an album, so we’re currently planning and discussing it. We’re very excited, because it’s an old dream.” – I.S.
To see the band – for the moment known to most simply as “Come and See Us” – in action, go to https://www.youtube.com/  watch?v=JgBGKTi1Kno.