Lingering Scars: An Interview With Mayssa Jallad

I’m honestly unsure what else to say about Mayssa Jallad’s brilliant Marjaa: The Battle Of The Hotels. I have written and talked about it and told everyone within earshot to listen. It’s an album with everything; vital history, experimental melodicism, inventive structures, mountains of emotion, and Jallad’s stunning voice. There is so much to learn, so much to hear. Marjaa is out now.

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I always like to start at the beginning, so what are some of your earliest memories or experiences related to music or sound? What are some of the real formative things from when you were young that have stuck with you?

I have a very early memory of watching Michael Jackson’s “Black Or White” video and touching my face to check if I was morphing into someone else. Just checked, and that video premiered in November 1991 when I was a year and a half old… could I have been this young? 

Another core memory is my mom singing Fairouz’s “Yalla Tnam” lullaby to me and replacing the words to describe me instead of the blonde Rima it was meant for. 

I think I also owe my pitch recognition to Disney’s Aristocats. « Scales and Arpeggios » is engraved in my mind as the Do Mi Sol 🙂

I’ve had several piano teachers growing up. The first was Madame Mona, when I was 4 or 5 years old. So I’ve been absorbing classical (mostly Western) melodies since then. The classical training became overwhelming to me, and when I was around 16, I stopped taking piano lessons. Luckily, a friend of the family called Nano taught me how to play pop songs on the guitar around that time. I found it so freeing. And actually, that’s when I started to sing… because I could finally write.

When did you first realize you wanted to be a musician and write songs? Was your family supportive?

I was quite the nerd at school, so there was a lot of pressure from my mom for me to become a doctor. But nothing excited me more than theater and art. I would act in the theater club’s plays yearly, in parallel to learning music after school. It sounds cheesy, but when I was 15, one of my first songs was a take on Doris Day’s “Que Sera.” The lyrics are basically an argument with my mom in which I protest: “Mama, I don’t wanna be a surgeon. What if I wanna sing the blues?.” So there was a lot of pushback on actually making music a career, although my parents did encourage it as a hobby. I remember my dad giving me tapes he thought I should listen to (Omar Zeinny, Asmahan, Joan Baez…), and my parents, aunt, and sister were all there when I had my first solo concert in the basement of Danny’s pub in Hamra when I was 22 or 23. The financial aspect worried them since we didn’t have anyone around us who had made it in music. So I went into architecture, a creative field. I would sing in the architecture school studios when I was alone or if anyone asked me to sing. It was always inside of me, but it was not until I finished university and grad school that I felt it was inevitable. I couldn’t imagine my life without it, and it would be such a waste not to try to make it.

And since we’ll be talking a lot about Marjaa, I am curious to know where your interest in urban research and architectural history comes from?

I studied Architecture at the American University of Beirut, and throughout my time there, I was mostly interested in exploring the hidden histories of buildings and responding to that history with design. Empty sites didn’t inspire me as much as existing buildings. Maybe because I felt that the buildings could tell me the city’s difficult history in a way nobody could. So after working in architecture firms in Beirut for a couple of years after graduation, I did a master’s degree in Historic Presentation at Columbia in NYC. I chose the program because it allowed me to write a thesis, and that’s when I delved into the history of the Battle of the Hotels. Here’s the thesis!

When I first heard this album, I started reading about the Battle of the Hotels, as it’s not something we are ever taught here and was only something I was partially familiar with. I have read some and will read more, but I was curious about this line from the album’s liner notes: “The music caters to post-war youth who have never been taught this difficult history.” What is the belief about what happened that is taught to people growing up? And how do you hope this music connects with those who don’t know this history, especially in Lebanon?

Growing up in Beirut, you only hear snippets about the civil war from people around you, that’s if they ever want to talk about it. You hear the country was divided between East and West, but there is still no official narrative about it since the perpetrators of the war were recycled into forming the post-war government. I hope the music will offer a glimpse of this history to the new generation, and push them to research it more, talk about it more, be disillusioned with the fact that the current political class, which once destroyed the country, will never be able to build it. I hope the album crystallizes the necessity of renewing the political class in Lebanon.

With that, how did the concept of Marjaa first begin, and why did you want to bring this story into a musical setting like this?

It began with an existential crisis. After grad school and writing the thesis on Beirut’s Battle of the Hotels, I was immediately pressured to find a job in New York and worked for a historic preservation firm. The nine-to-five offered me financial security, but I understood that it would be impossible for me to make music with this kind of job. I couldn’t even hum at the office… For an entire year, I started feeling Beirut and music slip away. I didn’t want to give up on music or my architecture research, so I had this idea to combine both: to write music about history and architecture. I owe it to my thesis advisor, Jorge Otero Pailos, who indirectly inspired me to start a kind of experimental preservation project with this album. I decided then that I was going to leave my job in NYC and go back to Beirut to do justice to this project. That was July 2018.

How does exploring and confronting subjects like this help you to process and further understand them?

When I wrote the thesis during grad school, I felt a sort of shame that I had no clue about the history of a city that I claimed to know, that I claimed to belong to. There were key violent moments that shaped so many people’s lives, and here I was casually dining at the cafe where so much violence happened? It felt so strange, but it also explained a lot… I felt betrayed by those who decided what the city should look like, those who made it clean and shiny again… at least put a sign that this happened here! But why would they… it doesn’t exactly entice investors if you know the building you are buying is the location of a deadly checkpoint 30 years before. 

I began to sympathize with the older generation’s anxieties and fears, and I could understand my parents better. Why they behaved so differently than us, what prejudices they had, what political views, constantly prepared for the “war yet to come,” as urban planner Hiba Bou Akar coined so eloquently. And also the psychological, political manipulation the older generation was subjected to, which enticed them to vote for the same people who destroyed the “other side” of their country. 

Processing this event through music, for me, was a way to work on this history collectively. Writing a thesis is a solo endeavor; you are often discussing your own writing with a handful of readers. But an album? It took a small village of musicians and designers to pour their souls into Marjaa and reflect on this difficult history I was laying in front of them. It began the process of disseminating this history. 

Photo by Ely Dagher

I am so moved by how the two halves of this album work together. The first part has an almost exploratory, sometimes revelatory feeling, always hinting at the darkness permeating the second part. It tells such an evocative, overwhelming story. What was your approach and thought process like when you were writing these songs and conceptualizing the album as a whole? Did you plot out the whole thing conceptually first, or did the ideas and sequence of the album begin to unfold as it came together? It’s a masterful album in every way, so I’m just curious how it started as an idea and ended up where it did.

I started to write the first four songs of the album when I decided to return to Beirut. I was still in New York then, working in Manhattan, the birthplace of skyscrapers, and just reflecting on what they meant to me as an architectural phenomenon. These first songs were all just one song, describing the feeling of walking in a city of empty skyscrapers. I completed this part when I was back in Beirut, with Mudun as a kind of “j’accuse!” pointing the finger at those who emptied the city for their own material or power gains.

After Part A was recorded, just before the pandemic, I asked Fadi Tabbal, my producer and co-writer, where this album should go next. He said, “Now you write the battle.” And that’s how Marjaa became a two-part album, with its second part focusing on the very specific 5 months of the history of the civil war. I wrote it date by date, track by track, narrating the events, since I envisioned this album as educational, a kind of history textbook we never had.

What were some of the biggest challenges you had to overcome with Marjaa?

I think the first challenge was coming back to Beirut and putting into words what was the purpose of merging architecture, history, and music this way. I needed to articulate the necessity of this project to be able to work with others for them to share this vision. It took a while and lots of conversations about tackling difficult history through songwriting and visual languages. 

Writing Part B (the battle) during the pandemic was another challenge. The lockdown meant I couldn’t meet anyone to brainstorm, and the exercise of condensing a thesis into a few songs was difficult. How precise should I be? How much information should I include? How do I express the architecture? Calling the militias reds and blues (which really was inspired by American civil war battlefield mapping) was a key idea. Embodying buildings was another interesting writing tool for me.

The album was written during a time of a multitude of crises: first a slumbering economy, then a crash, then an uprising, a pandemic, a port blast… so the process took quite some time. But I now believe it was a silver lining. Over the last 5 years, the music and lyrics have become ingrained in me. So much thought has gone into its different elements, and this was only possible when we took the time to think things through.

What surprised you the most about making this record?

I didn’t recognize my singing voice many times. I think I’d lived so much in Beirut in the past 3 years that my voice changed. And Fadi kind of recognized that, so he pushed me to experiment. We ended up re-recording vocals on the whole Part A, especially “Mudun.” “Baynana” actually has voices from two different times on it: December 2019 and August 2022. It’s a kind of time traveling.

Your main collaborator on the album is the inimitable Fadi Tabbal. How did you come to work with him on this project? And what about the other musicians involved – how did they join the project?

I knew I wanted to work with Fadi from the very beginning. I’ve known him for 10 years since he recorded, produced, and performed with my previous band Safar. But this project was experimental, and it took me a while to articulate it. It was a solo album that I had written as a blueprint on acoustic guitar. It needed a lot of work and a lot of thinking on how a difficult subject like this could be tackled with music. So it took a lot of time and patience. Fadi ended up co-writing the album music with me, adding in his guitar and drones on many of the songs and proposing arrangements with different musicians.

Before starting to work with Fadi, I met with Youmna Saba, and we examined Part A spatially. I had a session with her where we explored silence, emptiness, and crowdedness as concepts for melodies and voice. I loved the process with her, and it inspired me for the rest of the album.

We recorded the first 2 songs with Youmna in December 2019 at Tunefork Studios with Fadi. We brought in Marwan Tohme to overlay guitars with mine in “Kharita” and “Mudun.” 

For Part B, Fadi listened to my guitar blueprint and thought of the different spaces the songs should occupy and their texture and associated different instruments with different parts. We knew we wanted drums to convey a dynamic space filled with action, so Pascal Semerdjian came in for “Burj Al Murr” and the two “Holiday Inn” tracks. I knew I wanted a choir for Markaz Ahmar, so we brought in Julia Sabra and Marwan Tohme to add layers of harmonizing vocals. We knew we wanted an interlude and a concluding track with sound design by Fadi and one other raw instrument, so we called in Farah Kaddour on “Buzuk for Al Hisar” and Yara Asmar on metallophone for “Al Irth.” Then we called up Sary Moussa and asked if he was interested in producing the finale, “Holiday Inn (March 21 to 29).” He listened to the tracks before and after and made a plan to trigger sounds based on Pascal’s live drumming. We also did a vocals recording session where he directed about a dozen voice layers from me, with dissonant harmonies and strange textures that really excited me. 

I’m so grateful and lucky to have worked with all of them and to have had them on board to tell such a difficult history. 

Thirty years on, what is the continued impact of the war?

The war creeps up on us every day. It still feels like something went terribly wrong in this place. People brush it off, walk past its buildings, and are too distracted with current crises to examine the past. And that is all intentional, on behalf of those ruling today: to distract us with daily life struggles and pit us against each other so we can’t keep up with their past crimes. It just accumulates as trauma, and you’re there wondering, “How did we get here?” or “Why is my mom reacting this way?” or “Why do these people hate us so much?” The answer to these questions is that the war never really ended. My biggest hope is that Marjaa can bring us a tiny step closer.

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