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The Open Jam Sessions, Beirut’s Musical Launching Pad
At the flip of a switch, a red neon sign powers up the revealing words “ON AIR” through a full-length windowpane. It’s a simple but iconic distinction among a teeming ecosystem of flashy pubs. As a young couple arrives standing-room-only inches toward no-room-for-standing, an impressive turnout considering the audience doesn’t know whom they’ve come to see. On stage, two strangers exchange in a wordless conversation. Listening intently to one another they play their instruments in harmony, speaking and responding in the same instant. Their song has never been rehearsed and may never be heard again. It’s a show of pure, unscripted creation.
Spontaneity is one of the key ingredients that set Radio Beirut’s ‘Open Jams’ sessions apart from other live performances in the Lebanese capital. Even the night’s roster is determined when the event starts at 9pm when musicians are required to sign up in person. Once they are registered each performer is allotted 15 minutes of stage time with which to captivate the spectators. Artists of any gener are welcome, so long as they have the necessary chops. Radio Beirut takes pride in moderating their performances, assuring a level of auditing sorely missed from similar open-mic events.
While the show’s exclusivity and quality control have developed a loyal following over the years, the weekly Tuesday night Open Jam sessions consistently fill their rosters as a result of the opportunities they offer emerging musicians. For the performers Open Jam is both a chance to test their set in front of an audience and a free marketing outlet. True to its name, Radio Beirut maintains its own online radio station and broadcasts its shows live over its airwaves.
Throughout the years the jam sessions have become an important launching platform for Lebanese artists, explains Tara Dobson, who manages the sessions. “I think for the [venue] owner this is his way of saying ‘we support you.’ You may not be somewhere yet but we want to support you on your goal to getting there. And if we can provide and be a platform for you to gain more confidence, more practice, more stage presence, more experience so that you can take that and go somewhere and provide an extra chance to gain an audience you might not have had otherwise, then we’re really happy to do that.”
Although many songwriters come to Radio Beirut with their own pre-composed sets, it’s not uncommon for loitering instrumentalists to invite one another for a jam. The sessions have proven to be a valuable networking hot spot for performers who, with the right musical chemistry, organize into bands.
“You have a lot of local bands that have since become really, really popular but their first performance was here at the Radio Beirut stage and we were the first to give them that platform to actually showcase who they were,” says Dobson. According to Joseph, a tattooed guitar player who frequents Open Jam, that is no exaggeration. He notes that even the internationally recognized Wanton Bishops recorded their first music video at Radio Beirut.
As a long-time patron Joseph speaks from a wealth of experience attending Open Jam. On the busiest nights he says that concertgoers can see up to 30 musicians come and go on stage. In one instance an overwhelming number of instrumentalists even prevented the police from shutting down the gig due to noise complaints. “There was this time when we were jamming and the police came because it was a bit late and they turned off the music so all the musicians came out and we started playing on the street and it was so intense. They [police] tried to stop the thing but we were 30 musicians and people were gathered around us and there were like two police officers,” recalls Joseph. Dobson points out that although the event runs until two in the morning these days they silence the drum kit after one.
The popularity of the Open Jam Sessions has caught the attention of Red Bull agents that, through their connections, play a sort of de-facto role as talent scouts in the Lebanese music industry. On occasion they have been known to book bands for external events after listening in at Radio Beirut. Of course, the same applies for Radio Beirut employees that monitor the lineups for talented acts, which could be slated for any of the venue’s weekly programming.
A former Radio Beirut employee himself, Joseph plans to keep coming to the Open Jam Sessions in the future. “It’s a place where you can feel free, where you can play anything, where you can hang out with friends, drink alcohol, have fun. It’s a good place for exposure, for showing new talents. It’s every musician’s house.”