The captivating music emanates from a humble room in a quiet suburb of Beirut. Music made uniquely “oriental” by its use of quarter notes, the sounds created by the musicians practicing inside are different from ones a Western ear would be used to.
Well suited to stringed instruments such as the oud and violin, the melody is surprising to hear emanate from an organ and piano. With the mere roll of a dial, modern electronics can recreate the notes—but not without the skill testifying to the musicians’ talent.
The quality draws in neighbors occasionally peering through the door.
Boutros Wehbe, a warm, cheerful man in his 50s, is one of the founders of I Can See, a music group set up two years ago with the aim of preserving the traditional forms and styles of Lebanese music.
“It was a dream for me,” he said, “to find musicians like these guys to play oriental music within the churches.”
“These guys” are not only professionally trained—they are also legally blind.
Wehbe, however, is fully sighted but a self-confessed untrained singer. Despite being the composer of two evangelical worship CDs, he is unable to read music. The words and notes he weaves together are all created in his head. But this only amplifies the professionalism and expertise of the others, displayed in their ability to quickly pick up on his ideas and make his creations a reality.
Each musician comes from a background of music training mostly within the context of Lebanon’s schools for the blind.
The group includes Milios Awad (“The Maestro” on piano), Ziad Pawli (double organ), Fadi Homsy (drums), Mohamad Rammal (darbuka), and Gabi Khalil (violin). Among them are many years of musical experience in restaurants and nightclubs, as well as with well-known Lebanese singers and musicians.
None would say that being blind has been a hindrance to what they have been able to achieve, evidenced by their capacity to create music of such a high standard.
“In Lebanon they are surprised when they see a blind person doing anything,” said Milios, laughing. “Once, someone asked me, ‘How can you play the violin when you can’t even see your fingers?’ I said, ‘I don’t need to see my fingers. Even sighted people, when they play the piano, they close their eyes.’”
Cherishing the multireligious heritage of Lebanon, Wehbe has brought together individuals from Orthodox, Maronite, Catholic, and Muslim backgrounds. Despite their differences, a sense of friendship and unity is palpable as they practice together. Their faith, diversity, and love of music shapes the work that they do.
But it is also free and infectious. Mohamad became a Christian largely through the witness of the group, while his brother and part-time member, Ali, remains in his Muslim confession.
“We want to serve God through music,” said Fadi, Mohamad’s brother-in-law. “This was Boutros’s dream, and it is to glorify him.”
Milios, who is Catholic and one of the most experienced of the band, has played in the past with Lebanese legends like Toni Kiwan and Samir Yazbek. He said his walk with God has deepened through the band.
“It’s my first time playing such hymns, and I love most of them,” he said. “And let me tell you, I really respect people like Boutros and Fadi, because I respect anyone who is living truly his faith.”
The enjoyment they have in one another’s company is also clear as they joke together, including about who should drive the car. There is an ease and a joy in their common vision to see Lebanese oriental music preserved and treasured.
But for the last hundred years, Christian music in Lebanon, especially evangelical, has been highly influenced by the West, said Nour Botros, manager of BeLight FM, based in Beirut. He called Wehbe “anointed” and plays his songs within a mix of contemporary and traditional praise on the noteworthy Christian radio station.
Early missionaries translated many hymns into Arabic, a process repeated in the 1990s by international trends in worship music, he said. The latter then sparked an imitative indigenous creativity, mostly from Egypt and highly popular among young people. A Westerner walking into a church in Lebanon will often hear familiar tunes, even if they are unable to understand the words.
“We listen to English-language worship a lot, and it impacts our creativity,” said Botros. “To hear God’s praise in traditional style is beautiful, and honors our heritage as Arabs.”
In the southern city of Sidon, members of the audience stood up and danced as the troupe performed the gospel-infused lyrics.
“I acknowledge you as my King
Here is my life in your hands
Do with it what you want
Come and reign in over my heart.”
These words were brought to life as Fadi shared his testimony. Once, when he was trying to find the stairs in a still-under-construction office building, he fell from the second floor into an empty elevator shaft. Landing in the basement amid jutting iron prongs, somehow he suffered only the slightest of injuries.
“I should have been dead,” Fadi told the amazed audience. “But as God miraculously saved my life, he can also save us also from our sin—if we believe in him.”
In addition to Wehbe’s creative outlet in I Can See, he is the senior director of field ministries for Horizons, a Lebanese organization working alongside churches to disciple and equip them in ministry.
Part of his calling is to let churches know that they can produce music themselves. Through concerts, guest worship leading, and his simple infectious style—not to mention the partnership with the physically challenged—he offers a pattern that everyone can imitate.
“We have talents, and we have the Holy Spirit working inside us,” he said. “So why all the time do we want to use outside melodies?”
Unfortunately, despite the best efforts of I Can See, members fear that Western styles may have already displaced the traditional. Milios blames the modern addiction to phone screens. Wehbe chides Christian media for “following the cheap music around the world.”
Fixing it will take time, he said.
Lebanon is a country in the depths of an economic crisis. People are struggling financially, and businesses are closing. Musicians and music teachers are not exempt. The Lebanese National Music Conservatory described empty classrooms and dusty pianos, images reflective of the experiences of many in Beirut.
However, this group and the musicians in it are seeking to demonstrate a different story. Their faith in Jesus and love of music, as well the vibrancy with which they express the gifts and passion they have been given, expresses confidence in something greater than their circumstances.
“My joy is found singing to the Lord,” Wehbe says. “God will provide everything we need, as we proclaim the gospel through the beauty of traditional oriental music.”