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French Version

When Ras Beirut was the Berkeley of the Middle East

Bliss street blues band reunites to launch scholarship fund

When the Bliss Street Blues Band hijacked the electricity from a sprinkler system to plug in their instruments ...

When the Bliss Street Blues Band hijacked the electricity from a sprinkler system to plug in their instruments on the American University in Beirut's Green Oval in 1973, they drew 1,000 people in just half an hour, blaring blues to a crowd of bewildered but enthused hippies. It was easy to understand that enthusiasm on Wednesday night. Three decades later, the band drew another big crowd, this time to AUB's Assembly Hall, where their electrifying performance got people dancing in the aisles.

But reminiscing on the good times wasn't the only reason the band reunited for a 35th anniversary concert. Between rousing renditions of old blues standards, the band members unveiled a new scholarship fund for student musicians at AUB.

Eventually the band hopes to raise $15,000 to $20,000 a year to help AUB students pay for musical education and musical instruments. The group is still taking donations, said guitarist Walid Boustany.

Indeed, the band members collected donations directly from the audience on Wednesday. Drummer Raja Kawar who raised the possibility that the band could play more reunion concerts in the future to raise money for the fund.

"It can be classical music, it can be rock n' roll, it can be oriental music, Arab music, as long as we feel that someone has got the passion and drive to do it," said Boustany. "And it's a great excuse to keep the band together, playing every year."

The band members will handpick the recipients of the scholarship, which was established with the help of the AUB Alumni Association, who helped organize the concert. Kawar said that the scholarship will be for a student musician with talent and ambition.

When the band members graduated from AUB in 1974, they quickly scattered across the globe, losing contact with each other until 2000, when Boustany, who now works for HSBC, and Otis Grand, who played guitar and provided vocals for the band, found each other in London.

Grand, now a professional blues musician in the UK, said Bliss Street was the band's "hood" in the early 1970s, hence the name.

"Beirut in the early 70s was not the Switzerland of the Middle East. It was the San Francisco of the Middle East," said Grand. "We were playing Chicago blues like no one else."

The band was popular for "be-ins," people whom Grand described as a "childish hippie concept: Take over some green fields, bring in music and participate with other people. There were lots of flowers and flowing dresses," he said. "If you came around Ras Beirut in 1970 you would say one thing: Oh my God, this is Berkeley."

As the band gained popularity, they became a permanent local fixture, playing every week at The Father's Moustache, a club in the Napoleon Hotel.

The Bliss Street Blues Band reunited in 2003 for a concert in London to benefit victims of the war in Iraq, the members flying in from around the world. Along with Boustany, Kawar and Grand, the original Bliss Street line-up included mouth harpist and singer George Bisharat, now a professor of law in California; bassist Craig Lichtenwalner, now an English professor in Tennessee; and singer Ted Swedenburg, now a professor in Arkansas (Swedenburg was not present for the concert on Wednesday night).

"When we play the blues, we actually feel it," said Kawar. Clearly, the audience on Wednesday felt it too, despite the straight pews and church-like aura of AUB's former chapel. By the end of the concert, those who weren't dancing in the aisles were at least keeping the beat in their seats.

Beirut 10-07-2006
Kristen Trotter
The Daily Star

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