The first time I meet Sandra Arslanian, the spirit behind sandmoon, Lebanon’s premier indie-pop band, is in Dar, a quiet oasis at the edge of Beirut’s Hamra district. Dar has the feel of a European coffee shop: people sip juice or drink their coffee while being online, chatting and posting. Sandra’s favorite drink is tea.
Talking to Sandra is easy; she listens more than she talks. She even seems to be absent at times or maybe it’s just her thoughts wandering off during a conversation. Sandra doesn’t like to be noticed.
And then she must leave. “Do you still have time?” she asks me. “You can tag along when I go grocery shopping.” We drive to Ashrafieh and on our way back, Sandra gives a good word to a Syrian refugee child standing at a street corner. But it’s not just words. Often she buys postcards or chewing gum from him.
sandmoon’s new album, an EP containing five songs, is a masterpiece. Or very close to being one. #InTheEnd is an eclectic record, borrowing from different styles and genres – indie pop, rock, folk, country, blues – blending them, mixing them, making them belong together. In the end, it’s all music. Prince himself could have done an album with such a variety of sounds. Actually he did. Sign o’ the Times, released in 1987, is one of his most acclaimed recordings. As a teenager, Sandra had a crush on Prince. He was her first love.
Where does sandmoon’s music come from? Sandra has the typical biography of a Lebanese. Migration is a keyword. Born into a family of Armenian descent, born in times of a Lebanon ready for war, Sandra’s family moved to Belgium when she was a baby and that’s where she grew up. Years later she returned to Beirut, a city that she had always carried in her soul. She came home and felt awake.
Living in a global hub between the double horizons of east and west, looking out to the sea and glancing back at a city on the verge of drowning in its own tears, Sandra Arslanian has naturally become a storyteller. She knows how to tell a story well. Sandra puts them into words, music, and she visualizes them. As a concept artist, she narrates her stories and illustrates the feelings that they evoke at the same time.
“Did you know that I always wanted to be a painter?” Sandra asks.
Time Has Yet To Come, the first video off #InTheEnd, is a dance video of a different kind. It features Pierre Geagea, an expressive, impressive, contemporary dancer who is nearly deaf and “hears mostly with his heart” (as Sandra tells me). Pierre moves along in a room, on the floor, from wall to wall; the images are intentionally blurred to match the dancer’s impaired hearing. Pierre’s body translates sandmoon’s music into emotions. The viewer is entirely captivated by the arresting video.
“When we shot the video I wept when I saw Pierre dance,” Sandra says.
Art like this could be New York, Tokyo, could be Paris. However it’s Beirut. Lebanon. The Middle East. The same throat-cutting Middle East that is on the news every evening with suicide bombings, barrel bombs and hate sermons is able to create such sensitivity and poetry.
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#InTheEnd has one major problem though: it’s too short! After an exciting ride through the five songs of the EP, I was ready to go at least another five songs. “Why so short?” I ask Sandra Arslanian. “Did you trash a lot of great songs?”
“No, I didn’t,” she replies, “I still have them.” “However,” she continues, “people don’t listen to full albums anymore. They choose online, they buy maybe three out of ten songs. Therefore I better concentrate on arranging and producing five songs perfectly than ten songs poorly.” Maverick artists working on a tight budget like Sandra Arslanian always need to watch the commercial side of their music as well.
The new album was entirely written on ukulele and vocals, and not on the customary piano. The ukulele made her go straight to the point of a song, without complicating things, Sandra says. How did her new love come about? “I often follow my intuition. So I walked into a music store and there was a ukulele on the wall saying ‘grab me!’. And I did.”
“It’s a nice feeling to play the ukulele,” Sandra continues, “the instrument vibrates very close to my heart. Holding it is like holding a baby. I developed motherly feelings.” She laughs.
Where will sandmoon go from here? After listening to the title track of the new album I found myself saying ‘Yes, Baby!’, carried away by the intensity of the song. Wow! But will the conservative indie folks, who had lauded #InTheEnd’s predecessor Home, dig sandmoon’s new adventures in adult orientated indie? It’s walking a fine line to keep the old fan base while venturing into new artistic territory.
What’s there for sandmoon beyond #InTheEnd? “Can you survive in Beirut?” I ask Sandra.
“My door is open for many things,” she says. “I have started to compose for films, I am aiming to expand my market towards a larger online audience and I am interested in collaborating with other artists.”
“I feel like things get clearer and clearer after each album,” she adds.
It’s not certain if Sandra will still live in Beirut when things get real clear. “Some day we shall part again,” she sings in This Mess, the last offering of the EP, dedicated to Beirut, her city. “Some day I will leave / You have bled, will bleed again / I just hope you’ll stay safe / you’ll stay…”
Some day all the stories will have been told. But not now. Because for now, it’s #InTheEnd!