“Turntablism” comes to Lebanon’s Palestinian refugee camps

Danish DJs teach Palestinian youth to work the decks

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By Jackson Allers, November 8, 2009 for NOW LEBANON

Palestinian youth on the decks (© Andreas Johnsen)

“Turntables are in fact musical instruments,” Danish turntablist Martin Jakobsen explains at his Gemmayze flat the night before the start of a series of DJ workshops for Palestinian youth called: “Turntables in the Camps.”

“This is our first time in Lebanon, and Den Sorte Skole – the three-man DJ crew that I’m repping – we want to introduce the idea that there is this global DJ culture that Palestinian youth can take part in; a culture that doesn’t exclude them in the ways that they are excluded from Lebanese society, and that through turntablism, we can teach them to use sounds from their own lives to create music.”

Jakobsen told NOW Lebanon he was not sure what to expect out of the process, but he said, “I am realistic – I know that it’s not going to save anyone – but these workshops are a way of saying to them – ‘Hey, everyone can be a DJ – and, ‘You don’t need all this fancy shit’ – especially if we’re investing the equipment for them to come and experiment on from time to time.”

Jakobsen’s compatriot, Simon Dokkedal, the crew’s scratch specialist, waxes a little more street on the matter. “We training the next generation of sound pirates!” adding, “Hopefully we’ll plant the seeds here, and from this we can create a new generation of hip-hop DJ’s here in the camps.”

Den Sorte Skole, aka The Black School, or L’Ecole Noir, are not quite a household name in Denmark, but telling by the number of Danes, Swedes and Norwegians present at their showcase club gig on Thursday night in Beirut, their cult following is legion.

The DJ trio – who work their magic on six turntables – were named Denmark’s best hip-hop DJs in 2006 and best overall DJs in 2009. Jakobsen says this has given the group the ability to cherry pick the festivals and concerts they’ve played at in the last 3 years, including playing for fifty-plus thousand people at the prestigious Roskilde fest in Denmark in 2009.

This success also gave Jakobsen enough clout to approach the Danish Centre for Cultural Development in Beirut for the “Turntables in Camps” seed money.

The project itself was the brainchild of Jakobsen, who has lived the past year in Lebanon with his wife. While traveling to meet his two cohorts at DJ gigs throughout Europe and finishing a master’s degree in political science, he figured that he had to start bringing this DJ experiment into marginalized communities in Lebanon.

In this case, he wanted to venture into perhaps the most neglected youth sectors in Lebanon – ultimately making contact with five Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon: Bourj al Barajneh, Mar Elias, and Sabra & Chatilla in Beirut, and Nahr al Bared near Tripoli, the Palestinian refugee camp leveled by the Lebanese army in the summer of 2007.

Simon teaches Palestinian youth wassup with scratching. (© Andreas Johnsen)


As Jakobsen explained, the objectives of the “Turntables in Camps” project were pretty straightforward: breakdown barriers wherever they exist by providing “a space for creativity and musical dialog”.

Certainly, Den Sorte Skole are building on the traditions of the hip-hop DJs that spawned the term “turntablist” before them. DJs like Cut Chemist, D-Styles, Z-Trip, Madlib, and Beat Junkies members like DJ Babu and J-Rocc, to name a core list who have literally become the modern vinyl archivists of the black soul music traditions from the Americas to Africa. And it is this musical tradition that contributed to the group’s namesake.

During the first day of a two-day workshop held at the Sunflower theatre in southeast Beirut on Thursday, about 30 Palestinian youth from Sabra and Chatilla, Mar Elias and Bourj al Barajneh soaked up the sounds of the breakbeat drumming coming from Den Sorte Skole’s stacks of records.

“We want you to look and listen to what we do. It’s hard, what we’re doing, but you have to understand that anybody can be a DJ,” Jakobsen told the rapt audience before separating the youth into boys and girls groups – a move that was not a cultural issue according to Jakobsen. Nonetheless, the female DJ duo, Ladybox, an increasingly popular club DJ crew also from Denmark, was tasked with teaching DJ skills to the girls. “The boys just dominate in such situations,” Jakobsen said.

Ironically, it was the girls who dominated the first stage of the workshops this week – clamoring for the DJ equipment, bobbing their heads in unison and dancing to the sounds of hip-hop classics like Tribe Called Quest’s “Bonita Applebum,” Kurtis Blow’s “These are the Breaks” and House of Pain’s “Jump Around” – songs they had never heard before.

Rita Biza, aka DJ Rita Blue, said she was surprised by the girls’ openness. “They seemed quite shy at first, but we introduced them to the equipment and showed them what was possible, they were fighting to get on the decks and having such a good time. That’s exactly what we wanted. So they’re really hungry to learn.”

According to Rita’s partner Lei Miriam Foo, aka Sista Lei, “If I didn’t know where these kids were coming from, then I would never have known how hard their lives were. With this DJ equipment in their hands, it was like the world opened up to them and they were laughing and having a great time.”

Aya, 14, and Mina, 20, two workshop participants from Mar Elias told NOW Lebanon that the workshops were “cool”, but they definitely weren’t expecting a new army of female DJ’s to emerge.

“If you tell your father you want to be a DJ. What’s he going to say? What is that – a DJ?” Aya said.

The two seemed to agree that being a DJ was somewhat more acceptable because DJ’s “are behind” the decks, as opposed to scantily clad Arab pop singers out in front of the stage. They even questioned Lebanon’s only seasoned female MC, Malikah – seen regularly on Rotana Musika TV’s underground music show, “Shababiyat.”

Mina explained, “A lot of Arab culture is resistant to the idea of a girl or a boy being a DJ simply because they don’t see it as a ‘normal’ job. But if a girl started to earn good money as a DJ, they might reconsider. They certainly might just be silent on the issue if someone were making a living at it.”

Indeed, a law passed in 1995 prevents Palestinians from working in over 70 jobs in Lebanon. Palestinians cannot be doctors, lawyers or public-sector workers, but there are no Lebanese laws barring Palestinians from working as DJs.

Den Sorte Skole’s third crew-member, Martin Hojland, said that while he didn’t expect miracles from the workshops, he did hope that the participants would see turntablism as bigger than a musical genre. “There is definitely an art to deejaying and using turntables as instruments. In this way, we hope they take their own sounds as the foundations for some homegrown interpretations of turntablism.”

Adds Jakobsoen, “Hopefully, as we bring in a DJ instructor to continue the project (in the months to come), these kids will do the turntablism thing in a Bourj al Barajneh kind of way or a Chatilla kind of way. I don’t give a damn what they call it, as long as they make it their own. That’s what turntablism is all about anyway.”

Quoting from the underground hip-hop crew Dead Prez out of New York, Jakobsen extols – this project, “It’s bigger than hip-hop”.

This article first appeared in NOW Lebanon


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