Ziad Nawfal: Lebanon’s Indie Music Facilitator

IN MAY 2012 – Beats and Breath sat down with Ziad Nawfal -the founder of the alternative music label Ruptured – to discuss what he’s excited about with the next-generation of Arab musicians and the prospects of working as an indIE label in the Middle East. (note: this article was originally published in JUNE 2012)

Tanya Traboulsi’s photo of Ziad Nawfal for his Freunde von Freunden magazine.

BEIRUT – It’s hard to decide who producer Ziad Nawfal reminds me of when I think of producers to make comparisons to/with. And while it may be unfair to draw parallels to other Occidental producers when describing the work of a contemporary Lebanese producer, if I were going to compare Nawfal to someone I admire, Trevor Horn (Art of Noise, Grace Jones, Belle and Sebastian) is one producer that comes to mind.

Like Horn, Nawfal’s musical involvement spans genre’s, but unlike Horn who had the UK’s well-established music markets to work his craft, Nawfal is operating in what is no doubt one of the most insular musical communities in the region – Beirut.

Nawfal has managed to parlay his own 20-year history as a radio-host on the state-sponsored Radio Liban (Beirut’s RFI affiliate, 96.2 FM) into a myriad of different titles – producer, events organizer, DJ, and talent scout. But the one that Nawfal admittedly is most attached to is that of facilitator.

The founder and head of the independent Lebanese label Ruptured (est. 2009), he works with some of Lebanon’s most talented musicians and producers, as well as some notable artists from abroad (Stephan Rives, C-Drik) and has released 8-albums under the Ruptured imprint – four volumes of which were based on live sessions recorded during his radio show Ruptures.

Called The Ruptured Sessions, most of his production reveals his own proclivity towards experimental musical forms -Tashweesh (Palestine), Tarek Atoui (Lebanon), Radwan Moumneh (Lebanon), OkyDoky (Lebanon), etc. – but Nawfal has also been an significant actor with several other scenes in Beirut, through his work with Charbel Haber and the post-punk group Scrambled Eggs  – one of the two groups he first recorded – with his brother Jawad Nawfal aka Munma -and continuing with his 2012 album release of the rapper, poet, journalist Mazen el Sayyed aka El Rass that Munma provided the production for (see BEATS AND BREATH’s interview with El Rass here).

I caught up with Nawfal at the bookstore Papercup in East Beirut to talk about his label, his role with emerging musical forms in the Middle East, and what’s next as things continue to get harder for record labels in the digital age.


BEATS AND BREATH: Your first label job was working with Lebanese entrepreneur and music aficionado Tony Sfeir’s now-defunct independent label called Incognito (an offshoot of his renowned music store La CD Theque). It was a new model in the region where record labels were concerned. Tell me a little bit about that.

ZIAD NAWFAL: It’s true – labels like this did not exist before. So he broke ground with this. Incognito allowed musicians from different genres and denominations to record to edit to produce and to distribute their music. Incognito’s range was huge – releasing artists like Nidaa Abou Mrad, a very traditional oriental musician, as well as the (post-punk outfit) Scrambled Eggs.

Eventually they found themselves with this huge catalog that wasn’t selling. The label went bankrupt. They shut down the label, and sold the (label’s) catalog to Forward Music Label in Beirut.

When I left Incognito, I was left with the obvious question of what to do next. Founding a label seemed like an obvious choice. I knew the different steps for producing a CD, releasing a CD- how to market it and how to distribute it.

BEATS AND BREATH: But isn’t it a little anachronistic to start a label these days?

ZIAD NAWFAL: Yes, Ruptured is somewhat “anachronistic” in the sense that I started the label in 2009 at a time when no one was producing CD’s anymore. But what you have to bare in mind is that the alternative scene started very late in Lebanon – it’s 10 to 15 years old. Imagine. Soap Kills (Zeid Hamdan, Yasmine Hamdan) debuted in 1996.

Nonetheless, I felt compelled to document what I was hearing. The stuff that musicians were giving me. The music performances that I was seeing. The performances that were taking place at the radio station.

This is how the label started.

BEATS AND BREATH: There’s a sustainability factor in what you do to allow for it to continue.

ZIAD NAWFAL: If at any point this process is not self-actualizing, then I will have to ask myself questions and reconsider what I’m doing. And the time for these questions has arrived. I’ve released 8 CD’s on the Ruptured label. I’ve written about artists. I’ve published a book. I’ve mixed music from inside and outside of Lebanon. And I’ve always felt like it’s not enough. But to be honest I don’t know what else to do.

BEATS AND BREATH: So you’re not a prophet or soothsayer, and you’re involved in a process in which you can’t predict the outcome. Is that fair to say?

ZIAD NAWFAL: Perhaps you’re right but the thing is that I’m asked that question quite often (“What’s next in the alternative music scene?”). Recently, I was asked to write a text for this cultural fund that would put in perspective Lebanon’s alternative scene.

The first thing I wrote in that text was: “I am often asked to put things in perspective and I don’t know how to. How does music in Lebanon affect the Arab Spring and vice versa? How is Beirut’s alternative scene politically?”

I don’t know the answers to these questions. I’m not sure the artists do either.

BEATS AND BREATH: What are you excited about musically in 2012?

ZIAD NAWFAL: I’m excited about the one aspect that I was the most suspicious about before – which is the hip-hop scene. It’s very easy for artists operating in the hip-hop mould to go into cliches and to go into prototypes, and to have a discourse that is not very interesting to me or their audience.

But I’m optimistic and extremely excited about it because of recent things that I’ve heard and recent things that I’ve witnessed. Something clicked – although I’m not sure the consequence to that. It could be the Arab Spring. It could be something else. But a modification has taken place in Lebanon and consequently in the Middle East and I think it’s a very interesting modification to follow.

Again, I’m not sure where it’s going but there’s stuff happening there.



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