Libya rediscovers its hidden talent
- 31 December 2012
- From the section Africa
For decades, Libya appeared to be starved of talent. The entertainment industry is still virtually non-existent. But since the uprising that toppled the only man allowed to be famous in the country - Col Muammar Gaddafi - Libyans are leaving nothing to chance.
In a small music shop tucked in a street in central Tripoli, the owner is busily tuning a guitar.
Rows upon rows of instruments line the store's walls. The gleaming, colourful electric guitars are in a league of their own against other instruments, including the traditional darbuka (drum).
This is where a heavy metal band that recently re-grouped meets three times a week after sunset.
In the shop's basement, there is a small soundproofed room lined with many large speakers, and a shiny drum set. It is separated by a glass window from a recording studio.
Nasser, Saleh, Jallal and Adel make up The BlackForce, a band of middle-aged heavy metal enthusiasts now practising what they love.
They generally look like a polite version of stereotypical metalheads. You will not find anyone sporting leather trousers here.
Nasser al-Geedi has a voice ranging from deep and husky to high-pitched anarchy. He is the lead vocalist with chin-length greying hair - not a common site in Libya. His black electric guitar has tiny white skulls along its neck. He abuses its strings with a familiar ease.
Mystery Eyes, written and composed by al-Geedi in the 1980s, is a mix of a soft power ballad and ultra-fast electric beats.
At the end of the practice session, al-Geedi shouts: "Thank you, Las Vegas!" and an infectious round of laughter fills the cramped room.
This band represents a generation that felt it lost its voice decades ago.
Saleh al-Khuweldi, the band's drummer, tells me they all met in the early 1980s and formed their group at a time when heavy metal was not really welcomed by people and government alike. They were limited to playing at some weddings and private gatherings.
"We played regularly in the 1980s, until the former regime [publicly] burnt all the musical instruments - that's when Western music became impossible in Libya," al-Khuweldi explains.
After Col Gaddafi was toppled, the band re-grouped and bought new instruments.
Al-Khuweldi proudly points to his drum set that has witnessed as much tribulations as he had.
"That's not new," he says, although its sheen could have fooled anyone.
"I hid it from the former regime when they went after all the instruments. They bothered us a lot, they would even cut off our electricity at home.
"Our goal now is to deliver the music that was buried here for a long time - everything we play was written and composed by us in the 1980s," he recalls.
But without proper distribution channels for local artists and no real music industry to speak of, that aspiration may still be a long way away.
It's not just the nostalgic older generation.
Tripoli's decrepit Soviet-style theatre hall was once known as The People's Hall and mostly used to declare unshakable allegiance to Col Gaddafi.
Earlier this year it was the venue for a public talent show where Libyans went to show off their skills at everything from freestyle football, abstract paintings and portraits of Hollywood and MTV celebrities, to singing about Islam.
The theatre gradually filled up with a curious public of men, women and children, including a young former fighter who told me: "I'm here to forget the war."
The novelty of events like this becomes glaringly obvious with all the system failures - and backstage and on-stage mayhem that drew a few laughs.
It resembled a primary school show with talent in its infancy stages.
Regardless, there was a sense of pride at the mere opportunity and ability to stage an event and showcase young talent like this now.
Art of humour
Suheib Tantoush, 17, studies law in Tripoli university.
His true passion however, lies in pencil and paper, and a tablet computer.
He breathes life and wisdom beyond his years into caricatures highlighting the political and social malaise in Libyan society.
"It's not any kind of drawing - it's what we call the art of humour, putting things in a sarcastic way."
One of the many sketches scattered in his bedroom shows a young boy asking his father:
"Daddy, what does Libya hurra mean? The father answers: "It's something Libyans say when they've done something wrong."
Libya hurra - meaning Libya is free - was the post-revolution mantra on the streets.
Tantoush explains that it is now being used as an excuse for everything.
His recurring theme is the Libyan youth "not accomplishing their goals in life".
"Just hanging in the street, not doing anything productive. Getting bored. I hope that mentality changes," he says in a mixed tone of sadness and optimism.
He says he would gladly give up law to pursue his true passion if mainstream avenues were created for his type of art.
'We had a dream'
Back in the recording studio, The BlackForce play on, seemingly revelling in the beat of a lost generation.
The lead vocalist is as passionate today as he was in his 20s.
"We had a dream - we had to play good music for Libyans and for the world," he says.
"I don't need to play my guitar and sing songs under pressure or under bad regimes, OK? I have to sing freely. That's why we feel now something like this - that's why we're going to start one more time. We like music and we want to play this music, that's all."
Libya does not have many famous voices, artists and poets.
But that could change, as a country that was robbed of creativity and passion for decades starts to rediscover its hidden talents.