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A timely take on Lebanon

July 30, 2006|Chris Lee | Special to The Times

IN the opening minutes of the short film "Eme Nakia," a missile arcs across the skyline of battle-scarred downtown Beirut, narrowly missing a refugee family that's trying to escape from wartime Lebanon.

After a month in which Israeli warplanes have heavily bombarded the Lebanese capital, it's a scenario that might have been lifted straight from CNN -- and has seemingly nothing to do with alternative rock.

Except in this instance, the action (rendered in primitive animation) takes place on a DVD packaged with El Paso screamo quartet Sparta's forthcoming album, "Threes."

The group isn't shy about touting its pacifist politics -- singer Jim Ward describes the new album's lead single, "Taking Back Control" (which came out this month), as an anti-war, anti-Bush "battle cry." But "Eme Nakia" is rooted in autobiography, dramatizing what happened to drummer Tony Hajjar and his family in 1979 when they fled civil war-torn Lebanon for the Texas panhandle.

"We were living in Beirut while Syria was trying to take over," Hajjar recalls. "I was 5. I remember the big lights in the sky and my brother and sister hiding from tanks when they walked home from school. Beirut was getting pummeled.

"Friends were killed by missiles but as a family, we were lucky; we didn't lose anyone to war. But as of four days ago, I was scared I was going to lose family over there. My great-aunt and second cousin were visiting Lebanon for the summer and got stuck there. They were evacuated by Marines through that whole process you see on CNN: Lebanon to Cyprus to Manchester, England, then back to El Paso."

Although the film would appear to be an instance of art catching up with the harsh realities of life (with Lebanon then as now embroiled in bloody conflict), brainstorming began last year when Ward approached Hajjar with the idea of telling his family's saga.

Initially, at least, he took some persuading. "I'm one of the last people you'll ever meet who wants to sit there and tell you about what I went through," says Hajjar, who also is "Eme Nakia's" executive producer. "I don't want people to think [the film] is about me feeling sorry for myself. What I want people to take from it is: You can do something with whatever card you're dealt."

The $50,000 film runs about 15 minutes and includes snippets from three songs from "Three," due in October, and intersperses several animated segments with live action. It shows the family's plight as refugees in a new country as well as Hajjar's mother succumbing to fatal illness -- "eme" means "mother" and Nakia was her name -- and his siblings' fractious relationship with their emotionally unavailable father. It was never intended as a music video.

Even if the film's overlap with Sparta's epic guitar sound and hook-laden, emotionally wrought melodies -- think of its music as emo on steroids -- isn't obvious, "Eme Nakia" seems poignant in light of current events.

"I turn on the news and I'm awestruck. Why does war have to constantly come back to my country?" he says. "Here we are again. It's horrible for me."

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Bringing song to northern Israel

ON the the same subject, Dutch singer-songwriter Keren Ann wins understatement-of-the-month bragging rights with her observation, "Now might not seem the best time to be playing in Israel."

Keren Ann, who was born in Israel and whose father is of Russian-Israeli descent, made the comment in a press release announcing her decision to give free concerts at military bases and bomb shelters in Northern Israel last week for soldiers and people who have been displaced by the conflict.

"I'm going to play for ordinary people caught in extraordinary circumstances," she says. "Not for a cause, not for perpetrators of violence on any side, not for right or wrong and certainly not for governments. I will play songs for those who -- just for a moment -- want to hear something other than the sound of hatred."

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'Bad Day' isn't so bad after all

NEVER MIND that Daniel Powter's confoundingly catchy single "Bad Day" became the best-selling digital song in the brief history of downloadable music earlier this month with nearly 1.7 million copies scanned.

And let's forget, for a moment, the song's nearly instant enshrinement in the nation's collective pop consciousness as "American Idol's" consolation music -- the baleful but soulful tune played each time a contestant was voted off the show last season.

Not long ago, Canadian-born Powter, whose debut album has sold nearly 2 million copies worldwide and who already is a superstar in Europe, reached saturation level with The Song and became somewhat disheartened by its popularity.

"At a certain point, I had a backlash against the song," he says. "I felt there were songs on the record that were more important to me. So I started being very reluctant toward it. Here I am thinking, 'I'm so tired of talking about this.' "

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